Growing up, I had a pretty clear idea of what it meant to be an orphan. You were a child, and your parents were dead. I'm not sure I differentiated between biological and adoptive parents. Certainly, had  something happened to my Mother and Daddy, I would have considered myself orphaned, despite the fact I occasionally day-dreamed about the other mother, the one who met up with me one block over, wearing a trench coat, just like a spy.

A great episode of This American Life from 2007, "Missing Parents Bureau," explored the attraction children feel to the idea of being an orphan. This may have been reinforced by the popularity of the musical, "Annie," or for the young boy actors in my house, by the appearance of one of them in "Oliver." Oliver lives in the workhouse because his mother is dead. That's clear. But Annie is a different kind of orphan, the kind dropped off by her parents, who never return.

An orphan is a child "deprived by death of one or usually both parents," according to Merriam-Webster.

Arrogant white people An orphan is not a child whose parents are still living, swindled out of their child by some "well-meaning" white Southern Baptist from Idaho. An orphan is not a child whose parents are still living.

It's easier to say orphan than some of the other words we might use, because it sounds pitiful and charming and even picturesque. And it disentangles a child from ties to adults, from heritage and habit, from possession by another.

It frees a child up to be what children are in the worst adoption stories, a commodity.

If families in Haiti need help, for Christ's sake, help the families stay together. Don't steal their children. Don't tear apart their families. Don't treat them like rescue dogs being moved north after Katrina.

For Christ's sake. In Christ's name. What right do we have to march in and claim to be rescuing children from their own parents, simply because there has been a natural disaster? 

Bentrott family  Sometimes an orphan is a child whose parents have surrendered him or her, because it seemed like the best thing to do. If those parents understand what's happening, if they consent to relinquish their children, God bless everyone involved. It's hard. It's hard whether you're an American college girl letting your baby go to a professional man and his wife or a poor woman entrusting your child to an established religious agency. I'm reading the continuing story of the Bentrotts, now in this country with the Haitian children placed with them after a long process–no cowboy adoption! As angry as I am about the Idaho Southern Baptists, I am glad to know there are Americans working for and with people in Haiti, who love people in Haiti, who are suffering over their (temporary?) absence from the country and people they want to serve, still. 

For Christ's sake. In Christ's name.

Adoption, Sermons

Adopted By God

(A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Pentecost    July 12, 2009    Ephesians 1:3-14)

On the news last Tuesday night a short piece of video played over and over, a little girl saying how much she loved her father, her voice breaking as she began to sob.

“Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine, and I just want to say I love him so much.”

In the midst of a dubious spectacle, the memorial for a weirdly private yet thoroughly public man, an event featuring people who had never even met him, love broke through in the form of an eleven-year-old who identified herself as his child, who knew Michael Jackson as “Daddy.”

This girl and her brothers are only at the beginning of what will be a complicated life. We can imagine the struggle that lies ahead over their custody and their father’s estate. And we probably cannot help but wonder how or whether they are actually related to him and to each other. In this era of DNA tests and scientific proof, we want to understand the connections. We wonder what prompted this man to have or acquire these children, and we hope for the best yet fear the worst, and we feel both relieved and surprised to see three fairly normal looking kids dressed appropriately for a funeral standing in the midst of a family they seem joined to by bonds of love.

Were they his biological children, or his adopted children?

And does it matter, as long as they knew him to be their daddy?

Once upon a time, when I was trying desperately to uncover the meaning of my life, I went to see an astrologer. My chart was drawn out beautifully by hand, a picture of the sky at the moment I was born. It was the one thing about my birth that seemed certain. I didn’t know the names of my birthmother or my birthfather. I had many questions. Were they like Romeo and Juliet, with families that kept them apart? What was the reason I was given away?

The astrologer said, “The parents who raised you are the parents you were meant to have.”

From anyone else, I might have taken that as a platitude. But because I knew she took a cosmic view, it sounded different coming from her.

In this passage from Ephesians, a similar cosmic claim is being made for all of us. We are destined to be adopted by our Heavenly Parent, through Jesus Christ. It’s an immense concept that suggests a well-executed plan from before the dawn of time. But not everything can be expressed in a spreadsheet or a file folder, and sometimes we feel inklings and urgings we cannot explain.

