Saturday, November 19, 2011

Need vs. Greed

It's that time of year again, or it soon will be, and already there are hundreds if not thousands of charities asking for your help this holiday season. The spirit of giving is especially intense around Christmas, and it seems like people are more willing to part with their cash this time of year for a good cause or even a marginal one. This may make me sound selfish, but I have a problem with some of the requests for donations that I encounter. I'd like to think it's due to discernment, but maybe it's just me being overly critical. Hear me out and let me know what you think.

When we lived in Tennessee, one of my favorite holiday activities was going to the Angel Tree in the mall (or WalMart, or wherever) and choosing a wish or several from the tree. The Angel Tree was a collaboration by several agencies whereby they collected Christmas gift requests from underprivileged children, and people from the community would buy gifts to fulfill the requests. I'm sure there are similar programs all over the country. I liked taking my girls with me and letting each one choose an angel to shop for. My hope was that the kids would get a taste of the joy of giving and possibly even gain a little appreciation for all their own blessings. When I first started doing this, the wishes I found were things like Barbie dolls, new pajamas, warm socks, Matchbox cars, Legos - simple things, and easy ones to add to my usual Christmas shopping.

But in the last few years I've noticed a disturbing trend, and here's where I'm confused/frustrated/insert appropriate word here. And one more disclaimer: maybe I'm just not looking in the right place for wish lists. More and more of these gift requests include really expensive toys and gadgets that I don't even buy for my own kids. Case in point: a friend's department at work decided to adopt a family for Christmas and one of the children requested an mp3 player AND a CD player. Either one is not enough by itself? Am I the only one turned off by a wish from an underprivileged child that lists "extra controllers and games for my PlayStation 3" or "4th generation iPod Touch 16 GB" or "PowerWheels Jeep" among the things they want for Christmas? What happened to baby dolls and Monopoly games? Am I so old now that I'm out of touch? Do these kids have so many other things to play with that the only things they really lack are expensive toys and gadgets? And if that last one is true, do they really qualify as needy? Are there people who submit their children's names for programs like the Angel Tree out of greed? (Boy, do I sound like a Grinch! I prefer "skeptic", thank you very much. :-) Better yet, "discerning".)

One year I actually volunteered with the group who ran the Angel Tree system and I was bowled over by the number of cards we sorted for the trees. Each card represented one child and his or her wishes for Christmas. I remember thinking that surely there couldn't be that many children in our area who were destined to get no gifts for Christmas unless someone chose their name off the Angel Tree. I'm sure that many of the children represented fell into that category, but surely there were many others who did not. And maybe I'm just out of touch with reality, safely ensconced here in my middle class suburban home.

And who decides which kids are "needy" enough to earn space on the Angel Tree anyway? Does anyone verify the information? One year my family was painfully embarrassed to find out that my little brother had received gifts through the Angel Tree. We never did find out who submitted his name and a wish list (that he didn't write, by the way), but our family was doing just fine financially and my brother definitely didn't need any extra gifts for Christmas that year. We couldn't help thinking that someone else could have taken more joy in those presents, and maybe there was someone who didn't get anything at all who would have be thrilled to get them.

So I'm ready to give this year, but is it wrong of me to be cautious about where, how and to whom? I think it's part of being a good steward to give where it can do the most good, so how am I supposed to determine that? How do I separate real need from grasping greed? I know I'm not supposed to give because I expect something (for instance, gratitude) in return and I don't think I do expect anything back. I would just like the satisfaction of knowing that I provided something that was needed and necessary and not just extra fluff. Something useful. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, "Show me the need!" But here's another situation to muddy the waters even more:

Our church is giving turkeys and accompaniments for Thanksgiving dinner to needy families in the community, something we've done for the past few years. Do we ask for an income statement? No. Is it possible that some people may come and get free food even though they don't really need it in the way I might define "need" (as in, there would be no Thanksgiving dinner otherwise, only PB&J, not "I'll just take the money I would have spent on Thanksgiving dinner and spend it on something else instead")? It's possible. Does that keep me from donating to this event? Not a bit. I figure if someone shows up to collect a free meal, the very fact that they used their time and effort to come means they need something, even if it's not only the free food. Maybe they just need to know that someone cares enough to give them something, no strings attached.

