Learning to Love the Ones from Hard Places

The evangelical adoption movement is maturing.

It started out all lollipops and roses.  Idealism and enthusiasm.  We  proclaimed in our churches that God has called His people to seek justice for the oppressed; to care for the widow and the fatherless.

Evangelicals jumped on the bandwagon of adoption, orphan care and other missional activities in record numbers. Whole movements were formed and churches adopted Orphan Care Ministries.

It was, and still is, the right thing to do. Except now,  the movement has a grown-up tone. We have been purified in the fire of the fellowship of suffering.  We’ve learned that the term sacrificial love comes with a capital S and that committing to giving unconditional love comes with one condition: Holy pain.

This shift shouted to me when I attended an adoption conference last month after having been away from any official gatherings for years. Ten years ago, break-out sessions would have been titled, “James: 1:27 God is Calling you to Adopt” or “How to Start An Adoption Ministry in Your Church.”

Last month, the conference program featured 41 break-out sessions and 23 of them had to do with problems with attachment or behavior in some form.  Examples of titles were, “Creating a Healing Home”, “Understanding Trauma Effects on Children”,  and my favorite, “When the Brady Bunch Adopts Bart Simpson.”

The keynote speaker, Dr. Karen Purvis, a developmental psychologist and one of the foremost experts on attachment and trauma, outlined the physical effects of trauma and loss on the brain and a child’s development. She talked about the missing neural connections in the brain, the imbalance of neuro-chemicals present in kids from hard places and the fact that scientists can now actually observe the fraying of DNA in these kids.

My husband and I have adopted nine kids from hard places.  We haven’t experienced the more  debilitating situations that some adoptive families have experienced.  In the balance, our experience has been more on the side of triumphant grace-victories.  Yet as I sat listening to Purvis speak, I, an adoptive mom of nine who had experienced many of these things, Purvis’ words cut deeply.  And I wept.

I wept for all nine of mine from hard places.

I wept for the ones who were born with a cocktail of heroin, cocaine and alchohol in their little bodies.

For the ones who weren’t held or cuddled for the first year of life.

For the ones whose differences are on display for everyone to see every day and every minute  of their lives.

For the ones who didn’t have enough food in their formative years.

and for the ones who were taken from everything they had ever known to start over.

And I wept

about my lack of understanding when these kids from hard places make less than optimal choices.

And my impatience when they don’t always measure up to their peers.

And my anger when they act out and challenge my authority

and my exasperation when they hoard the food from the last huge grocery haul.

But there is good news.

Purvis said that scientists used to believe that if this physcial and emotional damage wasn’t addressed within the first three years of life,  it was permanent.  But they now know that it can be repaired and healed all the way through the adolescent years.  She offered many strategies for healing the damage.

And there is better news.

There is grace.

Grace for those of us who started out trying to love like wide-eyed little children but are learning to love like grown-ups with eyes wide open.




When She is the Gas Pedal and He is the Brake

The line, “Sharon is the gas pedal and I am the brake.” spoken by my husband Mike in the “I Like Adoption” film,  has probably gotten the most attention of any in the six-minute film.

It’s resonance was confirmed again this past weekend at the Northeast Adoption Summit, when I was asked for advice by many women who were waiting for a “yes” to adoption from their wary husbands.  There is actually a term in the adoption world called “the reluctant husband syndrome.”

I thought I’d address it because I think I understand it and I want to put it in the right perspective.  This happens not because we women are more spiritually mature than our husbands.  It’s rooted in the way God made us.

When God designed man and woman to leave and cleave, he made us with complimentary strengths.  The one flesh-ness of marriage is confirmed because it takes two parts to make the one whole complete.

There are always exceptions to every generalization, but women are generally the nurturers.  We were made to want to provide care and love and sustenance to our offspring and others in need.  When you throw in the influence of the Holy Spirit and a calling from the Father to care for The Least of These, it can become an insatiable craving and almost an obsession.

To balance the equation, God made men to be the providers and protectors of the family.  They see themselves as the shield of the family.  The one who protects it from outside threats and risks.  To provide homeostasis, so to speak.

So…how do you reconcile those two positions when it comes to adoption or any decision for that matter?

