Jeff Johnson Writing For the Children

I know that many of you heard the story yesterday about the custody battle between Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry for their  four-year-old daughter. Media reports state: “a custody evaluator — a psychologist — wrote the report after extensive interviews with the family and others. The report raised issues not about Gabriel’s ability to love but to care for Nahla, in part because of personal issues.  A judge will decide the custody arrangement later this month, and whether Halle gets to move to Paris with Nahla — something Gabriel opposes.”

Now, before we begin to take sides, which countless numbers of people have via social media, we need to look at the bigger picture. It is the very process of taking sides that is a reflection of the challenge that many of us who are trying to co-parent face daily. The challenge where one question is lifted over that of the very welfare of the children we claim to want to love and develop. That question is who is more right.

As the country faces increased divorce rates and more children, especially in our community, are being raised in single parent homes, the notion of co-parenting becomes more and more important. Co-parenting; or separated/divorced parents finding ways to collectively and cooperatively raise children they have brought into the world, is for many more difficult than trekking Mt. Kilimanjaro backwards with a blindfold. We carry as men and women so much pain, anger, shame and regret (did I say anger?) as a result of failed relationships that we can often never see beyond it in the name of providing a healthy space for our children.

Children are like beautiful flowers. They need ideal conditions in order to properly grow, bloom, and mature. What I see so often is parents attempting to fight for the position of greatest provider of light and water. “I can provide for them better than you” or “you can’t love them or address their emotional needs the way I can”. And what we fail to realize is that no matter how true either or any of the statements you can come up with to describe how great you are at parenting, it is secondary to the environment in with the parenting is done. By that I mean you could provide the greatest light since the sun to your babies, and provide care like spring rain, but if the soil that your babies are in is contaminated, all that great light and water still can’t stop the flowers from being infected.

And my beloved family, so many of us are further contaminating the soil even in our well doing.

To finish Jeff’s article, visit Black America Web by clicking here.

Fathers Know Best, Interview #4

FF: Describe your family.

EJ: the diaspora of the Johnsons.  We are spread out.  My oldest son (Josiah, 13) primarily lives with his mother now in the Western Suburban area.  My youngest two, (Alexandria, 5) and (Franklin, 2) from my marriage also primarily live with their mother.  I would have to say that we are a righteous family.  A family where all the members are interested in doing good for themselves, for one another and others.  And I mean everybody.

Josiah the oldest of my three children is great. I can go on and on about this guy.  I remember when I used to worry about him. And I mean really worry.  I would say to myself “Lord, why would you send me a child like this?”  With him it was problems in school.  Problems in church at Sunday school.  Problems in extracurricular sports. Almost every area, this guy was kicking up dust.  What amazes me to say is that he is a phenomenal son and has always been.  In all those challenging areas that I’ve mentioned, through it all, he has always been a good person.  Adults marvel at how mature he has always been.  He is interested in trying everything, every sport, and every instrument.  He is littered with ambition and insight.  Overall, he is careful.  I’m relieved because I understand him now.  He’s me.

Alexandria, the middle child is the one that really introduced me to fatherhood.  I remember so well, she started coming down the birth canal at 12:00 A.M. on the dot on her due date.  She is still the same way.  She means what she says, and will do what she says.  Miss consistent, honest, innovator, beautiful, family leader.  She has always been special to me because when I was younger I could always envision myself with a daughter.  Even at the age of five she is the ideal daughter.  I am blessed because I understand her  like I understand my son.

The newest guy, Franklin is of the same flavor as the other two.  He is independent and vocal about his independence.  It’s amazing because he looks like my oldest son’s identical twin at his age.  I realize with Franklin the style of parenting I have used with Josiah and Alexandria will not get through.  He has a completely different set of motivations.
FF: How has fatherhood changed you?

