There is so very much to share, for while the blog has been quiet, life surely has not. I meant it when I said I would do more blogging, but I was gone for 2 1/2 weeks in Alaska (more on that in a coming blog), and then spent a week trying to catch up before heading off to Colorado Springs for the weekend with Kenny, as he attends camp counselor training. I will write as I can over the next couple of weeks, as I hate missing important things being recorded here.
May 8th was an important day in the life of our sons and daughters, for it was the day of their Confirmation. The term "confirmation" can be confusing to those not familiar with it, so let me explain. In our faith tradition, the United Church of Christ, which is a progressive mainline Protestant Christian congregation, we baptize children when they are young, with the Congregation making the commitment to walk alongside the parents and help raise the child in the faith. Then, usually around age 12 or 13, kids will go through some form of Confirmation Classes, and then a final service is held celebrating the personal confirmation of their and their entry into the adult life of the church.
Belonging to a small congregation means that we have few children, and only one other young person of confirmation age, Zack, Josh's best buddy. We elected to delay Confirmation for our kids because there are so few youth and they are all virtually the same age, with the exception of Josh and Zack, so it made sense to wait until they were all old enough to do it together. We also wanted the girls to be well grounded in English as well as to have the opportunity to hear the various important narratives shared within the Bible a few times before even considering moving them through the Confirmation process.
The kids received two special gifts for Confirmation. We purchased them each a bracelet with the coordinates for La Foret on it, as a reminder that they can always find their way back to God, no matter how far away God may seem. Then, my friend Candi spent many evenings cross stitching individual bookmarks for each one of them with their favorite Scripture passage referenced. They were so beautiful and a real gift of love:
Now, you may have some experience with witnessing a Confirmation Worship Service before in your life, but trust me, this one was unlike any other, and it was far more moving than I think any of us within the congregation had anticipated. What was initially a "happy day" quickly moved into something far more meaningful, far more powerful, and far more Spirit-filled than just about anything I have ever been present for in my entire life.
You see, this congregation of people made a promise years and years ago, three different times with the baptisms of our five children...and they delivered like no congregation I have ever known. This small but faithful group has walked alongside our family, nurturing our kids every step of the way, never asking for anything in return and yet holding us gently and oh-so-closely. As Matt pointed out much later, Confirmation was one of the most meaningful days in each of their lives because this is how it looks when it is done right. This was how it can be when one little family is enfolded into the care of committed folks who say what they mean and mean what they say. And these are the kinds of youth they can help produce...kids who are engaged and feel vitally a part of their church family, kids who always have and always will give back in the ways they can, kids who take their faith seriously because others have shown them what faith really and truly looks and feels like.
The adults made God real to them, in fact, they were God in the flesh right before them. With few exceptions, every single adult present has spent a fair amount of one on one time with our kids, sharing their knowledge, friendship, and spiritual presence. These kids have been prayed for over and over again, been financially supported in numerous ways, and their parents (Dominick and I) have had shoulders to cry on as we did, and still do, the very hard work of helping our kids heal and gradually move into the adult world as prepared as we can possibly help them to be. We desperately needed all that this congregation offered in order to make it, and we still do as we are far from done and have many a mountain yet to climb. Honestly, without our church and the ways in which my own spirit has been held so tenderly, I could never, ever have been a decent mother, and I would have given up long ago.
The service was extraordinary. Each youth was invited to speak a few words about their faith, and then an adult was invited to issue a charge to them as the youth considers their maturing relationship with God. It didn't take long before the tears were flowing, as Josh shared his thoughts first, and then our beloved Mr. Miller, a retired Presbyterian minister himself, stood and spoke so eloquently about having observed Josh since he was a toddler, and watching how difficult it was for Josh to learn to accept love. This surrogate grandpa for our kids, the one whose Christmas tree we have decorated for years, whose concerts we have attended for years, and whose thoughtful influence we have been blessed with for years, urged Josh to take the love that he now so eagerly accepts and offer it out into the world, to be a light to others as some were to him.
