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What on Earth Are We Doing?

Monday, June 17th, 2013

It’s just less than a month now before we pack up all our worldly belongings and transplant our family from Wheaton, Illinois, to Conway, Arkansas. As we’ve talked to friends and family about our move in recent days, it has become clear that we have not communicated what it is we’ll be doing with ourselves in the coming months and years. So I thought it might help to give you the bullet-point version of things here.

Not our actual route, fyi.

First—and to be completely honest—we don’t know what the future holds beyond 2013. And we’re really okay with that. There is no five year plan. But here’s what we know for sure:

We are confident God is drawing us to Arkansas for the next season of our lives. We’ve been thinking and praying about a move for a couple of years now. We’ve been fairly sure our time in Wheaton was coming to an end, as disappointing as that is in many ways. But we have lacked clarity about our calling and seemed to be pushing up against closed doors. Early this year, though, we felt a clear sense that we can be of greatest use in Christ’s kingdom in Central Arkansas. At least for now. Frankly, we don’t know why. But I suspect we’ll find out.

I will continue freelancing in the publishing industry. I’ve recently started working with Moody Publishers as an independent strategist and acquisitions editor. That work will occupy about half my time and will stabilize the otherwise feast or famine nature of freelance living.

I’ll also be writing. My coauthor, Randy, and I have just signed a contract for another book together for InterVarsity Press. I’d tell you more about that, but it’ll be two years before it’s in print, so you’ll have forgotten by then. Meanwhile I have a couple of personal projects I hope to pursue. And I plan to blog more regularly. We’ll see how that goes.

I’m very excited, too, about opportunities to partner in ministry with my uncle, Rick Bezet, at New Life Church. And I’ll be teaching a survey of the Bible at Ouachita Baptist University in the fall.

In short, I have the extraordinary opportunity to participate actively in publishing, Christian higher education, and ministry all at once. It is in this intersection that I’m the most fruitful and fulfilled. I’m happy to dwell there as long as it makes sense.

In some ways the coming transition will be more dramatic for Amy. She is stepping down from her post at Immanuel, a job she loves among a people we consider family. She’s excited to have more time with Jamie, especially during our time of transition in Arkansas. And the transition away from nearly-full-time ministry will give her opportunity to explore new areas of her giftedness.

For example, she will be teaching an introduction to children’s ministry course at OBU in the fall. This means, of course, that I will be the second-most-popular O’Brien on campus. Or maybe the third, if Jamie works his magic.

There are some opportunities materializing for Amy to do more writing and for her to consult with area churches as they innovate ways to include children more meaningfully in the life and worship of the church—exciting possibilities!

Jamie has been helping me pack.

For the next few weeks our schedules are full of last things—Amy’s last VBS at Immanuel kicked off today. There are only a couple more gatherings of the Einstein Earlybirds before we leave. We are sharing meals with dear friends—not for the last time ever, but for the last time as neighbors. So we are sad to say goodbye.

But when July comes, ours schedules will be full of new things, first things. So we are full of hope and anticipation and gratitude for the good things God is doing with us.

Less and Less Colorblind

Monday, August 27th, 2012

A couple weeks ago Amy and Jamie and I were out with friends. Amy was carrying Jamie as we passed a group of African-American ladies and their kids. One of the kids–a darling little girl, 3 or 4 years old–skipped right along beside us for a few paces with a big smile on her face. Eventually her mom called after her, “That’s far enough, honey. They aren’t going to adopt you too!”

She laughed and her friends laughed. We kind of laughed—at least smiled politely. It wasn’t an offensive comment. She was trying to be good natured. Friends of ours who have adopted kids have experienced far worse. But this was the first time a perfect stranger has felt free to offer commentary on what our family looks like and how it came together. (I need to come up with a witty retort about the night when strangers conceived their children, so I’m armed for such occasions.)

Within about a week of this experience, a couple of people close to us said to us, in different ways, “It’s amazing, but we don’t even notice Jamie’s race.” I think what they mean is that his race doesn’t bother them, or that it doesn’t affect the way they feel about him: he’s really and truly family, and his ethnicity doesn’t disqualify him. I know the comment is made with the best of intentions. At a certain level, I feel just the same way. When I peek over the rail of his crib to wake him from a nap, I don’t think, There’s my sweet little black baby. I just think, Man, I love this kid–my kid. He’s not flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone biologically. But he is as deep in my heart as any other child could be. I can’t imagine loving biological children more or better.

That said, I couldn’t disagree with them more. I’m more aware of my son’s ethnicity all the time. I study his little face a lot, as dads do, and it’s plain to see that his hair is getting thicker and courser. There are places–around his eyes, under his chin, on the back of his neck–that his skin is ever s0 slightly darker than elsewhere. The whites of his eyes shine like moonbeams against his dark skin. And those eyes, dark as onyx…

It may sound strange, but I feel like being attentive to Jamie’s unique complexion has made me more aware of the beauty of the African Americans around me in general. These days, at restaurants and on walks, I catch myself thinking, What a lovely black woman or What a handsome black man. American culture seems to teach that we’d all be better off if we could just become colorblind, to no longer notice the differences between us. I find myself becoming less and less colorblind. It feels like a step in the right direction.

