We left last night, going against our original plan. We were trying to save the cost of a night in a motel room but realized that meant getting up at 2:00 AM to arrive on time and driving over deer infested mountain passes in the dark. Uhhh...probably not the best plan we ever hatched and luckily we recognized our folly mid-afternoon and made the snap decision to go over early. Camp is 5 hours away, 10 hours round trip over 2 weekends in a row. It can be a bit of a hassle and logistical challenge, and I'll admit to grumbling a bit last night.
Shame on me...how quickly those grumblings stopped today, and I begged God for forgiveness. We were about to be kicked in the booty and reminded what it was really all about.
We pull into camp, and before we can even park our car we are stopped in the middle of the driveway by one of the counselors who was checking kids out. I happen to know her a little, and rolled down the window to chat, and as she opened her conversation with "I have to tell you about your kids..." I was a bit hesitant as I wondered what had happened and if one of the kids had acted up or had trouble while there this week.
Imagine our surprise as tears spring to her eyes as she shares with us how very special our kids our and what a joy it was to have them there. She relayed an incident in particular that I will share in a moment, but went on to say that we had a marvelous family, and that our children had all of the counselors in tears almost every day. Of course, I immediately well up, and then it gets worse as she goes on to tell us about something that had happened which really touched all of them deeply.
They have a high ropes course at camp, it is really quite a challenge and SCARY! Matthew came home last year feeling like quite the Conqueror for making it through it, but admitted he had been terrified of it and was sort of surprised at himself for completing it. Thursday was High Ropes Day, and we received a message in the middle of the day from one of the other counselors saying that Kenny had been scared and wanted to talk to us, but we had no phone number to return the call and not hearing anything else out of them, we assumed all was OK.
We come to find out that Kenny was more than "scared", he totally lost it, was paralyzed with fear and stuck up high starting sobbing and crying out for Mommy. He remained up there for over 30 minutes, and eventually after praying and asking God to help he was able to get back down, not completing the course, knees no doubt trembling and heart pounding.
All the counselors felt his anguish and fear, and even the young adult counselors who are mere teens themselves admitted that they couldn't keep from crying as they watched Kenny's obvious distress. But the thing that touched them all so deeply as many of them shared with us today was that Matthew, Angela and Olesya stayed by his side the entire time, encouraging him, offering him support, loving him through it all. They were not ashamed or embarrassed of Kenny's momentary lack of courage, they were standing there lifting him up and sharing the burden with him, carrying him emotionally. My friend who stopped us in the driveway said "The word for the day was 'Loyalty', and this was the best example of it we all could have ever seen.
But what makes this a story that speaks of God's love through others giving us strength, is that later they all returned, and Mr. Kenny LaJoy summoned the courage to try again, and he came away victorious, celebrated by his siblings who all know what an incredible act it was for him to go back and try again.
They all made shirts....Matthew was wearing one with the word "Honor" emblazoned across the front. Olesya had "Generous" on the back of hers. Angela had "LOVE" in huge letters from shoulder to shoulder. Kenny had "Loyal" and "God" written on his. Each selected their own words. How very fitting their selections were...
As we sat there, still in the car blocking the drive, Kenny comes walking down the dirt road, then starts walking a little faster when he sees it is our car. He is still so little in stature, and yet somehow the character he exudes is far larger than his diminutive size. He leans in the window with his chin quivering and reaches for a big hug. A little hitch in his voice as he says "Hi Mom!" and then starts to cry a little. Next comes Olesya, grin as wide as can be, me still hanging out the window and she is crying a little as well, as I reach out to her.
Slowly approaching is Angela, and I can see she is not trying to hide it at all, she is already breaking down and I get out of the car so Dominick can park and others can get by. She literally falls into my arms and buries her head in my neck, sobbing so hard. We stand there, embracing, holding one another in a way we never have yet done...as Mom and Daughter who have Always Been and Always Will Be. I don't say anything for a moment as the tears flow, I just hold her close, gently brush her hair. Finally I whisper into her ear with my own hiccuping sobs getting in the way "I love you SO MUCH and I have missed you this week!"..she starts crying a little harder and says "I love you too Mama...camp so awesome...so so cool! I love you! Thank you!".
After a few minutes we all collect ourselves and head up the dirt drive to where everyone else is gathering while other families are saying good bye, packing pillows and sleeping bags in cars. Matthew comes out and in his quiet, unassuming way gives us a hug and a big grin, saying he loved camp this year as always. We have 4 kids all thrusting decorated rocks and drawings at us, presenting us with gifts of flashlights Olesya bought for us and Angela showed Joshie the TShirt she bought for him. Matthew bought Joshua a stuffed animal...so 3 of the 4 kids spent their entire camp money on everyone else. Kenny had to replace his own flashlight and bought a pillow case. Before we left, we took the kids back to the gift shop and insisted they buy a little something for themselves.
