Saturday, April 29, 2017

What's in a Name?

Managing a blended family can feel like being in the blender yourself sometimes. There are so many difficulties and pitfalls that can make you wonder sometimes if it's ever going to just all come together (spoiler ahead - I'm pretty sure it never does). There are custody schedules and finances to organize. There are House A rules and House B rules and All The Time rules. On top of in-laws, there are ex-in-laws. At least I think that's the way to say it. What else would it be? Pre-laws? Outlaws, maybe?

Out of all the difficult issues and negotiations, one of the most challenging problems to tackle is one that I think most people don't initially think of - names. I mean, exactly what are we supposed to call each other? 

When I introduced my wife to my older kids, after a couple of months of dating, I made the mistake of presenting her to them on a first name basis. This was only the second time I had let them meet a woman I was dating in two years, and they never would have met the first woman if I had known what I was doing at the time or had any sense. So, I hadn't really thought through all of the protocols involved. 

My kids have always been raised, sort of like I was, to call adults only Miss or Mister First Name, or Auntie or Uncle First Name, if we're close friends. But for some reason, this seemed too formal at first meeting, both for me and my (then) girlfriend. So at first they called her by her first name. Very soon, when it looked as if things were going to get serious between us, and probably quickly, we both started to realize that this name situation wasn't going to work long term. But what do you call your stepmother? What name or title defines that relationship in a respectful way, and doesn't trample the feelings of the biological mom?

"Mom" doesn't seem quite right. Although my wife would have welcomed it, she remembers what it was like to be a young woman who's mother had passed away and getting used to the idea of her father remarrying. It took some time for her to even get her head wrapped around the idea of having another female parental figure, and longer than that to start feeling comfortable calling her "Mom." And that was without the added difficulty of shared custody.

The first name we came up with was Mama Ty, since my wife's name is TyAnn, and Ty for short. Kind of casual, respectful, familial, but not official, right? That lasted for less than a week, just enough time for the kids to spend a weekend at their mom's house and tell her a funny story about something that "Mama Ty" said. I got a phone call from House B right away, and an emphatic explanation about why that name was neither appropriate nor welcome, along with a verbal cease and desist order. My wife was a little upset when I relayed the news to her, especially because the first-name-basis bothered her so much, and because we (mostly she) had put a lot of thought and emotion into coming up with that name. In a lot of ways, it's almost as difficult as naming a child, since it sticks with the family forever and is so intrinsically linked to a person's identity. 

I was a little upset about going back to square one, but the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with my ex, even down to the emotional charge of the conversation. I understood where she was coming from. The name isn't "Mom," but it's a little too close for comfort. I get it, and I would feel the same way in that position. There are no circumstances under which I would want my children calling their stepfather "Dad." Not "Dad," not "Daddy," "Dadster," "Daddio." Unless he's a priest, and actually on the clock and wearing his collar, he doesn't get the title of father. That title goes to me, and I think I've earned it. So I was able to see where she was coming from.

So, like it or not, square one is exactly where we found ourselves. We couldn't go back to tradition, even though my wife was raised to respect adults pretty much the same way I was. Miss TyAnn seemed way too formal for such a close and familial relationship. Even though the relationship was far from close and only legally familial at the time, that was the goal, and it really felt as if such a formal title would stifle any growing bond between us all.

Likewise, Auntie TyAnn seemed not only a little too formal, but also just straight up weird. We had visions of the kind of looks we might get in public when people hear our children calling my wife Auntie, especially since we are also a mixed family (Mixed and Blended - get it?). "It doesn't look like he had kids with his sister, so, his brother's sister?" The prettiest explanation for me kissing "Auntie TyAnn" in public is that Uncle and Auntie are spending time with the niece and nephew, but then that falls apart when the kids call me "Dad." It's easy to say that everyone should mind their own business and stop trying to figure out anyone else's, but I know I listen in intently on every conversation going on around me in public and sometimes go home and write stories about them, and I don't think I'm the only one, so apparently perception matters.

After a lot of balled up papers, used up vetoes, and other types of name-calling, we finally landed on a name that everyone could live with. MyTy. It makes no sense at all, except that it's a fun and intimate derivation of my wife's name, one that is special for the kids, that only they can use. It's a name that, to us, conjures up a sense of closeness and fun and silliness, and it wasn't until later that we realized that it conjures up a sense of booze and ladies nights as well, but we're okay with that. This way, everybody has a unique and personal name that addresses their role in the blended family, with infringing on anyone else's role in the process. "Mom" is happy with it, "MyTy" is happy with it, and so are "Dad" and the "Bigs."

