Everything I learned about orphan care I learned from my dog.
The morning of my fortieth birthday I was told by my family to sit down in our living room with my eyes closed. The excitement in the voice of my kids told me this gift was a going to be good. I opened my eyes to a small bundle of nervous fur. Mo, as we would soon name him, was a six-week-old blonde Beagle and Cocker Spaniel mix. He was plopped into my lap with the shouts of “Happy Birthday” Mo scrambled as best he could to climb over my shoulder and find any way out of this strange new world into which he was plunked. His mother and litter mates were nowhere to be found. He was stuck in a new family.
The first night was an eventful comedy of errors. Ignoring every introductory book of puppy training, I refused to put Mo in a crate. Instead I had the brilliant idea of giving him an entire spare bedroom, complete with some blankets for appropriate comfort. No dog of mine was going to be placed in some primitive cage. After what seemed like hours of listening to him whine and whimper, I finally got up out of bed to check on him. I walked into the room and my second step found its way squarely into a pile of, well, let’s just say, nervous puppy leftovers. I mumbled a few things pastor’s probably shouldn’t mumble and carried him out our front door while making sure that one foot never touched the ground. Once outside Mo played around with the energy only a puppy could have at 3:00am. After his time frolicking I picked him up and headed back into the house. In another brilliant move, I realized I had unlocked the deadbolt when I opened the door, but not the secondary lock. As I went to open the front door the handle would not twist and I was locked out of my own home. As I stood outside in the briefest of clothing, I didn’t change into anything before I went out, I mumbled a few more choice words. I decided to walk around to see if our backdoor was, by chance, open. My second step back into the yard found its way, you guessed it, into another pile of Mo’s leftovers. The mumbling was now a full-blown scream of frustration as I wiped off my foot yet again and proceeded to the back door. Thankfully, the door was open and I was safe from the potential of embarrassing exposure and more Mo piles.
Once inside the house I let Mo play around for a few minutes before I scooped him up and took him with me to lay on the couch. I held him as he cuddled on my chest and thought, “this is the best dog in the world.” I was woken in the middle of the night, stepped in a two piles of Mo’s leftovers, was caught outside of my home in nothing but my briefs and feel asleep on a couch with a puppy, who was the cause of it all, thinking “what a great gift I received.”
The story of Mo’s first night is one that I have often reflected on during my journey as a foster parent of teenage boys. You need to be willing to step into a mess and still offer yourself completely. As a foster parent I have often found myself mumbling things I shouldn’t and smiling at the glimpses of hope that have shown through. The story of our family’s involvement in foster care is a story of us learning to love and to care, as well as a story of pain, frustration, anger and disappointment. But in the process of caring for the orphan, the image of God is being teased out of me and the orphan entrusted into our care. Our human dignity is restored together.
Bearing as the posture of orphan care
Dietrich Bonhoeffer states in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, that “God is a God who bears.” It is my contention that God, in his unfolding drama of redemption, has, is and will continue to call His children to bear with the orphan as a fundamental way he shapes His Bride, the Church, and works to restore human dignity. If we are honest, we are all for the caring of the orphan. The challenge for God’s children is to move toward a position of bearing with the orphan.
As I reflect on my involvement with the orphans in foster care, I have been confronted that my behaviors are frequently not one of bearing with the orphan but, rather, often mirror the behaviors of a benefactor. Webster’s Dictionary defines benefactor as “one that confers a benefit; especially one that makes a gift or bequest.” A benefactor has power because he is in control of the needed or desired resources of the bequeathed. Examining further we are challenged by the synonym offered by Webster’s, “Sugar Daddy.” Benefactors maintain control of resources and the ability to maintain distance in their relationships to the one receiving their resources. A benefactor can say, “Come to my home and receive the benefits of my wisdom, experience, and learn the way to conduct your life in a way that mirrors mine.” Subtly, or not so subtly, communicating that if you can live like me, becoming an educated, productive member of society, then you will experience success.
I am continually tempted as a foster parent to take the posture of a benefactor. As a benefactor I feel good about my generosity. The posture of a benefactor looks so good on the surface. I can envision answering all the questions easily: “Oh, yes I took Johnny into my home. He now dresses right, acts right, is educated right, and will live the right way in our world. We have started the Bible memory program and I’m sure it is just a matter of time before he professes his faith.” When word gets out of my “slightly better faith,” I can respond with the clichés: “I have been so blessed, I just wanted to give back,” or something similar. While in the privacy of my own thoughts I am envisioning all the pats on the back and that-a boys- I will be receiving. The posture of a benefactor allows me to keep emotional distance, maintain control, and never embrace the “other” even though my home has been opened. The orphan, no longer out there but in my home, can still be minimized as “less than” and not truly experience the hospitality of being welcomed. The orphan remains a known stranger.
