Sunday, February 27, 2005

my kid hates homeschool

My daughter Evangeline hates being homeschooled. She spent a year-and-a-half in a preschool, where she got to make a number of friends her own age, and now she is here at home with her father and younger sister, Rachel.

I try my hardest to make homeschooling enjoyable and educational for her. We have her involved in activities where she can be with other children her age, we go on homeschooling field trips regularly with the co-op we belong to, and we try to arrange playdates with her friendsfrom preschool, but she still wishes she were in regular school.

As someone who worked for nearly 10 years in the news media, I can attest that most of the colleagues I discussed it with thought homeschooling parents should be commended for their commitment to their children, and they also were impressed with the success stories of the homeschooled children that we diligently reported.

But homeschooling remains not for every parent, and not for every child. We've been homeschooling Evangeline for kindergarten because she was reading-ready at 5 years old, but missed the cut-off date for our school district by two weeks. My experience is that the socialization that occurs in a school setting is usually destructive, rather than productive. Schools function on the law of club and fang, where people who are different are ostracized and put down, and we're made to feel ashamed of our differences, no matter how beneficial those differences are.

A charter school is different in that it's multi-grade level, so that Evangeline will interact with children who are older than her and are not dealing with the same issues she is, and therefore might actually be positive rather than destructive role models for her. It's also different in that there is a lot of parental involvement, which is usually somewhat difficult in a public school setting.

Well, we'll see what happens. She's said several times that she doesn't want to be homeschooled after kindergarten, so we're almost definitely going to enroll her at the charter school, I think. And I'll be there every step of the way with her.

Friday, February 25, 2005

a pleasant surprise

My conversation with the pastor at Zarephath Community Chapel surpassed my expectations by light years. It was positive, productive and deeply encouraging. Rob Cruver, the pastor, leapt several points upward in my estimation from this meeting.

One of the biggest things I carried away from this was Rob's genuine humility. I started off the meeting by saying essentially (but politely) that I was genuinely unsure of whether Zarephath is even the right place for me to attend. He didn't try to convince me that it was, not even once. That's virtually unprecedented in my experience.

He also didn't get defensive when I critiqued his sermons as shallow. He was a little taken aback, but he also admitted that I'm not the first person to tell him that he's not providing much for people to think about, and that he's going to have to put more effort into giving his sermons more oomph in the analysis and application departments.

I also mentioned that I got a little soured on the church by some of the political attitudes I encountered before the election. I've mentioned the one, where Eowyn's Sunday School teacher told me I shouldn't bother going to church if I was planning to vote for Kerry, but there were others. The political action bulletin board also has a ton of GOP campaign literature for the taking, and the Sunday before the election there was a reminder (not from the pulpit) that it was our Christian duty to elect professing Christians to office, because God's blessing is on such people, and they actively seek God's guidance, blah blah blah blah blah.

Well, Rob was disappointed that someone actually would be crass enough to link faith and the GOP to that extent, and apologized for it. He also explained that they had asked both political parties to provide their literature but the Democrats never came through, and what's more, he agreed with me that Christians often get one-sided in their allegiances when they try to infuse their faith into the political process. And it wasn't just a polite thing either; apparently the head of the Pillar of Fire Bible college on the church campus, when he came to the area a few years ago, was of the opinion that you couldn't be a Christian and vote Republican.

Rob said he would have to introduce the two of us, since he's sure we would hit it off fine.

Also nicely, we talked about our visions -- in Rob's case, for the church; in mine, for the sort of ministry I'd like to be involved with.

I used to head a drama ministry at my old church. There's been talk of starting a drama ministry at Zarephath as well, but nothing else public but talk. Well, apparently they've hired someone to head the drama ministry this August, and the guy they've hired has pretty much the same vision I'd had for our drama ministry back at Community Gospel Church. He wants to have dramas during the church service each week to lay the groundwork for or build upon the sermon, and he wants to do other things in the community. First is some sort of open-air evangelical outreach via drama -- the mere thought is enough to make me cringe, given the caliber of most evangelism through drama -- but he also wants to bring something to the community in terms of theater, by performing honest-to-gosh plays like "The Crucible" or "Death of a Salesman" that deal with eternal issues honestly without being distinctly Christian.

