I’ll never forget seeing a woman pull measuring tape out of her purse as she talked about the skull of her child.
This woman, standing in an airport in Russia with my wife and me, was, like us, an American. She, like us, was in the former Soviet Union to pursue adoption. She had heard, she said, “horror stories” about fetal alcohol syndrome and various other nightmares. The measuring tape was for gauging the size of the craniums of her potential children, to make sure there was “nothing wrong” with them.
This woman spoke with hushed tones as she mentioned her last visit to an orphanage. She rejected the referral because the child had “something wrong with her” because she had a “blank stare” in her eyes. “You know?” the woman prodded. “Like, you know, the lights are on, but maybe nobody’s home?” I ventured that maybe the little girl had a “blank stare” because she had been staring at a blank wall for twelve hours a day. The woman assured me that I just didn’t know how bad it could be, and we couldn’t be too diligent in sniffing out “attachment issues” and developmental delay. I was horrified. It was as though she were sorting through a litter of puppies or browsing through a line of secondhand refrigerators. I was judging her.
I rolled my eyes at the very thought of a measuring tape for a child’s skull. But I wasn’t one whit holier. I was just as self-protective as they. I just had a more carefully crafted spin. I wouldn’t have spoken so crassly about rejecting children, because I had a theology to uphold and a peer group who would’ve held me accountable if I’d started talking about a child as if I were buying a condominium. But I dreaded as much as any pagan the thought of struggling for years with a child with a debilitating disease. God knew this, and confronted me in it.
We live in an era when commitments have become opportunities for narcissistic self-realization. I encounter this perhaps most often with weddings. In too many instances, weddings have become state dinners put on by planners and photographers to celebrate the love of the couple. A pastor friend of mine and I find ourselves saying the same thing to couples in premarital counseling, and we find that it is almost always startling. Our message is this: “The most important thing about your wedding is not what makes your wedding unique; it’s what makes your wedding the same as other faithful Christian weddings.” The core of the wedding isn’t the expression of the couples’ unique personalities: the groom’s cake modeled after his favorite football team, the video streaming pictures from their childhoods. The core of the wedding is the exchanging of vows, in the presence of God and these witnesses. Too often, the wedding becomes a stage for photographs, and that’s an acid to the idea not only of what a wedding is, but also of what a marriage is.
In counseling a couple for marriage, I spend a great deal of time looking for warning signs of future divorce. I try to discern whether one of them is looking to “change” the other. I try to determine whether they are walking into the marriage with a utopian view of marriage as romantic dream. That’s why I often have each of them, as part of their “homework,” to write out an answer to this question: “If I were to cheat on you, here’s how I would do it.” This really serves two purposes. One is to have the couple start learning how to rely on one another for accountability. The other is to awaken the couple out of hormonal bliss to the reality that marriage will be difficult, under the best of circumstances, and their call together will be to follow in the counsel of the late Johnny Cash: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine; I keep my eyes wide open all the time.”
The same imperative is necessary for those considering adoption, foster care, or orphan ministry. If you want your “dream baby,” do not adopt or foster a child. Buy a cat, and make believe. If what you like is the idea of a baby who fulfills your needs and meets your expectations, a cat is the way to go. Decorate the nursery, if you’d like. Dress it up in pink and blue, and take pictures. But don’t adopt. Adopting an orphan isn’t ordering a consumer item or buying a pet. Such a mindset hurts the child, and countless other children and families who are watching your family in order to see a picture of what adoption means.
The angel Gabriel told our Lord’s mother that her bearing of Jesus was a sign of God’s favor on her (Lk. 1:30), and through the Spirit Elizabeth pronounced Mary to be “blessed” (1:41-42). The visionary Simeon, on the other hand, told Mary that a sword would pierce her heart (Lk. 235), as indeed it did (Jn. 19:26). Both the blessing and the pain were true for her, and in a very real sense are true for every mother, and for every father.
If you wish to avoid the risk or possibility of being hurt, do not adopt a child. Do not foster a child. Do not engage in ministry with orphans or with widows or with the sojourners or with the poor. Do not have children, in any way. Do not get married. Do not have any friendships. Hide under the bed, and hope for the best. Any human relationship brings with it the possibility of deep hurt. You can protect yourself from that possibility, but only by walling yourself off from love.
If what’s behind your adoption or orphan ministry isn’t a crucified, eyes-open, war-fighting commitment, the end result could be a twice-orphaned child. You could wind up with a child who has faced the trauma of a loss of parents in the first place, and then the trauma of rejection by another set of parents. A child should not face the challenge of living up to your expectations.
We need a battalion of Christians ready to adopt, to foster, and to minister to orphans and to mothers in crisis. But that means real orphans, real women, real persons, real families—not idealized versions of what we think they should be. The gospel of adopting grace didn’t find us in a boutique nursery but in the war-zone of a stable, in the death-camp of a crucifixion field, in the graveyard of a borrowed tomb. That’s not a gospel that plays well on television, but it’s the only one we have.
Caring for orphans means, in a very real sense, joining them in their distress. I cannot tell you that won’t be risky. It could up-end your plans for yourself and your family altogether. It could wreck your life-plan. These children need to be reared, to be taught, to be loved, to be hugged, to be heard. That may take far more from you than you ever expected to give. This sort of love is not easy. But for those who are called to it—it’s worth it.
This article is adapted from the new edition of my book Adopted For Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches.