Homework and the Apparent Uselessness of Math

As I write this, Carter and Zac are sitting at the kitchen table working on math homework. Like his father, Carter is very very good at math. Conversely, like his father, Zac is not very good at math. I did okay with most subjects in school, except for 7th and 8th grade, when every class bottomed out for me academically. I had to begrudgingly ask each of my teachers fill out a progress report every Friday. I missed the bus a few times because my 7th hour ComputersII teacher made me wait until he was done making copies on the mimeograph before signing the form. These days, parents can log in and look at their kids grades, absences, missing assignments, and teacher comments. It won’t be long before we can find out how many times our kid blinked during the Virtual Reality headset lecture on the ancient technology of cavemen who used first generation iPhones.

It’s fun to hear my boys — “The Brothers” (as Cam calls them) — work on graphing skills and quadratic equations while I brew another pot of strong decaf coffee. I don’t have the courage to tell them that they will likely never use these skills in the real world, though I regularly present the age-old Dad lecture about school as the path to success. The objective is to prove you can jump through the hoop and move on to the next stage. I would chart a graph of the future practicality of this particular math unit that Zac is working through, but I don’t remember how. This is because I haven’t done a single quadratic equation since my 11th grade Algebra class. The only thing I retained from Algebra is X equals D minus.

I see Zac is experiencing the same frustrations in math class that I did. The Kahn Academy videos are poorly translated, and YouTube keeps crowding teaching videos with 20 HILARIOUS CAT FAILS – TRY NOT TO SMILE! According to the video description, the last one had them ROARING with LAUGHTER!! Laughing/Crying emoji, etc.

As a Xennial (born between 1977 and 1985, though I can’t remember precisely when), I look at the crying emoji and recall a simpler time when we typed ROTFL, which never actually happened and certainly doesn’t happen now, because such a demanding physical act would certainly tear an important ligament that took a beating in the 1990’s because we insisted on jumping from great heights and wearing Reebok Pumps which offered no orthotic support. Our knees didn’t hurt then like they do now.

It seems to me that we’re due for an overhaul of our current education system. You’ve seen the memes: let’s teach less calculus and more personal investing. A few years back, I was in a meeting with decision makers at my alma mater, and this very issue came up. The question was asked: what if, instead of requiring our students slog through a generic math credit to graduate, we had them take a class on financial management and thus fulfill their academic requirement AND be able to do their own taxes? I have to wonder if there would be a correlation between college freshmen discovering the scoop on compound interest and plummeting student loans. Yet we rage on with our quadratic equations, which never comes up on a 1040. And, if it does, you need to hire an accountant. Hopefully they were a math major.

See? I’m not saying that math is useless. Far from it! It’s just that people like me aren’t good at it and probably never will be. Teach me the basics: show me addition/subtraction/multiplication/division. Help me figure out how much carpet to buy in square feet. Equip me to do fractions when we’re doubling a pancake recipe. Also, please give me pancakes. But save the higher end stuff for the higher end students. Let me read a book and write a haiku. Let me build a house and try to get the pitch of the roof just right. Teach me pharmacology so that I know not to take Tylenol and Motrin at the same time. Walk me through history so we don’t make the same mistakes. Give me the best philosophers to not only read but slog through, because it’s in the slog that we are forced to really understand their worldview and, as a result, better understand ourselves.

Most of all, give me an identity beyond social media. Help me figure out who I am, why I exist, and what a good life looks like. Answer the eternal questions. Reveal and discuss the hard questions until we’re both confused yet enlightened. For me, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only theological construct that, I believe, answers all the questions with the integrity to acknowledge that there’s still a good dose of mystery involved.

The good thing about students learning a subject they’ll never use again is the stretching of their young, plastic brains. Even if you don’t value what you’re learning, the very act of trying to comprehend the unknown will expand your mind. Students are, in essence, learning how to learn. I don’t remember all the presidents, but at least I don’t have to google to find out who’s in the White House now — even though the current guy might have to.

Carry on, my sons, and struggle through the unknown. Yes, jump through the hoops. You may have a grand life plan and vision board, but I can attest that plans change in a way that is beyond your control, and certainly beyond your desire. We don’t know what the future holds, a truth that seems to be even more concentrated as culture now develops at a dizzying pace. Make your graphs, don’t complain too much, and learn how to learn. Press on. Grow.

Maybe the future is nothing but graphs. We won’t tweet: we’ll graph. Perhaps the math geniuses will rule the world. If so, I’d better watch those videos. Of cats.

The only part I truly understand is the pen.

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Thanksgiving 2022

It’s Thanksgiving 2022. How’s your food prep going? What’s the pie plan? Are you deep frying the bird? Your place or somewhere else? Lions fan? Weekend plans? I’m really looking forward to TG22 in our cozy place, surrounded by family and friends.

Some people simply don’t like Thanksgiving due to some unfortunate historical events that lead to the US as we know it today. Others dislike the gluttony of it, as if we’re not like that all year ’round. As for me, I could eat Pumpkin pie every day of my life, as long as there’s a copious stack of whipped cream atop that beautiful triangle. Pumpkin pie without whipped cream is an affront to the created order of Thanksgiving. Have you tried Pumpkin Pie without whipped cream? It’s like eating vitamins. Mashed potatoes have gravy, the Detroit Lions have losing, and Pumpkin Pie has whipped cream, followed by regret. Did I really just eat that much pie?

Pumpkin pie without whipped cream disappoints even the jolliest Grandma. The Lions playing on Thanksgiving tends to disappoint, but maybe not this year. It’s a new regime.