Wow. That's *exactly* what I would have loved to do at my old church, if we had been granted the breakthrough in numbers that we would have needed. (And in an area like this part of New Jersey, a theater presence would be a tremendous asset. We're an hour away from Broadway, and the two Tony-winning theaters outside New York are here in the area as well.)

So since it's evident that the two of us have similar visions for what it means to be serving God, I shared with Rob my vision for a community where the believers share all their possessions in common and use their freed-up wealth to reach out to the needy around them. He was visibly impressed with the vision, and said he'd love to see that happen, although he's uncertain how that would play out in New Jersey, where people drive 30 or 40 minutes to get to church, making community fairly difficult to cultivate. (My response was that even with that distance, there would still be pockets of church members who live fairly close together, and one goal should be to encourage a sense of community within those pockets, and to get people to view the church as a place we gather for worship on Sundays, and not as the place where all ministry and spiritual activity is centered.)

Anyway, it went well. So well in fact that he told me his chief goal right now is to get more people actively involved in discipleship relationships, where one person is committed to discipling three or four other men.

He asked me to consider being one of those leaders. I'm considering.

So. I'm impressed, and I was really pleased at how well this went today. I was bracing myself for a huge disappointment and a need to plunge back into the waters to find a church, but as I told my wife today, "If you want to keep attending this church, I'm a lot more open to it now than I was last week."

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

return to new york

We return to New York on Wednesday afternoon, for another child model tryout.

Evangeline was chosen specifically by Hewlett Packard to come up for a go-see, so we have to be at the studio a little after 5 p.m. In the past, she's always been selected as part of a range -- i.e., every girl between 4 and 5 years old with brown eyes, or something similar -- but this time, they actually requested her specifically, so presumably her chances of being selected to earn $1,000 for college are a little better this time than in the past.

It would be nice. It's kind of a pain to go to New York -- it takes about an hour to get there by train, plus the time spent waiting for the train and subway, and then actually hiking around the city -- and it's not exactly cheap. Evangeline's now 5, so I have to pay for train tickets for both of us, which drives up the price. So two hours to the shoot, two hours back, and the actual appointment usually takes all of five or ten minutes. It's enough to take up your whole day.

On the bright side, it's time spent alone with her, so I value it all the more. We take a few books and read them if she's settled enough. The first couple trips she was too excited to do much, but the novelty has worn off somewhat. We'll also have to find a place to grab a bite to eat, since we'll be there around dinner time. (Here's hoping we find something nicer than McDonald's, but not too pricey either.)

Before we go, I have to call the gymnastics academy and see about scheduling a make-up class, since attending it won't leave us enough time to get to the studio with a comfortable safety cushion.

And naturally this is the night my insomnia decides to kick in and keep me up.

speaking in tongues

Some of the best worship services I've ever been a part of were at Easton Assembly of God while I was a member there.

The preaching was excellent under the first pastor there too. I stuck around for about four more years after we hired a new pastor, but eventually the lackluster preaching, particularly the wrongheaded messages like "Christians should smile all the time if they have the joy of the Lord!", combined with increased dissatisfaction with the church's lack of interest in the community around it, eventually started to really get at me.

One of the reasons I left was an overemphasis on glossolalia. I never heard anyone in authority claim that people who didn't speak in tongues weren't really Christians, although someone did tell me how mortified she was that I would presume to teach children's church without that gift.

Just nutty.

I guess I'm a skeptical believer in the gift of tongues; that is, I believe the Holy Spirit can inspire people to speak either in a human language they don't know or in a heavenly language, but I can only think of one instance where I believe I might have witnessed it. In that particular case, the utterance had a lot of repetition, enough so that there was a recognizable structure to the linguage. The interpretation came out with the same manner of repetition.

Other times I've heard alleged messages in tongues, the interpretations were incomprehensible mishmashes of contemporary and King James English; they were so vague that they were meaningless; and so on. Usually, when I've heard people praying in tongues in church, it goes against what Paul sets down for guidelines about speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians.

I'd wager that most ecstatic utterances in tongues are just that -- ecstatic utterances born entirely of the human spirit, with nothing divine about them. Spoken tongues like that are found in other religions, notably at least one sect of Islam, and have been practiced by heretics throughout church history.