I can tell you that our family faced this with every one of our adoption decisions.  NIne of them came to be and some of them didn’t.  But it was with patience and prayer and respect for one another that our decisions were forged.

It would be a tragedy if something good like adoption or any ministry were to put a wedge in your marriage.  Your first responsibility, you of the gas pedal, is to value your marriage and your spouse as the gift from God that he/she is. God will never call you to do anything that you can’t agree on.  He would never want a marriage to break up over a disagreement on the right way to serve Him.

The call to submit to one another in love is a  good safety valve; a check and balance system of our own selfish hearts and our prideful desire for autonomy.

With that said, I can tell you, gas pedalers, prayer is powerful.  Often times when God has a calling for you as a couple, the sensitive one will hear it first. This calls for patience and lots of prayer.  I have to confess, a few times when I felt a very clear, strong calling about an adoption, I would put my hands on Mike’s head after he fell asleep and pray, “Lord if this is you talking to  me, make Mike see it the same way.”

I’ll share a story about our last adoption of Hope to illustrate how the process goes and how God sometimes works to confirm a decision.

Hope’s adoption was a scary prospect.  She was born with no limbs and would be at least somewhat dependent on us for life.  We were advised by friends and non-friends that this decision was over the top.  That we would surely ruin our lives;  that we had so much else to offer the world.  Why would we encumber ourselves with this burden?

It was in this context that we still felt we heard God’s voice telling us that this was something He had for us to do.  We didn’t know the why behind it, just the “go do this.” So with a little fear and a lot of faith we reached the final stages of the adoption process.  All that was left was to confirm travel dates.

And then Mike’s company went through some changes and he  lost his job.

Mike’s anxiety level, understandably, was through the roof.  He told me that if I loved him, I would call off the adoption.  My thoughts went to Hope, who we were told, had waited seven years for a family to adopt her.  She had watched her friends in the orphanage with less-involved special needs leave over and over again to go to their forever families. Finally having a family of her own was what she was living for.

It tore me apart, but I knew my first concern had to be the welfare of my husband.  I went to my computer to compose an email to the social worker in Thailand.  As I opened my gmail account, an email popped up from Goramit Sundee, Hope’s social worker in Thailand.  It said she had chosen that morning to show Hope the photo album of our family, her new forever family.  They typically saved this step until the very end to make sure the adoption was finalized and would go through.  Attached to the email were two photos.  One of Hope (her Thai nickname was Baimon) with a letter to her new family and one of her looking at the album with the most gleeful expression I had ever seen on a child.




Hope Supranee with letter

When Mike and I saw those pictures, we knew that God was sending us a strong message.  He was telling us that He wanted this adoption to be.  He was telling us that He had our backs; that even though circumstances were grim right now, He is bigger than our circumstances.  Needless to say, we went through with Hope’s adoption.  She has been a thriving member of our family for more than two years now.

Would it have been right for me to rail against Mike in that situation?  Would God have honored the adoption in that case?  I think the answer is no.  God wants even our most strong passions to be carried out decently and in order according to the principles in His Word.

But hang in there, you of the gas pedal.  Because if you are truly hearing from God, the guy on the brake doesn’t have a chance.

A Package From Home (Part Two)

Packages don’t always come wrapped in cardboard.  Sometimes they are flesh and blood.

The story of this “package” starts when we were approached by our social worker back in 2008 about adopting Ethiopian sisters who were in need of a family. We were told their Mom left them at a care center so that she could search for work.  She couldn’t feed them, the worker told us, and prayed that an American family would adopt them.  The number of sisters they described was two.


Kalkidan and Andinet came home to our family in August of 2008. They had no birth certificates–their ages were a guess.




Although they couldn’t speak or understand a word of English, the girls were hit with American life and culture from their first day home.


They learned the joy of being ballerinas… IMG_0561And princesses.


They went to school.


And played American sports.


And as they were absorbed into our family…


…they began to change.  Their rapid-fire speech to each other in their native dialect of Tigrinya slowly gave way to words, then phrases, then sentences in English. Instead of pointing and using sign language to communicate with us, they starting to develop the ability to tell us simple stories from home.

There were some colorful stories. Some hard to believe.