Of course, then the "Little" comes along. In the next episode of Mixed and Blended, I'll share the rest of the story, in which a very confused toddler grapples with understanding why she can't call Mommy "MyTy."

Saturday, April 1, 2017

If They Put a Gun to My Head

The issue of living for Christ came up at the dinner table the other day, because my daughter is having problems with some of the questions she hears from Christians. She feels as if she gets judged harshly whenever she answers some of these questions truthfully. According to her, everyone looks at her like she's crazy for her response, while at the same time, she thinks everyone else is crazy for theirs.

Usually the questions go something like this: "If someone put a gun to your head and said that they would kill you if you said you were a Christian, would you still confess Christ?" I remember hearing stuff like that all the time growing up, as if it was some kind of impending reality. I also remember wondering why every story about being a Christian starts with somebody holding a gun to my head. Why can't at least half of the stories start out with a really pleasant day, and then maybe work up to somebody holding a gun to my head? It was the final test of true faith, kind of like Grasshopper snatching the pebble out of his master's hand, or Bruce Leroy catching the blue arrow instead of breaking it. The obvious difference is that apparently American Christians don't actually have to snatch the pebble or catch the blue arrow. They just have to say that, hypothetically, they would be able to snatch the pebble or catch the blue arrow in an imaginary world where those things are necessary and common.

There's even a story going around to back up this kind of self-congratulatory mind game, with varying details, but that usually says that some pastor in China puts on a ski mask and sneaks up on his church members, sticking a gun to their heads and demanding that they deny Jesus, or else. Then, after they either pass or fail the test, he reveals his identity and tells them that he was just trying to determine which of his church members were truly dedicated to Christ. If you've seen this on FaceBook or heard it from someone on your church, please don't give it any credibility. The main logical flaw in that made-up scenario is that there is a much simpler and easier way for pastors in China to determine which of their parishioners are truly dedicated.

In China, you can tell if a church-goer is truly devoted to the cause of Christ, in a life-or-death way, if they go to church. Period.

I sometimes wonder if Christians in China tell similar stories about us to their members. "In Tampa, a pastor climbed up on the roofs of his members with a water hose and sprayed water over the front of their house to see who would come to church, EVEN IN THE RAIN."

I still hear questions and hypotheticals like this is sermons today, and every once in a while, someone even asks me in person, and I always say the same thing to the "If someone put a gun to your head ..." crowd.

I don't know what I would do.

And neither do you.

At least that's the condensed version. The real response is that nobody really knows what they will do in a situation like that, or any high pressure situation, for that matter. The truth is, just talking to a stranger about Jesus sometimes feels a little like having a gun to my head, anyway. As an American, I'm blessed that I don't have to ever worry about these kinds of dangers in any real sense, as long as I stay safely inside these borders. The irony of being an American Christian is that our faith and devotion are challenged in so many more meaningful ways all the time, and we fail those tests pretty consistently, but then puff ourselves up with declarations of imagined martyrdom. Every time we listen to a coworker's problems and neglect to tell them that what they really need is the love of Christ, we fail the test. Every time we stand up to condemn all of the sins and vices that others do, but rationalize and excuse our own, we fail the test. And every time we make our brothers and sisters feel as if they don't measure up, because their hypothetical faith game isn't as strong as our hypothetical faith game, we fail the test.

Really, it's not much of a test anyway. Peter denied knowing Christ three times in one night, and the third time he had to curse out a little girl to prove it. Still, Jesus not only forgave him, but even made him the head of the church, changed his name to suit his new job.

Furthermore, there's something seriously insensitive and wrong about playing this hypothetical game, when so many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing the reality of it on a daily basis. The only difference is that it's not a test, the gunman never even asks the question before shooting, and it doesn't turn out to be some April Fools joke at the end.

So let's try a new challenge. What if instead of posting random Bible verses or vaguely religious words of encouragement to FaceBook, we chose one church member on our friend list whose having a hard time lately, and inbox them a special message of love, with an offer to spend a minute with them to eat and pray together? We know the people in our church who are going through tough times, and if we don't, then shame on us. That way we spread the love of Christ, without stealing His glory.

Or the next time an unchurched or lost person tells us how their life is going badly, instead of just trying to fix it or point out all the ways they're wrong, we just invite them to church or pray with them, for their temporal deliverance and their eternal salvation. Share with them some of the same medicine that made us well.

However we do it, let's do our best to have a real and impactful faith, instead of a hypothetical one.