In any case, Jamie’s ethnicity is obvious enough to strangers that they feel comfortable making mention of it. And I know the day will come when on top of difficult or awkward conversations about God or sex, I’ll have to explain to him why he gets pulled over by the cops more often than his white friends, why women clutch their purses when he enters an elevator, why his teachers have lower expectations of his abilities. It is, at minimum, because they notice that he is African American. I can’t imagine it will be helpful for him, then, if his family and friends pretend—or even sincerely believe—that they don’t notice his ethnicity. (“You, black? Hadn’t noticed”?) I’d prefer it, and I think it would do him more good, if we taught him instead that he is handsome and strong and intelligent not despite being black but perhaps because he is black.

I’m learning that white folks are the only ethnic group who claim they “don’t notice” race. I don’t know why this is the case. But I’m trying to leave that myth behind. For Jamie.

Review: Father and Son

Monday, June 18th, 2012

As far as I’m concerned, I became a father around 1pm on Monday, March 12. When I woke up that morning, my son was ten days old, and I had not yet met him. That night Amy and I went to sleep with a seven-pound stranger swaddled in a bassinet beside the bed.

By the reckoning of the state of Illinois, I became a father this past Monday, June 11, when a friendly judge, satisfied of our competence to parent, said “Congratulations” and sent us on our way. Just like that.

Becoming a father under these circumstances means that I have all the fears and insecurities I suspect every father has, plus a few more related to having an adoptive and transracial relationship with my son. So I went looking for guidance from books. I looked at several books about fatherhood before I decided to read Walter Wangerin’s Father and Son: Finding Freedom (2008). Wangerin has two adopted children, both African-American, one a son. I hoped he would offer specific wisdom for the adoptive father of a black son.

He didn’t, really. So in that respect, Father and Son did not meet my expectations. The book isn’t about adoption per se or about raising adopted children or about the challenges of being a multiracial family. The book is about the relationship between Wangerin and his son, Matt, who happens to be adopted.

The gist is this: Though Wangerin has four children, Father and Son is about his relationship with Matt, who is the second eldest child in the Wangerin family. As things develop, Matt grows from a joyful baby to a daredevil child to a rebellious teen to a jobless, homeless, alcoholic young adult. The book records how Matt consistently breaks his curfew, steals, drops out of college, falls in with the wrong crowd. All of this, it seems to Wangerin, is part of Matt’s desire to find freedom from the strictures of his parents’ rules and expectations.

But the book isn’t really about Matt. It’s about the author’s struggle to parent a child who seems determined to ruin his own life. It’s about finding freedom as a father desperate to balance affection and discipline. How do you enforce rules when a child is immune to punishment? What does love look like—tough or tender? These are questions I suspect many fathers ask. And frankly, it may have been too much for me too soon. I had plenty of insecurities about fatherhood before I read Father and Son. Now I think I have more. 

That said, the central theme of the book is a quiet and consistent reminder that God is always at work in the lives of his children, even the straying ones. And I needed to hear that now, at the beginning of my role as father. I cannot imagine striking out on this journey without a deep conviction that our Heavenly Father is covering my foibles and failures with his grace.

One unique feature of this book is that Wangerin’s son Matt writes a section from his own perspective, which is appended to the end. It is moving to read how father and son remember and interpret some of the same experiences differently.

By the end of the book, I had the impression that Wangerin was communicating this: whether fatherhood begins in a delivery room or a courtroom, all earthly fathers have our Heavenly Father as an example of love, discipline, self-sacrifice, and passionate pursuit. Our goal is to gradually be remade after his image.

Le Cou Rouge: Confessions

Monday, May 14th, 2012

le cou rouge (French: “the redneck”)

About this time last year, I wrote about my end-of-the-school-year getaway with my dad in Arkansas (here, if you missed it.) This year, with a new baby at home, I won’t be making the trip to the river. So I’m reflecting on the subject of roots and culture by sharing a website I like and explaining why.

The site is www.honest-food.net (I included a link to this site in my post a year ago.), and it’s dedicated to helping people discover the “forgotten feast,” as the author calls it—food that can be hunted, caught, foraged, or grown at home. I find the site endlessly fascinating. I spend a good bit of time trolling around looking at recipes, reading articles, and generally daydreaming about trying his suggestions. More than that, I feel it represents some of my values, both inherited and developed, and is emblematic somehow of both where I’ve come from and where I’m going. Here are a few reasons why:

1) I value my roots. I love that I grew up with family that values time spent outdoors, whether hunting, fishing, or just plain ol’ working. My childhood experiences instilled in me an appreciation for labor. My dad has always said—and I finally agree—”Anything worth having is worth working for.” It also instilled in me a deep appreciation for nature. Long before I heard anything about “going green,” I heard outdoorsmen talk about preserving the wetlands, minimizing urban and suburban sprawl, protecting ground water from pollutants, and even (through the purchase of licenses and permits) putting their money where their mouths were to support wildlife conservation.

