Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8
On the side of the church parking lot before a soccer game, Thea Lewis told me they will “rock your world” and implied we would never be the same again. Sounded like a threat to me. No. Thea assured that we would find ourselves most blessed. I wasn’t entirely confident. Thea and her large family have adopted multiples from overseas and are in the process of adopting another. She’s invested in the adoption community. She told me gritty, hard stories about the difficulties and pain of adoption. Her stories reflected what we heard from others that traveled down the adoption path: struggle, joy, pain, healing, brokeness, happiness, despair, lies, praise … drawing closer to the Lord. We had committed to host six orphans from Eastern Europe over the holidays and I was scared.
Our oldest child of four, our 13-year-old daughter, kept asking us when we were going to stop talking about possibly maybe someday adopting or fostering or possibly doing something like that. It’s time to stop talking and start doing she insisted. She gained access to the children “available” for hosting pages on the Open Hearts and Hands (“OHHC”) and New Horizons web pages and began emailing us pictures of available children from Eastern Europe looking for their “forever family.” Soon, our other three children joined the search. They happily offered that our hosting children for a month over the holidays would be their Christmas presents.
So we started reading the pages. Not surprisingly, it was heartbreaking surfing pages of pictures of orphans. Each picture carried a short caption giving insight into these children. Many expressed their desires for hosting – swim in a pool, learn how to pray and ride a roller-coaster were recurring themes. My wife and I quickly began setting our rules and expectations: we’re not going to break our birth order, the oldest orphan should be a young girl, maybe two children but in no case any boys older than our youngest boy (7). We did not want to bring any of the older orphan boys with their dangerous habits and pathologies into our home.
After a few weeks, we settled on two sets of two-sibling groups. We would pick one of those two sets. They were young and mostly girls except one young, small and frail looking boy. They looked safe and manageable. With reservations that these children would “fit” our fairly active lifestyle, we called our OHHC coordinator for North Carolina, Michelle Z., a responsive, gregarious and passionate advocate for orphans. We had established a bit of a friendship with Michelle over the phone in the preceding few weeks. We hoped she would help us select one of these two sets. She listened and then said, “I have the perfect set of kids for you!”
She referred us to a page with six kids. SIX. All siblings. The youngest was now four and a girl. The other five were all boys. Five boys. The oldest was 12, just a bit younger than my eldest. This would break every rule that Lesley and I had so solemnly laid down about hosting orphans. In fact, my oldest daughter who instigated this initiative had emailed us pictures of this group in the past, but those emails were unceremoniously deleted. Six orphans were not even to be considered. Six? Older boys? No way. Crazy. Don’t even think about it.
But this is where God started to move us. We didn’t tell Michelle “no way” that night on the phone. To the contrary, we felt excited. Even more, I suddenly felt a burden for those kids. We felt compassion for them. After thirty minutes of talking on the phone with Michelle about these kids, I just knew these were the kids for us.
We hung up the phone and commented how God had just flushed all the rules we had set. We did not care. God clearly moved us both. It wasn’t the first time God has swept away our rules and expectations and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Several nights later, I lay in bed and realized a divine serendipity. In 2008, Lesley and I bought a large piece of property on which we planned to build our dream home. For the past several years, we struggled to build that home. We prayed that we would use the house and land in a manner pleasing to God. We had finally that day after years of struggle, signed a contract to build that much larger home. That same day, without realizing the timing of the house contract, we also committed to hosting those six kids. A reassuring convergence of circumstance and answer to prayer.
The significant difficulties of raising a large group of broken children and that this is tough and life altering work became increasingly clear to me. It requires a tenacious dedication to Christ and to serving these kids. The mindset reminds me of Army Ranger School and the mindset that was necessary to succeed there when I went through in 1991 – I would rather die than fail. Then it hit me? If that’s the Ranger mindset, shouldn’t our mindset for serving Christ be even more extreme?
As I survey the adoption community, I start to see that here are many “Rangers for Christ” – people completely sold out for serving the least among us with the love of Christ. There are a lot of excellent blogs about these servants’ transforming journeys through adoption and living out James 1:27 – Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. I was blown away by the story of Renee Loux, a widower who carries on the ministry to orphans she had started with her now deceased husband Derek Loux– see her Loux Family Blog. The adoption community is large with many wonderful Christian crazies who are sold out to adopt orphaned children into their families just as God adopted us into His family through Christ – see, e.g. Injera and Chocolate Gravy; WANTED and our friends the McCoy’s Are they all yours?
Years ago, I was an instructor for Evangelism Explosion at our church. We would go out each Wednesday night with the sole purpose of sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with as many people as possible. It was (still is) a great ministry. After a few years in the ministry, a definite pattern emerged. Wednesdays became a regular day of spiritual warfare. The powers of Hell did not want me reporting to Church on Wednesday night with a clear and peaceful focus on Christ. Shortly after committing to the six orphans, we started to experience the same phenomena. I would wake up in the middle of night filled with anxiety over every possible thing that could go wrong. Grade-A fear. The thought continually assailed me that we were not equipped nor prepared to care for six orphans. It was a choking darkness of anxiety that plagued me for many weeks.
The children arrived in Raleigh on December 15. They were small, smaller than we expected. They were tired. They were physically very strong for the most part. The younger ones were emotionally very immature. The youngest girl had a protective shell around her and would not make eye contact or interact with us when she arrived. The second youngest was nervous and often distraught. They were all lovely and broken in their own ways. Each one unique and different, like our children.