I've yet to hear a reasonable biblical argument against the continued existence of glossolalia as a gift of the Holy Spirit, which is why I'd have to say I still believe it can happen.

As to an utterance in a language unknown to the speaker but known to a listener, I've heard stories about that happening, but I have no way of knowing if there's any truth to them, so I don't bother to enter them as evidence one way or the other.

On the other hand, I've heard some people actually claim spouting nonsense sounds like "untie my bowtie" can jumpstart the real gift. (!) As I said, I don't particularly disbelieve in glossolalia, but I don't believe I've seen more than one legitimate instance of it in my life. I do believe I've seen enough error, confused doctrine, abuse and misuse of the gift, and just muddled thinking to convince someone who's already skeptical that the whole thing is a fraud.

I will say that I've been tempted to use my knowledge of Haitian Creole during a worship service to order a large pepperoni pizza with an order of breadsticks and a bottle of Coke, and wait for the interpretation, but that's something that's amusing only in concept. It would be incredibly disrespectful to actually do it.

Ah well. That was years ago. I went to visit the church about 2½ years ago, when my foster son was with us, because I needed to get away for a little. The worship is almost all done on an organ now and has none of the brilliance that made it work before, and the pastor's preaching is just as awful as ever. A lot of the church leaders from when I was a member have gone (not all), and it seemed a duller place than ever.

Since I left the AoG, I've belonged to a nondenominational church, attended regularly an Evangelical Free Church, attended semi-regularly at an American Baptist church, and most recently have been attending a Methodist Church that serves at the mother church for Pillar of Fire. I don't know how much longer I'll be going to it, though.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

left feeling cold

So we had another uninspiring (at least to me) sermon today at Zarephath Community Chapel. The text for the sermon was Colossians 3:12-14. Paul exhorts the readers to clothe themselves in righteousness, and zips through a few things to illustrate what he means: Be compassionate, be gentle, be kind, be patient, be humble and vote Democratic (just kidding).

As I saw the text, I figured, "Hey, this is a great passage to preach from!" It contrasts with the categories of fallen behavior Paul mentioned in the previous verses, and there are so many things you can use it as a springboard for. You could give concrete examples where Christians can be compassionate instead of supercilious, such as gay-right issues; ways to be kind, such as welcoming seniors into your lives, or pitching in at a food shelter; and so on.

Nope. The sermon focused more on the line about forgiving as we have been forgiven, which could have been a great message too, if the pastor had discussed areas where it's hard to forgive, such as a spouse's infidelity, or the countless unthinking indifferences and insensitivities that bedevil human relationships. Instead, at least from what I took away, the sermon was about how great it is to have been forgiven — not by other people, for specific wrongs, but by Christ for our general sin. And even then, the people he asked to share about how nice it is to be forgiven were teens or preteens who had nothing specific to share, just that they enjoyed being forgiven.

Well, yes, I suppose I do too, but isn't something as weakly expressed as that so general as to be utterly meaningless -- especially when the person who confesses to sinning "a lot" has no idea what the heck she's talking about, except at some basic level? These are kids, for crying out loud. What do they know about being attracted to someone other than your spouse, about being so frustrated with your children's screaming that it's all you can do to restrain yourself, about having to forgive a malicious, backstabbing co-worker or a lying, indifferent employer for the ways they keep hurting you and tearing you down? What do they know about having your heart torn out of you because you wanted what you can't have, and you took it anyway, or about dealing with old griefs and pains you thought you buried 20 years ago?

What does such a sermon like this one, treating such an in-depth passage in such a cavalier fashion, do, but make us feel good about ourselves and how lucky we are to be forgiven while the rest of the world is going to hell? It's good to be reminded about grace, but when every sermon — or at least a vast majority of them — is about the redemption Christ offers, and how believers will be spared from God's wrath, I can't help but feel someone's missing the point. Is that really all there is to the gospel? If so, why are we exhorted to bear fruit in keeping with repentance? Why all the talk about a transformed life if there's no evidence of a transformation?