The blessing of staying put in a small community is that there is a shared history, a walking through the dark, a lifting up when we fall, and an awareness of the value of relationship. George knows Josh, George has watched him ever so slowly heal and become whole-hearted, as God intended him to be, as have many others who were present and put a lot of themselves into our family.
I looked around the congregation, wiping my eyes, and as if in unison, we had all started crying, for there before us, laid out so beautifully by George, was the power of the Spirit's ability to connect us all, to help us all lighten heavy burdens. We have all been witness to some mighty work done in this family through the hard work and care of others who listened to God, who elected to intertwine their lives with us, adopting all of us as we adopted them, too.
As Matt said, this is how it looks like when it is done right.
The service went on, with person after person sharing their heart, and I was just as moved by Zack, who feels like one of my very own and whom I have been able to be present for so much of his life as well.
Kenny was next, with Kim being the one who spoke for him:
Excerpt from Kenny's statement: "I have learned through the support of this church that Jesus is like the gold standard for how we should behave and be in this world. He accepted the poor and forgotten. He saw the value of every person, and he showed it in his ministry. The gospel also teaches us to be brave and to always fight the good fight, to stand for love, and I hope I can live up to that and I know this community will keep pushing me to do so."
Can't leave Zack out, so his picture is here as well though I have no excerpt to share!
It was also Zack's sister's Baptism Day as well! Shea has been part of our life since she was born, our boys all cradled her in their arms. Here is our Shea-Shea, whose baptism was offered by her (and our!) Grandma Joan, who we love dearly as well:
Next was Olesya's turn, such growth in her as she has really pushed herself to speak in front of groups...my shy, quiet daughter is turning into someone I admire deeply for being so willing to work at the things that scare her, or are difficult for her. This was a big one, and she was confident and comfortable, even if a little quiet :-) As Jane came up to speak for Olesya, I think she was already crying before she ever reached the pulpit.
Here are some of Olesya's thoughts: "Love Wins isn't just a slogan, it is a way of life. Like many Christians, I believe in God. For me, God isn't the dude with the white beard that shakes his head when I do something wrong, but instead for me God is that little voice inside my head that encourages me to do better, and tells me what the wrong and what the right things are in this world. He is always there for me, even when I think I don't need Him. He brings out the best in me through other people, points me in different directions and shows me different paths it take on my lifelong journey.
Matt was up next, and his mentor and dapper dressing Mr. Steve issued his charge:
A portion of Matt's statement:
"I believe that Jesus was God’s gift to man-kind.
I believe that I am here for a reason that maybe only God knows.
I believe that God is good.
I believe that humans try to be good.
I believe that God is singular.
I believe that I have a lot to learn.
I promise that I will be spiritually awake,
God resides everywhere, I just have to look.
In the end, the love wins.
Today, I let love win over me.
Praise be to God. "
Finally, it was Angela's turn. Oh my goodness, as if it weren't hard enough already, this is where we all totally lost it. There was a lot more going on beneath the surface than others knew, and also there was so much that everyone can recall as they watched this courageous young woman stand before them. Angela is at a very, very difficult time in her life right now, as she is wrestling with a sense of "survivor's guilt" as she is connecting with several of her old orphanage mates and a couple of kids who were adopted to America, and their futures are not bright...even the adopted ones. This past year has been a real eye opener for our whole family, as we have seen many adoptive families with children home years long struggle and lose the battle against the very painful beginnings their children had. No judgment there, trust me. Our entire family, as well as our church family, is well aware that somehow we beat the odds.