While benefactors maintain the control of resources and distance in their relationships, bearing is a foundational theological framework for God’s people to engage the orphan. A variety of descriptions and definitions are offered by Webster for bearing: “the manner in which one conducts or carries oneself: the act, capability, or period of producing or bringing forth: the act of enduring or capacity to endure, to hold up; support; to bear.” These descriptions are more congruent with a Biblical picture of what we are as new creations, with a new identity and new body; the Church. Our conduct, bringing forth something new, enduring, holding up, and supporting are descriptions of who we are as citizens of the God’s new Kingdom.
Matthew offers this description of Jesus in his Gospel: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:36). Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase of Scripture, The Message, summarizes it this way: “Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.” (9:35-38). Matthew offers a descriptive portrait of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ “heart broke” at how “aimless” the people were and his response was to heal “their bruised and hurt lives.” If the posture of a benefactor is willing to hire a shepherd to tend to some sheep, a posture of bearing leaves the comfort and safety of the sheep pen and goes to the sheep who are vulnerable, lost, alone, and in the greatest danger.
When sheep are anxious and nervous their bodily functions let loose. Like Mo, but not as simple as a pile. If we take a posture of bearing with those who are most vulnerable in our society, the orphan, then we will be soiled by the functions of anxious sheep. If our heart breaks for these bruised and hurt lives, then our nice, neat, clean, evangelical life’s will be stained by these anxious sheep. We will be dirtied. As one long time shepherd of orphaned sheep shared after listening to my complaining about the stench and stain of shepherding, “they’re testing the purity of your religion, of your love.”
As we bear with those most vulnerable they test the purity of who we say we are. I have been confronted with my own pride, need to control, and the vanity and selfish ambition that the Apostle Paul spoke to the Philippians about when he said: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (2:3-4). As I bear with a scared, crapping sheep, I think I’ve grown in my understanding of who Christ is, what he has done and what he is doing. As we bear, the world around us does not see the bride of Christ primping in her own dressing room looking in a mirror telling herself how beautiful she is. They do think we define hospitality as a table with trinkets, name badges, average coffee, and a follow-up card for attending our event. Rather, the world see’s the bride of Christ, willing to go protect those who are most vulnerable, bearing with them in their state of vulnerability and working to restore them to safety. In this picture, the bride of Christ looks dirty, looks vulnerable herself, but in the dirt and stain, I think she begins to look more like she was intended and becomes beautiful to the world around us. It is the paradox of Christ. A beaten, hanging, Jesus is the most beautiful picture in the world. A church that is broken, soiled, stained and maybe a little beaten up herself, is when it is most beautiful. Most like her bridegroom.
Bearing rescued us from our orphan state.
As Christians we are adopted sons and daughters. The Apostle Paul stated it this way in his letter to the Ephesians: “he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.” (1:5). Fundamental to our Christian identity is that we are orphans who have been adopted. Sin made us orphans but love adopted us as sons and daughters.
How did this adoption happen? It did not happen by our Father sitting in the comfort of heaven pointing out how dysfunctional we all are and how if we did this or did that we could live life as it was intended to be lived. It did not happen with an announcement between the great worship set the band just performed and the upcoming three point sermon. It did not happen with a video of orphans which prompted feelings of pity. He did not send the extra money from his vacation fund and wish us well. He entered into our messed up and dysfunctional lives to give Himself away. To adopt us from our orphaned state, he does the unimaginable, He sends his Son right into the middle of our mess to bear our sin. I probably would’ve started an orphanage or some state agency to deal with the problem but he enters our orphan world and gives away His Son to bear the weight of our dysfunction. He gave up control and was forsaken. He did not simply identify our dysfunction, he bore its consequences.
The Apostle Paul continues with this to the people of God: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus who, though he was inthe form of God, did not count equality with Goda thing to be grasped, butemptied himself, by taking the form of aservant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself bybecoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.” (2:5-8). He moved beyond seeking our well-being with the good intentions of a benefactor and endured the stain of aimless sheep. His clothes where not soiled, they were stripped. His hands where not dirtied, they were nailed. He closed the distance between his world and ours. He asked for another way – maybe the way of a benefactor- but in obedience knew there must be no other way. Because he choose to bear with our dysfunction, we are adopted into our true home.
When we bear with the orphan we are shaped and formed to a place where we experience true humanity. Somehow when we lose our life in bearing with others, we actually begin to find it. (Matt. 16:25). When scripture tells us that true religion cares for the widow and orphan we often receive this begrudgingly as a finger pointing command, guilty that we do not follow through with our obligation. When the command is received as a call to experience our true humanity by losing ourselves for another, then it brings about hope and joy as we recognize this as a path to rid ourselves of the selfishness which cages us in a life that is not the way it is supposed to be. When orphan care then moves beyond mere duty we begin to experience a life of hope. When we think of caring for the orphan we often do so with the thought that the orphan needs us, but we have it backwards. We need the orphan to help us lose our life so we can begin to experience our true humanity and posture as the people of God.
Note: this was taken from an essay I wrote for the Global Orphan Project book project called Ruined for the Average