My daughter turns ten tomorrow. Her first birthday with us. I mourn the time we lost. I mourn that she lost her mother and her father. I mourn that on every birthday until now she lived in an orphanage. I hurt that there are things she believes about herself that are not true. But because of Christ’s intervention in all our lives, we get to speak something new over her. I declare that she is loved and lovely. Even though disease and death have hung over her, God has called me, us, our family, to step in the gap and speak life into her. The world spoke one word over her and prophesied loneliness and death. Christ speaks another word; in him, we speak life and a future.
There is nothing about this that is easy. Sometimes this vigilance exhausts me. Oh, it looks pretty in pictures–her brown skin next to our pink. Her brown eyes sparkling with joy. Our kids laughing and playing, hugging. But the photos are deceptive. We capture the good moments, share them, write about them. But the harder moments, my dark moments, we keep secret. Hoarding them. Afraid to say that this is different from what I dreamed. That sometimes it’s hard to love my daughter. Sometimes I look at her and see…I see a stranger that shares our last name. Is that awful?
This is not regret. I believe too strongly that God sets the lonely in families (Psalm 68) and he set us aside for Gloria. In this broken and fallen world he has allowed us to step in as her family. But we are saying goodbye to our “normal.” Matthew has become the middle child. I feel sad that this a hard adjustment for him. As his precious toys are ripped out of his hands and occasionally broken by his own sister, he experiences anger unique to siblings. But a dear friend pointed out to me that at the tender age of four Matthew is learning that people are more important than things. So he learns that stickers and cars will not last forever. And we talk about kindness and respect, speaking love and life and truth.
We are all learning how to love and how to share. How to love sacrificially with a love from Jesus as opposed to a love that comes because I carried her in my belly and she shares our DNA. Sometimes we’re choosing love. Just as, daily, sacrificially, Doug and I have to choose to love each other, to honor the covenant we made with each other. And I experience these same covenant ties in a fuller way in my relationship with Gloria than with my biological children. With Matthew and Kyler, it “just happened.” We didn’t plan it. We didn’t wait and long and hope and dream. But with Gloria we did. We longed for her. In some ways, I feel more like her mother because of the anticipation and the hope and the sorrow that accompanied the waiting. She awoke feelings inside me I didn’t know existed. I’ve always felt like a mommy. Wiping noses. Cleaning bottoms. Nursing. Cuddling. Kissing away tears. With Gloria, I feel like a mother. Protector. Advocate. Fighter. Healer.
In these moments I remember that all that’s dying in me, in our family, is our flesh. We’re being stripped of old patterns of behavior and old thoughts. We’re being remade, refashioned into something new. So yes, it hurts and it’s hard. But as more of us is stripped away, more of heaven is revealed. And I know that unless I allow Jesus to dig deep inside me and remove all that is ugly, self-loving and self-preserving I will fail her at every turn. But in his grace, I have the hope that even when I fail, he will faithfully glorify himself. Because this is for him. Apart from him, loving this child profits me nothing.
I am thankful that today she is with her family. We celebrate ten years of life. Thankful for the ones who took care of her. Thankful that we get to step into her life in the role of mom and dad.
I wrote this a year ago. I have hesitated to take such a stand. But these are the things I learned during my time in Africa, and while I’m here again it seems appropriate to revisit and to share.
What makes Christianity different from all the other religions of the world is that it recognizes our complete inability as humans to always and completely obey a list of rules. And even if we obey them on the surface, I think we can all agree, that acting like someone’s friend while simultaneously plotting their downfall doesn’t really count as love. In James, Scripture teaches that if we break one word of the Law, we have broken the whole thing. And Paul teaches in Romans that all mankind has fallen. We are all on the same level because we have all broken some of the Law. Most religions teach us to live by a set of rules and hopefully we’ll be good enough that God might have mercy on us. Christianity is radical precisely because it, in it’s most pure form, says we can never be good enough. We are all fallen, broken and sinful. Any good is laughable because it isn’t good for goodness’s sake, but to further our own selfish ambition. We want to make our own name great. We are incapable of anything else. It breaks my heart that Christianity is associated with “rule following.” It’s tragic that that is the picture we give the world because the gospel message is that Jesus came to live the life that we, as sinful people, never could. He died to pay our debt to God. He rose again to life so that we could find life in him. Over and over again Paul, Peter, John, and many others I’m leaving out, teach us that we are no longer under the Law! We don’t live by a list of rules. We live and walk by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). We have complete freedom in Christ.
