Knock, Knock

It’s Sunday evening. I am at the local supermarket doing the family grocery shopping. I push my cart up and down the aisles, skillfully negotiating the journey with the one wheel that pulls to the left and the other that just spins and doesn’t do anything. I’ve gotten almost everything on my list (plus a few impulse items) – all but the frozen veggies and the dairy items.

As I slowly approach the frozen food aisle I hear the voice of a little toddler. “Knock, knock.” Pause. “Knock, knock.” I see several adults wheel their carts out of the aisle toward the checkout. No one seems to be “biting” on the “knock, knock” joke.

As I turn the corner into the aisle, my hunch was confirmed. There in the child seat of cart with her hooded coat on was a beautiful little girl. She couldn’t have been more than two years old. Her dad was rummaging through the freezer, gathering up his frozen veggies.

As I approach she sees me. I smile at her. “Knock, knock.” she says.

“Who’s there?” I reply.

She is a little shocked. She was not expecting the interaction as no one else had paid her any attention. She paused for a second … deep in thought. Dad turned and looked, waiting expectantly for her response. Then she threw her hands in the air as if she were going to shout “Surprise!”. Laughing

“It’s me!” she exclaimed.

Dad just beamed, smiled and began to laugh. He couldn’t contain himself.

“Oh, isn’t that just wonderful!” I said to her with a big smile. “I’m so glad it’s you!”

Dad and I shared a smile, a nod and a silent acknowledgement of how precious this miracle moment was. Then he continues down the aisle.

“Bye” she says.

“Bye bye.”

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Contagion of Hatred and the Risk of Love

No amount of laws can change a hardness of heart. No law can overcome the abyss created by hate, a hate that threatens our humanity, our existence. No amount of hand-wringing or committees or speeches can bring forth what is truly needed to bring about a fundamental and lasting change of how we treat others. No law, except one – “Love others.”  The only thing that will stem the tide of hatred towards others is changing how we see others – not as different or enemies but as the same as us.  That change in perspective comes from love.20643335423_8d8419abfd_z

But that requires us as members of the human family to go far beyond our comfortable borders.  We think “if we just bar the doors, shutter the windows and stuff cotton in our ears we can keep the wolves outside while we remain safe inside.”  We delude ourselves into thinking either the crisis doesn’t really exist or worse – that someone else will handle this mess.  “A boat is safe in the harbor but that is not the purpose of a boat.” – Paolo Coelho.  There is no one else!! The crisis is here, now, and it is not going away unless we each do our part in some small way.

21203320479_88c451465c_mAs a Christian I am called to be like Christ, a follower of Christ.  His early command was simple – “Follow Me.”  But what does that mean? Here’s what I feel it means for me.  It doesn’t mean to just walk behind Him, to be shielded by Him (although there are times when I need that shield).  “Follow Me” was a calling to live like Him, do like Him and love like Him.  It was a simple instruction on a way of life.  Do as I do … this is how to live a whole, healthy, connected life with God and each other.  Love God, love others … without exception!

Aahh, if only it were that simple, right? Loving others is easy if the “other” thinks like me, looks like me and believes like me.  It gets real up here when I am confronted with “others” who are different from me.  That asks us to take risks, to live on the fringes not because it is comfortable but because that is where the need is.  That’s where the hurt is. That’s where the war is. That’s where the sickness is. That’s where the fear and desperation are. That is where our neighbor is.

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Is it easy? Hell no, it is not easy but nothing worthwhile is ever easy.  “But I am only a small, insignificant force.  What can I possibly accomplish?”  I used to believe that rubbish, too.  I used to think the problems of the world were too big for one person to tackle and perhaps they are – for one person. However, when I try to make a difference I notice that there are lots of other “insignificant forces” doing the same thing and together a new world can be forged.  I just have to look back on history to see a long, long line of “heroes” – both ordinary and extraordinary – who refused to remain silent, refused to shutter their eyes, ears and hearts, refused to allow evil to go unchallenged.  Go ahead, think back yourself and you’ll see them too.20953116739_335c5fd0c8_z

Perhaps if we can manage to remember that we are all made in the image of God, we can remember those tragedies are happening not in some distant land. Those horrors are not happening to some faceless, nameless stranger.  The brutality and tears and desperation are those of our neighbors, our family, our friends … and it’s happening right here in our neighborhood.  Perhaps then we’d be a little less fearful and more courageous in righting wrongs. Perhaps then we’d pause before committing acts of violence against others in our homes, in our schools, at our jobs. Perhaps we’ll pause and see them as our brother, our sister, our pets and perhaps we’ll think twice.

