An Orphan Care Perspective on Psalm 127

Over the last few months, Psalm 127 has been on my mind and is deepening my theology on orphan care. At the end of July, I was blessed to teach out of this passage at our Kingdom Families Conference and frame the orphan care conversation in a new lens.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
They labor in vain who build it;
Unless the Lord guards the city,
The watchman stays awake in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early,
To sit up late,
To eat the bread of sorrows;
For so He gives His beloved sleep.
Behold, children are an inheritance from the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them;
They shall not be ashamed,
But shall speak with their enemies in the gate.

You have the power to build something. Everyday I see people striving to build some sort of legacy. It’s really a part of our nature as beings created in the likeness of God. He is the Creator so we inherently want to create as well. This desire to build has led to the entirety of human progress.  What the psalmist is saying here is that it is actually possible to build something apart from God’s design. We are able to build things and not have God involved in it whatsoever. He states such labor is vain. It’s useless.

As I was studying this text I couldn’t help but think about all the houses that have been built for orphans throughout the world. Houses that don’t have God’s design and don’t have the child’s best interest in mind. Even those with good intentions that build an orphanage or run a group home fall short. That’s not even to getting into the houses that exploit these vulnerable children for sinister purposes like sex slavery and child armies.

Throughout every society, orphans are the most susceptible and disadvantaged populace. As Christians, we must determine what kind of house it is that God’s building for them. Is an orphanage, even a Christian orphanage, the end-all design that God’s given? Is it foster homes or group homes where children often last short periods of time only to be passed on to the next house and then the next after that? Or is the house that God’s building something else?

I’m reminded of a quote by Johnny Carr speaking specifically about orphanages: “Man made orphanages for children, but God made the family for children.” (Orphan Justice, pg. 65)

I’m overwhelmed with this understanding that we can pour ourselves into orphan care ministries and make sure that kids get fed and get a bed and we can smile at them and say “Jesus loves you” and yet, they remain an orphan. They remain disconnected because they received our best material resources, but never had the couple that went to bat for them and said “you are our child.”

When I see children that have been adopted, I see how they transform and meld into the family and I see the family evolve as God adds to their number. The child not only knows that they’re loved, but they are finally free to be the fullest expression of who they are in Christ. I can’t help but realize that this is the house that God is building. God is building families.

Adoptive Family that has two children through adoption, one from Kazakhstan one from Azerbaijan Source
Adoptive Family that has two children through adoption, one from Kazakhstan one from Azerbaijan Source

As God allows us to build our families through both procreation and adoption, we are saying yes to receiving our inheritance. Inheritance is normally associated with what children receive when their parents pass away, but that isn’t the meaning of this verse.

My children don’t receive my inheritance, they are my inheritance. >tweet this<

The legacy that we leave behind is our children. For the twenty years they’re in our home and all the years after that, we are investing in our own inheritance. We get to delight in our inheritance when we see our children succeed in their vocation, raise our grandkids or even when they mess up and we are privileged to be the ones to pick them up.

In Tanzania, adoption is not common. One of the reasons for this is because people understand that if they adopt, especially a boy, then they will have to split up their inheritance. This often involves family-owned land. For this reason, many people are hesitant to make an orphan their son. They view this is as reducing their inheritance, but this scripture says just the opposite. When we adopt, our inheritance actually increases and we have another arrow with which to advance God’s Kingdom.

What are you building? Are you satisfied with a house that is less than or totally other than what God is building?

I’ve come to this realization that at almost thirty years old, my life is going by and my kids aren’t getting any smaller. Next thing I know, another thirty years will go by and I’ll be sixty and still another and I’ll likely be dead. If this is the one life that I get and it’s over like a vapor in the wind, I don’t want to waste it building something apart from God’s design. Lord, let not my life be in vain. God has a special inheritance and a house in mind for me and for you, will you receive it?

Keep building.

When It’s Your Child

A few months ago, Melissa and I were watching a documentary on Netflix called “Stuck.” The documentary was all about the various journeys of international adoption that people go through. It followed the lives of adoptive parents and the fight that they have to put up to bring their children home. It was heart rending. As you see these children living in orphanages in Europe, Asia and Africa, you start to realize just how devastating such an upbringing is. At one point in the movie, they rolled footage from a Romanian orphanage of a person pushing a two level medical tray with about 15 babies literally piled on it. After the movie, Melissa remarked “that could be Shepherd.”