Now, this is not cheap grace. Cheap grace says, “Well, I’ll just pray a little prayer and God will forgive me and I can continue on in my life.” That comes from an evil and unregenerate heart. But a heart and mind that understands the weight of the gospel, that has been enlightened to its own sin and God’s overwhelming grace is compelled by love from God and love for God. It loves the things God loves and hates the things God hates.
And who does God love? PEOPLE. We have to stop judging. We have to stop putting yokes around peoples necks that we couldn’t even live up to ourselves. Scripture does not say “don’t drink ____, don’t dance, don’t stand on your head.” It says love God. Love your neighbor. That means I have the freedom to wake up in the morning to spend time with God reading his word and praying because I love him–not because that act makes me holy. It means I can go to a building and worship Jesus with others because I love him–not because church attendance makes me righteous. I also have the freedom to refrain from drinking alcohol because I love my brother and I know he struggles with that–not because that act makes me holy. And in all these things, if I brag or boast or draw attention to myself I have become like the ones Jesus condemns. Our heartbeat should be to approach every moment asking, “God, does it glorify you for me to…?” and if the answer is “Yes!” then by all means continue. If the answer is “No!” (and I would take any hesitation/uncertainty as no), then flee in the opposite direction. And if you’re unsure ask God, seek his word, or just refrain until there is clarity. If we believe our actions merit us salvation, then we will be judged by them. If we are cavalier with the grace of God–taking it for granted, belittling the suffering and death for Christ–it is not a faith that will save us.
If we’re relying on rules we’re doomed. It’s only when we rely on Christ for our salvation that we experience grace. If we act like the rules save us and put those rules on other people then we are operating under a different gospel–something that isn’t even a gospel at all. But as I think James teaches, there is a compulsion that comes from the true gospel. A compulsion that drives us to live as Jesus lived–and we know Jesus fully kept the Law. So in a sense it’s a “what comes first” question, but the answer is irrevocably JESUS. I think while we often preach grace, we either substitute cheap grace, or we emphasize the rules and right living as opposed to just speaking the gospel. The straight up gospel compels us–it transforms our hearts, turning them into living, breathing things that love God and love people. When we mess up it’s covered by grace and when we do good it’s covered by grace.
These are the words that are hard to write. How do I process through the past three weeks? The day we had longed for for months was here. My feet touched the red dirt again. We showered, slept and ate. Packed up and headed to her. Nervous. Slept for most of the drive in the very back of the car with no AC in the African heat. Woke up feeling wooden and sweaty when we were five minutes away from her. Panicked–wondering if I would recognize her in the midst of 15 other kids jumping around demanding I acknowledge them. I needn’t have worried. She was alone at the orphanage; the rest of the kids at school. I climbed out of the back of the car and wondered how to love this child. How to greet her. What her expectations were of this first encounter with us, where she knew we belonged to her. We hugged. Nervously shuffled inside the gate and waited for the door of the orphanage to open for us. Sat on the couches and drank passion juice, talking with the director and her friend. Holding her on my lap. Exchanging presents. She changed clothes into something new we had brought. She bravely asked for ice cream and we made arrangements. It was our first outing.
Looking back, the moment seems so long ago–perfect simplicity. Eating banana splits. Laughing as Kyler tips over in the baby pool and gets soaked. Hearing her sing for the very first time. Talking about school in America. Sitting on a swing with my three children–feeling split and torn, made new. We drove back to the orphanage, ate supper and stayed through prayer. Setting our precedent for the next couple weeks. Days with us filled with swimming, movies, shopping, drinking chai and trying new food. Spending nights at the orphanage.