I wonder if some folks dislike Thanksgiving because it brings up bad memories and/or reminds them of what they wish they had but don’t. The last few Thanksgivings were like that for me. I was in a bad spot, not by my own doing, but by the powers of addiction and the resulting destruction of my family. It became commonplace to ignore the fact that she was high, pretending to be normal, which may be the most dysfunctional thing I could’ve done. For the sake of protecting my kids, I’d carry on in the prescribed manner, eliminating as much of the disaster as I could from their young eyes. All holidays became a balancing act between managing a strung-out adult while making a place for happy memories for the kids. It was like blowing bubbles with one hand for the kids while simultaneously extinguishing a fire with the other hand.

They say that you don’t know you’re in the good old days until after you’ve left them. I’ve discovered that you don’t know you’re in the bad old days until after you’ve left them, too. Living with an addict is dreadful, but you don’t realize how dreadful it is until you’re in a new phase of life, as I am now.

I don’t even remember what we did for Thanksgiving a few years ago. I have to strain my brain to remember a “normal” holiday from the distant past. Recently it came to me: I didn’t like Thanksgiving — or any of the other big family days — because it was always an even higher level of crisis than usual. Addiction is a disaster that causes disaster. Yes, there is help and hope, but the addict has to accept it. It never happened. So, I’d just kept eating Pumpkin Pie and watching the Lions lose, proving to my kids that it was okay and that it was going to be ok. This is survival mode: something is obviously wrong and not getting better, but it’s out of your control, so you press on. “It’s fine.”

That’s really what Pumpkin Pie without whipped cream is like. “It’s fine.”

No, it’s not.

Tomorrow I’ll celebrate Thanksgiving like never before, with five kids at the table instead of three, and a wife/partner/soulmate/lover who I will join in making Thanksgiving what it’s meant to be: a time of giving thanks, being with family, counting our blessings, and Pumpkin Pie.

Both Mac and Zac said that this will be our first normal/good/exciting holiday in 7 years. It hasn’t been like this in a long, long time.

Today I’m thankful for my wife, my kids, and a new era of life that gloriously reflects the grace of God in the healing and redemption of a really screwed up situation. I can’t even put words to it, but I thought I’d try.

May you be blessed this Holiday season. May you recognize that God is with you, whether you’re feeling it or not. May you come to the realization that situations, no matter how wonderful or tragic, don’t have power over our choice to trust Jesus in all things. He will work it out, though I don’t know how. I know this: we’d be lost without Him and remarkably incomplete, like Pumpkin Pie without whipped cream.

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Britt’s Dad

The first thing I noticed about Dave, besides his Corvette jacket and bald head atop a tall frame, was that he was a very quiet man. It was a comfortable quiet, the kind of midwestern calm that doesn’t feel the need to occupy the silence. He and his wife Beth were at ease, saying hi to Brittany and the kids and simply catching up on life. Papa Dave was well known and loved by Britt and her kids, and I was just on the scene, ready to meet the dad who helped raise my wife into the woman she is now.

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I think it had to do with their fifth wheel in Florida. They spent winters there, which made me jealous with a smily face, as I had met yet another who found a way to beat Michigan winters — by annually leaving them. Once the conversation turns to weather, especially Michigan weather, you have plenty to talk about.

Brittany loved her dad. Sure, he’s officially her “step dad”, but we know that it’s not a blood line that makes a father. It’s presence, stability, direction, and love. Dave provided this for Britt and her siblings. A quiet, gentle giant, he had the biggest heart. His presence in the room got everyone’s attention. It was the comfort and safety a quiet observer brings.

Although we talked only twice — once about corvettes, the weather, and having the same haircut, and once at our wedding, which is a blur — I knew Dave to be a good man.

A good man suddenly passed away this week. We got the call at 4:30am. Nobody wants the phone to ring at 4:30am. It was unexpected and heartbreaking. Suddenly we’re putting together a memorial service. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Dave better through Brittany, her siblings, his wife, and his kids. I have the pastoral responsibility for this one. As I write, a group text between family members keeps dinging with funny stories and fond memories. This is healing. This is good.

You know what I’m going to say because I say it often: every day is a gift. Don’t take people for granted. Love the ones around you and plan on it being different in the future. We have no idea what’s next, but we do have each other.

A good man suddenly passed away.

Thank you, Dave, for being the gentle giant who helped raise my wife. The impact is obvious. I’ll hug her tight tonight because she misses you greatly.

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Wind, the Teacher

Yesterday I was way too interested in watching a bunch of garbage blow around in the strong wind moving through our back yard. Amid the fudge pop wrappers and flattened Amazon boxes, my attention was caught by a couple of cereal boxes, neatly collapsed for the recycle bin whose hatch was blown wide open by gusts beyond the design specs. And there he was: the Honey Nut Cheerios bee (Buzz Bee) flying free past our swing set and into the field out back. Fly free, deadly marketing creature.

It made me think about the imagery of wind used throughout scripture. Wind is a fascinating phenomenon. Created by God, wind is the charged adjustment of weather systems as they work their way across the globe. Wind brings with it new temperatures, puffy clouds, and the occasional strong storm. Wind always accompanies change. Wind is a byproduct of change. OR wind is a generator of change. Either way (was the chicken or the egg first?)* the two go hand in hand.

There are three different spots in the bible where wind shows up as the teacher of a deeper truth: The Ark, The Ask, and The Action.

You may know the story of Noah and the Ark. Huge flood, old guy Noah builds a big boat, animals load up, destruction follows, rescue and rainbow. The waters covered the earth to a level that the people and land animals couldn’t ignore (most of the fish were fine with it). Just about the time Noah and the animals wondered if the water would ever recede, we read in Genesis 8:1 that “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and God caused a wind to pass over the earth, and the water subsided.” The Ark gives us our first reminder: the wind of God does the work of God.