EJ: I was 21 when I became a father.  At that time, I wasn’t used to depending on people or using people for help.  I had always been helpful to others, but had managed my life up to that point trying not to need help from others.   At that time, considering my proud personality, I had to learn to depend on others.  I had to be the one asking for advice.  I had to be the one who needed resources.  I was the one who didn’t know what to do, or say.  I began to live a new life.  Or I added a new “wing” to my existing life structure.

Fatherhood has inspired new relationships with people, places and things I ordinarily wouldn’t have any relation.  For example, I’ve been a member of the Chicago’s kids museum.  I’ve been to the zoo agazillion times.  There is no way in the world I would know who Dora the Explorer is.

FF: Have you made any mistakes as a dad? If you’re not a liar, name one and talk about what it meant to you.

EJ: I will mention probably the most benign or, at least, something where I won’t implicate myself by mentioning.  Without dwelling on buying diapers at the last minute from Walgreens (too expensive), or bringing home the wrong formula (in trouble with the wife).  I would say one of the mistakes worth talking about that I constantly keep making is being impatient.  Sometimes I forget that my children are children.  That they need some room to make mistakes.  A strong feature in my character is the ability to improve things.  On the downside of that feature is fault-finding.  I am sometimes driven to crave perfection.

FF: What’s the most helpful advice you heard when you were becoming a father or as you’ve been a father?

EJ: While living in South Holland, I was to fortunate to have made the acquaintance of several middle-aged adult fathers.  Fathers with whom I share common frames of references.  I was having difficulty getting through to my son on a lot of concerns.  Being able to watch these older gentlemen talk to their children, interact with their children, etc. provided a good template for me.  More importantly, the best piece of advice that one of the father’s shared with me was “share stories about yourself when you were a child.”  This really worked!  Instead of telling my son what to do all the time, I would just share my stories that were similar to his experience.  I could tell this would really make him contemplate how  alike we are.  I could also see that he was generally more at ease knowing that he wasn’t alone.

FF: How do you attend to your relationship with your children’s mother? Has it changed over time. How so?

EJ:  Literally having to work/walk together with a person you don’t see everyday is a character challenge.  What tools I usually use are respect, understanding, and patience.  The ladies like respect and definitely being understood.  At first, it wasn’t always like this.  I remember wanting what I wanted when I wanted it.  That had to change.

FF: You move back and forth to see your children, to maintain relationships with them. What has that meant to you as a dad and how you’ve gone about planning and living your life?

EJ: It mostly sucks.  Honestly!  To be with them or to pick them up it’s a long drive.  A tenacious drive.  When things go awry, I have a long way to travel to get to them.  After the divorce, I was picking up everyone from their various locations and it three hours to pick up everyone.  This is the downside of it though.  On the upside, the drive gives me a lot of time to plan and think of new projects, etc.  And when everyone is in the car we have a lot time to spend in each others space without it being overbearing.

I know every other Friday and Sunday for the last past 13 years have been reserved for transporting children.  Now after the divorce, it is every other Friday & Sunday, along with every Monday and Wednesday that are set aside for transporting kids.

It means not only setting aside time to be with my children but also making time for traveling to get to them to be able to spend time with them.

FF: What surprises are there along the way for parents? What do you wish you were told to expect?

EJ:  I’m surprised at how serious of job this is.  How much thought needs to be put into each day, each word, each meal, each everything.  Fathering requires a lot of attention and planning.  Initially, I thought all I had to do was feed em, cloth em and tell em what to do.  In this age, love means so much more children.  The amount of sacrifices that need to be made to communicate love to my children is beyond what I ever would have imagined.

FF: What is one recent memory you made with your children?
 EJ:  Franklin, the youngest, has recently learned how to ride his bike.  That was really amazing.  He also enjoys it because he can’t stop riding the bike.  Even in the house.  He wakes up in the morning and that is his priority, to get on the bike and ride around the basement.

More on Marriage: Interview with Johnathan & Toni Alvarado, authors of Let’s Stay Together

In my last post, I reflected upon my role as pastor in relation to marriage and divorce.  In some ways, I’m continuing that reflection with what I offer you in this post.

