“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” (esv) God says in John 14:18.
This verse is for all of us—every child of the Father. Though we as human beings have often been or felt bereft, left behind, and left, God’s character is to comfort his sons and daughters, to lavish us with His love. God does the opposite of abandoning us—he runs to us.He doesn’t leave us; instead, he stays. He keeps and saves and sustains. In other words, God promises to come for us and adopt us. We belong to him.
What are the implications for us as God’s image bearers? Legal adoption means we are not leaving children behind as orphans, we are coming for them in a tangible way. But adoption is not the only way to emulate our adopting God, to engage in the “pure religion” of looking after orphans and widows in their distress (see James 1:27).
Let’s consider just who the orphans are. And this doesn’t just mean “technical” orphans. Orphans are mentioned in the Bible forty-two times, always referring to someone who doesn’t have a father. (Yes, even if you still lived with your mother, if your father died, you were considered an orphan.) The biblical culture’s way of looking at orphans has interesting propositions for today’s culture, which sags under the weight of widespread fatherlessness. How can we be there for the orphan like God is?
Some ideas include mentoring an at-risk teen, being an unofficial big brother or sister, and taking an interest in those who lack parents or who are alienated from their parents for some reason. Take a boy being raised by a single mother to a hockey game, or fishing, or even just hang out playing video games. There is a crisis of parenting in our society, and if we are watchful, we can find the “orphans” of today and serve them. It’s all about developing an adopting spirit like God’s.
You know how Mr. Rogers’ mother famously told him to look for the helpers? “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” he said, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” The world is a scary place for orphans. Let’s look for them, and let’s be the helpers they need.
I think of our friend, Louisa, adopted out of foster care at age three by loving, older parents and who lost her dad at age eleven and then her mama at age fourteen. Being placed with her thirty-year-old adoptive brother was Louisa’s only option other than going back into foster care. Though her brother, Marvin, was good to her, he was limited in his capacity to raise a teenage girl. By the age of eighteen, Louisa was living in public housing and struggling mightily to pay the bills and survive, much less go to college or thrive in a trade. Our family and others in the church have been privileged to care for this now twenty-four-year-old orphan. This has meant inviting her out for lunch, over to our house for a meal, and recently, hiring her to come and clean every so often. (She loves cleaning; I don’t. Hallelujah!) When L comes to clean, I can check in with her, give her a mom hug or two, feed her, and overpay her just a little bit. Others in the church have also fed, nurtured, and encouraged her, donating to her college tuition and helping her fill out complicated paperwork to receive additional help from nonprofits and government agencies. We pray with her and for her because she belongs to our church family. Honestly, “looking after” this orphan in her “distress” has simply meant supporting her in ways big and small, practical and spiritual.
I challenge you to look for the Louisas of the world, your country and neighborhood. This may mean opening your heart to the possibility that family is not all biological. Some mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, and daughters and sons are chosen, no paperwork required.
My brother Troy, for example, is not related to me by blood or adoption. Two decades ago, we met at the church nursery in Grand Rapids, Michigan, picking up our babies. To our astonishment, we were both from the Winnipeg area, 1,000 miles away; both huge fans of the Winnipeg Jets, and we were both from a Mennonite heritage, him partly, me wholly. Considering that many people from West Michigan had never heard of Winnipeg, and some folks thought all Mennonites rode in buggies and churned their own butter, Troy and I understood each other completely in moments. We were both homesick and pining for someone to just “get it” without lots of explanations. Over many years and countless get togethers, birthday parties, Canada Day picnics, and Canadian thanksgiving celebrations our two families have become as close as, well, family. His wife is a sister to me, and my husband is a brother to them. When Troy became a grandpa recently, I took seriously my role as “Aunt Lorilee” and bought little Daxton a Jets’ onesie with his name embroidered on it. Because that’s what aunts do.
“God sets the lonely in families,”(niv) King David says in Psalm 68:6. God set me in Troy’s family, and he in mine.
As children of God, we are all adopted into a family that transcends DNA. We may nod our heads in agreement—yes, yes, of course that’s true—but do we really believe it? Do we truly trust in and live out the fact that our primary identity is as love-showered children of God?“See what great love the Father has lavished on us,” John cheers in 1 John 3:1, &lduqo;that we should be called children of God!” (niv).
Yet life on this cracked blue marble of a planet holds many opportunities to feel less than loveable.
When I took a DNA test a few years ago, I was shocked to find the following revelation: “Ted Gilmore is your father.” I had known with 95% certainty that this was the case, but to be told this as a certainty, irrefutably backed by science was startling. Yet the man whose ancestral code is bundled deep in my bones had no interest in being my father. He ran from my birth mother the summer of 1967, and he had been running ever since.
But in the wreckage of a spectacular failure of fatherhood, I was pointed back to our perfect, loving Father. (But not immediately. I struggled to make sense of this wholesale rejection of my personhood by the man most people would agree was my “real” father. The rejection kicked me in that old wound.)
From the death of a dream—that Ted would want me this time—new growth emerged. It became an opportunity to fall into the arms of my forever Father, who was with me and for me, wanting, choosing, and keeping me then, now and always.
He is your forever Father, too. Whether you are an adoptee, an adoptive parent, or just feeling orphaned and rejected as we all do, be held in His able arms. “And I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 corinthians 6:18 nlt).
He is picking up the shards of your life and repairing you to wholeness and a golden shalom—nothing missing, nothing broken. We are orphans no more.