“Okay, so do you want to get hit by 5-year-old’s or 35’year-old’s?”

Also from our Christmas newsletter, the following describes my job travails over the past year… 

January saw Robert continuing in a long-term “temporary” assignment as an office drone at Charles Schwab (for those of you who know me well, can you picture me working at, of all places, Charles Schwab?). It was, for a time, a necessary evil as I struggled to find meaningful work in the depressed NE Ohio economy. By Spring, that long– awaited day finally came when I was able to transition into a role as the manager of a group home for developmentally disabled men in Cuyahoga Falls. The work allowed me to use many of my gifts, including organizational skills and skills at relationship-building with my peers, staff, clients and their families, etc. It was meaningful work, to be sure. However, as I wrote on my blog in March:

I learned today a bit more about what I’ve gotten myself into at work. I knew that the home I will soon be responsible for has three developmentally disabled men living there who exhibit very ‘difficult’ behaviors. Today I learned just how difficult some of these behaviors have been, involving staff ER visits, concussions, etc. One client in the home has committed a felony or two, though he wasn’t convicted, as I understand it, because of his disability. So, as I prepare to make the transition into my official duties in the home next week, I do so with a healthy sense of respect for how challenging it will be. Having said that, however, I am also keenly aware of the mystery that each one of us embodies as image-bearers of God, and I trust that the light of that image shines on even in these men I will soon be caring for, however dimly it may do so. Though it may be naive for me to say, I nonetheless will strive mightily to tend that mystery- to nurture that light- and by my example I will likewise teach my staff to do the same. In the meantime, I’ll pay close attention during my ‘crisis intervention’ (restraint) class on Wednesday.”

Well, despite my keen attention during that class I still managed to get hit, kicked, scratched, and bitten by grown, aggressive men on a near-daily basis. It was meaningful– and quite unsafe– work, especially because I always tried to put myself in the most dangerous position, say, when transporting clients in the van, rather than using my authority to ask my staff to take risks that I wouldn’t. This meant that during some perilous van trips I was sometimes attacked by two aggressive clients at the same time, and obviously the physical and psychological toll was great. That toll was exacerbated by constant staff turnover, sick calls, etc. because of the dangers and low wages of the job. So, to make a long story short, after repeatedly expressing my concerns about the group home and its dangers, four months after starting I resigned. Incidentally, upon receiving my resignation, the agency implemented many of the changes and safeguards I had been asking for (and asked me to stay, which I did not); so I am grateful that I was there long enough to make some positive changes. In July, then, I transitioned to my current employment with Summit Academy, which is a school for kids with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. I work as an IEP Coordinator for them, which means that I am responsible for overseeing the Individual Educational Programs for most of the students in the two buildings I work with, along with coordinating all of the testing that makes the IEP’s possible, which is known as a Multi-Factored Evaluation (MFE). I got lots of practice at doing those IEP’s and MFE’s this Fall as I completed them for 30 new students. It was a “trial by fire” which saw me working all hours of the day and night for a while, but I learned a lot in the process. Anyway, I am also a  member of the administrative team in the building; so I deal with a fair bit of student discipline as well, which of course presents its own set of challenges- including the same sort of violent behavior I dealt with in the group home (hitting, kicking, scratching, biting, etc.)- though responding to a violent five-year-old is a far cry from responding to a violent thirty-five-year-old.  So, I am very grateful for this new role and hopeful for my future in it.

 

The Waiting is the Hardest-and Most Wonderful–Part…

What follows is my usual theological reflection that I include in our Christmas newsletter. If you haven’t received yours yet, consider this your spoiler alert. Otherwise, inasmuch as possible, enjoy… 
With Advent upon us, and Christmas just around the corner, we once again find ourselves in the season of waiting, and for this I am glad. It was just two years ago, after all, that Kirsten and I were quite literally waiting for the birth of our own dear son, and so that Advent season was especially magical. Then, of course, eager to beat Jesus to the punch, suddenly Samuel was here– four whole months early– and one kind of waiting came to an end as another began. After his early birth, instead of waiting for Samuel to come to be among us we waited with Samuel to discover if God would let him stay– and what it would mean for Samuel and for us if God did. Those four months of watching and waiting with Samuel during his NICU stay were surreal, to say the least, and I have no doubt that all of us will forever be marked by that time. The question, I guess, is how we will be marked, and what it all means for us now as we keep struggling to move forward.
 
Before trying to answer that question, however, I’d like to go back to the waiting described above because this season of the year is obviously a profound reminder of that season in our lives. In 2006 we are waiting for Jesus to come, just as we were in 2004. We are waiting for the realization of the promise of Immanuel even as we work to live as if the hope of “God with us” has already been accomplished in us. This is a paradox, a mystery, which I for one have grown tired of wrestling with and am content merely to “be” with– to attend to. God’s kingdom is upon us, because Jesus has come. God is with us, as the angels, and shepherds, and mystics from the East all attest, even these thousands of years later. Yet if God is love, and Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of that love– the “yes” to all of God’s promises– then it is hard not to feel as if the joyous hope that accompanies his flesh-and-blood arrival among us is now muted, diluted, and dashed. Just what kind of a kingdom is this, anyway? To say that it is “not of this world” is a profound understatement, for this world looks an awful lot like it did before the Messiah’s arrival, which is to say that it still looks pretty awful, indeed. Just ask an Iraqi peasant, or a U.S. soldier, or an underprivileged kid on the streets of Philly. So what do you do when you don’t quite get what you hoped for, or you do, but what you hoped for comes unexpectedly…too early…too small…too weak perhaps even to live?
 