I read Let’s Stay Together this year.  It’s by two of my mentors, Bishop Johnathan Alvarado and his wife and colleague, Dr. Toni Alvarado.  I asked them a few questions about their book, which I commend to you if you’re interested in marriage, interested in getting married, or serious about strengthening yourself in relation to a long-term committed relationship.  As I’ve told them, I am thankful for their willingness to teach others about marriage, to mentor me and my wife in our marriage, as well as their hard work in living what they say.  I’m realistic but I hold them to a high bar, which they, by grace, reach gracefully.

1)      What motivated you to write Let’s Stay Together?

We have been concerned with the rising divorce rate within the body of Christ.  We noticed that divorces were not remanded to the ranks of the laity exclusively but even amongst the clergy and leaders within the body of Christ divorce seems to be recurring and even acceptable.  Let’s Stay Together is an attempt to stop the hemorrhage and provide strategies and solutions for longevity and success in marriage. Further, we carry a burden to prepare singles who are desirous of marriage for healthy and productive relationships.

 2)      Your commitment to marriage shines in this book.  At the same time, you counsel couples and you see the hardships people face when trying to live out their marital vows in our society.  How do you maintain your conviction that “divorce was not an option” when that option is so accessible?

We maintain that conviction because we believe that the biblical mandate for marriage carries with it the ability to fulfill its requisites.  Second, we understand that strong marriages are the building blocks for a society.  Not only do we purport that it is a Christian mandate but also it is a necessary institution for the continuance of any civil society.  Finally, the divorced persons with whom we have spoken and/or counseled have consistently confirmed our suspicions that divorce is not all that it’s cracked up to be!  There are those who after having read our book have testified that if they had only known to apply some of the skills that we enumerate, they would have never divorced in the first place. 

 3)      In what ways can a couple mature their beliefs about the long-term covenant of marriage before getting married?

We are strong advocates for pre-marital counseling.  In our contemporary culture, people do more to get a “drivers license” than they do to get a “marriage license.”  In our premarital counseling, not only do couples learn skills that give them the opportunity to have a good marriage but they also get first hand exposure to what a healthy marriage could look like.  The combination of information and impartation gives premarital couples a foundation for marital success.

 4)      You are leaders.  Are their any specific ways leaders are vulnerable to marital failure?

Yes.  Public leaders are particularly vulnerable to marital failure precisely because of the public nature of the lives that they lead.  The pressure of genuinely trying to be a healthy example to others adds a dimension to the marital relationship that must be managed with skill and prudence.  Most couples do not divorce because of a lack of love, but rather they divorce because they lack the skills necessary to stay married, especially while living in the public eye.  We address this in the chapter of the book entitled: “Mega business, career, and ministry requires a mega-marriage.”

5)      One reason I wanted to interview you was to ask you this question.  How have divorces by significant leaders (e.g., Al and Tipper Gore) and celebrity figures in our country informed and challenged how readers hear your relationship strategies?  Does the ease with which many people approach marital dissolution, or not being married for that matter, change how you engage with couples who desire healthy marriages?

We live in an age where the media no longer reflects the common life of the people but rather it frames and crafts the lives that we live.  The media moguls are both predictive and determinative as to how we will live.  Because of this, public figures have more influence on public life than they realize.  When public figures and “leaders” within our society dismiss their marriages without so much as a tear it tacitly gives others the permission or even the encouragement to do the same.  It does change the way in which we have to counsel and instruct intended couples and married couples.  We have to teach them to be counter-cultural if they are going to be successful in their marriages.  

 6)      This is a book about marriage, but a lot of people aren’t married.  And might not get married.  Is there something in this book for them, and if so, what might they find?

