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A Simple One

March 27, 2014

It really helps to hit the “publish” button when you’re ready to publish, doesn’t it? I just discovered this post has been sitting here for two weeks –just when I’m looking forward to the second installment of the conference that sparked this post! I’m fresh –no, actually really tired! –off the first one-third, of the first one-third of the Faith Biblical Counseling Ministry’s regional training in Minneapolis. On the drive up I was mentally mulling New Testament epistle passages  on suffering, contextualizing each, trying to deduce whether any of them were originally written to believers who were not first-generation Christians. Why will likely become the subject of another post. But in one of those thought-left turns, those light bulb moments I can only credit to the Holy Spirit, it struck me why Pauline Boss’s work on ambiguous loss has been so surprisingly, deeply resonant. I wasn’t seeking advice on my own experience when the book arrived in my mailbox. Rather, I’m working on a history story that involves missing bodies and I wondered how loved ones process grief when there is no closure, no body to bury. A footnote in a book on the recovery of war survivors landed Boss’s book on my desk.  Yet I paid it much closer attention than I give most books I read for work. The thought?

Ambiguous Loss = Protracted Suffering

It’s that simple. Boss’s theory was an innovation when it landed in the secular psychology world in the 1990’s. But in the Judeo-Christian world, humans have lived with suffering since the third chapter of Genesis. And in between that story and the opposite bookend on suffering in the Bible –the final removal of suffering in the second to the last chapter of Revelation –the Bible is a rich, beautiful, glorious textbook on suffering (among other things). The surprise for me was finding secular psychology calling attention to protracted suffering as if it is something new. Of course the condition of human suffering is not new, even if the diagnostic labels  invented to describe it are terms foreign to anyone who lived before the twentieth century. What is new, what Boss observed correctly, is that modern western culture doesn’t recognize or understand suffering. It can’t offer much by way of help or hope to people who suffer. And that’s what struck a chord with me: Boss was using modern language, the language used by the social workers and psychologists and doctors and teachers who write homestudies and reports and IEPs and all other manner of modern proofs that insurance companies and the government deem acceptable justification for  receiving services –the language of the world of adoption, the world of living in a family with special needs — to talk about some of the same conditions some of my favorite old (as in dead a long time now) writers talk about, like Jonathan Edwards and William Cowper and David Brainerd and the apostle Paul. It was a great mindset to take into a Biblical counseling conference, where among other things, the teaching recognizes that people experience trials and suffering that originate outside of themselves. Yet that it is humanly impossible to experience of such suffering without feeling the unfairness of it, at which point the sufferer’s own sin, and the consequences of that sin, quickly become part of the experience. The latter is a process of which I am all too keenly aware and from which, until I die, I will always be repenting and healing.


Staying Power

March 9, 2014

“Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live?” Deuteronomy 4:33″


How do you know if the trial you or someone you care about is going through includes the unusual grief of ambiguous loss?

I don’t claim to have a laundry list of indicators, but I’m beginning to recognize a few on the you-don’t-have-to-read-a-book-to-know level. The subject of this post is one sign: the wish/plan for someone to go away.

So maybe after the introductory post on ambiguous loss you wondered, Is this what has been weighing on my heart? Is this part of my friend’s suffering?

If so, another person also came to mind, someone it is easy to conceptualize as the person with the problem.

Maybe you’ve found yourself mulling scenarios under which a troubling person might go away. At first these possibilities are quiet ponderings in your heart. What would our family dynamics be like if…. We had not brought home this child?  …I had married someone else?

After a while, you may confide the thought aloud to a close friend. “Some days, I understand how kids come to be re-homed.”  Or, “What is the marital equivalent of residential treatment for a spouse with RAD?”

After a while, with no meaningful help on the horizon, no significant course correction in sight, the going-away wish may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The child is placed out of the family. Couples separate or divorce.

That’s one reason we need to understand that ambiguous loss is real: so we can intercept the “going away” wishes when they are still thoughts and take them seriously, recognizing that our anxieties stem from the ambiguities of the circumstances themselves: the complex reactions and responses of the entire family system to the ongoing, unresolved grief triggered by the crisis.

This is quite different from our natural inclination: to think the solution is to eliminate the source of the problem –the person whose crisis appears to be triggering chaos in the family system.

gas flame wikimedia commons

Think of holding your hand too close to a flame on a gas burner on a stove. The nerve endings in your skin register dangerous heat and your brain automatically warns you to snatch your hand away from the fire.

Our hearts seem to be wired the same way in relationships. We take the heat as long as we can stand it. But there comes a point when it feels like we can take no more.