Some situations are clearer than others. Kids in Haiti living in tent cities? Needy. Kids in the US wearing designer jeans and carrying iPhones? You'd think Not Needy, but how do you know for sure? Let's just say Probably Not Needy. Kids living in homeless shelters? Probably Needy. Kids living in my neighborhood? Probably Not Needy, but again, how do you know for sure? They may have parents out of a job and a home on the verge of foreclosure. I guess "probably" will have to do. Ultimately I know I need to share what God's given to me and let Him worry about whether or not a child is truly in need of what I'm giving. But I don't think that excuses me from examining a situation and praying about it instead of jumping in blindly.

One final thought - if I go to the Angel Tree and I see a child's wish for an iPad 2, I'll be leaving that one on the tree and taking the one for pajamas instead. :-)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Speeding Along

I got caught. There are no two ways about it: I got caught red-handed. Or red-footed. Or lead-footed, more like. And it's my own fault.

I was on the way to the grocery store on Sunday afternoon, traveling down a road I use constantly, and I noticed a police officer monitoring the speed of passing cars. I slowed down when I saw him and told myself that I'd better remember that on my way home or I might be in trouble. Sure enough, on my way home I had forgotten all about the officer lying in wait and I was motoring along and singing with the radio when I noticed the flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror. All of a sudden I remembered what I'd seen on my way to the store.

The officer was nice enough, I was duly chastened, and as if it wasn't bad enough to get a speeding ticket (51 in a 35 zone, in case you're wondering), I also got a citation for not having current proof of insurance in my car!

I take full responsibility for my ticket - I own it and I earned it. My sweet husband could have had any number of snarky responses but he chose to give grace (though I'm sure I'll be teased about it many times in the future). The simple fact is there's a law and whether I meant to or not, I broke it. The police officer was just doing his job to enforce the law.

The road I was on is a shortcut from my neighborhood to a shopping area. I travel it almost daily, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day, and I've never paid attention to the speed limit signs. If pressed I would have guessed a 40 mph limit maybe. And if I'd paid attention to what I was doing I might have noticed that I was going pretty fast, even if I was right about it being a 40 mph zone. Now, speeding has become one of those little things that people, some Christians included, tend to brush off as no big deal. But the very fact that I slowed down when I saw that police officer tells me that I knew I was doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing. And here's the thing: I didn't even pay any attention to my speed on that road. I wasn't worried at all about whether or not I was breaking the law by speeding. I was just driving at what felt like a comfortable speed for me. Was I hurting anyone by speeding? Well, maybe not at that particular moment, but if I'd had to stop suddenly my added speed could have made a dramatic difference.

It's so easy to get into the habit of doing what feels comfortable, even if it's not always the right thing. It's like some part of me is tapping on my shoulder and whispering in my ear, "Psst! Are you sure you should be doing that?" and I've gotten so used to tuning it out that I don't even hear it anymore. And then I got caught. And if it hadn't been for that nice officer so pleasantly (and expensively) pointing it out to me, I probably would have kept right on speeding down that road (and many, many others). I was always taught that Christians are to obey the law of the land unless it contradicts or conflicts with God's word or law, which I suppose makes my speeding a sin. Ouch!

So it got me to thinking: how many other "roads" am I continuing to speed down, just because I haven't been caught yet? You know, other sins work that way too. Little sins don't seem like a big deal because no one seems to be getting hurt, but they'll eventually catch up with us in the end. Or we sin by "accident" because we're just not paying attention to the signs around us or what we're doing. It gets to be a habit, just going along doing what we want because we're either unaware, don't think it really matters, or just don't care about doing what's right. But it does matter, because our hearts can get hardened by continually slapping duct tape across that still small voice that tries to steer us in the right direction. And while breaking the law by speeding seems like a small sin, as Christians we know there is no hierarchy of sin - they're all equal in God's eyes. Harsh? Maybe. True? Definitely.

This has been a humbling experience for me, partly because I've been one of those who thought speeding was no big deal and I've had to ask forgiveness for that. I've had to explain myself to my children and let them see that Mommy messed up and now will have to pay (literally!) the consequences for it. I've explained to them that it's important to do the right thing even if no one is watching and there's no fear of getting caught.