There were no less than 5 counselors who approached us to tell us how special camp was this year, and that it was largely due to Team LaJoy (or the minimized version of it). They spoke of seeing gentleness, love openly shared, courage, and warmth. One young lady has known Kenny since his first summer there, when I stayed with him and he had only been home a month. He was a total deer in the headlights, maturity of a 4 year old, and pretty obstinate at moments. She spoke of how transformed he is, and how cool it has been to see the changes in him each summer. Two of the other younger female counselors grilled me to see if the girls would be returning next year, saying that we have "incredible daughters" and they have never met anyone quite like them. They were begging us to make sure we put them back in the same camp next year so they could spend time with them again.
Our family was the last to leave as we were asked to take pictures together. Every one of the younger female counselors starting crying again, hugging the kids 3 or 4 times. I had the chance to thank them all individually for being there for our kids this week. Finally, we all managed to pile in the car, tear stained cheeks not yet dry.
I share this all not out of a desire to say "Hey...look at our great kids!", although a little misplaced parental pride would be hard to deny. The fact is, we did NOT create the spirits that reside within these children of ours. We have loved them and provided for them, but can not lay claim at all for any innate goodness they have...they came to us that way and we were just blessed enough to bring them into our lives.
I share this because of a couple of reasons. It is something I have had conversations about as recently as a couple of nights ago. So many people do not see children as "whole" or "complete" spiritual beings. Somehow, due to their limited time here on earth, because of their lack of life experiences, or simply because they are not truly "seen" at all but instead hauled around and talked "at" rather than "with", they are viewed as somehow deficient souls. We don't see the fullness of their being, we patronize them, we talk over them, we discount their power to minister to others, to help transform others, to have God speak through them to work in the lives of others. Every child around us is God's complete and fully loved creation. How often we disregard the maturing thoughts of a child, not seeing within his or her words the truths God is trying to reveal to us, or the direction in which God wants to lead our own thinking. We "pooh pooh" the little one beside us, speak to them in patronizing tones and brush them off, all the while taking the adult next to us so seriously. What are we missing when we deny God's full presence standing before us inhabiting a child's body? Putting my own children aside, there have been so many children throughout my life who have taught me lessons I might have missed and that I needed to learn!
I think I realized something else too, and that is as I struggle to discern my own ministry, I am missing what is right before me. I don't see being a Mom as a ministry, perhaps because it doesn't feel at all like giving and is far more a beloved gift in my life. But it was an eye opener today to see the trickle down effect, to see that lessons taught and Christ being lived out in our own lives is a ministry in itself. Giving our all to raising children who walk through this world offering love to others, being generous of spirit and honorable, well, that is a ministry in a way I just hadn't seen it before. Please don't interpret that as saying "our kids are perfect"...oh SO SO not! Hahaha! They fuss and pick at each other like any siblings do, they make enormous frustrating messes to clean up, they are rude sometimes and turn a deaf ear at chores once in awhile. But, in general and at this point in time, our kids do try to live out God in their lives, just as we adults do. Again, it goes to recognizing the innate value of a human, regardless of chronological age.
I realized I too had grown during this camp week, and in an unexpected way. We received the message about Kenny while our home phone service and internet was down for a couple of days, and the call came in on a cell phone whose number was blocked, leaving us with trying to decide if we should call the camp on the direct number, or wait to see if another call would be forthcoming. I surprised myself by being totally non-anxious about it all, and that as well as what I saw today with the loving, wonderful counselors and extremely special Camp Directors, showed me that I have entered a new phase in my faith. I knew the people directly responsible for Kenny, and I had complete confidence in their ability to handle the situation well, and to take him in whatever direction spiritually he needed to go to work this out.
While I missed the kids this week, it was not a gnawing ache or a huge void as one might expect after being with them virtually 24/7 due to homeschooling. It was appropriate, it was low key, and it was my own recognition on a deeper level that our children need far more than just us. Seeing the way the camp staff was with the kids today, their contributions to the development of our children is priceless. At the very deepest level, I think maybe I have come to a place where I am beginning to fully take in that God provides all we ever need, and that the full burden need not lay solely upon our shoulders as parents. How narrow a life that would be for our children!! And how little trust that shows from us that God has it all under control, and will add in the seasonings our children need to mature in faith, and lead a rich and fulfilling life. Our job is to parent them, to guide them, to nurture them. It is not to be the sole influence and assume that will be enough. We, as their parents, lead them to the Living Water, and God will stand there with a cup in hand...perhaps in the form of a camp counselor, a pastor, a friend or other teacher.
Sometimes it is urgent that we, as parents, get out of the way. It is not about us, and we do not own them. God does.
On the way home we found ourselves knee deep in theological discussion, conversation and debate that would give my ministry classes a run for their money! Whew! Kenny is struggling with the Bigness of God, and with worrying that if he develops a theology that differs from ours we might get angry with him. He said he thinks sometimes that all that God does is just too much for one God, and he wonders if there aren't more Gods than just one. He can't imagine God keeping track of all the details.