Often, having borne with dysfunction in a relationship so long,  by the time we come to our senses and realize just how hot this fire has gotten, it seems it is no longer confined to the stove but  threatens to consume the whole kitchen. The result is panic: the feeling that the fire is not only a danger to us, but to our entire family.

At this out-of-control-stage, finally, outsiders begin to pay attention. The standard intervention in the church is to quote Bible verses admonishing husbands/wives/parents from fleeing burning buildings. I have no quarrel with scripture. But the way we tend to use the Bible in these situations is about as helpful as handing the person a hammer and telling them to use it to beat out the flames.

It would be far more effective if we were proactive in counseling, teaching, and discipling each other that as Christians we are called to suffer. We are called to live our lives with our hands in proximity to flames for Jesus’ sake. This is a normative Christian experience, not something to be feared or judged.

Humanly we cannot live  in close proximity to the heat without pulling away, we cannot suffer in a way that glorifies God, without asbestos gloves on our hands. And asbestos gloves are not standard-issue human equipment. They are spiritual power gear.

This is where we intervene too late. By the time the kitchen (a family system) is aflame, there is too much adrenaline in the system to be quiet before God. There is too much flight-or-flight for humility. Too much anger to let love guide, too much pain to let peace rule, too much control to let go and give God free reign.

The agitation, the anxiety, adds oxygen to the fire. The original flames are fanned higher and scarier and the family can become trapped in a self-perpetuating dysfunctional loop of reactions to reactions that keeps even the healthier members from coping well with the original fire.

This is where the person-must-go wish becomes self-fulfilling: we conclude that the original fire is the problem; the fire must go before it burns the house down. I do not doubt that there are some cases where separating combustible elements is an absolutely necessary step toward a goal of restoration.

But I can say this: there is another way. Way back when the fire was still contained to the burner on the stove, I could have used some counsel that went like this:

“I see this hand-next-to-the-flame-business-is-painful for you. When I got to this stage I just wanted to run away because it felt so unfair. I started out with the best of intentions and full of faith and did everything I knew to do. Yet it just didn’t go the way I expected God would make it go, you know? I’ve never been so disappointed.”

I think would have wept, then, to find someone who understood.

But when I finished crying I would have looked up, thinking of my own hands, so painful with fresh blisters they could barely clench the tear-soaked tissue in my fingers. Feeling a little-self righteous about my pain, I would have challenged the truth of her story, the missing evidence:

“But your hands are fine. You’re not scared. You don’t look like a burn victim.”

I imagine she would have smiled. “You should have seen me before I upgraded my gloves. When you are called to live next to fire and stay there, you need gloves that can stand the heat. Someone counseled me like I am counseling you: When you find you can’t stand the fire God has appointed, you need to go back to the Bible and re-outfit yourself with more of God than you are wearing. He is all you need. You’ve never needed Him this much before so you had no idea you were under dressed. It’s your job to get dressed every day: to allow Him to transform your heart and mind, to keep working on you until you can take the heat in the kitchen He’s called you to.”

And that returns us to the price of the tea in the kettle on this stove called ambiguous loss. Despite the fantasy that we can make the troubling person go away, and with that departure, restore the imagined equilibrium we idolize, most people don’t have the power to resolve ambiguous loss by terminating the person from the family system. Not to mention the fact that it is rarely biblical.

Ambiguous loss is real. But the troubled person is not the problem in ambiguous loss; the person is simply the trigger. The anxieties, some of the most intense suffering in ambiguous loss, stem from the ambiguities themselves: the complex reactions and responses of the entire family system to ongoing, unresolved grief.

And much of that grief is actually rooted in our own sin. It is always easier to see the troubling person’s sin than our own. That’s why we need to pull our thoughts up short when we imagine sending them away will fix things. Distancing their sin may simply restore the comfortable distance we’d rather maintain between our ego and our own sinful shortcomings.

God uses ambiguous loss, like He uses everything, to reveal how desperately people need Him. The person in crisis needs Him and the people coping with the crisis need Him. All of us need God in greater measure than we’ve previously known and He’s in the business of making that plain.


“For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him. Out of heaven you hear his voice, that he may discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire and you heard his voice in the midst of the fire….Know you therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.” Deuteronomy 4:32-36, 39


Ambiguous Loss

February 22, 2014

Funerals have long been part of cultures. While the rituals vary, there seems to be universal understanding that we need to acknowledge the death of people we love, that grief is a natural, necessary part of life for the living. This makes sense to us because death is a universal experience; no one escapes it.

