Food for Thought, from a City that has Fed Me Well

Walking down a busy street in downtown Portland at rush hour, a man stops me at the corner. “Can we be friends?” he asks. I reply, “I think we already are” (after all, the light was red and I knew I was going to hear him out).

It was clear by his outfit that he was soliciting donations for a cause. He asks me my name, if I’m from here, and a few other strategic questions. The final question was “what do you do for a living?” I knew this answer was likely going to prolong our conversation, but I couldn’t think of anything better to say.

“I’m a minister,” I said. He smiled. “A minister?” (with a little chuckle). “Really?”

I assured him I wasn’t lying.

“You do know that Portland is the least religious city in the country, right?” I told him I had heard that.

From there he said, “well next I usually ask people if they like kids, but since you’re a pastor I know what you’ll say to that so I’ll keep going.” He proceeded to tell me about the non-profit organization that he works with that supports kids and the development of communities in other countries. He was surprised to hear that I had been to two of the countries they work in- Malawi and Uganda, and even more surprised to hear that we had adopted two kids from that region. He explained in detail why the organization was not religiously affiliated, but told me I could use my personal correspondence with my sponsored child to “spread the good word, or whatever you like to do.”

I told him the program sounded great, but that we are supporting a family in Uganda already and also a couple other kids through World Vision. I wished him luck and thought I’d be on my way.

My non-religious, philanthropic friend had one more question. “Can you tell me what Jeremiah 22:16 says?” he asked. “I have meet a lot of Christians and I always ask them if they know this verse.”

I stood silent and thought for a moment. “I know Jeremiah 29:11” I replied. “Is that the one you mean?” “No!” he said. “That’s what Christians always say.”

He proceeded to recite the verse.

“(Your father) defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.”

I smiled, told him I wish that I had been able to give that answer, and told him that’s really what all of this whole “Christianity” thing is supposed to look like- love for God, and love for other.

We shook hands and I continued walking to my dinner destination. I kept moving, but I was still stuck on that street corner mentally. As I ate my meal (I was alone, because I’m currently traveling for work), I began to pinpoint what was frustrating me.

I was bothered that I didn’t know the verse, not because I think I should have all of scripture memorized, but more so because I had memorized (and thought he was referring to) a verse a few chapters later. In fact, most of evangelical Christianity could probably quote the same verse I mentioned. You know it (or have seen it on a bookmark or bumper sticker)- it’s the one that talks about God’s plans for us being plans to prosper us, not to harm us. Plans to give us a hope and a future. Beautiful words for sure. Important words. But why is it that the verse we are quick to memorize is about our own future and prosperity? That is not the heart of the Gospel I read. The other verse, the one my friend quoted, that’s the one that we should be memorizing. The one that says that defending the cause of the poor and needy is what it means to know God. What about that? In fact, that’s not the only verse in the Bible that says this is what “true religion” is… caring for the poor and oppressed, loving God & others, and laying down our own lives. True religion is not supposed to be about our own security, but that is so often what we make of it.

It made me sad that no one could quote the obscure text that my friend had asked about, but even more sad that we all were so quick to admit that we had memorized the verse about our own prosperity and well being. I wish that the “religious folks” (myself included) had a reputation for caring more about the people of the world than about ourselves. Which brings me to my next musing & this note I jotted down while at dinner.

Portland, for being so non-religious, you sure do challenge my own spirituality. You care about the earth and its resources. You take care of the poor. You give yourselves away to fight against injustices of all sorts. You value all people equally, and you treat them all with dignity and respect- whether on the street, or at a table. You befriend the stranger. You are comfortable in your skin, and you free others up to be the same. I’m not saying you are perfect at these things, but they are clear cultural values that I have felt and experienced and appreciated while spending time here. You have challenged and refreshed me, and you have welcomed me on numerous occasions as if I were your own. Thank you.

And I have to say, though you do not claim to be religious, you might be closer to the heart of God than you think.

With admiration,

Me

portland watercolor

the grand finale

When the first 10 minutes of our road trip to the twins’ village included me getting pooped on by a child AND a member of our car throwing up, I wondered if perhaps we had undertaken a little too much adventure. It was our last day in country after-all. Should we stay home and relax? Start packing perhaps? Were we really up for this?

I had known all along that this day was important. From the get go, I had asked our agency if it would be possible to make a trip to the kids’ birthplace, to meet some friends and family, and to try and capture as much of their story on film and in word as possible. I knew there would be a day when, as the kids grew, they would wonder about who they are and where they came from, and I wanted to have good answers. I wanted my kids to know the larger story they tie in to, and I wanted our whole family to experience part of the twins’ story together. So, because we had to wait until after the embassy process was complete, and because we finished that process just 2 days before leaving for “home,” today was our one shot.

The drive out to the village was, of course, beautiful. I still can’t get enough of the Ugandan countryside and all of its beauty. I can stare at it for hours out the window and never lose interest. We made fairly good time and were soon driving down a narrow dirt road to a simple brick home. We pulled up and out of the house bounded the most joyful and genuine welcome I’ve received. I will never forget it. One woman, Nalongo they call her, was jumping up and down waving and clapping her hands, singing and laughing. When I stepped out of the car she embraced me several times, staring deep into my eyes, expressing gratitude and love. Home.