God is at work in our world, whether we realize it or not. Most of the time, wind goes largely unnoticed by me. I didn’t think about it being windy last week, but I sure did notice that all the leaves in the lawn. It wasn’t an earthquake that dropped those leaves — it was the mostly unnoticed yet remarkably effective wind. In our world, we may not detect that God is at work, but we can detect the effects of his work all around us. In every moment of healing, in every answered prayer, in every mysterious peace that covers a difficult situation like a warm blanket… these testify to the work of God — perhaps undetected, but certainly effective.

Our world is looking everywhere for some kind of wisdom, usually masquerading as life hacks and self improvement posts. My Instagram feed includes some guy who dispenses helpful advice about boundaries, trauma, and relationship issues. His tone is warm, his hands usually have a mug of tea, and his eyebrows are like friendly caterpillars inviting you into his world. Human beings are knowledge and wisdom sponges. We are desperate for something to help us find our way. Where did I come from? Why do I exist? What am I supposed to do? In our search for direction, we find all different flavors of wisdom, some godly and some not, and do our best to press on without getting cancelled or giving up entirely. Life is not easy.

God knows we need wisdom, and so he offers it in abundance, ready to be dispensed upon the ask. Need wisdom? Just ask! However, as James says… “But when you ask (for godly wisdom), you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). God’s wisdom comes with a disclaimer, not unlike a software agreement that we might mindlessly check off on the way to a new app. When we ask, believe that you’ll get what you’re asking for. Why is this? Probably because it will sound absolutely insane compared to the way of the world. Of course we should ask! But when we ask, we must believe. Otherwise — and here is the wind to teach us — we will be like a wave of the sea, pointlessly tossed about. The wisdom of God, freely available and most effective when combined with authentic faith, puts purpose to our otherwise pointless lives.

When Jesus Christ walked the earth, he spoke regularly about the Kingdom of God — a kingdom of healing, wisdom, grace, love, and truth. Not only did he reveal God the Father to us, he also helped us understand the work of the Holy Spirit. He used the mysterious power of the wind to help us understand what it means to be born again. We are born of the Spirit and find ourselves suddenly moved by a force that moves us in mysterious ways. The Christ-centered life is a life fueled by the wind of the Spirit. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Jesus said:

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

The stack we’ve built is intentional. Remember that God gets work done with wind, as seen in the story of the Ark. Remember that wisdom is readily available when we ask, BUT our faith has to be strong enough that we believe, otherwise we’ll be tossed about in the wind (like garbage in my back yard). Remember that the Spirit of God IN us means that we are powered by this wind: moving forward, walking wisely, and moving toward the Kingdom of God.

Windy days have much to teach us. So, let me ask you: are you aware that God is at work? Are you asking for wisdom and believing you’ve got it? Are you filled with the mysterious wind of the Spirit?

Thankfully Mac went out and re-threw away the cardboard boxes. Branches are blown down and someone online said that they suddenly have a barbecue grill cover in their yard (and no grill). Wind is powerful. May we become more like Jesus every day… for there is much to be done.

*I bet it was the chicken. Why would God create an egg for Adam & Eve to sit on?

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Da doot doot doo…

I heard my Grandma June’s voice this morning coming out of my own mouth and it scared me a little. Zac was dragging himself out of bed, angling for a sick day. All the Middle School symptoms were presented: headache, sore throat, and body aches. It’s a good strategy, naming multiple symptoms that can’t quite be measured. He was just a few steps from putting the thermometer on the hot light bulb, which doesn’t work because LED bulbs put off very little heat. Back when bulbs were glass spheres of incandescent heat, and thermometers were full of deadly mercury, I’d pull that trick and give myself a 109 degree fever. It took me a time or two to realize that this is the temperature of human lava, demanding MUCH more invasive medical attention than saying “ahhhhh”.

This morning Grandma said, “Zac, your best bet is to just get out of bed and pushing through the day. You’ll feel much better before long.” I didn’t mean to do that, it just came out, probably because I heard it 39 times during my 8th grade year. She was usually right. I’d come home after school, bounce to the kitchen, eat patty-shaped processed chicken product fresh from the microwave, then head straight for the Brothers Mario.

I teach my Communication students that most of our communication skills were acquired by the time we were 12 or so, shaped mostly by how our family interacted. We spend the first dozen years learning how to communicate, then spend the rest of our lives learning again (and again and again) how to communicate better. Relational dysfunction, cultural expectations, social behavior — it’s your parents/grandparents/guardians.

I was ok. He’ll be ok, too. I didn’t mean to mimic the voice of Ardith June, but it was bound to happen at some point. Admittedly, it came in handy today.

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Vacation To/From

Brittany and I spent the weekend at a nice place we had a gift certificate for, thanks to the generous folks at Renovation Church. It truly was a vacation to the banks of the Grand River, the log highway of the 1800s. One time, a bunch of logs got jammed at a low spot in the river. It eventually loosened and flowed again, violently destroying everything in its tsunami-like wake, including a few bridges. It was only a few years later that we ran out of trees and industry moved into its next epoch.

We took a vacation to Grand Rapids, not far from home. More importantly, we took a vacation from our day to day grind. Five kids, a couple of businesses, and a house that we fight to keep clean. Instead of the typical circus of light chaos that Britt and I maintain, it’s been lots of watching TV and eating overpriced food in bed. These are things we don’t normally do, and it’s wonderful — to go to a place by getting away from a place.