Not so with ambiguous loss. Ambiguous losses –which I’ll define in a moment –are not universal. Ambiguous losses, we’d like to believe, are things that happen to other people. Things that the honest, upstanding, law-abiding, well-intended, (fill in your preferred adjective) -people are generally protected from. After all, what are all those laws and social contracts, those Sunday School lessons, pre-marital counselling sessions, parenting classes, adoption training and Biblical counseling seminars about? Are not we trying to do it right? Prevent some of the painful things we’ve heard are visited upon those who are less well-prepared?

And for those of us who believe in God and rely upon His Word, do not we undertake the work He gives our hands to do –ministry, work, marriage, parenting, adoption –with FAITH? Don’t we interpret the host of resources and trainings available to us as part of the light God sheds on the path He has chosen for us, part of the equipping He intends for the tasks He has ordained?

Throughout my adult Christian life, the churches I have been privileged to be a part of have each unambiguously answered, YES. I do not disagree.

But I do, now, disagree, with the unspoken implication that if we do it right, we will spare ourselves from suffering. Most of us have never heard that preached outright from a pulpit and if we did, we would repudiate it. We know we do not control our destiny, God does. He lays out a glorious path for His children that includes suffering and weakness and groaning and separation and longing and tribulation and distress and persecution and ultimately leads to Glory. (Romans 8:18-39)

But recently, walking along side Christian friends who are suffering under the weight of ambiguous loss, and finding it familiar territory, I see it is a message we in the body often preach to each other: you have brought this upon yourself; you have left undone things you ought to have done, things you must fix if wish to stop suffering.  I understand because the same unbelief in sovereign suffering, the same desire to see the impediments yield to the tools in my kit, the same hope  for miraculous healing –kept me confused and in denial for years.

Death brings obvious loss. We know to expect a grief cycle that will end.

But ambiguous loss is just that –ambiguous. Baffling because it may go on indefinitely. For the children of God, ambiguous loss falls under the theological umbrella of God’s sovereignty. But how do we train bothers and sisters in suffering, much less in suffering well –in running an endurance race –when many of us, not having suffered this way ourselves and fearing it, are inclined to counsel them to escape?


What is ambiguous loss?

Pauline Boss pioneered the theory of ambiguous loss in human relationships, recognizing that when we love someone, when we’ve developed an attachment to them, there are forms of loss that can be more devastating than outright death. Typically, physical death can be verified, certified, a body buried, a life mourned and celebrated. In ambiguous loss the loved one simply disappears and there is no certainty she will come back, or if she does, that life will return to the way it used to be.

The first type of ambiguous loss is the physical absence, but psychological presence of a loved one. Such losses arise when soldiers are missing in action, when children are kidnapped or disappear, and when missing people are presumed dead in the wake of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. But headline-grabbing circumstances don’t always precipitate this type of ambiguous loss. People we love can also be physically absent, yet present in mind and heart subsequent to events like divorce, immigration, incarceration, institutionalization and adoption  (placement, disruption and residential treatment among other things).

The general principle is: the more ordinary  or imperceptible the circumstances, the less likely outsiders are to see and understand the lingering ambiguity of the loss. Outsiders may recognize the crisis that results in the person’s initial disappearance, but with time, adjust to the new normal of the absence and generally stop noticing the person isn’t there. While for the family, living intimately with the ongoing trauma of the loss, the crisis lives on. The less outside validation and support the family receives, the higher the likelihood they will become frozen in a dysfunctional, traumatic level of grief that will affect their ability to cope with the circumstances at hand and move beyond them.

That’s what makes the second type of ambiguous loss, the physical presence but psychological absence of a loved one, even more difficult to deal with: outsiders often can’t see it at all. The paradox is captured in this variation on an old English rhyme:


The missing-yet-present loved one may have suffered a brain injury, or live with autism, have early onset dementia, or struggle with depression or PTSD, or a personality or attachment disorder or plain old spiritual blindness and sin. Whatever the cause(s), it is disconcerting to live and to interact daily with a person who is physically present and may even be capable of functioning to a degree in the outside world, but who interpersonally vacillates somewhere between “disengaged” and “draining.”

Mearns’s gut reaction: to wish the man on the stair who wasn’t there would go away.

These losses are ambiguous because in the early stages they are often invisible to people outside the family; they most significantly impact the relationships closest to the person who is psychologically disappearing. In fact, when the brain is involved, denial and passing (working harder to project normalcy) are common as long as those facades can be maintained. Generally, unless/until those coping skills begin to slip, outsiders want to maintain their belief nothing is really wrong.