Everyone was glad to see the twins. They all wanted to hold and kiss them, which the kids obviously were not thrilled about. No one could believe how much healthier they looked. It was a true celebration. The love also extended towards Macy and Owen and they were troopers like always- offering hugs, handshakes and photo op’s to everyone who asked (Macy at one point changed her hairstyle because she thought that’s why people were staring at her. She then realized it was her white hair and skin that was attracting the attention, not her ponytail).

We proceeded inside the home for some story-telling time. We heard stories about how the family came to live in that area, how the kids’ mom and dad met, the story of the twins’ birth and the significance of each of their names. It was a sweet time.

After stories were told it was announced that they had made us a meal to share and out from the back of the house came pots of chicken, beef, rice, and matoke. They had even gone out of their way to purchase bottled waters for us all to drink. It was the most extravagant and generous meal that has ever been set before me I’m sure. The sacrifice that went in to getting and making the food was evident and appreciated. It was a gesture of true gratitude.

At the conclusion of lunch, Simon, the children’s father, asked to “bless” the children before they left. What proceeded to follow was probably my highlight of the whole trip so far. Friends and family of the twins crammed into the front room, everyone extending a hand of blessing on or towards the kids. Simon spoke bravely and eloquently, surrendering his children and asking for God’s protection over and presence with them as they go. When he said, “amen” the place erupted in song as people celebrated God’s provision for the twin’s. We concluded by singing the twin’s favorite song all together (their faces, the people, the weight of the moment… too much to put to words).

After some sibling play time, a little sibling gift giving (from Macy and Owen to the older bio siblings of Cora and Elias), and a few more photos, it was time for us to load up again and head home.

I’m so thankful we got the chance to spend some time in Cora and Elias’ village with the people who have been important in their lives so far. It is clear that they are so loved. So much so that their dad has bravely decided that it is in their best interest to be placed in our care, as hard as that may be. After the visit today, I feel a new weight and privilege as I get to parent these two children going forward. They are the children of a mom and dad who had great hopes and dreams for their kids and great love, too. Dave and I get to continue to build off that solid foundation they have built and we will be sure the kids know just how loved they are- by their family in Uganda, and by their family in the US. In many ways, this adoption is more of an “expansion” of our family than it is a simple addition of two new members into our existing unit. Our family is expanding into new countries and cultures. The people we met today are now a very important part of our story and I hope they will continue to be. I’m already scheming ways to make that so.

Earlier this week I used the hashtags #gobigorgohome #gobigANDgohome. I think with today’s adventure we have done just that. It was a big day and I now feel armed with some important pieces of knowledge about my children’s past that I did not previously have, and not just a knowledge, but an experience of it’s beauty and richness that will be forever treasured (by all of us). Now, I think, we are ready. Home we go. #stillsomanyblogstowrite #somanyblogssolittletime

our daily bread

I often pray through the Lord’s Prayer when I lack the ability to pray anything on my own (it’s either that, or some sort of breath-prayer that lacks words and cohesion and is more of a fumbling or groan). There have been many days of this type of utterance on our trip, when words seem to fail and the only thing I can think to do is to return to the words of Jesus himself when he taught the disciples how to pray. On my run this morning I got tripped up by the part that says, “give us this day our daily bread.”  A lot of people here don’t get to eat regularly, or very well at all. Friends we have made are struggling to feed their children. Even as I ran I saw a lot of people working really hard to earn their daily bread (on a Saturday)- fishermen out on the water, children working in fields, women in the marketplace. I wonder if they pray this prayer? I wonder if they feel it goes unanswered? I wonder what provision really looks like and what Jesus is really teaching the disciples to ask for? What does this prayer mean in a context where there is seemingly no provision? #reframing #thingstothinkabout

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This is where I stopped to watch the fishing boats and to really think through what I was praying. #beautyandmystery

Aside

Today was the twins one week anniversary with us! We were talking during dinner about how far the kids have come in just one week and how well it’s really going. It’s true. I am so thankful! All four of my kids have handled this last week with flexibility, grace, love, and a whole lot of good humor. I’m happy tonight to report that both the twins are finally on antibiotics and vitamins and that it seems their journey toward health and healing is well underway. Good news. I can’t quite describe the deep joy of being able to give them the nutrients they need. It’s weighty and wonderful, knowing that we are now responsible for those little mouths and the hearts that go along with them. It’s about time!

who is my neighbor?

I’m pretty big on hospitality. I love welcoming in the outsider, sharing the table, opening our home, and making sure people in general feel loved, valued, and wanted. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at this, but this trip has got me thinking, particularly about how I show hospitality those those I live in close proximity with- my neighbors. 

I’ve been learning a lot about what it means to be a neighbor from the people here. Being the outsider and the newcomer to the community, I have been astonished by the number of people who have showed up at our door, stopped cars mid-street to say hello and introduce themselves, invited us places (to meals, to their homes, to church, to their own restaurants), shared their stories (and asked us ours), helped us get settled (running errands, figuring out currency, carting us around the city), and who have just expressed a genuine gladness for our presence. 