That is Shepherd.

One of the biggest issues when trying to get a grasp on the global orphan crisis is that kids that are living in orphanages or on the streets don’t have names, just blank faces. That isn’t how God sees them, but it certainly is how people tend to see them. If we want to see how God sees, we must place our own children in that situation. That’s my baby piled on a tray, that’s my daughter being violated every night by a caretaker, that’s my son sniffing chemicals everyday on the streets.

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Unfortunately, the majority of Christian communities have done a disservice to these children by only going up to their ankles in the ocean of these children’s needs. Long-term residential orphanages, a revolving door of missionaries and staff and short term mission band-aids have all failed to address the children’s biggest needs. These children need godly parents that are going to get their skin in the game, that are going to lay down their lives for them, that are going to live out the gospel.

My son, Moses, grew up for the first eight years of his life in an orphanage. It’s a well-known children’s home in the area with a decent following in the states. It is certainly a good orphanage relative to what orphanages typically are. I worked at the children’s home for two years and still visit the precious children there from time to time. The orphanage is run by some of the best people I know. But it’s still an orphanage—and that’s where my son has spent most of his life.

Full disclosure here as a father, something a tad uncomfortable from when we announced the adoption was the amount of good-intentioned people, most of whom I don’t know personally, that said they “know” my son. They have pictures of him, they’re locals that volunteered a time here and there, or people that have a memory of playing with him on their short term trip or something to that effect. Now, I understand that at the time such things seemed innocuous, even seemed sweet. But consider that all along, he was waiting to be adopted, waiting for someone to go to bat for him. All along, he was destined to be our son. To those visiting he was just a cute orphan, among many others, acting silly so as to get the attention that he desperately needed. Yet, he was and is and always will be my child. Now consider the other kids that are still there.

Perhaps, if we knew the fight that parents have to go through to adopt children in need, we’d tread more reverently when meeting their children and then truly seek to help these children receive their most important need. No more passing out candy, no more pictures, just supporting families.

At one point, Moses developed a very strong bond with someone that used to work at the orphanage. As time went on, this individual was led elsewhere, just as I was and many others that have worked at the orphanage. When they left, Moses was crushed. It wasn’t their fault at all, they poured into him and showed him love that he desperately needed. But he was, nonetheless, crushed. To me, this only highlights the fact that the system we’ve set up is broken and falls tragically short of meeting the child’s full needs. Unfortunately for Moses, these modes of care, while completely done with the best intentions, fell short of meeting his deepest needs. He, like millions and millions of other orphans, continued a broken life experience. I, for one, am not satisfied with that brokenness.

What’s my point in all this?

The needs of an orphan are larger than the infrastructure that we (the church) have created for them. >tweet this<

The fact that we’ve even created an infrastructure only underscores the issue. At the risk of sounding harsh, I say this. An orphan doesn’t need your institutional long-term orphanage, your short term missions trip, your ‘Like’ on Facebook or any of the other trivial things that we offer as support.

An orphan needs you.

When Jesus ministered to people, He only gave them one thing: Himself. There’s our model, friends. The way an orphan experiences full restoration in Christ is if we give ourselves to them and in so doing, they become someone’s child. Anything else falls short.

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Take this post and do something with it. Adopt. Foster. Support a family in your church that is adopting or fostering. Support financially, babysit their kids for free, ask them how you can be a positive influence in their children’s lives and the life of their family.

 

Disclaimer: This may come across as too strong, but that is intentional because the church needs a strong wake-up call. In talking about orphanages, specifically the one which I used to work at, I want to be clear. Orphanages have a role in orphan care. An orphanage should be a short term solution for a child in an urgent situation. An orphanage’s goal should not be residency, but rather to place the child in a loving family as soon as possible. We must find places where we evolve the current orphan care landscape into God’s heart for the orphan, which is that each child would have a mom and a dad. Not all orphans will be adopted tomorrow and many, sadly, will never be adopted, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

The Epidemic of Fatherlessness

“The AIDS epidemic in Africa is huge, but it’s led to an even worse epidemic and that’s children growing up without fathers.”

The words left his mouth and immediately found their home in my heart. With that single sentence a purpose for my life was birthed and a series of profound events in my life were initiated.