That makes the creeping loss doubly ambiguous for those closest to the disappearing person, who may begin to lose their own stability in the crazy-making that ensues. With denial in play both from the disappearing person, and the would-be helpers discomfited by the call for help (if there is no problem, there is no need to intervene) the family member who perceives the loss first –the person who reaches out for help –is often identified as the person with the psychological/emotional/spiritual problem. After all, he or she is the one insisting there is a man on the stair who isn’t there. That cycle is the subject of another post.

For now, it is important to know that we do this to each other not because we are uncaring people, but because we don’t understand ambiguous loss. That basic lack of understanding, and the more essential need to embrace ambiguous loss under a paradigm of Biblical suffering,  are things we can fix.

This is how Boss, who is a secular theorist, observes the process of ambiguous loss:

“Perceiving loved ones as present when they are physically absent or perceiving them as gone when they are physically present, can make people feel helpless and thus more prone to depression, anxiety, and relationship conflicts. How does ambiguous loss do this? First, because the loss is confusing, people are baffled and immobilized. They don’t know how to make sense of the situation. They can’t problem-solve because they don’t know whether the problem (the loss) is final or temporary. If the uncertainty continues, families often respond with absolutes, either acting as if the person is completely gone, or denying anything has changed. Neither is satisfactory.

Second, the uncertainty prevents people from adjusting to the ambiguity of their loss by reorganizing the roles and rules of their relationship with the loved one, so that the couple or family relationship freezes in place. If they have not already closed out the person who is missing physically or psychologically, they hang on to the hope that things will return to the way they used to be. Third, people are denied the symbolic rituals that ordinarily support a clear loss –such as a funeral after a death in the family. Few if any rituals exist for people experiencing ambiguous loss. Their experience remains unverified by the community around them, so that there is little validation of what they are experiencing and feeling.

Fourth, the absurdity of ambiguous loss reminds people that life is not always rational and just; consequently, those who witness it tend to withdraw rather than give neighborly support, as they would do in the case of a death in the family. Finally, because ambiguous loss is a loss that goes on and on, those who experience it tell me they become physically and emotionally exhausted from the relentless uncertainty.” Pauline Boss Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live With Unresolved Grief Harvard University Press, 1999, 7-8.

That’s why it seems so critical to learn about ambiguous loss. People all around us are struggling with these things and we rarely encounter them in counseling situations in the church before they reach a secondary crisis point: emotionally exhausted, anxious, depressed.

Should we not be coming along side them sooner? Jesus did not operate on an “Emergency Cases Only” model. He said,

“Come to me all you who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:29

Copyright Carrie Reber Zeman 2014. All rights reserved.


February 16, 2014

I don’t know what to say: Should I feel a blip of joy that a friend wondered if this blog had been shot down by trolls? That might mean I was controversial enough to be a target :).

Alas, I’m not.

My long break has a plain-vanilla provenance. I failed at something important: I was surprised by a fiery trial that really ought not have surprised me. (I Peter 4:12)


Don’t ask me why it did because I could only blather  meaningless stuff about heart attacks, migraines, MS and other things –as if my human-O-meter reading “EMPTY!” dialed up the “God who relents from sending calamity,” instead of the One who, “giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater.”

So I really was surprised. It really has thrown me for a loop. Struck me dumb for months.

Even now I’m not sure how I will blog about it because radical integrity is at the heart of the new thing God is teaching me: What’s going on inside my heart must match what’s going on outside in public view. But blogging is a medium that has always allowed bloggers to filter. You read what I show you. But everything going on in my life is not mine to share. So blogging with integrity is a feat I will be praying over.

I’ve also spent these months of blog silence feeling freedom from reader-stats and pondering whether that means blogging could be spiritually dangerous. Why do I blog? Why did I install  site-metering software at all? (Okay: Why do prospective publishers care? Ah….I can’t get on a high horse about that one as an editor I know very well….)

So then, why do I sit here engaged in what could be the pursuit of the praise of men? Well, my pastor this morning looked me in the eye and challenged me to blog the Word so I guess I can take that as my excuse.

But unless you’ve blogged, and been followed by a significant number of people, and then opened your fingers –stopped writing –and let all your followers go and felt the settled peace of knowing that on a hard day, you could only look up to God for encouragement, not out to views and comments, you might understand my reluctance to begin again.

See, I am far from out of the woods. This is not a, “been there, done that, triumphed” story. Even though God is right here with me, there are many long days ahead. But that’s another thing He’s taught me: the difference between “the praise of man” –empty, vain, flattery-seeking to be shunned –and the support of friends, who are utterly indispensable in the trenches.

This is a thinking blog, not an easy, feel-good one, so the only people here are those who want to be here. If you take something away from reading, I am blessed to have shared.

