With a few minor edits, the following is the transcript of a talk I gave at a women's conference this past weekend. Hopefully the first of many on the topic of adoption.
I am not at all comfortable with the task I’ve been asked to perform this morning. I am much more at home arranging cookies on trays and disappearing before the crowd arrives. But about a month ago, I was listening to K-Love radio while I was driving somewhere. They were interviewing this singer/songwriter I’d never heard of - a man named Jason Gray. In the course of the interview, he said something like “When we hide our weaknesses from each other, we hide the grace of God.” I was struck by the truth of that simple statement. So this morning, I’m going to take off my mask – which isn’t actually as pretty as I’d like to believe, anyway – and share with you my weakness and brokenness. My prayer over the course of the last month has been that God will perform one of His signature reversals. That He will use exponentially what Satan had intended as a means to destroy one family, to instead illuminate His grace for the benefit of many.
I’d like to paint a picture in your mind before I start…
Imagine that a gift is being held out to you. It is a beautiful gift – it is the most perfect gift chosen just for you by someone who loves you dearly. Now imagine that instead of reaching out your hand to accept the gift and offering your thanks to the giver, you knock it away and refuse to accept it. Not just once, but repeatedly. The giver continues to offer the gift, and you continue to refuse it. Hold onto that picture while I tell my story….
I grew up going to church, and I’ve called myself a Christian since I was a little girl. But a daily relationship with Christ was not something that I experienced in my childhood. I finally responded to God’s insistent whisper in my ear at the beginning of my sophomore year of college and became His child. At that point, I decided that dating losers in an effort to irritate my parents probably wasn’t a good life plan, and I set off on a mission to meet "The One". So when I caught sight of the cute guy playing the guitar at bible study a couple of months later, that was it for me. We started dating and eventually (it took longer than I would have liked) got down to the business of discussing marriage. In the course of those discussions we, of course, talked about children. Fertility issues run in my family, so when S and I were discussing marriage, one of the things we talked about was the good probability that we would be unable to have biological children. Adoption was just a natural part of conversations about our future together.
Shortly after we got married, we started attending Calvary Baptist Church. God called a couple there to adopt a child from Russia. He then called them back to Russia to do service projects for the orphanage where they found their daughter. They started recruiting other people in the church to go with them. Who then started bringing children home. Because once you go and see an orphanage, and you see the children, you cannot get it out of your head. So there came to be a pretty good gang of former Russian orphans running around the church, and a strong culture of adoption developed within the church family. We were just surrounded by it, and adoption continued to be a natural part of our conversations at home.
When we decided that we were ready for children, I was prepared to wait a long time. Imagine my surprise when the little dot on the stick turned the right color the first month. Frankly, I was a little unprepared. I was shocked again when it happened 3 years later. Then the third time - it didn’t. But I was OK with that. I had discovered that I didn’t really like babies all that much. They’re kind of demanding…and I really like to sleep. We felt that God was telling us that it was finally the right time to pursue adoption. I had dreams of filling my house to overflowing with as many children as I could cram in.
We had girls, so we wanted boys. Two boys. Preferably biological brothers, because they can be harder to place. We were referred these two adorable boys, we travelled to Russia to meet them, we fell in love, and through a sequence of events involving playing political games with the lives of children (a story which I don’t have time to tell this morning), we lost them. And it was devastating. But we had seen this little blond boy while we were there…
Here he is in the orphanage the first time we saw him. [picture] I had no idea that J would become a part of our family when I took this picture. I was just trying to provide whatever history I could for our boys, which included taking pictures of the other children in their group. We did talk about J on the plane ride home – how cute he was, how we hoped that he would find a home. After we recovered from the initial shock of losing our referral, we inquired about J. In a providential sequence of events, we were able to bring him home without any delays in the adoption process. I have absolutely no doubt that God orchestrated the whole thing.
When we brought J home in the Fall of 2007, we expected the happily-ever-after fairytale that you see on the covers of adoption brochures. Like many people, we truly believed that the love of a family would wash away the wounds and scars from J’s past.
J did not have a happy life before God led us to him. His birthmother was an alcoholic who did not care for him properly. He was often cold, often hungry, and often left to wallow in his own filth. He quickly learned that no one would come to help him when he cried. He was left with strangers for long stretches of time. From the revolving sea of faces, he learned that no one special person cared for him. Finally, a kind neighbor lady had compassion for him and called the police. By then, he was a very sick baby, and was taken to the hospital. When he was sufficiently recovered, he was moved to an orphanage. J lived in a group of children with one or two caretakers. Once again, there was no special person to care for him. But he didn’t need anyone…at the ripe old age of 4, he had learned to take care of himself.