Can you imagine a world without AIDS? Can you imagine all the families and communities that have been devastated by this terrible disease becoming fully restored? Can you imagine every person ever infected with HIV being completely healed? I have loved ones that are HIV+ and know people that have passed away from AIDS-related issues. I can tell you the world would be a far better place without HIV/AIDS, immeasurably so.

Yet, if that opening quote is true, there is actually something worse than even a ravaging disease like AIDS. There’s a devastation more horrendous. There’s something that doesn’t just kill the body, but something that kills the soul.

Fatherlessness.

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Perhaps it wouldn’t take much imagination, but consider a child that grows up fatherless. A father speaks identity over his children. A fatherless child grows up not knowing who he is or what purpose he is to serve on earth. A father protects his children. A fatherless child is susceptible to all types of danger and threats. She is insecure, because there is no father there to secure her. A father delights in and takes pride in his children. A fatherless child is pining for attention and to know their value and to know that they are desirable. A father guides, corrects and lays down his life for his children. Without a father, children are inherently meandering around lost; sheep without a shepherd.

Part of our human condition is to get so wrapped up in our own lives that we stop recognizing the needs of others around us. Days, weeks and years go by and we’re consumed with the everyday demands of life; paying the bills, getting the kids to school and having dinner on the table by 5:30. Any moment of pause gets focused on our own needs or those of our closest family. Stopping the grind and considering someone else’s needs or lending a hand is often out of sight, out of mind and hence left undone.

It’s no wonder that over and over in scripture God had to break through and tell his people directly that caring for the fatherless (and widows) was something that they are mandated to do.

“Take up the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17)
“Acceptable religion is to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27 paraphrase)
“Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan” (Exodus 22:22)
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” (Psalm 82:3)
“The aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied” (Deuteronomy 14:29)

What do these scriptures really mean to you though? If you ever have an “orphan care guy” roll through your church, they always make sure everyone knows the biblical basis for orphan care. My fear is that they just get glossed over though. We understand that the cause of the orphan is important to God, but typically have no tangible work among them. Nor do we desire to begin one, or adopt a child in need. But if we are merely hearers of the word and do nothing with it, what do we profit?

What if the orphan care guy instead walks in with an actual orphan? What if in a Sunday service, he’s able to show the child’s heart to the congregation? He shows the insecurity, the fear, the directionless. He shows that the child, just wants to be wanted. He shows that the child is needing a name, needing an identity. Would our hearts then be moved?

The thing about epidemics is that they spread organically. Someone coughs, spits or bleeds and those around them are now at risk. One person’s sickness leads to another person’s sickness. That’s how it works among the fatherless as well.

Fatherlessness begets fatherlessness. It spreads and can devastate entire populations. tweet this

That’s what’s happened in Africa and in complete honesty has happened through the entire world.

What is it that ends an epidemic? Intent. Caring people draw a line and say it ends here and from that point, they push back the tide. Such intent is indeed costly. It may cost you everything you have. You might have to throw out all the plans that you had for your life. You might have to empty your bank account. You might have to take that perfect little family picture that you had and go to great lengths just to wreck it.

But in so doing, we stamp out this devastating epidemic that has claimed far too many lives already.

Can you imagine a world without fatherlessness? Can you imagine every child in the world with a last name that means something to them? Can you imagine every boy and girl being secured within the love of a father that went to great lengths to claim them as his own? Can you imagine children off the streets, out of orphanages and into homes where the head of the family loves, guides, corrects and trains the children up in the way that they should go? Can you imagine a world without fatherlessness?

 

Keep building.

 

 

*The opening quote was from the preacher Mike Pilavachi in a sermon he gave at my church on Father’s Day 2007. This was the day that I first felt called to work among orphans in Africa.

Designs for Orphan Care (Part 1)

752038128_78eae2f64d_zI was reading in the book of Ezra the other day and though I’ve read the book several times, I came across a story in chapter 3 that really struck me like never before. The Persian king Cyrus had commissioned a large group of Israelites to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians a few generations prior. As the captives that returned to Israel established the foundation of the new temple, a time of worship broke out in the community.

“And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD: ‘For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout and the sound was heard afar off.”

I had to get out my commentary to confirm why I thought the old men were weeping over the foundation. Mr. Halley agreed, the old men in remembering God’s design for Solomon’s temple, wept that the temple they were now building would not match the grandeur of God’s design for the house of worship. Many people shouted for joy as formal worship of the LORD was being restored and there was all kinds of hoopla, yet still there were those that remembered the superiority of God’s design and in some ways were disappointed that the community was no longer at that level.