This is us becoming better parents by giving our parenting muscles a break.

This is us becoming a stronger married couple by enjoying each other without hearing Mom? or Dad?

As we spent time away, we’re ready (mostly) to be there again, fully engaged.

There’s a reason Jesus called his disciples away. Even he needed a break — and certainly knows we need breaks, too. We’re being active by actively doing nothing in his presence.

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Hope Farm

Like many parents of special needs kids, I assumed Lexi would be able to move into a group home not too long after she turned 18. This assumption was carried by me for pretty good reason — most of the people in charge told me that’s how it always goes.  As it turns out, that’s rarely if ever how it goes. 

A few months ago, a Community Mental Health worker told us in a cold government conference room that are no open spots for Lexi anywhere in the state of Michigan.  Not the city or county… the entire state.  Zero openings.  She went on to tell us that yes, we can be put on a waitlist, but that Lexi might be on it for 10-30 years. In other words, Lexi would live at home until we’re too old to physically take care of her.  

It’s not that we don’t want Lexi around — please understand that we love every moment with her.  Well… most every moment. The demands of raising and caring for a person with special needs are numerous.  Regular diaper changes, constant need for supervision, moments of stubbornness so strong that school has been skipped and doctors appointments have been rescheduled — these keep us on our toes 24/7. 

When they broke the news to Brittany and I, we were overwhelmed. It took the air out of the room.  As we both looked at each other in shock, Lexi played on her iPad, oblivious to the fact that our assumed life trajectory as we knew it had radically shifted.  

There are zero openings in state run group homes for adult care.  It’s not a county problem or a state problem. This is a national problem.  A crisis. An emergency. It means that a significantly large number of adults with special needs have nowhere to go. 

Nowhere.

Adults with special needs can be stuck on a waitlist for 10-30 years. For many families, it is truly a hopeless situation.  

If I were reading this without any knowledge of what it’s like, I’d probably be thinking “what’s the big deal?” 

The big deal is that life is not sustainable at the current rate. Fortunately, I have an amazing teammate who makes it possible to survive and thrive. Many, however, are single parents (as I used to be) whose lives orbit around what feels like an impossible situation.  Our culture has categories for kids with special needs, but adults tend to be forgotten, even though they may live to be 60 or 70. 

We have friends who are unable to take their 8 year old son son to the store.  Fortunately, they can tag-team, where one parent stays home while the other grabs groceries. Parents of kids in these situations become superheroes of balance and flow, not because it’s easy but because it’s necessary. 

Not only does a family unit need a break from the constant demand, the individual deserves the dignity of leaving the nest, even if it’s not a traditional path.  Lexi is, strangely enough, an adult.  One of her caregivers, a college student with a boyfriend, a car, and aspirations of becoming a nurse, is the same age as Lexi.  It’s surreal to see them together. Both on very different paths, yet equally dignified as human beings. 

When Brittany and I found out that the chances of Lexi spreading her wings and moving into a group home were basically zero, we felt hopeless. Both of us have experience in having to pivot and jump into plan B, but even we were disoriented for a few days.  Then, as God stirred things up, something very odd happened.  

Even though it was unlikely, Brittany  and I toured a group home called Harbor House Ministries, just to see what was out there. More than that, we were looking for a way to advocate for our kid and find some way to make the impossible happen.  Brittany is especially good at this. 

I’ll never forget the moment we walked through Harbor House. Residents were comfortably spread around a large room filled with adaptive furniture and a handful of roving caregivers.  A young resident greeted the director who was leading us on the tour, then welcomed Brittany and I.  It was a special moment.  Before I had Lexi, I was largely unaware and, honestly, didn’t care much about the special needs population.  God has softened my heart through the years, now to the point where I’ll shed tears if I see someone with Down Syndrome walking through the mall with their parents. I’ll tell you this: people get scared when the big bald guy starts to cry a little.   

Anyway, we were walking through Harbor House, with a mix of amazement and sadness. It was wonderful yet unlikely anytime soon that Lexi would be in a place like this. As we worked our way out of the living quarters, a resident sitting on a couch looked right at me.  Without a voice, he spoke volumes to me with his eyes, which were full of life, yet enclosed in a body that kept him trapped. It wasn’t a smile, it wasn’t a cold stare — it was a soul-penetrating look that conveyed presence in the midst of pain.  It was warm but not sappy. It was kind, but also spoke to the reality of where we were and why. I believe that God does not intend special needs.  Rather, people have birth defects because we live in a broken world where DNA strands get twisted and mutilated, babies are starved for oxygen, and life-altering head injuries lead to the quasi-death of the son or daughter they had up to that point.

The resident looked at me and somehow encapsulated pain yet a hope based not on optimism but reality.  Love and justice. Grace and truth. In his eyes, I saw something I recognized. In that moment, I was looking at the face of Christ. 

We headed into the recreational building.  The director showed us a wall that had the names of residents both current and former.  “Some residents,” she explained, “moved to different facilities.” Every name had a date of birth.  Some names on the wall had two dates. “Those are the residents who, unforunately, passed away while they lived here.”  

A heavy moment took the room.  The director sighed and said “We see each other as a big family.”

I had to look away.  So much love.  Too much love for me to handle in that moment. Across the room, they had a huge mural of the handicapped symbol that was made up of the faces of residents present… and past.  I used to raise an eyebrow at that symbol, wishing I could use it to park a little closer. In this moment, it symbolized acceptance, embrace, and dignity. It was a holy moment for me.

