Brothers

When our Congolese son Ezra came to live with us—me, my husband, our twin daughters, and our older son Knox—he entered a family who welcomed him with open arms but were firmly established as a distinct entity. My husband and I had already been parents for almost 14 years at the time. We had traditions and memories. We had a secret language, a shorthand, created over years of spending time together as a family of 5.

 

Then, along came a sweet, precocious, complicated 5-year old boy. He came to America on a cool April Saturday, and by Sunday he was walking arm in arm with his new big brother, a boy six years his senior.

Now that we are more than a year into this adventure, Knox and Ezra are solidly devoted to their brotherhood. Always one to enjoy spending time with younger children, Knox took to his role quickly and easily. But this wasn’t an hour working in the church nursery or an evening helping his sister babysit. This was a 24/7/365 job and he approached it much the same way he approaches everything he cares about, with determination.

 

Their initial connection came through a shared love of sport. Though this love began on different continents, they both held an almost obsession with the game of soccer. In that first week Ezra lived in America, I made several videos of the two brothers in the backyard, kicking the soccer ball and diving to block goals. The videos were blurry. I took them through windows, standing at a distance not to disturb the beautiful scene unfolding before me.

 

Knox would be the first to tell you that being a big brother has not always been easy. Especially at the beginning, watching as Ezra copes with his fevered emotions, tangled and tripped up by his lack of language skills, has been painful for all of us. I’ve tried to give Knox breaks and strategies for slipping away. We’ve told him that he can tag out when he hits his “playing-with-a-little-kid” limit and we’ll tag in. But for the most part and in spite of those frustrating afternoons, Knox has been the best big brother Ezra could’ve asked for.

 

When I watch this almost 12-year old son of mine as he loves on and cares for his little brother, I think about what we expect of boys. I’m not talking about grades or sports or “manly” accomplishments. I’m thinking of the lesser discussed but far more important Fruits of the Spirit quotient. How high is the bar set when it comes to their evidence of Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control? Let’s stop excusing bad behavior from them because they’re “just being boys” and imagine a world where these boys are raised to honor and protect. A world where we expect them to be responsible and compassionate.

 

If we tell boys that we expect them to strive for these characteristics above their efforts to make straight A’s or make the All-Star Team, then those other things will fall in place or fall away but either way, we will be raising better fathers, husbands, friends, teammates, employees, bosses. Better brothers.

Soccer fanatic

It would be an understatement to say that our 6-year old son Ezra loves soccer. His pet fish is named “Messi” after the Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi. His favorite thing to wear is a soccer jersey. He thinks that the best possible scenario for fun is the combination of him, his brother, his father, and a soccer ball.

 

Seeing that Ezra has only lived with us for just a little more than a year, we know that this love of soccer can’t be wholly attributed to our prompting. It started way before we met him. Though soccer ranks somewhere around 6th place in popularity in America, it’s #1 in the world. All you have to do is take an international trip to experience this. My husband and I saw this firsthand when we traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ezra’s birth country.

 

Ezra was 3-years old at the time. He was shy and uncertain of these American strangers (us) who were so foreign to him in speech, appearance, and pretty much every other way. Bouncing a small soccer ball, we persuaded him to come outside to a gravel parking area near our hotel room. Once outside, I videoed Ezra timidly playing a game of catch with Brent. Then, without warning, instead of just catching and tossing, Ezra stuck out his head to make contact with the ball and bounce it back to Brent. For the next 4:37 minutes of video footage, Ezra expertly headed the ball as Brent happily realized that this was a soccer-loving, little boy.

 

Fast forward to present time. Ezra is on a soccer team with 5 other kids. Chanting like a cloistered monk, he prays the night before a game or practice: “Please no rain. Please no rain. Please no rain.” He cheers for his team’s victories—large or small—and empathizes with the opposing team’s defeat (which is tricky because it’s always anyone’s guess who actually wins these free-for-alls).

 

This past Saturday his enthusiasm may have exceeded his sportsmanship. When he stole the ball from an opponent and dribbled it down the field in an uncontested breakaway, he mockingly waved to the players as he passed them, saying: “Goodbye everyone.” Then he took a shot and hit the post. Pride goeth before a fall.

 

Speaking as a completely unbiased observer, Ezra is the best 6-year old soccer player in the universe. As I watch him play now, I think about the countless hours he and his Congolese friends played soccer in the dry dirt of the lots surrounding his orphanage. This was a game meant to engage a variety of ages and sizes. They only needed a soccer ball—or something homemade resembling a ball—and rocks or sticks to designate the goals. They didn’t wear fancy cleats or shin guards or uniforms. They were barefoot in hand-me-downs and the best thing they wore was the smiles on their faces.

 

Who’s to say if Ezra will continue to play soccer or if this is just a passing fancy? Time will tell if his love for this game will diminish and he will make room for other sports and activities in its place. What I can tell you is that his experiences playing soccer as a small child has made him the player he is today—fast, skilled, fearless. It has shaped and equipped him.