At 24, I had a son. When he was placed in my arms for the first time, he didn’t cry, but looked solemnly into my eyes as if he had done it a thousand times before. I felt with him a bond older than the Earth, newer than the morning, deep as the center of all things.

I could not help wondering about the woman who had given birth to me.

I discovered that it was possible to read the Social Services file about my adoption. A copy was made from microfiche; then the identifying information was removed, literally cut off the page. It told me my birthmother’s age, that she had come from another state, and that she liked to read. I learned that my birth father had been in the army.

It wasn’t enough. I had to know more. I contacted the Social Services department and asked if contact could be made. My file was still there. On the folder was a hand-written phone number.

I learned later that in the final months of her pregnancy, my birthmother moved in with an aunt and uncle, in the city where my adoptive parents lived. The phone number had been theirs in 1961; it was still theirs in 1986. They agreed to call her, and a week later, I was talking to my birthmother on the telephone.

There was another person who helped my birthmother at the end of her pregnancy, a social worker named Elizabeth. This woman wrote the file I read 25 years later, and I learned from my birthmother that Elizabeth visited her in the hospital the day after I was born, telling her she had the right to give me a name.

And so, although I would not keep the name very long, my birthmother named me Elizabeth.

In that same town, a year earlier, the people who would be my father and my mother sat together at their breakfast table. They had been married for ten years. He was a lawyer. She had begun a career as a social worker but given it up to be his wife, to be the mother of his children. There had been years of tests, prehistoric infertility treatments and hospitalizations for endometriosis. He would soon turn 40. That morning he said to her, “Why don’t you go down to your old office and see if they can get us a baby?”

When I told my mother the story about Elizabeth, she drew her breath in sharply. You see, she knew Elizabeth. Elizabeth had been her co-worker and her friend.

Elizabeth was the hinge between my two mothers, just as Jesus is the hinge between each of us and God. We are destined for adoption, destined to be God’s, as surely as I was destined to be held for just a moment by one mother and passed by Elizabeth to the care of a new mother and father. We read in Ephesians that God intended to adopt us even before Creation occurred, and perhaps because of my own story, I do believe this. I believe that whatever the circumstances of our lives, God’s care for us began before the beginning.

We have a place in God’s family; it is God’s pleasure to make a place for us.

At the time this letter was written to the church at Ephesus, adoption had a common meaning different from the assumptions we might make about it. In 20th century America it became a means of rearranging the fates of children whose biological parents were unmarried, and to place them confidentially with unrelated families. In more recent years, we’ve reinvented adoption to incorporate more openness and communication, and we’ve widened our scope to include international adoptions.

But in the 1st century, people understood adoption differently. In the dominant Roman culture, adoption served a dual purpose. The Pater Familias stood at the top of the pyramid of power, the Father of the Family, able to define and redefine his family and who might be part of it. If a family lacked an heir, the Pater Familias would seek a child to elevate into the family. The child’s family could gain the advantage of having their child become part of another, while this served the needs of the richer or more important family by providing an heir.

This is the way the Ephesians would hear the claim being made on their behalf. The Heavenly Pater Familias, the Cosmic Head of Household, wanted them to be part of the Ultimate Extended Family, with all the rights and privileges and inheritances of a natural Child of God.

What an immense assurance of God’s love for us!

1:5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,

1:6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.

The trouble with this passage is the way it has been used to limit who is in the family. Some interpreters use it to say that only a select few are adopted by God, but I would argue that such a limited definition fails to take Jesus into account. This whole passage hinges on the Christ who existed with God before it all began, but we meet him in Jesus, the teacher who left behind an assortment of lessons in his parables and in his healings and in his choices in this life. Our Savior sat down to dinner with lepers and tax collectors, protected working girls, was no respecter of human authority for its own sake and sent his disciples out to bring the Good News to the whole world.

Whether or not we want to accept the evidence of the astrologer in my case, and I realize that telling the story may make me sound as quirky as Michael J
ackson himself, there was a morning the man who would become my Daddy spoke up at the breakfast table and suggested adoption. He wasn’t a person who put feelings into words easily, but I gather that he had a feeling they ought to do this thing, a feeling that they had a lot to give and a lot to gain from making room in their lives for children.

He took an expansive view, my Daddy. When he learned that I wanted to find out more about my origins, he helped make it possible. Although he had adopted me at a time when it was common to blame the birthparents for the flaws in a child, he told me, in his deep and gentle drawl, “I’d like to think I’m willing to take credit not just for your good qualities, but for your bad ones, too.”

