I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple days talking about the word “orphan.” I wrote about it recently— about how particular I am when it comes to how we use it. Turns out, not everybody agrees with everything I write (Which I already knew, thanks to my posts about breastfeeding. I’m still flabbergasted that those posts are the ones that get me in trouble the most, but that’s a thought for another day.). I’ve talked about it with fellow adoptive moms, my husband, my dad, my brother-in-law, and my former pastor/current mentor. Thankfully, I love good conversation and follow-up debate, so it has been a great experience for me to hear the thoughts of other people as we try to analyze who the orphans in our community are and what language we use to describe kids who come from crisis situations. This debate became serious enough last night that my dad went and got his computer so we could do some looking at the original Greek and really try to understand God’s intentions in asking us to look after orphans (turns out “fatherless” may be slightly more accurate). I’m telling you— in my family, things haven’t gotten serious until somebody is looking up the original Greek.
All that conversation really boiled down to these couple thoughts:
-Some kids who need help are literal orphans.
-Some kids who need help are not literal orphans.
-We need to help kids who need help regardless of their orphan status.
-Helping kids often means helping families, even (especially!) families who are difficult to help.
In my years working with kids through foster care, adoption, and group home work, I have become sensitized to the fact that sometimes people want to help kids, but don’t want to work with challenging families. This has likely made me more bothered by language that seems to separate children from their families. I am also not a very emotional person and resist anything that feels like emotional pressure or hype. I know there are people who are moved to do something for orphans, but struggle with what that actually requires once they get involved.
It has become my passion to recruit quality foster parents AND to keep them involved longterm. This takes more than an emotional appeal based on the needs of children. This is about helping people prepare for the realities they will face when dealing with judges, lawyers, caseworkers, and especially the biological family. It makes me sad when over and over again I hear about foster parents who couldn’t work as part of a team or weren’t supportive of the family (including actively sabotaging them) or didn’t seem to understand their role in the system. This is one reason why I resist language that sometimes pushes the heart without engaging the mind.
But the Bible does say to care for orphans. It’s a biblical word. I can’t banish it from my vocabulary or shy away from it when talking about why I do what I do. This is God’s call on my life and truly in some capacity it is the call on the life of everyone who wants to follow Jesus. And no where is that more explicit that in James 1:27.
Tonight on the drive home from church I heard that verse read on the radio and after all my recent orphan conversations, it struck me entirely differently than all the previous times I had read it or heard it.
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
It was the AND that got to me. How many times have I heard this verse and in my mind I distilled it to “The essence of pure religion is to take care of the vulnerable.” Period. The end. But it isn’t the end. It isn’t even the end of that sentence (although I’d have to have my dad look up the Greek again to see what the actual sentence structure was). Maybe what we’re missing when we talk about caring for orphans isn’t that we’re focusing too much on the orphans, it’s that we’ve missed the AND.
“and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
I’ve thought of that before as applying to my life in general, but what if I connect one to the other? What if I need to keep myself unstained from the world WITHIN the realm of orphan care? What would that look like?
The world says you only love what you can own. Why would we love children we can’t keep? It certainly doesn’t make sense. But we do what God has asked us to do and we find that in giving love away, we have more love to give. We do it because it’s best for these children, not because it’s easy.
The world says if somebody hurts you, hurt them back or cut them out of your life. God tells us to forgive and turn the other cheek. We don’t always trust again and boundaries are important, but we don’t have an option of not loving those who hurt us.
The world says people don’t really change. We believe in redemption because we’ve seen it in our own lives. When we work with families who have hurt their own children, we believe there can be redemption for them, too. We pray for their healing. We actively support their efforts to change. And the reality is, we may be the only people who believe they can.
The world says some people don’t deserve mercy. We see the grief in broken families and it grieves us, too. Even when it is hard for us, we pray for God’s mercy and seek to understand the “whys” behind the horrific decisions we see playing out in front of us. (And all the while, we support a system that seeks justice for victims, but handing out justice isn’t our role in the process.)
The world says you must be in control. We believe that God is ultimately in control of our lives and the lives of the children and families we work with. We don’t have to try and “win” foster care because we know God is fighting for these children. Even when we don’t understand and things seem to be spinning out of control, we trust that where our ability to defend or advocate ends, God’s continues. And he cares for these children (and their parents) more than we ever could.
The world says if it doesn’t make you happy, it isn’t worth it. We have learned that much of the beauty in life is found in the bittersweet. Some days loving children you didn’t create is fun and happy. And some days you have your heart torn in two. We don’t do this because it’s a guaranteed good time, but because we are serving something greater than our own happiness.
The world doesn’t understand a love not born of biology. When the time comes that an orphan needs a forever family, we choose love and commitment even when things are difficult. We wrestle with problems we didn’t create— fears, medical needs, anger, intellectual disabilities caused by substances we never would have put in our pregnant bodies— and we do it with joy that doesn’t always reflect our circumstances. We know that love is deeper than biology and that sometimes the most beautiful families are created in courthouses and orphanage office buildings.
So foster parents, adoptive parents, and all those doing the hard work of caring for orphans, do not let yourself be stained by the world. Don’t buy into the ideology that says it’s only worth it if you get something out of it. Don’t let your good intentions of caring for orphans be corrupted by a world that says you need to fight for your rights and your happiness.