I now understand that, sadly, a child maltreated in this way suffers permanent scars, not easily washed away. There isn’t time to delve deeply into J’s medical issues this morning, but I think this picture says a thousand words. [picture] It is from a study published in 2001, and shows the brains of two 3-year-olds. One is normal, one has been maltreated. The difference is obvious. Additionally, J has been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, a common problem with children adopted from Eastern Europe. Because the experiences of infancy and childhood provide the organizing framework for the brain, children who are maltreated often develop emotional, behavioral and learning problems that persist throughout their lifetime. J is essentially a child with a traumatic brain injury. Researchers often draw comparisons to the damage done by a head injury in a car accident.
Because of the trauma that J experienced in his infancy and early childhood, the intimacy of family relationships terrifies him. He sees himself as worthless piece of garbage, and the fact that he was thrown away by his birth mom proves it. This self-concept manifests itself in behavioral difficulties unconsciously designed to keep anyone from getting too close. Which then becomes an ugly, self-fulfilling prophesy. He is still certain, after five years in our family, that we will abandon him at any moment. He expects to be rejected, so he rejects us first. The clinical name for this is Attachment Disorder.
These are some of the signs of Attachment Disorder taken from the handout I received at the first seminar I attended when we were trying to make sense of the chaos going on in our home. This is J:
-Avoidance of eye contact
J stares at my chin when I talk to him.
This has improved, but when we first brought him I had to be very careful in stores because he would have happily gone home with anyone.
He picks paint off walls, breaks toys, chews himself, tears holes in clothing…
Since he tried to wrench the leg off our cat, we do not leave him unattended with our animals. This also applies to children smaller than him.
All the time. About everything. Even if I’ve told him that I know the truth before he starts talking.
If he thinks it, he does it. If he wants it, he takes it.
Consequences are not effective. We are still struggling with the same obedience issues we were working on 5 years ago.
There is no right/wrong filter and no reason to do the right thing if no one is watching.
“Do unto others” makes absolutely no sense to him.
He is much more comfortable with anger than love. Love scares him.
-Superficially engaging and charming
J fulfills his need for interpersonal relationships through many shallow interactions. He spends his life skimming the surface.
Which brings me to this point. Some of you are thinking that this doesn’t sound like the little boy that you know from Sunday School class. You’re right. His teachers at church and at school, and even extended family, do indeed find him to be engaging and charming and can’t understand why I’m so worn and weary. It is a lonely, isolating experience to have a child who is so eager to please others and yet so eager to reject me. It is common for parents – particularly mothers, myself included – of attachment challenged children to think that they are going crazy.
Why would any child choose to live this way? The root of J’s problem is two-fold: 1. He doesn’t understand what he’s been rescued from, so he doesn’t appreciate what he’s been given, and 2. he still thinks of himself as an orphan. If he could truly grasp that a family, not an orphanage is God’s design for raising children, as well as the horror that his life would become when he aged out of the orphanage system at 16, then perhaps he would feel gratitude. If he could understand that God gives children parents to love them and care for them, and that 9-year-old boys don’t have to fend for themselves, then perhaps he would embrace us as his family. Me, as his mom. But he is not developmentally mature enough to grasp these ideas. Will he ever be? I don’t know. We’ll continue to pray to that end.
What if I now turn the camera around and point the lens at myself? I am J. I use my new name. I might even wear a WWJD bracelet and slap a fish decal on the back of my minivan. But do I really embrace my new life in Christ? Do I live like I’m really the child of the King with a brand new identity, certain that my Father will never leave me nor forsake me? How often do I look backwards to the life I’ve left behind and forget what I’ve been rescued from? More often than I’d like to admit. Richard Phillips writes this in the book Reclaiming Adoption “We are still capable of acting according to [our] old identity in sin, but this is disgraceful and ungrateful.” That’s me. I am ungrateful for the sacrifice that was made for me and I do not show my Heavenly Father the love he deserves. I’m broken, just like J.
I read this recently on The Gospel Coalition Blog in an article entitled “Parenthood: The Lab of Gospel Growth” by Brent Bounds.
“In a recent conversation with a young man who struggles with worry about God's view of him, he expressed a pervasive fear that he is not in a right relationship with God and therefore feels compelled to constantly confess. He said that he has to frequently "check in" with God to make sure that they are on good terms. Listening to him describe his exhausting dilemma, I wondered how God must experience this man's anxiety and doubt of his identity in Christ. I thought about my own feelings if my children related to me in the same way. How would I react if my child constantly came to me asking if we were okay, doubting my unconditional love for him and questioning the stability of his identity as my son? I would be devastated and deeply saddened if I thought my son was never able to truly rest in my love and his place in our family.”