We saw a few more rooms  and were blown away at the services, the space, and the care that the facility offered to its residents.  The director emphasized again that, to be sure, it’s quite unlikely that the state would put Lexi here because of a vast shortage.  Yes, when a resident dies, a bed opens up, but those who have been on the list for 20 or 30 years take precedence over the new kids on the block. 

I knew in that moment that God was speaking to me about a solution, but I didn’t like what I heard, so I pretended not to notice. 

A few days later, Brittany said that she heard God talking to her about something.  I said “me too, babe” (big mistake on my part).  She said “oh good — you can tell me about it, because I want to see if He’s telling us the same thing.”

I said “you first”, but she knew better than that.  

With a healthy level of fear, I told her that God was telling me that we need to build a group home for Lexi and others like her.  We had the passion, the skills, and the drive to do it.

I cringed when she said “that’s what He’s been telling me, too.” 

Why did I cringe? Because that wasn’t the solution I was looking for.  It wasn’t a lack of faith on my part.  It was fueled by faith, because I knew that God was calling us to this, and that He would make things line up all too perfectly.  I just wasn’t ready for that kind of adventure.  Selfishly, I thought Lexi would move into a home and I would have time to take the boys fishing.  Plus, I kinda wanted to go to Europe with my wife next summer, or maybe take up golf.  

Brittany and I held each other and prayed honestly, saying to the Lord that we didn’t want to do this, that it raised more challenges than we already face, and that it wasn’t what we imagined up to this point, HOWEVER, we love and trust that the same Jesus that brought us together was now bringing more pieces into the mix.  We need not understand, just believe and be ready to move as directed. 

Nothing happened for a few days.  I sat on it, prayed about it, but that was about it. The idea of starting a group home was put on the back burner, partly because of the needs of the rest of our kids, and partly because it’s fun to ignore a looming project and fool yourself into thinking that if you don’t think about it, it doesn’t exist.  

What fools we are, yet fools for Christ.

It hit me one morning in prayer: we would have an answer by August.  That’s what the Lord told me.  That, too, I sat on, not wanting to get the hopes of my wife up too high.  We’d been on a rollercoaster already, and I wanted to go back to not thinking too much about it.  

Then a chance conversation changed everything. 

Brittany connected with Jess Ronne.  You may know that name.  Jess writes a ton about life, faith, blended families, and more. She also advocates — strongly — for families of special needs individuals. Ryan and Jess have an 18 year old son, Lucas, who has severe special needs.  For years, Jess and her husband Ryan have advocated for individuals and families, since this is a situation that affects an entire household.  Parents especially need support, and it’s the kind that our world isn’t quite up to par with yet.  We need voices like hers to help us see the unseen.  Raising a kid with special needs is not normal.  It requires a whole different skill set that you have to learn on the fly. You can see her work here, her documentary here, and her blog here

Anyway, as things tend to fall into place a little too perfectly, it turns out that Jess, Ryan, and their kids go to the same church we started going to this summer.  Brittany had heard the name before but finally made the connection this summer on Instagram.  They met in the church lobby and talked on a Sunday in August, connecting over the many similarities between our families. We’ve all lost spouses, we’ve remarried and blended families, and we have kids with special needs.  That’s a lot of checkmarks on one list, yeah? 

What was God doing?  You’re starting to see it, aren’t you? 

Brittany talked to Jess at length about the lack of housing and our heartbreak over Lexi’s new situation. After a few conversations and without going into too much detail, Jess said “I have good news for you.” 

Then she told us about Hope Farm. Ryan and Jess had the vision of building a place for kids like Lexi to live and thrive in adulthood. Imagine our surprise when they invited Lexi to be one of the residents with Lucas, with space for at least two more. 

We found out in August.  God said we’d have an answer by August. Do you see how good he is?  Why do we worry? Probably because we like control.  This situation is out of our control. It’s uncharted and difficult. It’s not something that just anyone can handle. We can’t, at least not without God’s grace. 

How does this coalesce with God’s calling for us to build a group home?  Jess and Ryan bought a farm — Hope Farm, as it is aptly named — but it needs a lot of work.  Guess who knows how to flip houses? Ryan, Jess and Brittany.  Guess who knows how to get  donations for auctions and fundraisers? Jess and  Brittany. Guess who knows how to navigate government labyrinths like a pro soccer player? That’s right — Brittany.  And guess who can string together a blog post to get the word out? Me, barely. 

In other words, it’s even better than we thought.  We get to partner with a family who is already on the path and combine efforts to make a vision become reality.  How much better can it get?  And not only does this answer the question for at least 4 adults in the state, it also becomes something that can be expanded by other parents who endeavor to do the same for their loved ones. 

To be sure, it shouldn’t be this way.  Our society is way too advanced to have to keep this burden squarely on the shoulders of a parent or two. We have hospitals, schools, and homeless shelters now because society recognized the need. In fact, history tells us that it was the church that had a hand in starting most of these organizations back in the day. It’s my prayer that the church of today will step up, just as it did with Methodist hospitals and Catholic charities, and start meeting needs that are largely ignored by the general population.  I want to be part of that movement, and I want you to as well.  

There are many ways you can help. Our biggest need right now is money. The house on the farm has good bones but needs some serious renovation.  The barn will be home to a respite center that will serve many, but, as of now, it’s still a barn.  

We’re doing for others what they cannot do for themselves.  This is one of the marks of the gospel of Jesus, and it’s how the church and community can step up and bring the healing that our world needs.  You don’t have to fix everything, nor can you, but, if you know me and my family, you can help Lucas, Lexi, and others live and thrive for the rest of their days, in safe care and full dignity. 

I hope you’ll take a moment to watch this video, yah? 

