I knew that adopting teens out of foster care was going to be difficult; difficult was what I was signing up for.
“Lord, give me your lost and lonely, the outcast, the unloved.” Welcome here, broken.
I was ready to love the unlovable. After all, wasn’t I “Auntie Cake”, Sunday school teacher extraordinaire? I could single-handedly manage a classroom of fifteen toddlers and had raised two delightful teens as a single mom. I hushed bawling babies and corralled special needs kiddos to their tired parents’ minivans each Sunday after service. “Send them home with me for a week,” I half kidded friends with unruly children, “they’ll come home calling you ma’am and begging to do the dishes.” My secret? Tough love.
I’d take a difficult child and I’d adore them, all smiles and laughter, until they crossed a line. Immediately, I’d flip the switch, firm and strong, in control. All “O no, we don’t throw my toys” and “We are going to be gentle with our friends,” and “We make wise choices”. The second the behavior was corrected, sweet Auntie Cake would be back, full of love and grace for the newly repentant sinner.
O yeah, I was great at tough love.
I clearly had a knack for difficult kids; I was going to be so good at this whole foster care thing! And what a travesty that no one ever took teens! I was going to be amazing with teens. No wonder God was calling me to this ministry. O, what great things I was going to do for the Kingdom!
And then they arrived. First my 16 year old came, fresh from “therapeutic” lock-down after her second suicide attempt, all angry raised razor blade scars, rage, and substance abuse issues. Her younger sister was driven in three days later straight from a failed placement. One where she’d lasted less than two months due to her behavioral issues, most notably her tantrums. Picture the mouth of a felon, the destructive strength of a tornado, and the self-control of a toddler all wrapped up in the world’s most easily offended pre-teen. They arrived apprehensive, hauling garbage bags full of all their worldly goods and even weightier resentments.
I pulled out my trusted tough love tactics and got to work, confident in my own super-parent abilities.
But tough love? I failed at it. Instead I found my girls tough to love.
Try adoring a child who is constantly manipulative, lying to and using every member of the family to get her next fix- be it for sugar, nicotine, or weed. I didn’t. I felt used and rejected and sulked.
Try setting firm boundaries in a strong calm voice when your pre-teen is screaming obscenities at you while thrashing on the bathroom floor and kicking in your cabinets. I didn’t. I lost it and started screaming back.
Stay rational and level-headed when a young woman flies at you in a rage, waving a stolen razor blade and threatening to end it all. I didn’t. I lunged for the blade and ended up cutting both of us in the process.
Good luck oozing love and grace to children who don’t seem to learn and just will not repent. I sure didn’t. I oozed resentment and bitterness instead.
In the face of sirens and crisis stabilization units, failed drug tests and confiscated razor blades, sleepless nights and frantic days, I broke. God had given me exactly what I asked for and I was failing. Failing at what I was best at. Failing at the very thing I had spent a decade dreaming of and praying for. Failing at my calling.
Fostering brought me to my knees both figuratively and literally.
Time after time, I have locked myself in my room and fallen to the floor sobbing, “Daddy, I don’t have it in me. I can’t do this. I don’t even like them right now. How am I supposed to love them? I thought I would be good at this. I am screwing everything up!”
And there, on my knees in complete surrender, is right where God meets me. Stripped of my pride. Stripped of my easy solutions. Stripped of my self-reliance. Completely dependent on God for the next word, the next move, and the ability to love my two hurting daughters.
Because, as it turns out, I don’t actually have it, the kind of love my daughters need. It isn’t tough love; it’s Christ’s love.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV
Patient love. Kind love. Love that doesn’t boast and isn’t proud. Love that never dishonors my daughters. Love that isn’t self-serving. Love that isn’t easily angered. Love that keeps no record of wrongs.
Love that always protects.
That does not stop trusting.
That never loses hope.
Love that never ever gives up.
The only love that never fails- Christ’s love.