Here's hoping this is my final speeding ticket.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Out of Control: Part 7

In February 2003 I had a D & C to "complete" a miscarriage, which turned out to be my final pregnancy. It took a few months for me to work through the worst of the grieving process and start thinking about what to do next. Once again, I was figuring out my own plan and not relying on God or anyone else, or so I thought.

And then two things happened in my life that fall into the category of "before/after events". By that I mean the kind of life-altering events where your life gets divided into before and after. Either of these things alone could have brought me to my knees, but together they forced me to take a good hard look at myself.

The first one happened in the middle of May. Jon was out driving Dana to a concert band event on a sunny afternoon, when my mother called to tell me that my 3-month-old nephew had died. You see, while I was busy dealing with my latest miscarriage, my brother and his wife had welcomed their second child, Andrew. I had only seen him in pictures because so far we hadn't been able to coordinate our life schedules and meet up. And if I'm going to be totally honest, there may have been a part of me that was a bit jealous that they had a baby while I had a D & C, and I just wasn't ready to deal with it. Andrew died in his sleep in what was initially believed to be a case of SIDS, but turned out to be a tragic accident ultimately caused by all four family members napping in the same bed. We went to the funeral and it was the saddest one I have ever attended. I am convinced that it goes against all of nature for a parent to have to bury a child, especially one who had barely even begun to live.

Then less than two months later, on July 1, our telephone rang at 2:30 in the morning and before I even picked it up, I knew I was going to hear something I didn't want to hear. I mean, who calls with good news at 2:30 in the morning? My stepfather, who had raised me since I was 6 years old, had passed away from a sudden and massive heart attack. My mother, who had built her life around his and was still reeling from Andrew's death, was devastated. For quite a while, having another baby was not even on my radar. But the double losses of Andrew and my stepdad did make me step back and think about where my life was going and how I was using my time and energy. At the time we weren't exactly trying to get pregnant, but we weren't preventing it either.

Somewhere around October of that year, I saw a notice that the adoption agency we originally filed our paperwork with in 2000 (before abruptly canceling a week later, when I found out I was pregnant) was having an informational meeting about adoption in November. In fact, it might have even been a notice in our church bulletin that we saw. Jon and I talked about it and decided to go check it out, just in case the pregnancy thing didn't work out.

The night of the meeting we pulled up at a local bed and breakfast we'd never been to before and went inside. For some reason, I felt so conspicuous! But inside there were several other couples like us, representatives from the adoption agency, and couples who had already adopted. We listened to all the presentations and perused the information packet, and then the speakers brought out their own children, who had been adopted from the US and other countries. Once we saw the kids, we were hooked! We spoke to a social worker named Pam, who later did our home study, and told her how disappointed we were that we couldn't adopt from China, because that would have been our first choice. And then (raise your hand if you know where I'm going with this) she told me that China had recently changed their adoption requirements and we were now eligible! We were already making plans as we walked to the car that night and I couldn't wait to get started on the paperwork. Finally, something we could do and KNOW that at the end of the process, we would have a child.

As out of control as I felt trying to get (and stay) pregnant, I was not prepared for the lack of control I felt during the adoption process. In one case I was at the mercy of nature and my own body, but in the other I was at the mercy of various governmental agencies and the US Postal Service. I'm not sure which is worse. There are a LOT of hoops to jump through in order to adopt internationally. Your own country has to approve you, then the country you're adopting from has to approve you, and you're dropping dollars all along the way. You need a home study, which can be as intrusive as... well, a thorough (and I do mean thorough) physical exam. And you have to have one of those too, by the way. In a home study, a licensed social worker comes to visit your home, interview you, and determine if you are fit to raise a child. And before you even get to the home study part, you have to complete mountains of forms relating to your physical and financial health, and write an autobiography. All of this is sent to the social worker who will be conducting your home study and becomes part of your dossier. Our social worker Pam was herself the parent of a daughter from China and was a dream to work with, having been through the process herself. Once you get over the home study hurdle, you (and all the adults living in your household) have to get fingerprinted and file some ten thousand forms with the US government. OK, it wasn't really ten thousand, but it was a lot. At the time I was very thankful for all the things I had to do because I didn't have time to lay around and feel sorry for myself. All of those (ten thousand) forms must be notarized, copied and authenticated by several government agencies, and you become best buddies with your local FedEx drivers because you're always either waiting for a package or sending one out.