And, I hope you’ll take some time to pray about how you can help with our initial fundraising efforts.  

Once again, Brittany and I are surprised and humbled by the adventure God has us on.  We’re grateful for new friends and unexpected answers, and thankful for the calling that Jesus has for us.  All glory to him.  Consider yourself invited to be part of the solution with us. 

I keep thinking about that resident who looked right at me and said so much without a word. Jesus was there. Jesus is here, aware of the overwhelming need, and hard at work healing a broken world.  I want to join him in this, and I’d like you to come along for the ride. 

Donate to Hope Farms here.

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Doption

The day I first met Cam, he was barely 4 years old and unsure of what to say to me. I wasn’t sure what to say to him, either.  Being what I now know is uncharacteristically shy, it’s the only time in my life when I truly wondered what he was thinking.  With his eyes wide open, he watched my every move.  He had in his hand a little plastic bee, not much bigger than a dime.  We simultaneously looked at the bee, then back at each other, as if we both expected it to say something to break the tension. 

Finally I asked “is that a bee?” 

“Yes”

“What’s his name?”

“His name is… Max.  Max the bee.” 

From that point on, Cam, me, and Max the bee have been together nearly every day, although Max usually skips our excursions and keeps to himself with my collection of special stuff. 

It was early on in our relationship when Cam, out of nowhere, volunteered the crux of the story.  “My dad died.” 

“I know, buddy. I’m so sorry.” 

I decided it would be best to let him bring it up whenever it felt right. The year before, his dad, Shawn, passed away unexpectedly, leaving an irreplaceable hole in the world. Though I never met him, I know from stories, memories, and the occasional Instagram video that he was loving, hilarious, and an all around good dad. And boy, did Cam miss him. 

We would talk about him almost every day.  I was confused at first, because Cam  would refer to his dad as “Uncle Shawn”.  Brittany helped untangle that one for me. During his toddler days, Cam heard all of his cousins call him by that name, so he joined in the Uncle Shawn chorus. He still bounces between “my Daddy in heaven” and Uncle Shawn, and I respect it greatly. 

Cam would say “Adam, I remember when Uncle Shawn would wrestle with me in the living room.”  Lots of memories would come back to him from time to time.  One memory we hope he doesn’t hold on to is watching Britt do CPR while Cam watched from across the room, asking “mom, what’s wrong with Daddy?”

I was 31 when my mom died.  I watched the whole thing slowly unfold as she fought cancer until her last morphine-drenched breath.  Though it was traumatic for me, I can’t imagine what a sudden crisis like theirs would look through the eyes of a 3 year old. 

Supported by family and numerous friends, Brittany and her boys did their best to move on without Shawn, though life would never be the same.  My boys, Lexi, and I had a slightly similar loss to deal with in our lives, having slowly lost a wife and mom over several years. When our families merged, it was with full recognition that all of us were dealing with some level of trauma and loss — a perfect place for God’s healing grace to work intensely with our deep hunger for his grace.  

Cam gets angry sometimes.  “Adam, I’m mad that Uncle Shawn is in heaven — I want to go there with him NOW!” We talk about seeing him again someday, though the concept of eternity and salvation is difficult to grasp for an adult, let alone a child. Throw in some PTSD, and it’s expected that this will be something he’ll wrestle through for the rest of his days.  I know the feeling in part because now, 11 years later, I still think about my mom every day. 

When it was gloriously apparent to Britt and I that we would get married and merge our hurting families for a new season of rebuilding after the ashes, we started talking about how I would adopt Cam.  Just as Shawn had two names, I had two as well: Adam and Daddy. Sometimes I was Adam, sometimes Dad. Uncle Shawn/Daddy was still remembered and talked about with regularity.  

Yesterday Cam and I spent most of the day together.  We started at a park we’ve never explored before and found the tallest, fastest slide in the county.  At first Cam was nervous. “I know you’ll catch me, daddy, but I’m scared!” After a few rounds, my magic-dad powers were no longer needed at the bottom of the slide.  It’s amazing how kids can quickly transition from crushing fear to nonchalance. 

We then went on a hike to talk about what we could see in nature. Our conversation was interrupted by a significant discovery.  Looking at the picture, you’d think that it was the rock that caught his attention, but no: it was the spider on the rock that brought him to a stop.  A daddy long-legs.  “Dad, is it a daddy long legs or mommy long legs, because if it’s a girl it’s a mommy long legs.” So true, son.  Even when we’re not talking about dad stuff, we’re talking about dad stuff.  

From there, Cam and I headed to the movie theater to watch a crocodile sing show tunes. He was ready to go about 3/4 of the way through, as we had also talked about going to the beach on one of the last nice days of the year. 

We padded out of the theater and worked our way to the Family Dollar to pick up a few beach toys, marked down 80% because it’s pumpkin season now, and hit the sand.  Squirt guns filled with frigid Lake Michigan water, pool noodles that made for nifty fighting sticks, and a flimsy frisbee.  While waking the beach together, Cam noticed a dime in the sand.  He picked it up and put it in my pocket, saying  “There, dad, now you can buy a real frisbee.”  I love the way he thinks.  I love Cameron. 

Tomorrow (Thursday) is a special day, as Brittany and our kids will stand in a courtroom for Cam’s adoption hearing.  Months of paperwork, attorney fees, and hoop jumping leads to this moment.  More importantly, it’s the journey of healing and entering into a new and unexpected life stage for everyone involved.  I will officially become Cam’s dad, thanks to Shawn and the mysterious glory of Jesus.  Of course, this isn’t the way it was supposed to go.  We’re all in a giant plan B. But I would want the same for my kids. I’m told — and I am sure — that Shawn would want me to take this responsibility on, given the circumstance.  I am humbled to be in this role.  