So this is what I can promise you in the coming months:

  • There will be holes in this story, big skips in continuity and between subjects that no writer/editor worth her salt would allow to stand. But I must, or I can’t write at all. And write I must. So I’m going to wing it, ask you to forgive the leaps, and write on.
  • There will be holes in the frequency with which I can post. Writing can be an escape for me and I can’t allow blogging that precedence in this season. But writing is also a discipline and I will try to post at least once a week.
  • I will be wrestling with some hard subjects like suffering per the integrity point above. I know some of you are wrestling with similar questions. I am praying there is some encouragement in thinking out loud together.
  • I will be wrestling with hard questions in the context of the Bible. Some of these things go so deep that seasoned Biblical counselors have said, “I don’t know how to counsel on this.” But thank God (literally) that He gave His Word, the Bible, to believers, and also gave us the Holy Spirit to help interpret it, and gave us direct access to Himself in prayer.

God’s Word is not silent, even when we humans find ourselves, like Job, struck dumb.

7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

12 Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Psalm 19:7-14, ESV

Parenting is Not My Highest Calling, Part I

December 8, 2013

Tonight I  looked up a book review for a friend and discovered I’d written it as a two-part series almost three years ago –so long ago that I had forgotten most of this. So I’ve bumped up both posts, hoping they might encourage you as much as they encouraged me.

You can read them in order simply by scrolling down the page here. Sorry for the wacky formatting. WordPress has never forgiven me for starting out blogging on another platform; I don’t have full editorial control over material born elsewhere.


Katie said it so well in her comment on How Do We Prepare to Parent Kids with Disabilities:

“Really on the first day of training there should be a reality-check lecture. ‘Adoption is a ministry. It’s not the same as building a family. There are children who need you but they may not ever meet your expectations for fulfillment. Are you still game?'”

It almost isn’t fair to hark back to the days of my own adoption training in 2003. That was almost nine years ago and my agency probably does things differently today. It is probably also true that during those early years that shaped how my husband and I viewed adoption, our hearts were only open to hearing things we were ready to hear. We wanted to find our desire to adopt affirmed. We wanted to hear that transracial adoptive parenting was “doable.” That it would be good for our family, and good for the child we were adopting.

So take it with a grain of salt when I say, the main message I remember taking away from my formal agency training was, “Adoption is a wonderful way to build a family” –with a few strings attached:

  • transracial adoption is trickier than racially-matched adoption
  • toddler adoption may be more challenging than infant adoption
  • adopting an institutionalized child may be more challenging than adopting from foster care

The only issue I remember that made us search our hearts about our decision to “build our family via adoption,” was the possibility of RAD –radical attachment disorder. That era was RAD’s moment in the research spotlight, before it was widely understood that attachment is a continuum. So we were prepared for an initial adjustment period of bonding with our new child and vice versa, but took comfort in the statistics that showed that the children we were drawn to adopting were not at high risk for RAD.

However, before we became the parents to three more via adoption, we became Faith’s parents by birth. In retrospect, our preparation for parenting in general led us farther afield than our adoptive parenting training.  That part of a family’s story is probably unique, making it difficult to generalize. But here’s my story.

Inwardly, I cringe a  bit as I travel back to the early 1990s and remember the faces who looked back at me as I passed out the parenting class hand-outs at church. (I wasn’t a teacher. I wasn’t even married yet. I was simply in charge of the name tags, cookies and handouts.) The faces looking back at me were couples I admired and hoped to emulate someday: the early wave of transracial adopters in our church. Parents, or soon-to-be parents of beautiful African American babies born in the South and placed in Minnesota.

I sat in the last row and absorbed what those parents absorbed. Dreaming of being a mother someday, I read the books the handouts suggested. As intended, those authors had formative influence on how I conceptualized Christian parenting. Many of those parents who sat ahead of me in class also reached the point I am today a decade or more ago: parenting adopted kids with invisible developmental disabilities like FASD. Others are parenting children born to them with permanent disabilities.

This is how we equipped them. Back then it was widely believed  –even by adoption professionals placing kids born in the U.S. –that nurture trumped nature. So the dysfunction of parents in the U.S. placing children for adoption was thought to be a reflection of the way the parents were raised, not of anything organic like brain damage. The solution was to transplant orphaned children into highly functional families who would biblically love and train them into their latent potential to be kids who shattered stereotypes about what it meant to be a racial minority, to be born into poverty, and to not know Christ.

Christian parenting books exhorted us that raising children for God was our highest earthly calling. The formula was: consistently apply biblical parenting principles and your children will be a delight to you and to others, thus bringing glory to God. Arguing from the Bible, these authors reasoned that if kids did not turn out well, it was because their parents did not make raising them their highest priority, and/or they depended on sources inferior to the Bible for wisdom.