I’m thinking about how, though I do those things in certain arenas of life and with certain groups of people, I do not tend to offer that kind of hospitality and warmth to the people who are my neighbors (meaning the actual folks who live on our block or our alley, not the general, all-inclusive “neighbor.” That one is easier for me). I’d like to change that. 

So far on my list of changes y’all can hold me accountable to: not being so entitled with our water and power supply at home (and here), walking more frequently as a discipline of slowing down and being more present, and now, showing hospitality to my neighbors.  Hopefully someone is writing these down, ha! 

Simply put, we might have come here to adopt, but it feels like we ourselves are being adopted. And this adoption feels more like an invitation- one that should be extended to others, so that they too can feel taken care of, known, and full of the hope that comes from having people with you on the journey. #joinme #everythingsgoingtobealright

what dad thinks (guest post by David Ludwig)

When people hear that we are inviting in two kids from Africa to join our family, the response we frequently receive is either a look of compassion (typically not for the kids we’re adopting but for Jess and I and our apparent inability to make rational decisions on behalf of our family), and/or a look of unmistakable curiosity.

To make things worse, when the person finally asks “why” we are adopting, as an internal processor, I typically resort to as brief of an answer as possible.  Something like “it’s gonna be fun…” which usually doesn’t give people the type of insight into my thought process they are looking for.

So here it is…

There are three things that have been the primary influences on my decision to adopt two kids from Africa.  First, my three years of teaching Jr. High math/science in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and second, two guys who, if you saw them walking toward you on the sidewalk, you’d think they were twins: Rob Bell and Kid President.

For 3 years after college I taught for an LAUSD Jr. High school that was 70% black and 30% Hispanic.  Over the course of those 3 years as I became more familiar with my students, their lives, and the struggle they routinely had to overcome that I didn’t even know existed (because I never had to or never will have to face), Jess and I began a conversation about what it might look like to bring a child in as our own who typically wouldn’t be able to experience stability, support, and consistency in a home environment.  So the conversation of adoption between Jess and I started over 13 years ago as a result of my teaching experience and has just resurfaced in this last year as we have been talking about our future as a family and if there were any more “Ludwig children” to come.

Post teaching I began to spend the better hours of my day in ministry to students, and like every other Youth Pastor during the early 2000’s, I became very familiar with Rob Bell’s Nooma films.  The teaching in the film Rhythm had a profound influence on not only my decision to adopt, but also my attempt to understand God. Rob Bell begins the film by stating that we can’t know God fully (this resonated well with me b/c I’m convinced you couldn’t explain to me how my car works in the same amount of pages as the bible let alone fully reveal a God we cannot see). He goes on to say that although we can’t fully know God, He can be compared to a song that has been “heard” all throughout human history through acts of love, downward mobility, justice, righteousness, compassion, and mostly through Jesus.  And so at the end of the day, as his children, we are best off orienting our lives around the “song” of God, keeping rhythm with what he is doing in the world. In my mind, the idea of adoption is something that is in rhythm of what God is up to in the world- extending a community of love and grace and peace to those who do not have it.

Finally from the endless wisdom of the cultural icon that is Kid President… “if Robert Frost is correct and there really are two roads that we can travel… I want to go down the road that leads to awesome.”  Jess and I know it will be difficult at times, but we feel that adopting children who don’t have a family fits into the category of “awesome” and we are excited to be heading down this road.

the “waiting” stage

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This is the stage you realize God can put a vicious fight in you for a kid without your blood coursing through his veins. Those early doubts about loving a child without the helpful instincts of biology are put to rest. Of course, you don’t know this kid yet, but you love him in your heart, in your bones. You’ll fight like hell to get to him. You can’t think of anything else. You are obsessed. You dream about him like you did when you were pregnant. You realize that when God said He sets the lonely in families, He meant it, and He doesn’t just transform the “lonely” but also the “families.” He changes us for one another. God can create a family across countries, beyond genetics, through impossible circumstances, and past reason.

-Jen Hatmaker

Link

Sign this (please).

I often look at the magnitude of the brokenness in the world and feel that there is little I can do about it. I am passionate about living a life of love that leaves people, places and things better off and more whole than when I came across them, but still, my potential impact can seem so small in comparison to the size of the problems in the world.

Every once in a while I come across small things that actually make a big difference, and this is one of them. Conservative estimates say more than 10 million children around the world live outside a family setting, in institutions or on the street. In reality, that number may be much higher. 

Adoptions into the U.S. have fallen by more than 60 percent since 2004, due in large part to a broken system filled with delays, bureaucracy, discrimination and staggering costs.

By sacrificing a small amount of time (it took me about 1 minute to fill it out) we can be advocates for these children and these families who are waiting around the world. To me, it seems like a small sacrifice for a potentially big impact. I hope you will join me.

Here’s to bringing kids home and to ending the false assumption that we can’t make a difference in the world at large.