Lesley and I have no desire to betray these children’s confidence or their personal story; their story is theirs to tell. I can share, however, that the four weeks after their arrival was an emotional roller-coaster. We’re typically stable and rational in our day-to-day affairs, but as Thea advised, our world was “rocked.” There were nights I laid in bed and was certain we could never adopt them. There were many more mornings where we knew we wanted to and must adopt them. Sometimes those highs and lows were less than 12 hours apart.
One day while fearing what the future would look like if we adopted those children, God answered me with a question. What will it look like if you do not adopt them? What will become of them? What testimony will that be to your children? I remembered Jesus’ parables about the lazy servants. What if Christ asked me why we did not serve these children in His name? God repeatedly reminded me to focus on the day I was in and leave the worries of tomorrow to Him.
Shortly after the orphans arrived, all ten of our kids participated in a “live nativity” hosted by some good friends. Our ten kids played the role of all the angels and shepherds and even played Mary and Joseph. The insightful Rosario Butterfield was there with her adopted children. She listened as I summarized some of the issues with which Lesley and I were struggling regarding what the future might hold if we adopted the orphans. I had come to realize that serving orphans was putting our faith into practice — forcing us to have faith in God for tomorrow and while engaging in true service. It also highlighted to us how much we had been living for ourselves and for trying to create the perfect lives or at least the perfect launching pads for our birth children. I mentioned how adopting the orphans would force us to recalibrate what we view as “successful” children, particularly for the orphans. As always, Rosario put it succinctly. She commented in response that in serving orphans our reasonable expectation is not to “fix” the children or to expect normalcy. To the contrary, our reasonable expectation should be to come alongside these little, broken people to suffer alongside and love them.
There was never a dull moment. Sometime around the end of the first week, my wife and the orphanage director (who was staying with us) left for the evening to finish some Christmas shopping. No problem. Just me and the kids. All ten of them. Four of whom spoke fluent English. It’s fair to say that when the orphanage director left, the minions came out. The three littlest ones kind of acted and certainly sounded like Minions. They are also good at beating on each other … lovingly of course. Things where going fine so long as the ten kids had the run of the house and could eat their bananas. However, it took a long time to get them all seated for prayers. A lot longer than I anticipated. Like a half an hour. Just to sit in our big circle. I would get one seated and two others would squirt out the other side. I’d get those two corralled and then another one would wander off looking for something to eat or to play the piano or … Finally after much work and exasperation, I had everyone seated. A feeling of success entered as I sat down on the floor and opened the Bible to read something in English that the orphans would likely not understand. I trusted God would do something with His word in their hearts. I think I was reading 1 Corinthians 13, somewhere around the second verse when suddenly my head and glasses were quickly and violently turned upside down. There was an orphan with arms and legs wrapped around my head.
The four-year old girl had launched herself full force from the couch, flew across the room and landed fully on the side of my head. She squealed in delight. As mentioned, she was strong and had no difficulty suspending herself with her arms and legs from the side of my head. Brian Urlacher on a goal line stand had nothing on her. Some kids gasped and others exploded with laughter. I don’t recall exactly what I did other than continue to recalibrate what had previously been “normal.” Of course, that little one had come out of her shell by then!
We spent the better part of a month with those children. We loved on them and they loved us back even more. They were exhausting and exhilarating. There was never a dull moment. Our kids loved it. Everyone survived. The first night together, only one of them prayed. By the end, they all prayed, each in their native language. Each night we sang and on most nights we read scripture together, in English and in their tongue. There were many tears when we hugged and kissed goodbye at the airport boarding gate. The house seems much more quiet now with “just” four children.
I learned a few things.
When you serve Christ, he draws you closer. Literally. A few folks encouraged us by telling us that we were being the hands and feet of Christ to these children. That may be, but while we reached out in Christ’s love, he also reached out to us. I was overcome by the outpouring of love and support from our friends and neighbors. It was incredible. Our friends in Christ showered us with love, food, prayer and support. We wanted for nothing, not even furniture. God provided it all in overflowing abundance. God’s people are the real thing, the hands and feet of Christ. We were loved. Still are.
Second, Thea was correct. Those kids rocked our world … in a good way. Service to orphans is work God finds pleasing. It cast a different light on much that we had previously held onto as important. More though, it expanded us. Marriage was a paradigm shift – learning to live with another. Having children expanded me further. Orphans continued that same growth, pushing me further outside myself to unconditionally love for the purpose of loving another … the imprimatur of Christian living.
Caring for orphans is difficult. They are broken and hurt people. I do not know how to prepare for tomorrow. God does though. He taught me, really taught me, to worry about the day I am in and leave tomorrow for Him. And each day? He more than took care of us. God’s love is there when we need it most, particularly when we’re seeking to serve him. His love is the reward. This process brought me to my knees repeatedly as I found myself without answers and feeling ill-equipped. Caring for them brought me much closer to God and to a deeper understanding of what servanthood means. Trusting unto Him and finding Him not in any way lacking is probably the largest single blessing of the orphan experience.
God blessed us more than we gave.
We can never go back to the way things were. By his terrible and wonderful grace, God opened our minds further to what his love looks like. Unconditional. Total. Giving.
With faith that God will continue to provide, we are applying to adopt all six of the orphans. The journey continues and we look to God for the strength, the wisdom and the way.
See also: Deciding to Adopt God’s Word