Lest we be confused about what that meant, these experts stretched far beyond actual Bible texts like,”Bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” to specific details like the schedule on which parents should feed infants, and to prescribe daily intervals where the baby was left alone in a playpen or crib. Thus a child would learn from her first days that she was not the center of the family universe and that her parents, standing in God’s stead on earth, were her authorities. Anything else was less than biblically loving.

There is little room in that philosophy for:

  • “There are children who need you but they may not ever meet your expectations for fulfillment.”
  • There are children who need you who may seem to dishonor the God you love.
  • There are children who need you who may physically or emotionally harm your other children.
  • There are children who need you who may cause others to revile you.
  • There are children who need you whose behavior may disqualify you from being a teacher or an elder.
  • There are children who need you whose needs will forever change your home, your job, your other children’s education and your relationship with your spouse.

The problem is not that the Bible is insufficient. The problem is not that God is limited. The problem is that in the church, we have made many inferences and suppositions about parenting that are simply NOT biblical. We have presumed that God chooses to work via the same means, to the same ends, the vast majority of the time, and that the formula is as transferable from family to family as the Bible itself.

The western church has made a welcome course correction toward the biblical call for adoption and toward the meaningful  inclusion of children and families with disabilities. But we have been slower to adjust our parenting paradigm from our old frame of reference where the vast majority of children were born into believing families (where, for example, the rate of alcohol consumption and mental illness are statistically lower) and were not traumatically separated from birth family and birth culture. It was a time when a developmentally disabled child might be born into a large church a few times per year. Now, via adoption, church families bring them from the far ends of the earth to church by vans full every week.

Exhortations like, “Parenting is your highest calling” have out-lived their day –to be expected for an idea that carries only the ring of truth.

I am thrilled to be able to do more than observe that there is a need for the church to do better.  A faith-filled book already exists to get the conversation started. Leslie Leyland Fields’s Parenting is Your Highest Calling and 8 Other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt (WaterBrook, 2008) will be the subject of my next post.

Because some of you have already read it, you know how much Fields’s myth-busting matters. She does not hold out an ideal about parenting, but points us instead to the eternal Truth:

  • Blessed are those whose deepest fulfillment is found in God.
  • Blessed are those who God leads to see beyond present circumstances to eternal purposes.
  • Blessed are those who know what it means to “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)
  • “Blessed are you when you are reviled for my name’s sake.” (Jesus in Matthew 5:11)
  • Blessed are those who are humbled under the mighty hand of God, trusting that at the right time, He will exalt them. (I Peter 5:6)
  • Blessed are those who are protected from laying up treasures on earth. (Matthew 6:19-20)

