This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Extraordinary every day

Real Families

Among the bravest people I know are families who have deliberately placed themselves in hope’s way, choosing to adopt infants or children who are at risk. Some are clearly hardship cases, suffering from trauma or neglect. Some are cross-cultural adoptions; many cross lines of wealth and poverty.

Why do families take on risks and burdens whose immensity they can’t fathom? Any time we enter durable commitments, forge new bonds, launch a new human being into life, it seems we tamper with the universe itself. Such unforeseeable consequences await us that it seems almost foolhardy to venture forth.

A friend recently observed that in the social service agency where he works it is conservative Christian families who respond in disproportionate numbers to the challenge of caring for foster children. I wouldn’t assume that each such home is perfectly harmonious and ideal. But it is worth pondering how people of this faith profile make themselves more available than others for these tasks.

I haven’t participated directly in the dramas of adoption. But I’ve been close enough to know the delicate dance that occurs as families begin to get acquainted with their potential new son or daughter. What fierce hopes and joys alight in those sacred moments. And what imponderable mysteries await them all.

Some stories of adoption are wonderful, miraculous, sheer grace from beginning to end. I believe I know some of the best examples—the goodness of a godly family extended to a tiny, vulnerable being who was very much in need of the care and embrace they offered.

I’m also aware that the stories of adoptions sometimes include tough chapters. For some, the delightful child bears an unknown or uncertain medical history, with conditions that arise from poverty or neglect in prenatal care. And despite the best intentions of medical and other care-givers along the way, infants and older children being placed for adoption sometimes bear the impact of institutional neglect.

I don’t want to overstate the difficulties families with adoptive children face. In many ways, the challenges are similar in any family dealing with the particular and unforeseeable consequences of combined genetic and cultural influences on their child.

But I do want to pay tribute to the extraordinary courage and risk-accepting choices that real families have made in opening their homes to take in the vulnerable stranger as one of their own family members. I have known rather closely at least a dozen of these intrepid families, and I honor them for their extraordinary grace and skills.

To welcome a little stranger who brings with her an embodied set of penalties from someone else’s substance abuse or neglect is an act of true mercy and astounding patience. To receive one whose congenital medical conditions require decades of intensive care is an act of willing sacrifice, the very kind that New Testament writers describe as discipleship.

To walk with a family undergoing months, even years of delays with the initial paperwork for an international adoption is to share in the lament over bureaucracy, the suspicion of corruption and the high hurdles so many of our immigrant brothers and sisters face in pursuit of citizenship status. And to keep company with these families throughout their journey, as we promise to do for each other in baptisms, weddings and funerals, is to assert that our community has a share in the tremendous investment of energy they are pouring into their hope for a child. Sharing the journeys with adoptive families is also a tangible reminder of the way God brought each of us into God’s own family.

Somewhere in the mysteries of the universe lurks this core conviction that the One who made us and brought us into life has patterned a welcome like adoption for us. The Creator intended that the fabric of love should enfold us even though we were strangers to God’s purposes. Adoptive families show us a contemporary parable of our inclusion in God’s family.

Real families break themselves open to absorb some of the pain of the world. Would-be parents embrace the abandoned ones whose suffering would otherwise go largely unnoticed. Practical peacemakers, agents of shalom, ambassadors of God’s love take risks for the healing of the nations, one vulnerable person at a time.

If you know some of these everyday heroes, celebrate! Make music or share a meal together. Read the living parable and remember how God reached out to embrace each of us into a family.

Gerald Shenk teaches at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va. His book, Hope Indeed! Remarkable Stories of Peacemakers, appears this summer (Good Books).

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