I now have the unexpected privilege of raising a 5 year old with my wife, Brittany.  Suddenly, this 42 year old finds himself again cramming behind couches for a game of hide and seek, climbing to the top of playground equipment, and going on long bike rides at a leisurely pace because of training wheels and kid bike gear ratios. I’ve done this before, and I’m thankful to do this again for a boy who was not born to me, but will certainly be my own.  

Cameron has been excited about “‘doption” (as he calls it) for months.  Sure, a fair amount of his excitement is over the cake his mom ordered, but he gets what’s happening to the best of his ability.  Though I’ll become Dad on paper tomorrow, I’ve been Dad for a while. Treat him like he is my own? Of course, because he is my own. 

The moment he shifted from calling me “Adam” to “Daddy” was when he and I spent hours trying to get him to learn to swallow a pill.  Some of us still can’t do it to this day, but it’s a skill he’ll eventually have to master.  Countless negotiations through tears of frustration — it was no easy task.  Yet, our struggle together through that experience bonded us, as suffering tends to do.  From then on, I’ve been Dad.  

I don’t know how much those who have gone before us know about life on earth.  Does mom know? Does Shawn? I’m no theologian (just a sheep-less Pastor right now) but I’ll do my best to be the dad that Cameron needs — today and forevermore.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: of all my ministry roles through the years, the church I pastor now is a family of 5 kids and an incredible wife/mom/stepmom.  We get to do this as a newly formed team.  Of course, I’m in over my head.  But those nights where I put Cam to bed and he asks me to snuggle him after reading a book or two, I feel my dad heart beating for him just as I do for Lexi, Mac, and Zac.  

Cameron, I’m going to do my best to pick up where your Uncle Shawn left off.  I will never replace him, but I will always be ready to talk about him and be excited with you for the day you get to see your daddy in heaven again.  I know God loves you, I know Shawn loves you, and I know I love you. Your mommy and I love you just as we love Lexi, Mac, Carter, and Zac. Yes, and Reggie the cat, whom you never forget in our bedtime prayers. I’ll play with you in the yard, help you know right from wrong, get you ready for your first date and your drivers ed test.  I’ll be there for you after school, I’ll build a fort with you, and I’ll keep pointing you to Jesus, the one who pulls us all together in a new and uncharted adventure.  You never have to wonder — I choose you, I take the responsibility and privilege of being your dad, and I will always love you. 

“You are my son, and today I have become your father” (Psalm 2:7).  

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Patient Lexi

You probably know that Lexi doesn’t say much. Her communication is essentially nonverbal, highly nuanced, and surprisingly robust. She’s a persistent communicator who will do what she needs to get her point across. Where she’s short on words, she’s long on eye-contact/body language/find out after the fact communication. For example, we discover that Lexi wants to steal Carter’s Pizza — after Lexi takes Carter’s Pizza. As she jams Little Caesars into her food hole, we’re all deciphering that yes, Lexi just communicated stolen pizza directly to her mouth, and Carter is crying a little bit.

We discovered Lexi needed to go to the hospital when we found ourselves riding with her in an ambulance. Up to that point, all she had was an off-and-on fever controlled by Tylenol, and spent most of her time in happy Lexi mode. Her temp spiked that afternoon. She began to shudder, like we’d never seen before. High fever… no appetite… WHOA, was that a seizure? Better safe than sorry. A 911 call later, and we were at the ER.

Because of the rules of HIPPA (not to be confused with hungry hungry HIPPA), I won’t go into Lexi’s medical detail. I will insist, however, that hospital coffee is made with the same recipe they use for hospital meatloaf. All I’m saying is that something wasn’t quite right. I will also say that she’s home and doing just fine, no thanks to that coffee they brought her dad. I guess it’s good to know that they’re focusing their attention on patient care and not caffeinated beverages.

Anyway, with a nonverbal person, it’s a LOT of guesswork and sleuthing as to what’s really going on, whether we’re talking about a medical emergency or what kind of Pizza she wants. Actually, we know that: she wants Carter’s pizza.

With a non-verbal, special needs child, you find yourself suddenly aware of the smallest variations. Subtle non-verbal details become blindingly obvious when something is off. Unique gestures or guttural sounds offer You’ve probably heard the saying that “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Lexi doesn’t speak much, but her eyes express at least a page-worth.

Brittany and I end up looking at Lexi, then at each other, a surprisingly number of times each day. “Do you see what I see?”

The docs got Lexi settled and stable. Brittany stayed with her in the hospital overnight while I ran the house with our airport-like comings and goings. Pancakes and Sausage accompanied our brief devotional time at the breakfast table, which included prayers for sister Lexi. Once everyone was in their respective school buildings, I went back to the hospital. I walked into her room, sterile and artificial in its comfort, and looked at my wife. Still beautiful, especially considering she slept in a medical-grade recliner. Having Britt there with Lexi is such a good, good thing. There aren’t better hands for her to be in.

My attention turned to the patient. Her eyes. Without speaking a word, Lexi looked right at me and said she was scared, Dad, and wanted to go home.

It reminded me of a long time ago when Malachi, then only 16 months old, needed an x-ray of his neck. They wrapped him up like a burrito and laid him on that cold table, then led me behind the lead-plated wall where I could watch out the tiny square window as my son lie there screaming, his eyes calling out to me with terror. I’m not sure what was louder that day, his eyes or his scream, but I guarantee they heard him from down the hall. I really hope he doesn’t remember that. I’ll never forget.