Parenting is Not My Highest Calling, Part II

December 8, 2013


Parenting is Your Highest Calling and 8 other Myths That Trap Us in Worry and Guilt
by Leslie Leyland Fields
WaterBrook Press, 2008
We were not so much trapped in “worry and guilt” as were trapped with a small box of parenting tools ill-suited to the job at hand. Between our parenting education and raising Faith and Mercy, parenting was something like being apprenticed in furniture restoration. Then God blessed us with Hope. Having some experience refinishing old chairs barely prepared us for rehabing the Victorian house that was our third child.
We struggled for three years to make the tools in our toolbox work, convinced that the parenting wisdom  we had been taught was biblical and convicted that God’s Word was perfect and sufficient for all things. But, as Fields points out, acknowledging the truth in cherry-picked Bible verses (Psalm 127:5-8; Psalm 113:9; Proverbs 22:6; Proverbs 29:17; Luke 2:51-52) is not the same thing as rooting a parenting philosophy in the full counsel of Scripture.
The tragic thing was that Hope was a gift to us from God. But it took us three years to acknowledge or accept that as true because our hands were so tightly clenched around our familiar parenting tools. Fields’s book was probably no more than musings on her heart at the time my husband and I abandoned our too-small tool box. Had it been in print, it would have freed us to let go and encouraged us to reconsider the foundation of Bible-laced-human-wisdom we’d built our parenting upon.
You can read the Introduction to Parenting is Your Highest Calling and 8 Other Myths, on Leslie Leyland Fields’s website, here. Fields comes to parenting as the biological mom of six, including two “surprise” children born in her forties. Her personal experience includes neither adoption nor (that she disclosed) special-needs parenting. Yet just as you’d expect from an author whose main text is the Bible, the ideas she raises span the full gamut of raising children, no matter how they joined your family or whether their challenges arise from sin, temperament, neurology, or all the above.
For the balance of this review, I’ll let her speak for herself.
Describing radio interviews she did for her book Surprise Child, Fields writes: “I would begin the interview by describing the emotional terrain of unplanned pregnancy…. Then the  radio host would inevitably ask, ‘And now aren’t you so happy you have those children? Aren’t they blessings from God?’ Yes, every one of my children is a huge blessing…. But these questions are mostly  irrelevant. Even if my children had not brought me happiness, they would still bear the image of God, they would still be created by God, and they would still be of infinite value. It is not the state of my feelings that determines their value. Their value is found in the God who made them.” (Parenting… p. 21-22)
“Here is my own confession. I wonder how much of my hopes for my children’s happiness are hopes for myself. If my children are happy, then my parenting life is quieter and less complicated. I find myself falling into this trap more often than I wish.” (Parenting… p. 80)
“Pursuing our relationship with God before anything else frees us to see each child in her own uniqueness rather than squeezing our children into a prefabricated mold. It frees from us from the expectation of total control. It frees us from unbiblical promises of sure outcomes. It frees us from seeing our children as products rather than people.
At the root of all of this, we need to choose to give up the quest for an expedient parenting life. The only perfect parent –God himself –led a parenting life that was anything but expedient….The Old Testament reminds us of the truth all parents live with every day: every child arrives as a fearfully and wonderfully made creation with a steely will and heart and mind bent toward serving self. Considering our children’s ability to make choices, their God-given uniqueness, and their sin-damaged hearts, how can we reduce parenting to an efficient one-size-fits-all program that will make life ‘easy’?” (Parenting… p. 117)
“And when my own servant’s heart is emptied, as it often is when I stand among my family’s continual needs, I am reminded that I cannot be Jesus; I can only need Jesus. In the times when I feel as though I fail most –when I dissolve before my children into anger and helplessness –he covers and forgives my exhaustion, sin, and limitations. He teaches me that his own work in my children’s lives is not dependent upon me, that even in my weakness I am living out before my children the most essential truth of our lives: all of us are in severe need of this glorious and merciful Savior.” (Parenting… p. 143)
To return to my question last week in How Do We Prepare to Parent Kids With Disabilities, “Are there ways we can help those coming behind us do it better –or at least, with a learning curve a little  less steep?” I would answer to Christians: start with a book like Fields’s that will help you reflect on and re-order your parenting priorities. Then you will be free to see and to accept the gift God holds out to you.
Part I of this post is found here.

The Gathering Place

November 11, 2013


Every time I see this sign, I smile and think, All unstable traffic, too? :). This is our therapeutic riding story.



This is the view that greets me two or three days a week when I turn into The Gathering Place, a stable in Stillwater, Minnesota, where Melanie Nix and friends offer horse back riding to people of all abilities. Melanie specializes in therapeutic riding for children with special needs. The other services she offers, like horse boarding and riding lessons, help support her therapeutic riding program.


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Joy was this big — 13 lbs. at 15 months –the first time a therapist enthused about the possibility of therapeutic riding in her future. Joy was fully supported by the chair so you can’t tell that at this point (three months home from a loving year-long foster care placement in South Korea) she could not yet roll over and could barely hold up her head. Joy is a twin, born at 26 weeks, one pound at birth. She has quadriplegic cerebral palsy with mixed tone, GMFCS Level IV.

Learning to sit up took  Joy three more years, until she was four and a half. Being able to sit well enough to sit on a horse took two more years.



In the mean time, Faith, Joy’s big sister, fell in love with horses. It took me a full year –and several good talkings-to from a friend who is a horse enthusiast –to understand that Faith wasn’t just going through a pre-teen phase where Horses were the next Little House on the Prairie or Fairies.


No. Somewhere deep in our gene pool, my friend counseled, we must have a Horsey ancestor; Faith’s horse thing was the real deal.  So we signed Faith up for beginning riding lessons at a local stable, the only place we’d heard of near us where kids could learn to ride. After a year of large-group lessons, Faith was hooked.

That same year, when she turned 13, Faith declared she would heretofore be known as Fate :).



About the same time, Joy finally developed the core strength to sit up without always needing two hands for full support. This is a photo from last summer. Her posture is not great. But this is 100% her own work sitting on a rock with no support under her feet — a very challenging seat for her. Joy’s lead physical therapist agreed she was ready to try riding.

Melanie would have probably told me she was ready for riding sooner because riding is a fabulous way to develop core strength as you will see in the photos below. But I hadn’t met Melanie yet :).


