Preach about my family this Sunday!
(Maybe not by name, because you probably have adoptive families or adult adoptees in your own congregation, and they should be the ones you consult and name.) But trust me, we have some serious lived commentary on the “spirit of adoption” in Romans 8:12-25 (the Epistle reading in the Revised Common Lectionary on July 23, 2017). This passage was one of the Scriptures I highlighted in an article for WorkingPreacher.org, as a built-in opportunity to speak from the pulpit about adoption. Now’s your chance!
The spirit of adoption is first of all, its permanence. We are forever families, but we’ve had to work at that secure attachment. When a child is born, and their needs are met consistently by a primary care giver, the child seems to have an innate trust and bond with that care giver (usually a parent). But it isn’t innate; it comes through constant attention and consistent care and affection, which is a great deal of work, especially in the middle of the night. It takes deep commitment to love and care for a child no matter what. Every. Single. Time. Through our own wounds, losses, upheaval, and even post-partum depression.
When my husband and I adopted our eldest daughter, for awhile attachment was the primary focus of our lives. Prospective adoptive parents are counseled on how to establish that they alone are the ones their child should attach to in their new life, which can seem harsh to grandparents, friends and other care givers. Parents must be the ones to meet all their child’s needs for physical affection, emotional comfort, and basic needs like feeding them. No one else, for 6 months, we were told. It was not a threat, to heed or feel guilty about (there are circumstances; people work). It was advice from those who know how delicate and difficult it can be for us to form new secure attachments, to trust and live as though this new relationship will be forever. To do that, we need our focus narrowed down to only 1 or 2 people, until it sticks. There will be developmental stages, especially in the teenage years, when everyone questions their identity and belonging, but the goal we keep in front of us as adoptive parents is to pay attention to nurturing attachment and never to sow any seeds of doubt about the permanence of our family. Let me spell out the comparison: As Paul writes, when we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the spirit bearing witness to our trust that God our Parent hears and will respond to us. Every. Single. Time. This is a permanent, secure attachment. But even with God, it takes time to develop attachment when we’ve been abandoned before.
In our family, and in my reading of Paul’s theology, the spirit of adoption is about choosing to be transformed. We opt in, then the scale of the transformation completely blows us away. Parents, both birth and adoptive, make the initial adoption plan, with none of us knowing the extent or details about how we will be transformed by these new relationships. We believe God chooses us as God’s own children, but is God also surprised at being changed through relationship with us? What was initiated with new relationships was transformation, but not just for one of us, for all of us!
The transformation ripples outward from parent/child to siblings, extended family, community and beyond. It was not just our daughter’s life that changed when we adopted her. I became a mother; my husband became a father; and our expectations about what that involves had to adjust immediately. When a child is available for adoption, it can mean that there is neglect, abuse, abandonment or institutional care in their history. Behaviors in reaction to that history can emerge later, to test the boundaries of parents’ commitment once the child feels a little bit safe. Developmental delays and unknown disabilities surface. One parent in an adoptive families support group said, “We were ready to be in the category ‘adoptive families’ but now realize that we also need to navigate being parents of kids with special needs.” Everyone participated in that support group because we have been transformed by our beloved children – and wouldn’t change our fierce love for them ever – but don’t always have a handle on how to process all of it.
Our extended families also had to learn to speak about families in ways that include our beloved child by adoption. Adoptive families may draw our family trees differently, reassess how we value our families’ ethnic heritage, and shift the conversation about family resemblances from physical attributes to personalities, to make us all think more intentionally about what really makes us belong together. If people in our churches ever refer to the congregation as a “church family” then it can be very illuminating to ask intentional questions about how our words and actions imply belonging (or not) for those who are not born into the church family, or don’t resemble the majority.
Inheritance is not a big part of my “spirit of adoption,” but perhaps that is due to my privilege. I do not have to worry about how my basic needs will be met tomorrow, so thinking about a financial inheritance or legacy seems not so relevant as the new relationships adoption has forged with our family members here and now. Yet legacy and inheritance matter a great deal when survival is less certain. Another adoptive family we know is very honest about the heartbreaking circumstances that led to the formation of their family. Their children’s birth parents both died of diseases that were preventable, if they had access to medical care. So part of the legacy their children now have is a future where that particular risk is not such a threat. But we all bristle at the notion that somehow we “saved” our children, which is language better left with Jesus’ actions and not applied to our families. Adoption only comes out of brokenness, that much is true. In this country or abroad, there is plenty of brokenness. We did seek to do some good in the world by adopting a child who needed a family. But being in a family is a mutual relationship, whereby we are all changed by our life together. A savior complex puts a barrier between parent and child that denigrates our child’s origins and questions the love that transforms us both. We committed from the beginning, to suffer together and to be glorified together.
Finally, there is the groaning. This Scripture passage summons collective groans from both labor pains and the pain of waiting for adoption. All children cause parents to groan, both in the waiting to become a family and in living out our relationships our entire lives. What I’d love to hear within a “church family” is the collective groan of those who know we are not complete in our homogeneity, without groan-inducing transformation from relating to those who challenge us. The Spirit cries out for adoption to bring us together with others as with God our Parent. We have not yet embraced all our siblings, stood with them against the world, nor loved them so fiercely no one would dare challenge the lasting bond between us. We have not yet been transformed, until we seek out those relationships that will challenge everything we assumed about ourselves. The Spirit cries out for adoption, to become a new kind of family.