And let's talk about the cost. International adoptions usually cost over $20,000 and in some cases, way more. Jon's company had an adoption assistance program in place that would reimburse up to $4,000 of adoption costs once the adoption was complete. It wasn't much, but every little bit helps. It just so happened that while we were in the process of getting all our paperwork together, Jon went to the Human Resources department at his company to inquire about how to use the adoption assistance program. The person Jon spoke to told him that no one had ever used the program before, and since it was time for the company's annual benefits enrollment, he was going to propose that they DOUBLE the amount reimbursed. And they did. Can you believe that? In addition, the US government had a tax credit in place for adoptive parents whereby you could get up to $10,000 in tax credits during the year your adoption is final. Basically, $18,000 of our adoption costs were reimbursed and we ended up paying about $2,000 out of pocket. That's practically unheard of in the adoption world!

A lot of other things just seemingly fell into place during the adoption process too. I started to get the sense that if I would just step out of the way and let go, God would handle everything that needed handling. That's kind of anticlimactic, but there it is. I could only do what I could do, and beyond that I had no control. That's a concept both devastating and freeing all at once.

So in a fast 6 months, we had all our paperwork completed and sent to the placing agency, which happened to be in Colorado. The placing agency would then send our dossier of paperwork to China, where it would be logged in and we would be given a Log-In Date, or LID. That LID is very important because that's how the CCAA (China's adoption agency) will group you to match you to a child. Our paperwork went to Colorado in June, so we expected a June LID. You can imagine my frustration when I found out that our paperwork sat around at the agency for a couple of weeks before getting sent to China. At the time, referrals were coming back around 8 months from LID, and the delay just meant that we would be one month later getting our baby.

The internet is a powerful tool and can be a constructive or destructive force. In our case, it was a blessing. There is a huge online community of adoptive parents and parents in the process of adopting from China, and there was a wealth of information out there. I joined an email group (or four) and settled in for the wait. Oh, how I loathe waiting! There was nothing I could do to speed things up at all, so I spent my days reading emails from all my groups. In between downloading new emails, I concentrated on getting our home ready for the new arrival and started experiencing the sweet sensation of knowing it's all in God's hands.

Because of the availability of information online, I was able to keep track of when referrals came in to our agency from China and therefore had a very good idea of when to expect that oh so important phone call. In fact, I set up our video camera so I could record myself taking the call. On January 7, 2005, our phone rang with the news that we had been matched with a little girl named Min Fu Ya, age 7 months. It was just over 5 1/2 months from our LID, one of the shortest waits on record (beginning with February 2005, referrals started slowing down and the current wait for a referral from China is 3-4 years). In February 2005, we traveled to China to bring our little girl home. (That trip is a whole other story, which I won't go into right now.)

Now, it hasn't been all gumdrops and roses since then, for sure. But I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God chose this child for our family. So many of the circumstances surrounding our adoption made it clear to me. The feeling of peace and completeness that came over me when they put her into my arms for the first time could have come from no one but Him. It was like someone had put the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle and I could finally see the whole picture.

I don't know why I had to go through those miscarriages, but after the dust had settled somewhat I remembered an earlier time when I realized just how little control I have over my life. In 1992 I was divorced from my first husband, which left me the single mother of a 3 1/2 year old little girl. I didn't ask for the divorce and I didn't want it, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The only thing I could do was trust God and move forward.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a little bit of a control freak. But in reality I'm not in control of ANYTHING. I know this now. Any control I have is an illusion God allows me to have. When it comes to problems there is exactly one thing I can control: whether I try to fix it myself, or lay it at God's feet and trust Him to fix it. I have to believe that the hard things I've gone through happened for a reason, if for no other reason than so I can hold the hand of someone else who's dealing with the same things. That's not to say that I believe God caused my miscarriages to happen. We live in a sinful world and sometimes bad things just happen. People get hurt through no fault of their own. Life is not fair. You can lay down and moan about it for the rest of your life or you can get back up, dust yourself off, fix your eyes on the Father, and trust Him to make something good out of the bad. Romans 8:28 says, "And we know that in all things" (not some things) "God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." I once heard a pastor say that our job is not to work out the good, but to love God and stay called. I would also add, "and stay out of His way."