Maybe what really scares us more than the differences is facing the possibility that we don’t really “believe” what we say we believe.  Because now we have to apply those beliefs (political, religious, spiritual and otherwise) not in the comfort of our hymns on a Sunday morning, bathed in stain-glass colored light; not in the comfort of the insulated halls of justice or government.  Rather, those beliefs get tested by fire in the trenches, in the back alleys with the addict, in the refugee camps, in the homeless shelters, in the Ebola wards, in the orphanages.  “Follow Me.”3039401455_92581783fb_z

If we don’t, we’ll have to face the uncomfortable, ugly truth – maybe we don’t believe the Gospel! Yikes!! We modify it to fit our comfort zones. “Jesus didn’t really mean for me comfort the dying in the hospital. He didn’t mean for me to open my home to refugees.  He really didn’t mean I had to feed the hungry at a soup kitchen.”  Really, He did.

35 You shall be richly rewarded, for when I was hungry, you fed Me. And when I was thirsty, you gave Me something to drink. I was alone as a stranger, and you welcomed Me into your homes and into your lives. 36 I was naked, and you gave Me clothes to wear; I was sick, and you tended to My needs; I was in prison, and you comforted Me. – Matthew 25:35-36

The only way to combat the plague of hate and darkness of soul is through the light of love, without exception.  Will you do your part to chase the darkness? Will you help make this world a little nicer, a little kinder? There is no such thing as a small act of kindness, a small demonstration of love for even one small match will chase out the darkness.

The Big “C”

There aren’t many words or events in your life that can cause you to stop dead in your tracks, cause you to stop breathing for a second or make your heart stop beating: getting that phone call that “there’s been an accident” or that a loved one has passed on and sitting across from a doctor and being told you have cancer.  Everything just seems to freeze – your breath, your heart, time, the world’s rotation_MG_6751. You question yourself. “Did I hear him right?” “She must be mistaken.” “I must have misheard him.”

When you finally catch up with the spinning earth, you hear the ticking of the clock on the wall again and your breathing begins anew, you hear yourself asking “Excuse me? Can you repeat that?” You heard the doctor correctly the first time.  You look over at your spouse and she’s reeling from the news also.  You kind of go numb. Life becomes surreal.

You automatically go to your default setting: cancer = surgery; cancer = radiation; cancer = hospital stays; cancer = losing your hair; cancer = debilitating cures; cancer = death.  You race through your memory and start to recall all of those friends, family members, loved ones and acquaintances who’ve had cancer.  You make a mental tally of those who have succumbed to the disease and those who have beaten it … at least for now.

Everyone has had to deal with this monster, either directly or indirectly.  We all know a family member (wife, husband, child, parent, brother or sister) who’s had it, know a friend who’s had it, know a co-worker who’s had it or know someone who knows someone who’s had it.  It shatters lives. It disrupts plans and dreams. It tests your strength and your faith.

Grandma during better days

Grandma during better days

So, what exactly is this “cancer” thing that reeks such havoc on our lives?  I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve learned.  According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer is defined as cells that divide without stopping and spread to surrounding tissue.  Kind of already knew that.  While all cells in our body divide, cancer cells are different.  Cancer cells are able to ignore the body’s signals to stop growing or are able to ignore signals to shut themselves down and die when those cells are no longer needed by the body. That’s something I didn’t know. In simple terms, they can behave like teens who ignore their parents or act like the unwanted relatives who refuse to go home after the holiday visit.