 

When I’m in an especially introspective mood and I think of my past, I can see how I was being prepared for my present situation. Relationships, jobs, events, heartbreaks all work together to give me a piece of what I might need now, just like Ezra’s early Congolese soccer experiences combine to create the soccer enthusiast I see each time he runs out onto the field.

Good guy or bad guy?

Watching movies with Ezra, our five-year old son, is not exactly relaxing, that is, unless you like to give a running commentary explaining dialogue, plot twists, character analysis, and generally how the movie will end for 90 minutes nonstop.

His most frequent question is: “Mom, good guy or bad guy?” Pointing to the questionable character on the TV screen—the one who just lost his temper or just laughed in a creepy way or just stole something, Ezra will interrogate me for information so that he can guess what might happen next. He is trying to formulate which characters he should root for and which characters he should hope will fail.

His “good guy or bad guy” questions aren’t just limited to when we’re watching movies. When he saw the characters from the movie Frozen on our paper towels (don’t judge…they were on sale), he pointed to Elsa, the ice queen who selfishly turns her kingdom to ice and consequently endangers her little sister just because she feels like “letting go.”

“Good guy or bad guy?” he asked as I slid a piece of toast on top of Elsa’s picture. He’s seen the movie several times so he knows that Elsa’s actions are bad, but in the end (spoiler alert) she makes things right with her sister. Good or bad? That’s a tricky philosophical dilemma to wrestle with at 6:30 a.m.

Before bed, I read Ezra a book about the story of Zacchaeus, the man who was too short to see Jesus as he was teaching to a crowd of people. As the song says, “He climbed up in a Sycamore tree. The Savior he wanted to see.” I read the story which touched on Zacchaeus’ reputation as a dishonest tax collector. Then Ezra pointed to the picture of Zacchaeus and asked: “Good guy or bad guy?”

I explained, “Zacchaeus was a bad guy then he decided to be a good guy. Sometimes people change, especially after they meet Jesus.”

I thought a lot about our conversation. I thought about Ezra’s need to categorize people into good and bad and I thought about the monumental task of changing your status and reputation from one side to the other.

When word got out that Jesus had eaten at Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus was confronted by the people of the town. They couldn’t believe that he had dined with a “notorious sinner.” Zacchaeus could’ve decided that he had too much bad press to hurtle in order to change his life around but instead he promised to give back all that he owed and then some. This had to be difficult and fraught with a variety of consequences.

I went back to read the story again and I was surprised to see that it took place in Jericho, best known for its wall that came tumbling down after the Israelites marched around it for a week. It may be a coincidence that this interaction between Jesus (Prince of Peace and Light of the World) and Zacchaeus (town creep) happened in a place known for tearing down walls that prevent people from realizing their Promised Land. Or maybe that’s what Jesus is all about. “For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.”

Who am I?

It used to be that every soap opera and sitcom TV show could only remain on the air if they followed a prescribed formula. For instance, there should be at least one episode with an Evil Twin. There should also be an episode where the main characters get trapped somewhere (locked inside a freezer or stranded in a remote cabin during a storm) where they can reminisce over a series of flashbacks.

Another required plotline was the Amnesia Dilemma. I saw it happen to MaryAnn on Gilligan’s Island and Luke on the Dukes of Hazzard and Michelle from Full House. Even Alf, the puppet/alien from the TV show Alf, suffered from severe memory loss after an electrical shock. Most of them were able to regain their memory with another well-placed hit on the head, but until the therapeutic blow was applied comedy ensued.

Growing up, I lived in fear that I would fall victim to amnesia. I thought it was a given, just a matter of time. I assumed I would get knocked in the head (most imagined scenarios involved my older sister as the perpetrator) and I would look around at once-familiar faces and ask, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

I never imagined that amnesia might actually happen without any head-cracking. I never would’ve thought that one day I might look around and ask the same questions: “Who am I? Why am I here?” But that is a possible byproduct of adulthood. There are times when, though with a fully (relatively-speaking) operational mind, I question my identity.

I get caught up in my roles—someone’s wife, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s employee, someone’s friend—and I start to lose myself in the process. I become not just a mom, but a mom to a great student or an average athlete or the woman the preschool calls about her child’s “biting problem.” My identity gets tangled up in their identities. My worries and hopes reflect their worries and hopes. These things pile up, layer after layer, on top of me until I’m unrecognizable even to myself.

If I scrub away all of these extras—the genuine and the counterfeit—and I stand bare-footed and alone, who am I? I’m offered a real and lasting identity through my relationship with an amazing God. Whether I always feel it or not, I am loved and accepted (Ephesians 1:6). I am forgiven (Colossians 1:14). I am fearless (2 Timothy 1:7). I am chosen (Colossians 3:12). I am complete (Colossians 2:10).

These are the descriptions I want to illustrate the real me. They aren’t contingent on my intellect, my weight, my fashion sense, or my bank account. It may require a mighty blow to my head, but I am ready to have some sense knocked into me. I’m ready to truly know who I am.