This was Joy’s very first time on a horse, at The Gathering Place, in August 2013. Fate is leading. In this close up of the same photo,


you can see that Joy’s posture isn’t much different from sitting on the rock. Except she’s leaning into Melanie’s hand for support. And the horse isn’t even moving. In the beginning, Joy could tolerate five minutes sitting upright with maximal support on a slowly walking horse. Then she spent the rest of her session laying over the saddle with her head cradled on Melanie’s arm, like this:


The photo above was her third lesson. Each week, Joy added several minutes to her time sitting upright, and as her core strength developed, her need for head support decreased, too:


Now, after ten weeks of riding once per week, Joy spends all of her session –30-35 minutes –sitting on a moving horse.



You can see how much Joy enjoys riding! If this came with sound, you’d hear a running horse monologue of clicking, whinnying, and random  horse lines she has memorized from books, “Next stop is the riding stable; Horses gallop strong and able!” (from Stephanie Calmison’s Engine Engine Number Nine) and “There was a great big horse and a very little horse,” (From Margaret Wise Brown’s Big Red Barn.)

Maybe most significantly, riding has shown us that Joy has the ability to recall and remember.

Despite her ability to understand us –for years now, we’ve had to spell things like W-A-L-K or B-A-T-H unless we are prepared to do it right away or she fusses at having to wait –and despite her ability to recite and sing dozens of books and songs, Joy has very little ability to reliably, meaningfully express herself outside carefully set up contexts.

Out of the blue she may randomly volunteer a spot-on observation like she did yesterday in the bathtub, “The soap is making bubbles  in the water!” Or in a specific, patterned, context like at the snack table at school, shown popcorn, she may request, “I want popcorn!”

Yet she’s never been playing and said she was thirsty, or been paging through a book and asked for snack. At home, she’s never told me about anything that happened at school, even if I pull artwork out of her back pack and prompt her with simple questions about her work. Those things require Joy thinking and speaking out of the context she requires for support.

But the morning after I took the photos of Joy riding in the green shirt, Joy and Fate and I were sitting at the breakfast table. It was a Saturday. Fate shared that she was going to the stable later to go riding and hoped she’d get to ride Boyfriend, the horse Joy had ridden for the first time the day before.

Joy’s face lit up. “I am riding!” she said.

My first thought: Joy misunderstands; she thinks she gets to ride today.

Joy continued, “This horse is BIG! This horse is BROWN. This horse lives in a barn. This horse lives at the farm. Neigh! says the horse. Neigh! Neigh! I am riding this horse.”

Fate looked at me. “Joy is remembering riding Boyfriend?!”

Joy was remembering, even though her spontaneous vocabulary apparently does not yet contain the past tense. Boyfriend does not literally live in the barn. But as he’s always standing in the barn tacked up when we arrive, Joy doesn’t know he lives outside. Before that day, most of Joy’s lessons had been on a roan pony. When Joy first mounted Boyfriend, she had observed, “This is a BIG horse!” Then, Joy identified his color by reciting, “Brown horse, brown horse, what do you see?”


To commemorate that day, Fate later took this picture, answering, “I see a brown horse looking at me!” :).

So therapeutic riding is about much more than developing core strength. Despite their differences in age and ability, riding has given Fate –who takes private lessons with Melanie weekly –and Joy something they both love and share, and can even talk about. And when I can wrap my mind around the logistics of so many riders, I imagine riding is something Mercy and Hope and I will enjoy along with them.



For now, it is wonderful that Fate can take, and will always have, the lead. Here Melanie is teaching Fate, who dreams of attending an equine college, the basics of physical therapy on horse back. (Fate isn’t merely holding Joy up. She is stretching her upper back and shoulders while Melanie stretches her outside leg, while the horse is walking.)

This week Joy got to experience her first trot with Fate riding behind her. Physically, it was as big a challenge as sitting on a moving horse three months ago. But Joy laughed and laughed, enjoying the speed and gait so much that I imagine by next summer she won’t look quite so much like a bobble-head doll in need of a stiffer neck spring!


But as good as The Gathering Place has been for Fate and Joy (Mercy, above cuddles the barn cat), every day I am out there doing nothing more than enjoying my girls enjoying themselves, I am aware of the gift this is to me.


The past eighteen months since my husband’s heart attack have been among the most stressful in my life. Until we started therapeutic riding, I didn’t know how badly I needed a place to get away, a place where I have so little on my to-do list that I have time to start seeing again


the starkly gorgeous beauty God orchestrates every day in ordinary things like fence rails and tack rooms, and my children’s faces.

So in the end, I can’t tell you which of us benefits the most, the girls, or me. I’m just happy we’ve found The Gathering Place. If you want more information you can find Melanie at The Gathering Place Stables on Facebook.


This is an unsolicited endorsement. I do not accept any invitations to endorse products or services.