“It’s not a fist bump if the other person isn’t participating.”
I remember using those words to teach my daughter Jocelyn, then age five, a lesson. She had been punching her brother a few times a day for a week or so when I asked in frustration, “What are you doing, girl?!?”
She plainly replied, “I’m just fist bumping him!” Since she was doing so with no warning to Robbie, her intent was lost. The impact – literally – of her punch was all he felt.
Our words can work in the same way. All of us have experienced those “shoot, that’s not what I meant to say!” moments. All of us have also had well-intentioned moments in which we never realized how harshly our words landed on someone else’s ears. Instead of reacting defensively, being humble means we should step back and listen when someone lets us know about a hurtful impact that didn’t match the intent of our words.
In James, we are admonished to be slow to speak and quick to listen, and this topic is one in which that definitely applies. This is the first time I’ve written about language choices for adoption because I’ve been listening long before sharing any of my own words. In fact, many of the words in this post are drawn heavily from others, specifically Melanie Chung-Sherman, Tara Bradford, and Tara Vanderwoude. For me, the most beneficial session of the recent Christian Alliance For Orphans summit in October was theirs, titled Wrestling God: Reconciling Faith Through the Varying Perspective of Adult Adoptees.
Adoption is a product of both beauty and brokenness. Somehow, though, our words in the church about adoption primarily reflect just one half of that: the beauty. Please understand that in this post I am not trying to dismiss the beauty, because I do believe our family’s adoptions were miraculous blessings orchestrated by God. But I know that’s not the only truth about our adoptions, even as it’s the only one regularly recognized by most other Christians.
In their session, Tara Vanderwoude offered some common Christianese sentiments and then offered their possible meanings to an adoptee. For example, when we talk of the miracle or blessing of adoption, adoptees might wonder what kind of blessing requires the loss of their first families, countries, or languages. Kids might feel like they aren’t allowed to express sadness to their parents or church leaders if those adults see their adoption as a completely positive miracle. Children by adoption may be perplexed when they hear “God meant for you to be in this family,” because it sounds like her birth mother was merely an incubator or like God made a mistake in having him born to someone else first. Knowing that children can take figurative phrases literally – especially when those children are young or have cognitive or communicative disabilities – saying that a child was born in the heart of an adoptive mother can be confusing, as kids think “I thought I was born to my birth parents” or “no, I was born in Taiwan” or “babies are born in hearts? I thought they were in mommies’ tummies.”
Why do our words matter? Because our words – especially those couched in Christianese – communicate our theology. In their session, Melanie aptly pointed out that children’s images of God are intertwined with parent-child experiences. For children in adoptive or foster placements, their lived experiences might offer a perceived theology of a God who abandons, a God who watches but is not overly involved, a God who leaves, or several gods who are interchangeable as different caregivers. Then when we take those assumptions about God and layer confusingly positive Christian clichés about adoption, the end result can be dismissiveness instead of discipleship.
Adoption language is tricky. “What not to say…” lists are prolific. While those can be helpful, I think they are often received as jabs rather than friendly fist bumps. I hope this post and the previous two in this series will be received as the latter, aiming to instruct rather than sucker punch.
This post is the final one in a three post series on the words we use about adoption as Christians. Please know that I have been guilty – and sometimes continue to be at times – of every mistake to which I draw our attention. This isn’t about political correctness, self-righteousness, or simple rhetoric; it’s about love. I think we can all agree that words can be received as unloving, whether or not the speaker intended for them to be. Could we all be humble enough to set aside the argument “but I didn’t intend to…” and instead listen to how those words are being received on the other end? As I focus on the impact of our words, I’m hoping my words can be received with the same love with which I’m offering them. And as always, feel free to comment or engage with us if you don’t agree, because that’s one way iron can sharpen iron, to borrow the wording of Proverbs 27:17.
Check out Shannon Dingle’s blog series on adoption, disability and the church. In the series, Shannon looked at the four different kinds of special needs in adoptive and foster families and shared five ways churches can love their adoptive and foster families. Shannon’s series is a must-read for any church considering adoption or foster care initiatives. Shannon’s series is available here.