As I’ve journeyed with caring for orphans in Tanzania, I feel as though I’ve aged. It’s been five years now since I accepted the job at Treasures of Africa. When I first started I exuberantly told everyone, “this is my dream job.” I was one of those worshipers that when the foundation was laid, I rejoiced and shouted and worshiped. I was in love with working there and knew that it was where God had called me. It absolutely was where God had called me for the three years I was committed there. I grew in faith and I grew in love. I’m so grateful for the leaders that gave me such an opportunity. I was given an insightful look into these kids’ lives, their backgrounds and their specific needs as they came out of traumatic experiences. By welcoming them to the children’s home they were shown love, they were provided for and were able to rest and recover from the blows that orphan life had left them.

Beyond learning about the needs of the kids, I also had an insiders view of how the best orphanage in Moshi was run. I say it’s the best not only because the physical needs of the children are met and they have a clean, safe environment in which to grow up, but because the leaders of the orphanage were very godly people. The kids heard and received the gospel, which to me is most important.

From that insiders view, I have also learned the downsides to the orphanage system. It would be easy for me to look at government orphanages in Eastern Europe or the poorly funded, poorly supervised orphanages here in East Africa, but I’ve actually seen the downsides to the very best orphanages around. I’ve aged. I’ve become one of those old men that weeps as the foundation is laid and remember that God’s design was and is far superior.

As I’ve been working through all these things in my head over the last year since we’ve returned, I find myself needing to temper what I say. I personally invested so much in the orphanage system and even more so because I have close friends that are currently ministering in orphanages and most importantly I have a group of twenty-six kids that I love a whole lot that live at a children’s home. The difficulty in navigating what I write and hence other people read is that in critiquing the orphanage system of orphan care, I am critiquing the most common form of orphan care in the world. In many contexts, it’s the only form of care for these kids. Because of all this, it tends to be the type of ministry that you, me and everyone else has supported if you’ve been involved in the biblical mandate to care for orphaned children.

There are two designs here that I’m looking at and I in no way want to come across as heavy-handed, pugnacious or cold. I feel the exact opposite towards the orphanage system. I think that it can have it’s role in caring for orphans, but we often see it as the end all in millions of instances and I don’t think that’s good. So the two designs, I humbly submit, is God’s design (Solomon’s temple) and man’s design (the temple in Ezra 3).

So, in a nutshell, what are those two designs? As Johnny Carr says “man made orphanages for children, but God made the family for children.” Now that is a pretty strong opinion, I confess. What I’d like to do today is just look at a few themes that we see in the Bible concerning this conversation.

The first thing that we must understand is the fact that the Bible, both testaments, speak a lot to caring for orphans. In the giving of the Law to God’s people in the Old Testament, caring for orphans was something that was expected of each and every individual. In Deuteronomy, God hammers a group of people into the minds of the Israelite community: the widow, the stranger and the fatherless. It was God’s chosen people that were expected to care for the needs of these people. If you read chapter 24 in particular, you’ll see God commanding Israel to preserve justice for the fatherless and also provide them with food from the people’s own crops. It was a commandment, not an option.

God demanded that of His people, because they are to be His reflection and hence maintain His own character. They were to administer justice for the fatherless, because He administers justice for the fatherless (Deut. 10:18). They were to help the orphan, because He is the helper of the orphan (Psalm 10:14). And in keeping in step with who He is, God’s people are to father the fatherless, because that’s who He is (Psalm 68:5).

In the New Testament, we see a core spiritual truth about who we are in Christ applied in these same terms. Jesus teaches us to pray to God as ‘our Father’ and in Romans 8, Paul teaches us that we have been adopted as children of God. If we were adopted by God, that means that there was a point when we ourselves were orphans too. God was gracious and brought us into His family.

In Christian practice, just as I spoke to a moment ago, what we see God do, we ought to do ourselves. We love because He first loved us. We are commanded to be holy just as the Lord is holy. We give, because He gave it all for us. So if God in his generosity, compassion and righteousness, adopted us orphans into His family, what does that mean for us when we consider these kids that also need a family?

In the beginning, God established the family. He put Adam and Eve in the garden and told them to be fruitful and multiply (read, have lots of kids). This was God’s first design, He had a family in mind as the ones that would take care of the earth and expand the garden.