Don’t misinterpret my “light-hearted” approach to the technical details of cancer.  This is serious stuff; very serious.  According to the American Cancer Society (“ACS”), it is estimated that over 1,600,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in 2015 and almost 600,000 deaths are estimated from cancer in 2015.  They estimate that over 40,000 women will die of breast cancer and more than 27,000 men will die from prostate cancer in 2015. Lung cancer and colon cancer will claim the lives of an estimated 158,000 and 52,000 men and women, respectively.  All in all, the statistics show that 43% of men will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime and 23% will die from it; for women the figures are 38% and 19%, respectively.13992185687_84109c2c67_z

And this thing is an equal opportunity killer.  It brings all to their knees regardless of socio-economic status, education, gender, religion and creed.  All the money in the world cannot buy you another day.  Just ask Steve Jobs.

And what about the economic impact of cancer? Well, it’s staggering.  In 2011, the ACS estimates that the direct medical costs associated with cancer was over $89 billion in the US alone.  This doesn’t even touch on the indirect costs of lost productivity, added stress, missed work days, etc.  Of course, you can’t put a dollar figure on the loss of loved ones and friends. Those lives are priceless.

Grandma B a few months before she passed

Grandma, a few months before she passed

The personal costs from the wreckage of cancer is indescribable.  I know from which I speak.  While I have been fortunate in not receiving a diagnosis myself, cancer has touched my life through the ones I love.  Two wives were diagnosed with cancer,  my maternal grandmother died of stomach cancer, two aunts died from cancer, an uncle passed from cancer, a co-worker had cancer, a co-worker died from liver cancer, a friend has leukemia and the list goes on and on.

The battle is waged against cancer on many fronts – doctors, care givers, researchers and ordinary people who support the patients and their families.  Progress has been made.  Only 40 years ago, 50% of the patients diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years.  As of 2014, that number jumped to 67%.  More remains to be done and if you feel led to find out how you can help please visit the ACS at American Cancer Society to learn more.

How does this make me feel? Frankly, what I feel pales in comparison to what those with the diagnosis feel.  What I can attest to is how powerless it all makes me feel.  It really is a lesson to realize that there are limits on what I can offer and that I must rely on God to carry us through this crisis.  I can use the tools I’ve learned in recovery to weather this storm – this is beyond my depth, God is bigger than this and I have to allow Him the room to work his “magic” and do what I am capable of doing.

So what can I do? I can continue to love my wife. I can pick up the weight of the daily routines that she might find difficult. I can continue to encourage her through the treatment.  I can continue to be there for her.

Love Transforms Part 6 – The Heartbreak

This is the final installment of our recap of our adventures with Daniela.  There will be one additional post that follows that will bring this story of 2013 into the present day.

Today I started to feel the end approaching.  I was sitting in my office with my eyes closed praying silently.  I was praying that god would help me to be his hand and feet.  I was praying that God would help me to be aware of the opportunities to be of service.  I was praying for all those families whose hearts were breaking because they had to let go of a “stranger” and trust BIG TIME that God really knows what He is doing – knows way better than we can know what the future holds for these families and these kids.

As I was sitting there reading these posts of my friends – my brothers and sisters – strangers to me a mere two months ago, I started to get choked up.  These kids had such a dramatic impact on the lives of all whom they had touched.  They profoundly changed all those moms, dads, brother, sisters, friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles of all those families all across this country.  They created this gigantic hemispheric tidal wave of love, caring and hope that united a Hodge-podge group of people that had only one thing in common at the outset of this journey – we were all hosting an orphan through New Horizons For Children.  We didn’t know anything about each other. We were scattered from New England to the Great Lakes to the Northwest and California to the Midwest and the South – from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico.  We came from all walks of life and with all sorts of talents and abilities to become one – One Family. One Big, Beautiful, Loving Family.  We are strangers no more.  We are forever linked and forever in each others hearts and prayers.  All this due to these rag-tag bunch of kids in lime-green neon t-shirts.

So as all of this starting washing over me today I became overwhelmed by this miracle – this tidal wave of love that washed on our shores at the end of June, 2013.  These little souls came here to spend time with us “crazy” Americans and hoped to experience something really amazing this summer – and they did.  But perhaps unbeknownst to them they have indelibly written on each of our hearts.  I know that the thread of Daniela’s story, the thread of God’s story for Daniela, is now interwoven in the fabric of our lives, our story.  Her presence here has marked each us and nothing will ever erase that – not time, not distance, not events.