While this book is specifically couched in the context of marriage, it is principally a book of relationship strategies.  In the book, we teach strategies that can be beneficial to any relationship.  In any relationship two people have to be able to communicate effectively so we teach principles of good communication.  In every relationship some conflict will arise therefore we teach principles of negotiation for positive resolution.  We believe that this book has something for everyone, not just married couples.  As a matter of fact, our singles are purchasing and enjoying reading the book at least as much as our married and intended couples!

 7)      What are one or two things you want readers to takeaway from Let’s Stay Together?

Here they are: 

  • We want our readers to take away the passion that we have for being married.  We endeavor, through our candid examples and transparent anecdotes to be as forthcoming and genuine as possible while simultaneously painting a realistic picture of the work involved in having a good marriage.  We believe that marriage is viable, beneficial, and worth the effort it takes to enjoy life together. 

 

  • For our readers who may be unmarried, we desire to inspire, encourage, and to demonstrate to them that in spite of all of the negativity that is so aggrandized, marriage still works.  The skills that we teach will enhance their lives and every relationship that they may have. 

 

  • Finally, we want every reader to take away the knowledge and tools to build a strong, vibrant, and successful marriage.  It is our hope that everyone who reads this work will discover the blessings of life together, just as we have. 

8)     How can readers of this blog learn about your book and the other dozen things you do?

The book can be purcashed on our website.  Of course they can find us on our blog and at the following links:
www.totalgrace.org
www.mskfoundation.org
www.beulah.org

Til Death Do Us Part

Our church staff engaged in a round of emailed conversation a few weeks ago when one of us forwarded a question this brother raised.  Another coworker asked if anyone knew the questioner.  I chimed in that I did, that I served as his premarital counselor, in fact.  I could already tell that this was going somewhere: I was about to be somebody’s punchline. 

Indeed, our lead pastor replied that something was amiss with the couples I had been working with.  A few weeks prior, he informed me of my “first divorce,” the first time a couple whose marriage I officiated ended in divorce.  Of course, that conversation was serious.  In this emailed case, he was suggesting that my track record was not good.  He was being playful.

But it stung.  It still stings.

Any pastor paying attention to his congregation takes notice when a couple is in trouble.  If the pastor doesn’t, he or she should look to another type of work.  Leaders care when marriages experience trouble or falter.  Some of our best work is done in crisis.  I know we have limits, but there’s much room for grace when trouble fills a person’s life.

Nonetheless, my own small record, if I can call it that, has me thinking hard about my role in people’s lives and about the community’s role in helping sustain relationships when possible.  It’s not always possible, I know.  But I’m thinking that I shouldn’t lead people in taking vows when and if I cannot be in the immediate community who will help that couple live those big words.  That’s the idea behind the ceremony being led by a pastor, in a church, after all.

Leading a couple in vow-taking is a joy and a responsibility.  It’s fun to see a pair in love, standing before me with nothing but bliss in front of them, to look at them and to know some–again, some–of the things that will work against that bliss.  It’s a responsibility I enjoy, living with them, side by side in the faith community, as they push their feet to keep up to those uttered promises. 

In my congregation, a lot of people get married and leave.  They graduate from school and go off to some place else.  It’s a part of our mission to do with those good folks what we can, but we know that many of them will leave.  In some cases that means “marrying them off” and watching them go to (hopefully) other communities of faith where they will be supported.  But my first divorce has me considering how to approach my pastoral responsibility.  

It’s why I don’t officiate just anybody’s wedding in the first place.  I’m not a service provider.  I’m selective.  Because I’m a pastor.  But this sting is bothering me.  It has me thinking about what I’ll say to the next pair who sends an email looking for an officiating minister–and I’m always thinking about this.

Not everybody’s married, but we all know that relative divorce, don’t we?  You know a friend or a person you trust or a person you believed with all your heart would maintain a successful, enduring marriage.  You have an example or two, an up close one, that makes you wonder about marriage and divorce, that makes you ask questions about things you once assumed.

So I ask you: Has divorce made you do something differently, made you see something differently?  What can you share?