It pushes a button in a parents soul to see your kid in distress. Our inclination to swoop in, be it Malachi off an x-ray table or Lexi from a hospital bed, is limited by the necessity of medical care. It has to be so confusing to our kids, as I imagine it still is for Lexi, to see the one person who is supposed to keep them safe just passively standing there as strangers mysteriously proceed with intrusion all around them.

In that moment, what does my kid see in my eyes?

When she saw that I was in the room, Lexi looked at me for a moment, then came the crying. Brittany pushed Lexi’s hair out of her eyes and said soft mom-like phrases to her. I walked over and said “Dad’s here… it’s ok… everything will be fine…” Of course, that’s a bit of a parental misnomer. Our presence doesn’t affect the situation in a hospital nearly as much as it does at home. I can give her a slice of pie, which usually fixes most things. Tylenol for an (assumed) headache is easily added to a spoon-full of applesauce. iPads can be plugged in and a new set of double-A batteries make that plastic bus toy sing again. But when we’re talking about a diagnosis, an IV, and heavy-duty antibiotics, there’s not much a parent can do besides sit there. Squeezing the IV bag, I’ve learned, doesn’t make the medicine go faster, it just makes the nurses mad.

I wonder how Jesus comforts Lexi in those moments. I know He does. Well, at least, I ask him to. I believe that she has a spiritual sensitivity that you and I can’t quite pull off because we’re so limited by our perceptions and presuppositions. Does Lexi see the eyes of Jesus?

Jesus is the Word made flesh. He’s all about the words. Yet, his eyes pierce us with truth and look at us with grace. What was it like to look in the eyes of Jesus when He was on the cross? Only a few words were preserved in scripture, yet countless books were likely written that day with His eyes.

Fast forward a few weeks and everything is much better. I look in Lexi’s eyes and see peace. I want her to see the same thing in my eyes. Brittany has her in the tub; soon it’ll be bed time. Her bed is still new-ish and, I’m guessing, is much better than the hospital gurney she was in for a few days last month.

Lexi is rubbing her eyes. That’s universal for “tired”. We’re all kinda tired these days. Like the old song says, we’ll keep turning our eyes upon Jesus.

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Lexi’s New Bed

There are two things you need to know before reading on: First, Lexi functions at about a 1 1/2 year old level. While she’s strong willed and smart enough to outfox all of us, she isn’t one to express complex feelings. Second, Lexi has had the same bed for most of her life.

When you have a kid with special needs, certain modifications have to be made. Cupboards and refrigerators will need to be kept locked, lest they help themselves to all the granola bars, followed by all the leftover casserole, regardless of when you last cleaned the floor. Stairways need gates and doorknobs need advanced opening mechanisms. The risk of “adventure” is a 24 hour consideration, so sleeping arrangements have to be modified, too.

For Lexi, this has meant a giant, adult sized crib. It may sound diminutive or perhaps insulting to put a teenager in a crib, but it’s for her own safety. Fortunately, Lexi has always loved her bed/crib, seeing it as a place of solitude and safety. After a day of school and evening roaming around the house, she would regularly climb up and ask us to close the sidewall, keeping her free to snuggle a stuffed animal or watch youtube in the cocoon-like surrounding of her bed. Think of it as a happy little efficiency apartment in New York City.

Lexi’s 16th Birthday – waking up to balloons

Since B Ritt has been on the case, we’ve been looking for an alternative bed option for Lexi. While it was easy for her to hop up into her bed, getting out in the morning was always super-stressful for her. Too often, I would end up lifting her out (part of the reason I go to the gym). Most of her caregivers, including the petite B Ritt (and most other caregivers, for instance, Nana), are in no position to do lift Lexi. The other issue with her NYC Apartment Bed was the fact that most group homes don’t allow these kinds of beds. While she’s not moving out now, we anticipate that day will soon come (more on that later).

So… she (Brittany) went to work. We (she) finally figured out a way for Lexi to have a big girl bed while still protected from her drive to get out of bed in the middle of the night and and make a mess or, say, grab some granola bars and leave the house under cover of night. A few nights ago, Lexi graduated to a big girl bed:

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

While that’s exciting for Lexi (and us), something very strange happened in this transition. A few days ago, we posted Lexi’s old bed online. A family immediately came over and snagged it for their child who breaks out of every other bed situation. As they took it apart (a herculean effort) and brought pieces out to their truck, Lexi got melancholy. She wanted to go into her room and sit on the last piece to be moved, as if to take a moment to say goodbye. It never crossed my mind that she’d care that much. I mean, it’s not like Lexi has a strong sense of room layout or some kind of zen desire for certain pieces of furniture. Her style is localized chaos.

I have to admit, I believe I vastly underestimated her understanding, her emotional capacity, and ultimately, her humanity.

After the last piece was taken out, Lexi got sad. Like… very sad. It struck me: she’s had that bed since she moved out of her baby crib almost 15 years ago. It’s been set up in 6 different rooms in 3 different houses. New surroundings, new schools, people, life changing and changing again. Through it all, her bed has been her sanctuary. As she cried, I cried too. I know it probably sounds ridiculous, but I felt for my daughter. She spent 1/3 of her life in that thing, and suddenly it was gone.

Lexi’s snazzy new bed works perfectly and has done nothing but make things easier for her. That’s a win, and I’m glad we did it. I’m also glad that another family will have use of her old place for a while. It should serve them well.

Meanwhile, you’ll have to pardon an old dad for being proud of his daughter, slightly nostalgic, and aware of the depth of Lexi’s capacity. I have a new appreciation and sense of dignity for my growing baby girl.

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