This journey was not a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination. At times it felt like a walk through Jurassic Park but we kept walking.  We slogged through the muck and the darkness and made it through to the sunshine and the smiles.  It took a lot of work to trust God and to keep the faith that there was something worthwhile on the other side if we would just have the faith of a mustard seed.  We did and it was worth all the struggle.  Love won out and fear and pain was vanquished.  How do I know?  Here’s a small indication: at the early stages D wanted to return to Latvia “right now” and tonight her mood is somber at the thought that this phase of her adventure is drawing to a close.  Her bag is packed but she does not want to weigh it.  She wants to prolong this miracle for as long as possible.  She wants to enjoy this for a few days more.

Today although it felt like my heart was about to break from the strain I was able to reflect for a moment and realize that my net was not breaking.  In fact, my net was overflowing with blessings and grace.  Overflowing with blessings carried by an unsuspecting young woman from Latvia.- July 30, 2013

She is torn.  She has been alternating between alone time in her room to laughing and joking around with us in the living room.  She is torn.  She does not want to make the long trip back to Latvia but she also wants to be among her familiar surroundings and her mother tongue.  She is torn.  She does not want to enter the room where our church lifegroup is meeting to pray so the group came to her and she smiles, basks in the limelight and laughs as each member of the group reads aloud the final affirmations (in Latvian) from her paper chain.

Her bag is packed. She laughs as I try to lift her bag and bring it downstairs. Feels like it has rocks in it but it is 4.5 pounds under the limit. She has packed away all the clothes we purchased.  Candy and snacks, too.  Memories are stored away in there as well.  There and in her heart.  She is ready to go but she isn’t.

She asks to download some music from the internet and we happily agree.  She shows me some pictures from her phone.  Pictures of some friends, of her, of her boyfriend, Kenny.  She does not show them to Eileen … only to me. Hmmm.

We exchange gifts.  She brought a beautiful hand-painted scarf from Latvia.  It is exquisite, lovely and delicate.  She receives an mp3 player, make-up, ear buds, a necklace and a hand-crotcheted sock monkey winter hat. More than that was the whole exchange process itself.  It was almost surreal yet the love around that kitchen table was very tangible.  We gave her a key to our front door.  We explained that we are one family, Viena Ģimene, and when she comes back she is welcome with open arms and open hearts any time.

The final hours slowly ticked away while we were at church lifegroup.  At the end of lifegroup all the loving members of our group – the same members who threw her a surprise birthday party, let her swim in their pool, gave her lovely free clothing – gathered around her in the living room and poured out their love and God’s love.  They drenched her in it.  They read some affirmations to her in her native tongue and we all butchered her language.  She didn’t care.  Once again the love that was surrounding Daniela was palpable, present and perfect.

God was in Bangor, PA of all places!   Of course He was.  He was also present when the pillow fight closed out the festivities.  He was present when Daniela surprised me by throwing a few pillows at me while I was taking pictures.  (The girl has a heck of an arm!)  He’ll be present with us as we take her to the airport tomorrow.  He’ll be present on that plane with Daniela and He’ll be present with us as we sob and grieve our girl going home.  God will be right there with Daniela every second of her life, every step of the way, in every moment of joy, in every moment of sorrow.  Just like He will be for us.

We are ever grateful for Daniela being a member of our family!  Tomorrow will not be an easy day but we are nevertheless a family and will send of our Daniela with all the love and blessings we have.  We will see her again someday. – August 1, 2013

Phil:

As I sit here staring at the screen I realize that it is very hard to put this last post together. I don’t know where to begin. So much has happened during this long, strange, glorious, frustrating, miraculous trip.  It has been five months since we first started looking at the photos and short descriptions of the kids.  Yet, when I look back on all of this it has been much longer than five months.  My whole life has been a dress rehearsal for these few short weeks and what will happen as a result of this journey.