But there was one character who kept recurring in the stories; someone named Tamer.

At first they didn’t have the words to tell us who Tamer was.  But eventually they did.

She was their big sister.  And she had been left behind in Ethiopia.


They couldn’t explain why.  I don’t think they knew.  But I wanted to know.

I learned that the girls’ mother had originally put all three of them up for adoption.  At some point in the bureaucratic adoption process it had been determined that most American families would  not be willing to take in three siblings or an older child on the cusp of puberty. Mom was advised to keep Tamer in country and let the agency find a home for the two younger sisters. Keeping Tamer in country meant that she would live alone while her mother left to find work.

I don’t know who made that decision, but I did know a family who would be willing to adopt three siblings and a child on the cusp of puberty.

I knew it would be complicated to pursue the adoption of Tamer, but I also knew that the Psalmist says, “God sets the lonely in families.  He leads out the prisoners with singing.”

The tedious year-long process of paperwork became a dim memory when I witnessed the girls, who thought they would never see each other again,  reunite at  Dulles Airport in April of 2010.


“Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.”


“Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring you children from the east and gather you from the west.”


“I will say to the North, ‘Give them up!” and to the South, ‘Do not hold them back.'”


“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth–”

Dulles reunion girls

“everyone who is called by My name…”


“whom I created for My glory, whom I formed and made.”


Isaiah 43: 4-6


A Package From Home (Part One)

It arrived inauspiciously one recent Saturday morning:

A large cardboard box, mis-shapen and crushed in spots, straining at it’s taped seams.  It was stamped with an unusual red stamp and words with foreign characters.  We read ETHIOPIAN MAIL in English on it’s side. And then it all made sense.  Those were Amharic words and the package had made a long journey.   A journey from the East of Africa, across a continent and an ocean to our doorstep in Hanover, Virginia.

Tamer, Kalkidan and Andinet wanted to tear it open as fast as they could.  Frankly, they were amazed and somewhat overcome by it.  I said we should take it in for a few minutes.  We might never see one like this again.


As they worked on the seams, treasures began pouring out.  Bags full of food, photos, a letter.  All reminders of their  home.

The food,  they said,  is called  kolo.   It was a mixture of nuts, seeds and grains.   I would have mistaken it for bird food. The girls sniffed it…and touched it…and ran their fingers through it for a long time… before they tasted it and then savored it.


They savored it.  These girls of mine,  who eat the best of what America has to offer everyday.  The cheeseburgers, the pizza, the ice cream sundaes. They savored the kolo.  Because it was a taste of their true home.


Most of us eat the best of what America has to offer.  It can be pretty satisfying most of the time.  For a while at least.  But then discontent edges in.  Our plenty doesn’t truly satisfy.  We long for more.  More food, more entertainment, more pleasure, , more love…

Because we were created for more than this.  Created with eternity in our hearts, as King Solomon said.  We were created for our true and eternal home… and we’re not there yet.

Along with the food and photos of Ethiopia, was a letter from the girls’ biological mother, addressed to me.  Six years ago, she had made the hard decision to send them to a care center in Mekelle, Ethiopia, in the hope that an American family would adopt them.   She loved them, but was a single mother with no way to support them.  She had to leave them to go find work.


In the letter, written in English by a friend,  Belaynesh addressed us, “Dear to the respected and lovely my family and children’s.”  She thanked God for us. And then her hope, “I wish to you and your lovely family a happy and bright life in the future…”

I want to write back and say to Belaynesh, “Your wish has already been granted.”

For my God and yours,  Belaynesh, has said, “At that time I will gather you;  at that time I will bring you home.  I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes.” (Zephaniah 3:20)

There will be a day, after our long journey,  when you and I are amazed and overcome, when treasures will spill out of the seams.  A day when we will taste and see that the LORD is good and we will savor every moment of our true home.

Hope Floats

My daughter Hope is beautiful.

Her dark almond eyes, creamy flawless skin and shimmering black hair are gifts of her Thai heritage.

beautiful Hope

And Hope is smart.

Her little mind spins at warp speed, assimilating new information and firing off questions about the world that, many times, this mama can’t answer. Her giggles are contagious, fed by a precocious sense of humor. 

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