So why write all this down? Frankly, it helps to talk about it. And maybe, just maybe, someone else can find some comfort in my story. I lived through it and can now look back with a different perspective. Infertility is not the end of the world, although it may feel that way when you're in the middle of it. You are not a failure in any way if your body cannot make and/or carry a baby. A miscarriage is a loss (so is infertility, for that matter), and all too often it's a loss that only the parents grieve, either because no one else knows about it or it's just not discussed. One thing I want people to take away from this series of posts is that there is no shame in being unable to reproduce. There IS sadness, and you might be able to make someone's journey a little bit easier if you offer them a little compassion instead of acting like it's no big deal.

The other thing I want people to take away is that there is great freedom in giving up the illusion of control over our lives. God already knows what my future holds and He knows how to best prepare me for it. Working the plan is pointless unless it's God's plan and not my own. His plans are infinitely better than anything I can think up. The best thing I can do is look to Him for guidance and trust Him to lead me in the right direction.

Now, on to other subjects. :-)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Out of Control: Part 6

Somehow I made it through that weekend, but I have to admit that by Monday morning my optimism was losing ground to cold hard reality. Every time I answered the call of nature there was more and more visual evidence that things were not going well. Nevertheless I rubbed my belly and prayed like I had never prayed before that the baby would be OK.

I went back to the doctor's office, climbed on the ultrasound table and waited breathlessly to hear my hopes confirmed. Instead, I heard the dreaded, "I'm sorry...." The nurse led me, weeping, past the inner waiting room, which just happened to have quite a few pregnant ladies in it, and into an exam room. Talk about a nightmare! Just seeing all those pregnant bellies drove home the point that I wasn't going to have one any time soon. My very compassionate doctor came in and very kindly explained that because I was so far along and the miscarriage was not "complete" I would need a procedure to clean out my womb called a "D & C". The first date she suggested happened to be my baby's second birthday so I asked for it to be scheduled a day earlier because I didn't want K's birthday to be associated with such a sad event.

I don't remember a lot about that day but I can still see flashes. I was just so incredibly sad that the word "sad" doesn't even cover it. I was bereft, sorrowful, grief-stricken. I was in a daze and on the verge of tears until the anesthesia took hold, and again when I woke up. I felt physically empty once it was done. I wish I could say that I bounced back quickly and that my love for the two daughters I already had chased my grief away, but of course it didn't. Looking back, I feel bad for my poor husband. Men want so much to "fix" problems, and this was something he could do nothing about. It was probably not helped when he wasn't allowed to go back with me while I was waiting for my surgery - he had to stay in the waiting room until I was in recovery. And then he was left with a broken wife that seemed beyond comforting. When the doctor called a week later to tell me that my lost baby was a "perfectly healthy baby girl" and there seemed to be no medical explanation for what happened, that just made things worse. At least there might have been some consolation in a chromosomal abnormality or something, but this seemed to be a pointless tragedy.

I've personally always struggled with finding the right words to say to someone who has suffered a loss, and apparently other people share my struggle, based on my experience. What can you say? From the outside you wouldn't know I had suffered a loss at all. I hadn't been obviously pregnant so if you weren't in my inner circle you might not have even known that I was. And a miscarriage is not something you announce to all your friends like you would a birth, or even the loss of a parent or other family member. So once the D & C was done I had to contend with somehow passing along the information to those who needed to know, while trying to gently enlighten people who were still congratulating me on my pregnancy. In case you're wondering, a nice thing to say to someone who has suffered a pregnancy loss is this: "I'm sorry for your loss." And if possible, give them a chance to talk about it. Too often people like to act as if it wasn't a "real" loss since the baby never even took a breath, but it's a loss all the same. Usually a woman who finds out she is expecting a baby has already (consciously or subconsciously) visualized the next 18 (or more) years with that baby. And then to have that future disappear... well, it takes the rug right out from under you.

After that loss I never became pregnant again, despite using zero birth control. In fact, my doctor told me a couple of years later that she doubted I could get pregnant, based on my past history.

Coming up: Out of Control: Part 7 - Happily Ever After. Sort of.