As far as the last day goes it went much better than expected.  We had secretly stashed a card with a letter to our Daniela in her duffle bag.  That was no small feat as she had packed away EVERYTHING we had given her (including a few empty candy wrappers).  She had transferred all her music to her mp3 player and was listening to that on the ride to the airport.  Upon arrival we met up with the other Latvian cherubs and their chaperones.  Daniela immediately hooked up with her friends Kristine and Zhenya and started sharing stories, snacks and looking through photo albums.  Kristine and Zhenya are two marvelous young ladies and we were blessed to make their acquaintance during this visit.
The biggest surprise of the day came from the most unsuspecting source … the little kids.  Honestly, if it hadn’t been for their joy, laughter, curiosity and boldness I doubt I would have been able to hold it together.  In the last post I shared about the palpable presence of God during our last night with Daniela.  Well, that real presence of love was also at JFK.  It was a privilege to be a witness to these precious last hours for all of these kids before they headed for home.

Love seemed to pour out of their very pores.  For anyone who was paying attention, these kids were changed as a result of their experiences.  They are aching for someone to accept them, love them, hug them, guide them and inspire them.  They are the forgotten ones, the unseen, the outsiders – tucked away out of sight by the world.  But not by us and not on this visit!!!!

For the past five weeks they were kings and queens.  On this visit they were given hugs.  During their time with us they were guided, inspired and loved for who they are – not outcasts, not throw-aways, not less-thans – our sons and daughters.  They were shown unconditional love and acceptance perhaps for the first time in their lives.  The results were astounding and real and tangible.  The love of God was shown to these sons and daughters.  I’m not talking about some esoteric, ethereal love; I’m talking about hugging them at night love, going swimming with them love, sitting around a campfire love, laughing with them love, crying with them love, holding them accountable love, being a parent love, welcoming them into our hearts and homes love.

It was by no means all lovey-dovey.  There were plenty of gut-wrenching episodes, struggles with homesickness, behaviors problems and withdrawal from interaction.  Many of our sons and daughters were paralyzed with fear and had built up very high walls for protection.  But we parents would not give up on them.  We kept at it and held firmly to the belief that love does conquer all, that consistent love will wear down those walls of fear, that God will get into those dark places and shine His light.

I think that of all the things I will take away from this grand experience the biggest one is this: the power of unconditional love can change the world.  I have never really seen that in action until this summer.  These kids taught me that when I have faith, when I trust that what I am doing is God’s work, when I am fearless in applying God’s love even in the darkest of places, when I am resolute in my commitment to God and these kids even when it would be much easier to quit, when I love God, love people and serve the world I will be rewarded ten thousand fold.

My reward came in a little package of a curious, bold, blond-haired kid named Sasha.  He was fearless .  He came right up to me as I was sitting down and plopped himself in my lap.  He shared his gum with me and with Peter.  He shared his granola bars with Peter.  He reached up and gave me a kiss on the cheek and called me “Papa”.  He told me he wanted to take pictures with my camera and I let him (he took some great pictures).  He said, “Sasha likes french fries.”  He played peek-a-boo with me.  He had me from the first smile!!!  For a few hours we bonded with Sasha and his friends, Artjoms and his friends, Daniela and her friends, Inga, Dace and Laima and the list goes on.  One big happy family.

In the end that’s what we are …. one big happy family.

In closing, I do not know where this journey will take us but we know that this is not the end of our ministry for orphans.  Thank you to all our friends and family who prayed for us and helped us emotionally, physically and spiritually.  We could not have done this without you.

 Eileen:

Orphan hosting is not for sissies.
I have run a marathon. I have completed 2 triathlons. I have a special needs guy and work with challenging behaviors. I am not afraid of much.
Except maybe this: A teenager….a girl….5 weeks…no English…16
My husband and I jumped into the deep end of the pool….. and came up forever changed.
We prayed that we might be the hands and feet of Jesus. Never really thinking of the path those particular feet walked. We learned what unconditional love can do for a broken and unwanted child. We saw a fatherless girl learn to trust an adult man. We learned to be patient and wait. We learned to be gentle with ourselves and give her the time and space to find her way into our family.  We learned that our God loves us in a way so disproportionate to what we deserve and how can we even begin to show this love to a child?
This is not all hallelujahs and halos. This is the nitty- gritty of God’s tangible love for a child. It meant that I could not be offended at being called disgusting Americans. I needed to see God’s child thrashing out in anger and hurt.  I believe that when my heart breaks for what breaks God’s, that crack makes room for more love.
It’s hard and heartbreaking. It’s beautiful and breathtaking. You will never be the same… jump in, the waters great!
These were some thoughts I wrote to the me before hosting from the me after hosting. I am not sure what comes next. It has been two days since we took D to JFK for her flight home to Latvia. She was very ready to go and yet I could tell that something had shifted for her as well.
We got a chance to talk with and hang out for a few hours with some of the other kiddos waiting for the flight. Many had connected from other airports so didn’t have the host families there. One boy plopped himself in Phil’s lap and looked up and said “Papa”! These little souls want families to love them.
Another girl, friends with D, couldn’t wait to see her photo album but D was reluctant to look excited around us … soon after we saw them snuggled up in a corner pouring over the pics.
The house feels different. Some of the things around me seem so insignificant compared to what these kids face. I know God has changed my heart for orphans. It is very hard to be comfortable when I think about the future for these kiddos. I know that we are called to continue to serve them I just don’t know exactly what that will look like. But we will blog about it! It has been an honor to share our journey with our friends and families and some friends we haven’t met yet.
This would not have been possible without the many, many prayers and thoughts and blessings that rained down on our family. And for those who ask would we do it again the answer is absolutely! – August 3, 2013

Progress

This one will be short and sweet.

We first met our son, Kris, in June of 2014. That’s right, ten months ago.  He first landed on American soil on July 4, 2014. Nine months ago.  We finalized his adoption and he entered school (9th grade) in November of 2014. Five months ago.

There have been lots of good times and laughs in those ten months.  There has been a huge leap in adjusting to family life and the American scene.  There has also been some very tough times during that process.  At times those meltdowns would rattle the very foundation of our family unit but we stayed the course.  We didn’t give up on each other.10553576_10204174536434265_4277685635505497917_n

When he first began school he had a lot of difficulty with the education system here and its stark contrast to the “crowd-control” system in his old country. He struggled somewhat with grades but more with his self-confidence. We all worked together to help him build up his self-esteem and give his self-confidence a needed boost.

He likes to succeed. He is highly competitive. He is also a big trickster.  So yesterday he comes home from school and reports that he got an “F” on his American government test.  “I got a 69 and the teacher gave me an ‘F””  After playing along with his April Fool’s joke he shows me his test.  He got an 82 – a “B”.  He was grinning from ear to ear.  HSAMSUNGe is also doing extremely well in English and Ceramics and he’s doing pretty good in Math.

Last evening, he is watching a cartoon video on Netflix.  He calls to his brother, Peter, to join him.  He sets two chairs in front of the computer and they watch it together.  All the while Kris is adding commentary to the video to personalize it for his brother.  “See Peter! This is you and me in the video, bro.  The one with the muscles is me and the chubby one is you.”  Peter laughs.

Priceless.

Blogging 101 – Who Am I and Why Am I Doing This?

As some of you may know I am in between careers and have decided to jump into this writing thing and learn to swim as I go.  I have blogged before – chronicling my family’s adventures in hosting a teen orphan from Latvia (www.servingdaniela.blogspot.com) and one describing our experiences in adopting a our son, Kris (www.heartsonfireforfamily.blogspot.com).  This is the first time I am writing, however, with the intent of improving my writing skills so that I might make a living at it.  I’m just letting it rip and having faith that the safety net will be there.

As for the “who” part of this I could give you a litany of my adventures and misadventures during my 53 years but I’d rather let you discover who I am by seeing what I write about, what I am passionate about, what catches my attention.  For now, you should know this: I have a lovely family (wife and two kids) and great set of friends.  I live in Eastern Pennsylvania but I am transplanted here by way of “Da Bronx” and Orange County NY.  I love to read books and I enjoy learning to play guitar.  We just completed our adoption of Kris (17) from Latvia and are in the integration of two cultures stage.  So far, so good.

I look forward to learning more about the craft of writing from all of you.  Thanks for reading.