This has been harder than I ever imagined. At one point, four days in I felt the world crashing in around me. There is no going back. I felt the tear, the breach, the split between my old life and my new. At one point I laid my head down on the table to cry, overwhelmed by everything. At that moment my precious daughter, the one I longed for with all my heart, came in and stuck a plant up under my hair. I pulled it out and set it on the table. A spider scurried away. Kyler threw a fit about something so I picked her up to take her to our room for a few moments of quiet time. Outside, moths and gnat-like creatures swirl around our door. Imagine the plague. I felt like they were crawling in my hair and in my orifices. As I hesitated about how to unlock the door while holding Kyler to get inside quickly and not let any bugs in, something wet and slimy landed on my foot. Immediately I start hopping around and screaming. I think Kyler laughs–she’s still in my arms and thinks this is great fun. I turn back to the restaurant in defeat. For one moment, I wondered if we made the biggest mistake of our lives.
When my sister experienced again our daughter after a week away, she asked what we had done to her. It was not the same girl she knew from previous visits to the orphanage. I don’t know how to describe it other than drama. Every no costs us something. Every thing that Matthew or Kyler get or experience that she is left out of costs us something. She becomes a wall, or at one point ended up on the floor in a tantrum because they drank her juice.
And I know this is not fair. Her world has been rocked as drastically as mine. She has lost every thing that is her normal. She has no idea how to be in a family, how to be a big sister, how to be a daughter. It’s new and overwhelming. For all of us. We are all suffering. We are all bending and being stretched. Even Matthew and Kyler, or maybe especially Matthew and Kyler. We have videos of the love that Kyler had for Gloria. It lasted about five days. Now everything is a battle between them. And most of it’s on Kyler’s side, really. She’s a pill. Arguing just to argue. If Gloria says yes, she says no. This is not a pretty time in our family. The videoes are deceptive. They leave out the worst moments. Who wants to see a nine year old screaming at the top of her lungs, “I WANT TO DANCE WITH DADDY! I WANT TO DANCE WITH DADDY! I WANT TO DANCE WITH DADDY!” And then Kyler clinging to Daddy’s legs and screaming, refusing to hold hands with Gloria, because her place got usurped.
Then the word of God comforts me. Even in the biggest struggle and challenge we’ve ever faced, I find hope in him alone. Submission and surrender. Because in all of us, Doug, Matthew, Kyler, Gloria and me–oh yes, especially in me–the only thing that’s dying is my flesh. It hurts. It’s not an easy thing. Caring for the orphan is costing us all something, but what we will find is so more precious and much more valuable. Matthew is learning that toys are only toys, and people matter so much more. Whatever this is doing to him, its teaching him things he will learn eventually–he is not the biggest, fastest, strongest, smartest and there will always be someone who can outdo him. But he gets to learn these things now.
And me? I’m learning that I need Jesus more than I ever imagined. Surrender to him as he does his good work in me and brings it to completion. So its OK that this is hard. It’s OK to feel the stretch and the pull and the tension as we die to our things from our old normal and move into this new normal. And already today is slightly better than yesterday. I have phrases and a plan of attack–things that work and things that don’t work. And prayer. And space. And love. And an understanding that we are all trying to figure this out, but that we’re doing it together.
I called my BFF yesterday freaking out. We’ve had a long time to process through bringing our nine year old home. But I think with the date in mind, it’s starting to get real. I am so afraid of failing her. I think she is amazing and perfect and has so much potential. And I know I’m going to screw it up. I also wonder what people must think of us. This is so not normal. Adoption is a stretch in general…but to upset birth order, to bring a child into our home who was born when I was barely not a child myself…seems especially crazy. Do people think this is the worst idea ever? Are we operating under wisdom at all? Should we have sought more counsel before leaping?
Here’s the link to the above mentioned foster-mom, a.k.a my BFF. Be prepared for brutal honesty. http://chippinaway.wordpress.com/