Actually, I know how we beat them, it isn't really "somehow", it is through the extraordinary dedication of so many who wrapped around us and are helping us through...never giving up. It is God at work through so many that has helped us not end up a statistic. Angela and I have had several deep, tearful conversations (tears from both of us) as she unburdens herself of the heavy emotions weighing her heart down. "Mom, they don't even know what they don't know...how hard it is going to be for them out in the world, and I am so worried about them all!" she says as she thinks of her friends left behind. We speak often about how good God has been to us, how we have a responsibility to be a light as others have been to us, how each and every one of us in our family has been "saved" by God's presence in our lives made manifest by others...it is always on our hearts and minds, never really far from grasp. Maybe it is because it is too obvious in our family, this Spirit that runs through us all, and the hell we all lived in without one another.
Angela began to speak, and got a couple of phrases in, and simply couldn't go on. There she stood, tall at the pulpit, trying desperately to pull it together to finish. The congregation was with her in every way, gently assuring her with their patience, joining her in her joy and pain with tears of their own streaming. After giving her time to try and make it back on track on her own, Pastor Karen stood up and came beside Angela, and then I rose to stand beside her as well, putting my arm around her as Karen offered to read Angela's statement for her. She read a few lines, and then Angela bravely insisted she would finish, and she did. As I sat back down, Pete, our sweet Miss Mary's husband approached the pulpit to speak to Angela on Mary's behalf, as she was unable to attend. Pete and Mary have been a part of our lives since the day Matt came home. I'll never forget Pete and Mary, and Pete's brother and sister-in-law visiting with us on Dan and Jeannie's patio as we proudly showed off our then-first-born (whose place was usurped twice over). Jeannie worked for us for years at the airport and made every adoption possible with her stable management, and our connection with the Loncar family has been long and lovely...we employed Pete and Mary's daughter for a season, Dan and Jeannie's daughter for a couple of seasons, and a niece as well.
From Angela's sharing: "My faith calls me to “pay it forward”, treat people with kindness, and call myself to be better than yesterday, which my community supports and brings me back to my faith. For me the value of this church is the people in it. Like I mentioned previously, my community calls me back to my faith. Without the community I would not be who I am today. I see God through encounters with people and through this beautiful world we live in. Bad or good encounters with people change me when God is present. My faith is trusting God that he will know better as long my heart is open and my ears are ready to listen."
You can't miss the love in the embrace Pete gave Angela, as he his tears mingled with hers, and he held her close. It is the emotion of those who deeply care about one another, of those who understand and have walked with one another. And again, I can't help but be reminded of Matt's words, heard like a refrain as I consider this day: This is how it looks when it is done right.
Yes, love looks like this. It looks like commitment, it looks like giving yourself to others, it looks like years long sacrifice, it looks like "showing up"...for terrible beginning music programs, for Civil Air Patrol meetings, for bake sales, for phonics lessons, for volleyball tournaments, for 10 hour round trip drives to church camp, and so much more. This congregation is non-conforming with its Confirmands, it offers a non-conforming kind of all-encompassing love. It includes those no longer with us who have been lost to death, to long distance moves, and to worshiping in other places. Yes, we remember you all, you who have kept us afloat in prayer for so long, and continue to do so.
Thank you, God, for the depth of love you have shown us through so many of your people, Christian and non-Christian alike, for we are reminded that all are your people, your beloved ones. Thank you, God, for the opportunity to reflect that love back in their lives, and the lives of others as well, in the ways we can. Thank you, God, for the blessing of parenting these resilient, extraordinary souls, the ones who touch me, and teach me, and model for me every day what it is to be a person of faith.
Here is the graduating Confirmation Class of 2016 at Community Spirit United Church of Christ!
To My Beloved Children, May you always choose to walk in the light of God, and to carry that light so it shines brightly on others. May you never, ever feel alone again. May you continue to mature and blossom into the wonderful human beings I see emerging who are sensitive to the needs of others, and willing to step forward to fill those needs. The love of God far surpasses the love your Dad and I have for you...and you know how much THAT is, so you can imagine God's love is beyond your imagination! You have belonged to God long before your Confirmation Day, and you will belong to God long after we are gone from your lives. Continue to seek the Spirit, listen always, say "yes" as often as you can :-)
You are cherished.