This sort of shallow thinking, which seems so common in evangelicaldom, is one of the reasons I no longer consider myself an evangelical Christian, despite the doctrinal similarities. The gospel has to go deeper than that. Christ calls us to holiness, which means not just a restored relationship with the Father, but a restored set of relationships with our fellow men as well — a real and recognizable community. In fact, it's really impossible to get the relationship with God restored if you're out of any sort of fellowship or relationship with a larger community. If going to church and singing "Amazing Grace" once a week (or even three times a week) is the end-all-be-all of the faith, then why does Christ talk so much about our responsibility to other people. It's one of the two prevailing themes of his preaching, along with "No one gets to the Father but through me."

A friend of mine whom I call Respectfully Brian P. (because that's how he always signs his correspondence) suggested that this approach to sermons is probably deliberate. They do the same thing at his church, and when he talked with his pastor about it recently, he was told it was because they're making the church services "seeker-friendly." In other words, the Sunday worship service is meant to vapid and void of meaning because that's all non-Chrsitians and new Christians are supposed to be capable of understanding. In other words, the worship service is meant for evangelism, and growth is meant to take place at the small group Bible studies most members don't attend.

Pardon me, but that's bass-ackwards.

I'm all for churches being seeker-friendly. By that I mean we don't have a someone at the door to greet you who acts like he's your best friend, even though you've never met before. (That screams "phony" to most people.) It means we avoid buzz words like fellowship, grace, blood of the Lamb, saved, Holy Ghost power, and so on. Put it in simple, straightforward talk that's accessible to the man in the street, because anything else sends a message of "We belong and you don't."

Dumbing down the message is about the stupidest thing a church can do. People who are wrestling honestly with life's questions are going to be turned off by a church that gives pat answers for everything like, "Omigosh, Jesus is just so cool, you know!? And, like, following him has made my life just so much better, you know? Like, totally!" Anyone who knows diddly about Christians knows that our lives aren't perfect, that we still screw things up royally for ourselves and the people around us. And anyone who's been following Jesus for any amount of time knows he usually makes life worse for us, dividing members of families against one another, and bringing pain after pain to our lives. In fact, that's what he promises us. It'snot our happiness that is his chief concern -- it's the glory of his Father.

Christians who tell you that Christ has made them happy all the time either are simple-minded or in denial. Making happiness and the ease of the Christian life the official teaching of a church is inexcusable. Lying to people is a horrible way to bring them into a relationship with Christ.

Going by church tradition and by biblical record, the meetings held on the Lord's Day, i.e., Sunday, are believers' meetings. Those were meetings where the early Christians got together to celebrate the Lord's supper together, to encourage one another, and so on. Especially during periods of persecution, it would have been disastrous to bring someone to church who wasn't a Christian already.

In terms of evangelism and outreach, it makes far more sense to get someone involved in a small group, because that's where the relationships form, that's where people are going to be more honest and open about their doubts and struggles, and that's where you're more likely to get a nonbelieving friend to come out and return again and again, because of the intimacy of the group.

The dumbing-down of church services "for evangelism" is one of the all-out stupidest, most lame-brained, ill-conceived ideas ever to be blamed on the leading of the Holy Spirit in recent American church history, not to mention one of the most condescending.

(That's not to say that small groups should be dumbed-down either. I've never been at a Bible study with a nonbeliever who complained it was too deep. Honesty, brokenness, Christlikeness -- these are the things that will really win people over to Christ, not keeping everything at a beginner's level.)

The sad thing is, Rob Cruver is a decent preacher. I don't doubt his commitment to the Lord is real, but I can't help feeling empty inside after church each week. Heck, I feel empty inside during church each week.

I'm supposed to meet with him a week from Thursday, when I hope to spring some of this on him, in a loving and respectful way. I'm not sure what I hope to accomplish, really. The meeting is supposed to be to discuss ministry opportunities at Zarephath, which is essentially what I want. I don't want to be plugged into a standard ministry slot, nor do I want to stage a confrontation where we end up angry at each other, each convinced the other guy is missing the point or otherwise a hopeless case. I'd like to generate honest discussion about what I would like to bring to the church and whether it matches what the church wants from its attendees and members.

If not, I guess it'll be time to move on, and I'm really sick of looking for a new church.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

happy birthday

Dear Isaac,

As I'm writing this, it's almost the end of your fifth birthday. I wish I could have been there to celebrate it with you, but that isn't possible. By the time you're able to read this, you'll be closer to celebrating your seventh birthday than your fifth, and by the time you actually do read it — assuming you ever do — your fifth birthday will be long past and long forgotten.