We reassured him that his faith path has to be entirely his, and we will be there to support and offer our perspective anytime he wants but would never get mad at him for thinking differently than we do. We reminded him that Dominick and I both have differences in our understandings but respect one another and don't expect each other to believe the same thing. I also told him I thought it was good he was open to wrestling with such things, and that meant he was engaged in an active faith life and that God would walk with him through it all. Many more questions arose during this conversation, and I was pretty sapped by the time it was over.
The wonderful thing was that for the first time, Angela piped in strongly, offering her thoughts and insights...La Foret used it's magic can opener and her spirit was pried open a little more. As the kids were singing their camp songs in the back seat, she joined in, something she has never really done before. I think camp normalized Jesus for her, she saw kids just like her who are open with their belief and comfortable with God, no shyness, no awkwardness...and singing camp songs that speak of God our creator is a huge step for her. Even if she did get the words wrong in one song about Jesus being a calm in the "store" rather than the storm. Her enthusiasm was all that was important, the words can come next year!!
Later, at home, we were not yet off the hook as Kenny plopped on the couch and started crying again. He had a wonderful time at camp, and he made a point of reiterating that, but he found that he was embarrassed and ashamed as other kids talked about their friends and their lives, and he felt very different. He said he didn't want to admit that a couple of his closest friends are several years younger than he is, and he said he wished he felt more like everyone else.
Darn it, there are moments I wish our kids didn't suffer over things that are not their faults! We talked about his immaturity, and the reasons for it. We pointed out to him that the girls too are behind their age-related peers as well in many areas. In fact, Angela already is talking about next year at camp and begging to stay with the little kids, because the bigger kids are "scary". This all was prompted when, after arriving home, he was in his room gathering up his toys to get rid of them because he wanted to grow up faster and not be babyish anymore. He feels different, he knows he is different, but part of it is something he didn't identify until we shared it with him.
After him saying his life was too babyish and boring, I asked him "What is it that the other kid do your age that makes them more grown up? What do you want to do that you think would make you more normal in their eyes?". He thought about it and said "Well, most of them play video games I guess. That's it really, they talk about their video games." Hmmm....I then proceeded to list all the interesting and cool things he does or has accomplished, despite his admitted immaturity at times. "So let's see...you play soccer, take piano lessons and are getting better at that all the time. You are already a green belt at TaeKwonDo. You have traveled around the world, seen Chicago, a little of New York, California, and Las Vegas. You are homeschooling and taking very cool field trips and learning interesting things in new ways. You go camping, are active in your church, play tons with your siblings and friends, have taken acting classes and will be taking them again along with art classes. Oh yea, and you even play video games sometimes. Yea, I can TOTALLY see that your life is boring and doesn't live up to that of others your age.". He couldn't help but laugh after that one.
"Kenny, being different doesn't mean you are wrong. The difference between you and some kids your age is that you have actually developed a lot of interests, and it is not just video games. While I agree that maybe part of the reason you don't fit in may have a little do to with maturity, I think part of it is that you just have more interests and haven't found a group to fit in with who has your same interests. And when you are more grown up, it won't matter one whit if your friends are your same age or not!" I then proceeded to name off all my friends who are older or younger than I by several years and said "I guess I shouldn't have any friends because NONE of my friends is my same age!" He said "But it is different when you are older!" and I said "It is more important to have friends you have something in common with, then to worry about fitting in with kids you have nothing in common with. Age is not important, shared interests is."
We then talked more about why he is less mature, and that one of the many reasons we pulled him from school now was this very reason. I reminded him that I had told him before that about 5th grade the gap would widen between he and his peers, and 5th grade would be very difficult for him in terms of fitting in. He saw that first hand at camp, but thankfully not due to someone teasing him, he was just able to draw his own conclusions by seeing how little he had in common with everyone else. Most importantly though, we talked honestly about his need to be younger for awhile longer, and that at home he was safe to grow up at his own pace without fear of being teased. I reassured him that his background was different than everyone else's, and that he was not stupid or weird, but was in fact quite normal compared to his "real" peers who are older adopted post-institutionalized children...just like his sisters who still believe in mermaids and play with baby dolls at an age when most girls have put those things aside.
We talked about how being responsible had nothing to do with wanting to be a little boy for awhile longer, and about how much he had already grown up since coming home. "You'll grow up and be like everyone else eventually, don't worry. It is just going to take more time and we intend to give it to you...but you need to give it to yourself too, Kenny. Pretending you are interested in older stuff isn't going to work, and one day you will wake up and finally not want to play pretend super heroes and will realize you have grown too old for it. For now, just be who you are and do not be ashamed, for you have NOTHING to be ashamed of!".
And with that, my emotional overdrive was burned up, and I went for an evening walk to clear my head.
Now, at 1:45 in the morning I will try and get some rest, for tomorrow brings another round. For now, all is quiet on the Western Front. Kids are home, safe and sound, having made heart connections with so many others. Introspection, however, will continue long into the future. Team LaJoy will press on, loving and learning as we go, and profoundly grateful for the people God has used to tap us on the shoulder or offer a hug of encouragement just when we needed it.