Sunday, November 7, 2010

Adoption Sunday

This is the speech that we were privileged to share with our congregation today.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We are honored to speak to you today, about a subject that is very dear to our hearts. This month, November, is set aside as National Adoption Month, and many churches will recognize this today by observing Orphan Sunday. Many of you have supported our family in our adoption journey, and for that we are very grateful. Today we wish to challenge each of you to think about how God may be calling you to minister to orphans. Scripture teaches that each of us is required to minister to the weak and the fatherless, in their need. It is not optional, and it is not easy.

It would be very easy to make this time into an advertisement for adoption. We could tell you many heart warming and inspiring stories, and most of them would be true. Instead, we want to talk about some of the hard truths concerning orphans. Worldwide it is estimated that there are between 140 and 210 million orphans, but it is hard to tell, because only a fraction are being counted or cared for. I have read that less than one percent of these children have the hope of being adopted.

In America, if you are a healthy infant, you will certainly be adopted. There are waiting lists of qualified folks wanting to adopt these children. This is a necessary and worthy endeavor, which has its own joys and challenges, but we are not here to speak of these children today. In America we have orphans as well. They are the 114,000 foster children who are legally freed for adoption. Their family ties have been severed , and they are wards of the state. The average child in foster care is not an infant, and there is no waiting list to adopt him. He is eight, maybe nine or ten years old, a boy, African American. He may have siblings that need to be adopted with him, or that he wishes to remain close to. He will wait, on average, four and a half years to be adopted. He has suffered trauma and loss, and his attitudes and behaviors reflect this.

You will encounter this child's face in books of child profiles, or on photolistings on the internet. He will smile out at you and grab your heart. His profile will tell you that he loves fried chicken and football. That he works hard in school, and enjoys drawing and listening to music. It will probably not even hint at the truth about this child. This child was removed from his birth family because of horrible tragedy. No suitable family member or person acquainted with this child stepped forward to take him in. He is probably living in a different home than his brothers and sisters, and is lucky to see them once every few months. While in care, he has probably moved several times, having to adjust to new caregivers, homes, and schools. It is a certainty that he has experienced more trauma and abuse since he entered the system. Now he is being marketed to waiting adoptive families.

Russell D. Moore says: "As much as we might not want to admit it, many of us don’t think much about orphans because, frankly, we’re scared of them. Orphans are unpredictable. Often we don’t know where they’ve come from, what kind of genetic maladies and urges lie dormant somewhere in those genes. Moreover, in virtually every situation of fatherlessness, there is some kind of tragedy: a divorce, a suicide, a rape, a drug overdose, a disease, a drought, a civil war, and on and on. We’d rather not think about such things, and we’re afraid often of what kind of lasting mark they leave on their victims."

Many of us don't think much about orphans. Even when people do think about orphans, they often think wrongly about them. People want heart warming stories about families being formed, but adoption of orphans is also about heart wrenching stories of families being torn apart. We want to celebrate adoption because it is a win/win situation. Children without families are being given homes and families. But adoption of orphans is also about tremendous loss. The children already know this, but if the adoptive families don't know it, they'll be finding out soon.

When children are very young, even before they are born, the groundwork for who they will become is being laid. Each time a child is cared for, soothed, kept safe from harm, they are being shaped. When children are cared for consistently through childhood by the same one or two people, they are being shaped. When they are held, sung to, played with, read to...their brains are being shaped. They are receiving messages that the world is a good place, that they are valued, that they are safe. Without any thought at all, trust is formed and cemented.

When children are very young, even before they are born, and their environment is chaotic and unpredictable, likewise a foundation is being laid. When children are neglected and ignored, they are being shaped. When they are surrounded by violence and anger, they are being shaped. When they have changing caregivers, and cannot attach to any one person, their brains are being shaped. They are receiving messages that the world is a scary place, that they are unimportant, and that they must keep themselves safe at any cost.

Children, even children of trauma, are smart and adaptive. Over time, most children will develop a highly effective set of coping skills to help them navigate and survive foster care, orphanages, tent cities, the streets. It is not enough to want to help. You cannot transplant this child into your loving home, give them a cute bedroom and a closet full of toys and clothes, and tell them they are safe and loved. There are dozens of ways different children react, but almost certainly it will not be with gratitude, and reciprocal love and mutual respect.

You might find it surprising to know that no matter how awful a place this child might come from, they will miss it. They will miss their absent parents, and past caregivers. It does not matter if they can remember them. It does not matter if they were ignored by them. It does not matter if they were abused by them. They may be angry at you for taking them away from that place and those people, even if it happened long before they met you.

You might find it surprising to know that this child will be afraid of you. In the beginning you won't know, because you won't know what afraid looks like in your child. But later, much later, you will look at photos of the early days, and you'll see it. The photos will be of celebration, and you will realize your child was afraid.

The fact is, many things will surprise you, even if you read lots of books, and take classes, and pick the brains of every adoptive parent you know. Knowing what may happen, knowing what will happen, is not the same as having it happen to you and your family. Planning out how you think you will react and feel, is not the same as living through it. You may be ashamed to discover you are not half the person you thought you were. You may be shocked to discover how much you need to change to make this new relationship work.