If you do read this one day, it will be because you decided to seek me out. Hope is that thing with feathers, but I still hope you will come looking for me one day, however far off that may be. As I stand before God, I hope one day to see you again in the flesh with my own eyes. Foster son or not, I loved you as much as my own flesh and blood, and I still do.

You stayed with us from January to mid-October 2002, after Iowa Child Protective Services placed you into foster care. When you arrived you were a wreck -- unable to speak, barely able to stand or walk, incapable of showing any emotion except anger, and unable to concentrate on anything except watching TV.

That changed while you were in our care. I watched as you began to bloom for the first time in two years, and mastered skills that we had always taken for granted with our own daughter. I watched as you learned to stand and to walk without falling down, and as you learned to pick up things with your fingers and to eat with a fork. I cheered the first time you used an actual word to ask for something. Most of all, I lost myself in those smiles of yours, that silly laugh you had, and that insane humming you made whenever you wanted to sing butdidn't know the words.

The day you left is one that is seared indelibly into my very soul. The sky was clear blue, the leaves were beginning to turn color, and the air had the crisp quality of an early autumn morning. You'd been taking trips to your birth parents twice a week for the last nine months, so when the DYFS driver buckled you into the car seat and drove off, you were smiling happily, and all the while my heart was clenching tighter and tighter in my chest. The tears started when you disappeared from sight, and to be honest, they've never really stopped.

I don’t think I can ever begin to tell you how much I've missed you the last two years. Not a day has gone by since you left that I haven't thought about you, and sometimes the grief has been so great that all I've wanted to do is to crawl into a hole and cover myself up, or to drown it.

The day you left, a heavy blackness fell over my soul. It was as though I had been following Christ willingly and in faith, trusting him as the road got ever darker, until finally I came to the darkest place I had ever been. There was no way forward, and no way back, and on all sides there were beasts that would gladly rend me limb from limb if only they had the chance. I could hear them whispering, just out of eyesight. One wrong step would mean my destruction, and my guide was nowhere to be seen.

For the life of me, I don't know how I survived that time, except to say that God's love and grace are greater and more bewildering than I ever could have imagined. Trusting to him is like riding the rapids of a waterfall, without even the benefit of a barrel, and yet I wouldn't have it any other way. By his grace, I survived.

Having you and losing you has had a more profound effect on my life than just about everything else I've ever known — more than college, more than being an exchange student, and more than being a missionary. The loss of you is a pain that suffuses my writing, my relationship with God, and the relationship I have with my children. Every day when I think of you, I give thanks that I still have them, and I hold them close.

Evangeline, who was your older sister for those nine months, had a horrible time when you left. For weeks after, when we went to the movies or to a friend's house, she looked around for you. Once I came home from work late at night to find her, wide awake at the top of the stairs, wondering when you would come back. And when her sister was born, and we had to leave her with friends for the night, it made her ill. She knew — she just knew — that we had got rid of her, too.

Two years later, she still remembers you. She asks me why you left, she wants to know when you're coming home, and she prays for the chance to see you just one more time. She no longer lays awake at night waiting for you, nor does she still want to send her younger sister away so that you can come back, but losing you has affected her also. She loves you, and she misses you too.

I don't know what the future holds for you, but I hope it is full of good things. I hear that you've made remarkable progress the last two years: that you speak well; that you are relatively happy living with your father, your grandmother, aunt and cousins; and that you may even start school with the other children your age. That's fantastic.

I pray for you every day. If I could make a wish for your future, it would be this: Finish high school and either attend college or learn an honest trade. Stay clear of the wrong crowd, and keep away from those who would lead you into gangs, drugs or violence. Search for love, not one of the cheap substitutes we so often settle for in this world, and when you find someone special, make it work so the relationship can last a lifetime. Most of all, find Christ.

And if it's selfish, it's selfish, but I'm going to wish for it anyway: Come home to me. The day you left I promised that I would always carry a piece of you in my heart, and that you would always have a piece of me in yours, even if you didn't remember it in your waking hours. It's still the truth two years later, and it will be the truth in another twenty and another sixty. Neither one of us will be complete until we connect again.

I love you, Isaac, more than anything. Have a happy birthday.