Maybe this is why Paris Jackson’s words have so much resonance for me: “Ever since I was born, Daddy has been the best father you could ever imagine, and I just want to say I love him so much.”

On the day my father died, when I had to tell my young children, we sat right down on the kitchen floor together in a little huddle and cried.

We are all adopted by a loving Parent, who wants us to find a new identity as God’s children, no matter where we came from, no matter who we are. It’s the most inclusive idea ever, really, because this Pater Familias has the resources available to elevate everyone into his family. This Mother Eternal has the arms wide enough to embrace every kind of person, the patience to accept us with our flaws, the heart of healing love we all need so deeply. It is very good news, for all of us: we are adopted by God. Amen.


17 Again

First of all, I don’t want to be 17 again, not for anything. Okay, maybe for one evening, knowing what I know now, it might be fun to go back, and that’s one of the things I loved about the new movie, “17 Again.” The idea that a person could re-enter the adolescent world and yet be as smart as a person twenty years older–

But wait.

If you’ve been reading my blogs for a long time, you will know why teen pregnancy makes this story more complicated for me. My birth mother was just a little older than the parents in the movie, at the end of her freshman year of college when she became pregnant. Her story–well, it’s her story, and not mine to tell here.

Let me just say I had a fantasy about my birth parents that began like that of the couple in the movie. I imagined high school sweethearts, too young to marry, giving in to the desires of their parents.

Later, in high school myself, as part of a theatre group writing a One Act for competition, I explored the idea of a girl who gave up a child for adoption, a good student, in love with a boy who had an athletic scholarship to college, a boy who broke her heart when he did what his parents wanted and broke up with her.

Parents mattered to me a lot, so it’s interesting to me that the teen parents in this case did not consult their parents at all. The young father committed to the young mother, twirled her around romantically and off they went.

To be miserable together.

Then to figure out they would be miserable apart.

I appreciated the young again dad’s efforts to discourage his own daughter’s classmates from having sex, but I found it discouraging that this movie, one which will be seen by lots of young girls who love Zac Efron, did not name any other options beyond teen marriage and parenthood.

I guess that wasn’t the point. But these things are on my mind. There are other choices. You don’t have to have unsafe sex. And even if you do, you don’t have to get married because you get pregnant. You don’t have to push aside all possibilities for yourself in order to raise a child, when you are still a child yourself.

And a boy, no matter how pretty, may not be the answer to everything, whether he’s 17 or 37.

My 13-year-old, who is smart, thinks I should not be worried that girls will get the wrong idea from the movie, because at the beginning the parents are both miserable. I suppose that might be the takeaway; only through magical intervention in the person of Brian Doyle-Murray did they figure out they had what mattered.

But I still want to write these things.

My story began with being given away to parents who were already 37, taking an approximate average of their ages, parents who had everything except a child, who had everything except the ability to become biological parents. I’m formed as much by their nurture, the noble and stable as well as the eccentric and neurotic, as by the nature of the young people who made me physically. From the latter I received a slight gap between my front teeth and big brown eyes and hair that curled late and fair skin that burns easily except on the front of my legs. But from my parents I learned about Jesus and Benny Goodman and Louisa May Alcott and which fork to use and how to introduce people to one another in social situations and when to pick up the check and how to say what needs to be said in the nicest possible way without sounding the least bit like a pushover or a steamroller, either.

If I could be 17 again, I would like to see the boy who took me to my Senior Prom, one more time, to figure out if he really was as nice as I remember. I would like to be in my young body and sing with my whole voice, playing Lucy opposite his Charlie Brown. But I might discover that my version of that story, one that ended a few years later when he, under pressure from his father, decided to “date around,” is just as artifically sweetened as the fantasies I had about my birth parents, whose imagined heartbreaks made me want to be as good as I could be, to avoid their imagined sad fate.

The truth is seldom as romantically lit as a movie.

Now that I am 47, a whole 30 years past 17, my parents seem more human to me. I have more patience with their foibles, more appreciation for their graces, more nostalgia for our time together. I’ve always known in my head that I landed in a good situation, but there’s something about being where and who I am now that finally allows me to know it in my heart.

I really wouldn’t want to be 17 again.