Honest-food.net appeals to both these sensibilities, valuing work and respecting nature. Understanding, pursuing, harvesting, and preparing wild game is hard work. But it can be a crucial part of a responsible and eco-friendly lifestyle.

2) But… That said, rural and small-town Southern life can be insular and suspicious of life beyond the bubble. The hardworking, self-sufficient culture can cast a wary eye on anything that seems luxurious or “fancy.” And there is a tendency in many I grew among to look down on cultures whose values don’t match our own exactly.

But I like the finer things. And I like interacting with and learning from other cultures. Honest-food.net symbolizes this fusion in recipes based on ingredients we ate a lot (venison) with an international twist, as in Ethiopian Lamb and Venison Chops.

3) I long for a greater level of self-sufficiency. The men and women on both sides of my family are do-it-yourselfers: hunters and fisherman, yes; but also carpenters, electricians, seamstresses, gardeners, canners and preservers. Now I don’t have any grand plans to fall off the grid altogether; but I sure would like to stop paying other people to do for me what I can very well do for myself. A site like this one illustrates well the potential for enjoying the finer things without paying for them. All that’s required is some advanced planning and hard work.

4) There’s a little contrarian deep inside. I don’t like to argue. But when I get the sense that everyone in the room has overlooked an important dissenting opinion, I feel morally obligated to defend that opinion, even if I don’t hold it myself. (My apologies to anyone with whom I’ve ever served on a committee.) I don’t know if this is a virtue or a vice. But there it is. I like challenging stereotypes and exposing easy generalizations. So why wouldn’t I enjoy a recipe like the one pictured above that features one of the least fashionable of wild game ingredients (squirrel) in a traditional Spanish dish?

My values and interests have changed over time, no doubt. But I wouldn’t be who I am without the childhood experiences around the farm, in the woods, along the creek, or on the bayou. To friends and family far away, please know that even though we are separated by many miles, I carry our life together deep inside—wherever I am.

Foray into Fatherhood

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

In some ways, we were more prepared to become parents than most people when we brought Jamie home. I mean, how many other couples spend several hours meeting with a case worker—discussing their life history and family dynamics, personal goals, joys and anxieties—log a dozen or so hours of online coursework, and submit to federal fingerprinting and background checks? We’ve worked hard for over four years to get our family started. We were ready.

And yet we weren’t prepared. Not really. For one, I was not prepared to learn so much about myself so quickly. Here are a few things that have taken me by surprise.

So far in my life, my joy has most often been associated with some sense of accomplishment. Graduated from college. Married the woman of my dreams. Landed a good job. So I am regularly perplexed at how much joy I experience just looking at my boy. It doesn’t matter what he’s doing. I could watch him lie there for hours. But when Jamie looks at me with those dark mahogany eyes and grins that toothless grin—well, I know what it must have felt like when the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day.

I have been surprised, too, by the sense of aggressive protectiveness I feel toward Jamie. I’m a peaceful man, and cautious, by nature. But since the day we brought Jamie home, I have sensed a deep capacity to defend him him tooth and claw against dangers of all sorts: bullies (or the fathers of bullies!), impatient teachers, insensitive comments from strangers. I knew a mother’s love could be fierce; it turns out a father’s can be, too.

Some revelations are upsetting. I have realized in the past two months how deeply ingrained my own racial prejudices are. Just two weeks after Jamie joined our family, I traveled to Ohio to speak at a conference. I was waiting for the elevator in the hotel lobby one night, writing a text message. I looked up when the door opened and—entirely unconsciously—hesitated for a brief moment. There were three men in the elevator, well dressed, well groomed, polite. And black. And my first conscious thought was, I’ll wait. I’ll catch the next ride up.

As a matter of principle (and discipline), I smiled and stepped on the elevator. One of the men asked me which floor, and I told him. While I was finishing my text message, I heard one man say to the other, “I’m really sorry to hear about your mother. She’s been through a lot. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

What was I afraid of? I wanted to cry. And apologize for my gut-level reactions. And show them a picture of my son and say, “See, I’m not like that—really.”

What really perplexes me is how I can have no disappointment, no doubts, no reservations about raising a black child, but at the same time still find myself fearful or anxious around members of the black community. (It’s a little beside the point to talk about where these feelings come from. My good friend Matt does a great job here.) James David O’Brien is flesh and blood, as far as I’m concerned, from his soft black curls to the pale-pink pads of his feet. Nevertheless I carry deep inside myself a contagion of fear and mistrust that I risk passing on to Jamie. He’ll have challenges enough forging his identity in a culture divided by race. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might make his journey more difficult, if I’m not careful.

Two months ago I had in mind that the hard part of fatherhood would be the sleepless nights and the diaper changes and discipline, that sort of thing. I’m finding the real challenge to be that this little addition is forcing me to face deep parts of me I’ve never had to examine.

I anticipated having to teach Jamie how to be a man. It looks like he’s teaching me the same thing.