That’s my son. He is unable to rest in my love and his place in our family. And from a parental perspective, it is indeed devastating – a source of deep sorrow. How then can I continue to grieve God in the same way? How can I sit at His table as His child and yet push away the daily bread He offers? That is no way to show gratitude to the Father who has rescued me from condemnation.
When our adoption of J didn’t turn out the way I’d planned – I’d planned – I became angry and bitter. I felt that I had obeyed God’s command to care for the orphans (James 1:27) and then I’d gotten the rug pulled out from under me. Surely I deserved better, right? I read 2 Cor 9:5 – whoever sows bountifully will reap bountifully – as an assurance that this whole adoption thing would turn out all right. What I finally realized is that it did turn out all right, and I will receive my reward. Just not yet. Wanting J to love me like his mom is desiring to lay up my treasure on earth (Mt 6:19) instead of running the race for the joy set before me. (Heb 12:2)
Does this mean that it doesn’t hurt? No. Does this mean that I’m enjoying this trial? No. Does this mean that I will stop praying that God will take it away from me? No. Even Jesus prayed that God would take the cup from him. (Mt 26:39) Clearly he didn’t want to suffer, but he obeyed God unto death. If God only asked us to do things that we wanted to do, none of us would struggle with disobedience.
I can almost hear the question in your heads. Would I be willing to adopt again? A year ago, the answer was a firm “no”. But I’ve come to understand that the things we call risk in this life – inconvenience, isolation, rejection, frustration, physical pain – really aren’t risks. John reports Jesus’ words: “In this life we will have trouble”. Luke reports in Acts 5 that the apostles rejoiced following a beating because they had been counted worthy to suffer. It can’t be a risk if we expect trouble and count it joy to suffer in the course of the Christian walk. In the case at hand, what does matter is that God has commanded us in James 1:27 to care for the fatherless. I am called to do so. Disobeying a direct command from God is where things get risky.
Would the story have a “happy” ending this time? Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. I won’t pretend that I don’t want the fairytale, but it may turn out that I have another child who holds me at arm’s length…who can’t stop thinking of himself as an orphan. But that’s up to God, not me. It’s just my job to obey the call.
Do I think that everyone is this room is being called to adopt children? No. Some of you probably are, but there are many ways for everyone in the church body to care for orphans. For example, you can come alongside those families who do feel called to adopt and help to bear the burden. Finances are obvious. Adoption is expensive. An adoptive family is required to attend all sorts of meetings, and will potentially need to travel. We paid a babysitter at least once a week to watch our girls, and we had family come in from Chicago and Minnesota to care for them while we travelled. The church family could help to bear that kind of burden. You may be called to foster care. Even if you don’t feel called to house a child, you could provide respite care for those who do. Because caring for a child who has suffered neglect and abuse can be overwhelming and exhausting. Sometimes the promise of an afternoon to run errands or an evening out with your husband can keep you going.
Or maybe you could learn about the challenges that face a family who has adopted or is fostering a traumatized child, and provide a listening ear and a safe shoulder to cry on. The sorrow can be difficult to bear alone. This simple act of kindness can be a tremendous blessing.
Here’s the next question I hear people thinking: When will I be showing up at church with a couple of new kids in tow? Not until it is God’s will for our family. My husband is prayerfully bringing the issue before God, but he doesn’t feel called at this time. So we will wait upon the Lord. Based on our adoption experience, I give this caution: Even if you hear God’s voice speaking to you, maybe so loudly that you can hardly hear anything else, don’t do anything until your husband hears it too. A trial like this can put a heavy strain on a marriage. I read somewhere that the divorce rate for couples who adopt traumatized and attachment challenged children is 85%. In our sinful humanness, we look for someone to blame when things go wrong. Don’t give your husband a reason to blame you because you grabbed the reins. Just pray that God would speak to his heart.
So…now to the picture I asked you to hang onto back at the beginning. What about the gift? The verse in 2 Corinthians I mentioned earlier – the one about reaping bountifully – the Greek word for that phrase is eulogia. In the verse right before it, that same word is translated into English as “gift”. The same Greek word is translated in other places in the New Testament as “blessing”. The idea of rewards, gifts, and blessings are all wrapped up in one package. We find this same package in the Old Testament in Psalm 127, which says:
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,the fruit of the womb a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them.
Children are the whole package. This passage doesn’t make any distinction between perfectly behaved children and those who are a constant source of aggravation. It says nothing about whether the child loves you as his mother or not. It says that children –all of them- are a gift. A reward. A blessing. And because I know that every good and perfect gift is from God (James 1:17), then can I know that J is God’s perfect gift to me. If I am going to call myself His child, then I must choose to reach out my hand and accept the gift that God is holding out to me with a heart overflowing with gratitude.