This is just a really quick overview of what the Bible says in regards to orphan care and God’s design for adoption and family. Nonetheless, we can gather a few things from just understanding this text. If you were to read the Bible, then be presented with the plight of millions of orphaned children, would you gather that all you need to do is establish an orphanage? The Jews of the Old Testament didn’t do that and it wasn’t until the legalization of Christianity a few centuries after Christ, that Christians started to do it.

I propose that there is a better way. God’s original design was for children to be in families. By the power of the Holy Spirit we can get back to that design and see orphans receive what they need most of all, the love of a godly father and mother.

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Click here to read Part 2 where we’ll talk about some of the practicalities and difficulties that are presented through both the orphanage system and the families model. If you found this post interesting and something to be considered, then I’d appreciate you sharing it. These are conversations within the church that need to take place and every single one of us has a role to play. Not all are called to adopt, but all are called to do something.

Slacks and Old Loafers

I suppose a good life ought to give you moments when you say, “am I really doing this right now?” I had one such moment earlier today.

I wore slacks today. I rarely wear slacks and when I do, it’s on Sunday, not Thursday. But today I did. I also wore the only pair of dress shoes that I own, which I bought at JCPenney for my junior year homecoming. So that’s 12 years ago. If those hush puppies were actual puppies in 2002, they’d be dead now, as my shoes ought to be. Such a rarity this outfit, Melissa was inclined to snap a picture.

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What a dweeb, and why am I folding my hands like that?

I don’t normally dress this way, but Meshak and I had a meeting with a regional officer at social welfare to talk about our ministry’s introduction letter to the department. I was dressed to impress, quite literally.

As is the custom, we arrived later than planned and still waited a while outside the office on a rickety wood bench. As we sat, we talked about Meshak’s church and their involvement with Kingdom Families. We talked about American sponsorships, vocational training, parental training and all this other stuff regarding our ministry. We talked. There are a lot of times where we talk about stuff that we haven’t yet done and don’t necessarily have experience in. Talking is pretty easy.

At last, Mama Mboya, the official we were meeting with, calls us in. We sat down and exchanged the normal greetings. She looks at me and introduces herself and I remind her that we’ve met before as I previously worked at Treasures of Africa. She smiles and says (in Swahili of course) “oh yes, I remember you. Your beard is bigger now.” My trademark. I am “mzungu na ndevu” that is “the white guy with the beard” that’s my remembrance.

As we begin conversing we share with her about Kingdom Families and what we’re doing. Now, we do already have five kids in our program, but in most respects the project is still in it’s infancy. Hence why we’re introducing ourselves to the regional office in the first place. She shares with us her thoughts, a concern or two and gives us several items that we need to include in our introduction letter for opening a file at social welfare. After fifteen minutes or so of talking, Meshak and I tell her goodbye and walk out to the parking lot. There, we converse some more about the letter that I’ll be writing this weekend and then part ways.

When God first called me to Tanzania, I knew that at some point my wife and I’d be running an orphan care ministry and now that it’s happening, I’m like “what’s happening?” I just told an official in welfare that we’re going to be responsible for children that are not our own. We’re going to try and match them up with families that we believe will love them and care for them. We’re going to find sponsors for all these kids, provide oversight to make sure they’re taken care of, train the parents that bring them in. And we’re doing all of this by faith. We have to believe that God is helping us, we have to believe that we’ll get kids that need families and we have to believe that out of their own goodwill, Tanzanian couples are going to open their homes to these children for the next dozen years or so. What’s happening? And why am I wearing these 12 year old loafers today?

I’ll be honest, I’m in uncharted territory. I wound up here somehow. I don’t have to be in Tanzania. This is my choice. I didn’t have to go and tell a regional officer of Kilimanjaro that me, Melissa and Meshak are going to start putting orphans into Christian families and then supporting that family. This is my choice. This is a largely thankless job most of the time and that’s totally okay. Orphans shouldn’t have to say thanks for being my dad or thanks for finding me a dad, because being a child should just mean that you have a dad. It’s supposed to be the norm. It’s our choice to be here. We’re here because by faith we believe that God said something to us years ago about caring for orphans in Africa and we by faith decided to walk towards that.

Faith. That’s the currency of Christian life. By this world’s standards, I’m wearing 12 year old loafers and a second-hand button up shirt. But I want to be a rich person, that’s my aspiration.

Lord, just let me be rich in faith