When this happened for us with Samuel, there wasn’t much we could do but go on waiting, and watching, and praying. The event of his birth (and many related events afterwards) were so big, and scary, and hard, that merely “showing up,” literally and figuratively, was more than enough for us to handle, especially after the doctors told us on his 2nd day of life that he probably wouldn’t live to see day three. Even so, we did show up, of course, at Samuel’s bedside, sometimes without having left from the night before, and day 2 became day 3, and then day 4, and one day bled into another until there had been 115 days in the NICU. Along the way, we began to hope again, and by Spring Samuel came home, after which there was a lot more waiting and watching to be done as he slept (during the day) and we listened to his monitor through many sleepless nights for the reassuring sounds that told us our son was still with us. Now, two years later, by the grace of God Samuel (which means “God hears”) is still with us and it is a joy merely to speak his name for indeed God has heard our prayers for his life and well-being.
 
Of course, Jesus keeps showing up, too…as a baby in a manger on this and every Christmas, and as that still, small voice that whispers just beyond your hearing, calling you to live, to dream, to hope again.
 
Isn’t it amazing how God seems so frail as that baby in a manger, so small and weak and powerless in the arms of Mary and Joseph? And yet in Christ the hopes and fears of all the years do indeed find their fulfillment, and this is a wondrous thing. Our hopes are fulfilled because it turns out that God, the creator, the ongoing source of each and every breath we take, is not so far off after all. He is with us. He knows us not just from the inside out but from the outside in as if he were standing in front of us, and for those first century Palestinians- miracle upon miracle- he was! Yet GOD IS NOT SO FAR OFF AFTER ALL! He who has counted every hair on our head before it comes (and in my case, goes), he who has counted every star, every grain of sand, is standing before us, and his mere presence forces us to come to terms with just how frail and small and weak and powerless we all so often are. This, I think, is where the fear comes in. Yet God does not judge us for our weakness. Instead, he quite literally embodies it and it isn’t long before Christmas leads to the cross.
 
As you know, though, this is not the end of the story. Amazingly, the cross leads to the resurrection, and in this we finally see the true character of God’s judgment, and of God himself. If, as I like to say, God made us in and for love, because God is love, then this means that we were made for relationship– right relationship– with God, one another, and the world. Yet love requires the freedom to choose, including the choice to reject love, to reject God, to run away from right relationship…in other words…to sin. If, as the theologians like to say, sin causes separation from God and that separation is the most hellish thing imaginable, then the cross tells us that God would rather die than let it continue, and the resurrection tells us that death is no match for a love that would compel God to walk among us in the first place, and then die rather than be apart from us.
 
So God keeps showing up, calling us to live in the love that he made us for. Every day as parents to Samuel we keep showing up too, and each of those days that Samuel keeps showing up we rightly regard as a gift, a miracle, something that might not have been. And this, I guess, answers the question of how our time of watching and waiting with Samuel before and after his birth, and watching and waiting with Jesus even now, continues to mark us today. Our life together as a family made up of myself, Kirsten, Jesus, and Samuel- for however long we have together on this Earth- is a profound and miraculous gift and it is one which enables us to see both the smaller and larger miracles in our lives. The smaller miracles are of course life itself, each and every breath, each hug and handshake, each laugh and each precious tear. As Buechner writes, “all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” String those moments together, of course, and the larger miracles begin to emerge as love happens so often in spite of us, conquering our fears, overcoming death itself.
 
In the meantime, and especially now, we watch and wait expectantly, knowing that once again Jesus will soon be among us, bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free, to which I say– come, Lord Jesus, Come.

 

The Truth is not only strange; it’s mundane…

 
…unless you have eyes to see and ears to hear.
 
Kirsten and I snuck out again this evening to see a movie. We watched "Stranger than Fiction," starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, etc. I am surprised and delighted to say that this was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Kirsten wouldl tell you that this is indeed high praise coming from me, as I am loathe to name favorites or even indicate a strong preference for anything. To do so would be, for me, to reveal far too much, as this puts me in a position of vulnerability and gives the other some power over me. There are some new-found critics in my life who would be quick to say that this is related to my upbringing and the kind of abuse I suffered at the lips of my mother, and this is, to be sure, quite true. Even so, what I am able to say about this, if I were to say anything at all, is simply that it is what it is. When it comes to the "little things" regarding what I like or don’t like, etc., I remain intentionally ambiguous. Having said all of that, I will say again that I really enjoyed the film, and- in a not unrelated note- I can reveal that Frederick Buechner is one of my favorite authors. This is no great admission as for anyone who knows me remotely well this is a well-establsihed fact, and I didn’t say above that I never revealed favorites, only that I was loathe to. In Buechner’s case, I don’t mind being known as one who appreciates his work, and were I still a child in my mother’s home, I’d like to think that I’d be willing to endure quite a bit on account of this fact. I mention Buechner because I would call "Stranger than Fiction" quite Buechner-esque. It’s clever, thoughtful, and understated, and there is a moment in the film-as I remember it- where the narrator refers to the main character’s difficulty with recognizing the significant moments of his life in the midst of all the mundane ones. However, the moment the narrator happens to speaking about is one in which the main character is aware that the mundane thing which has just occurred is truly significant, indeed. It is the awareness of such moments that I think is the focus of much of Buecner’s work, as he himself has alluded to in perhaps his most well known (and my favorite!) quote. It just may be, after all, that the truth is stranger than fiction, and that the greatest truth any of us will ever know is hidden in the simple joys of a freshly baked cookie or a lover’s sleepy embrace. For it is in such moments that the truly awake among us take note of the grace which imbues each moment with meaning, and I would suggest that it is these everyday moments that give us the strength perhaps to willingly face our own mortality, to lay down our life for another. More on this later…