Orphans are hurting people. The world is full of hurting people, and being an instrument of healing is something we should pray to be. When we pray, we should know how much it may cost us. My dear friend, and fellow adoptive parent, Christine Moers writes "I ask you to converse with God and determine if you are ready right now to parent one of these children. If not, what will it take for you to get to that point? How does God need to work you over?" If you feel God pulling you toward older child adoption, I would say, why not let Him start working you over right now?

Not everyone is called to adoption. Many will sincerely think it through, and come to the conclusion that God has not equipped their family to adopt. But you can support families who do choose this path. Above all else, adoptive families need to be upheld in your prayers. From the moment a family begins to fill out the paperwork, adoption is a stressful, costly, invasive process. If you have ever welcomed a child through birth, think of a long hard pregnancy with no due date in sight. Pray these children home, as there are endless obstacles and setbacks along the way.

Rejoice with adoptive families as they prepare to welcome children into their homes. Observe the same rituals that you would observe if a family was expecting a child by birth. Parties and showers are wonderful ways to celebrate, and help families provide for the needs of their new child or children. Let the family take the lead about how this is best done. Children from institutional care need simple, small lives when they arrive in a family. This may mean that showering the family with lots of material goods is not actually a good thing. Combining monetary gifts to buy one or two larger items, or to purchase a gift card for future use, may be a better plan. It is hard for families to know in advance, all that their child may need in the early months at home. Do not give in to the temptation to wait until the child is home to have a party, so that they can be included in the festivities. This celebration is for the waiting family, and will likely be difficult for a newly placed child to process. Likewise, do not create public welcome ceremonies for older adopted children. This puts already stressed children on the spot. Instead, wait for quiet, appropriate times to say, "Hello. I'm glad you're here."

When the children finally do come home, allow families to take a period of time away. I realize that people are naturally curious and excited to meet the new child, but adoptive families need weeks, even months of quiet family time to allow their new family to begin to bond and adjust. Families may come into church late, and leave during the last hymn, because they realize this is all their child can handle for a time. Realize that much like the parents cooped up at home with a newborn, this family misses their church family. They are isolated, and often exhausted. They need for you to keep up contact. Call on the telephone, send emails and cards. Set up a rotation of meals, and have them delivered by someone who won't be tempted to stay and visit. Ask if the family would appreciate a visit after the children are in bed asleep, or offer to come stay with sleeping children so Dad and Mom can slip out for a late night cup of coffee.

It is natural that this feels strange. So often, when a young couple is expecting a child, our reaction is to say, "Oh, I just can't wait to get my hands on that baby." All the focus is on the beautiful new baby. With older child adoption, it is easy to see the beautiful baby, and the first reaction is to want to shower the child with affection and attention. The child may seem chatty and affectionate...may even run to you and hug you, or climb into your lap. This is an unhealthy behavior of an unattached child. Children learn quickly that the cutest, most charming child, often gets the lion's share of everything. If you do not have an intimate relationship with the child, it is best to gently redirect them back to the parents. Always direct them back to their parents.

These are just a few suggestions of simple things that can be done before and shortly after a child arrives. Truly, books could be written on the subject. But if I would leave you with any enduring message today, it would be this. Adoptive families of older, traumatized children are not like the other families in your parish, and these families are committing to a lifetime of being very, very different. It would be easy to understand this in terms of troubled children struggling to integrate into families, of weary adoptive parents dealing with years of rejection and difficult behaviors... and at times it can look exactly like this. But that would be unfair, and would not properly honor our children.

Every day we ask our children to move mountains to achieve healing. Our mental hospitals and prisons are filled with adults whose histories mirror that of our children, and yet we demand that they rise up out of their apathy, overcome their fear, and let go of their very justifiable anger. We ask them to make themselves vulnerable, when they have been hurt so many times before. We ask them to trust, when they have been let down time and again. It boggles the mind, to consider what we are asking of them, and in the light of this our sacrifices and struggles must also be very great. This is why God must work us over to prepare us. You must be willing to ask yourself, What am I unwilling to give? and know that it will be required of you.

Many of you may say today, "I didn't know this, then. Now it is too late. Your family is moving beyond this stage of need, and I didn't know then how to help." Don't worry. In this room, I am confident that there are other families, who God has already begun to work over. In time, they will adopt orphans, and we will all have the privilege of supporting them in their ministry. Even a few of us, who move well beyond the years of child bearing age, may realize that God calls us to be adoptive parents to young orphans nearing adulthood. Children aging out of foster care at 17 and 18 years of age, are still placing themselves on photolistings, hoping against hope that they will find a family for life. How cold is the world for an 18 year old, with no one to advise them, no home to return to for holidays, no grandparent to hold their babies? This is the sad reality for 30 thousand young people who will age out of the foster care system this year in this country.

We can only speak for our own family, but I believe in this Godly community, that it must be so, that good Christian men and women will rise to the occasion. That being said, let us be the first to announce the adoption of the next member of our family. Her name is "S" (for bloggy purposes), and she will be five years old this month. Right now she is in a wonderful medical foster home, and we have been caught in a waiting pattern for several months. The wheels of the adoption bureaucracy move very slowly. We ask that you please pray our new family member home. Pray that the appropriate approvals and paperwork come through. Pray that the money comes through. Pray that her health remains stable, and that we are able to line up excellent health care in advance of her arrival. Pray for our family, as we prepare to take on this new challenge. And pray that this is only the first such announcement in our parish.