May 11, 2012

Loving the Unlovely

The first thing I noticed when she entered my front door was the stench.  Her greasy, unwashed hair smelled like stale cigarette smoke mixed with an adult’s foul body odor, and the smell wafting from her feet suggested that nobody had changed her filthy socks and shoes in way too long.  She may have been hungry or ready for a nap or in desperate need of a hug and reassurance, but I didn’t offer her any of those things.  My only thought was to throw those disgusting shoes into the outside trash bin and to get her dirty body into a warm, sudsy bath.

Although she was now freshly bathed, wore clean clothes, and smelled of creamy lotion, there wasn’t much I could do about her lackluster appearance.  Her thin, stringy hair and blotchy skin were sad evidence of malnutrition and neglect, and her blackened teeth were the result of being given soda in her bottle during her two years of life.  I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but there was simply nothing lovely about this child.

As much as I hate to admit it, I am just like that little girl.  The day I first met my Heavenly Father, I could have been described exactly the same way:  my predominant characteristic, the first thing He would have noticed, was my filth.1  He carefully and lovingly bathed me, leaving me squeaky clean and sweet-smelling.2  But would anyone be able to notice the difference?  Did I look freshly scrubbed and shampooed?  Unfortunately not.  The lasting ramifications of my life apart from him, not only my own selfish actions and misbehavior, but also the effects of my interaction with other people, were not so easily erased.  Although my Father had welcomed me into his family3, the consequences and habits of my previous life remained, and I was just as unlovely as ever.4

There is a passion, almost an obsession, in my heart to nurture, protect, and provide a secure haven for children in need.  It could be even a little bit of selfishness or secret pride, the desire to be needed by another human being and to fill a role that no one else is able or willing to fill.  So what happens when the child doesn’t seem to need me or want me, and rejects all of my attempts to care for her?  Is love still love when it is one-sided and unreciprocated?

This unlovely little girl came to live with us many years ago, long before Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) was a common term in adoption and foster care circles, and even before many professionals understood that there was such a diagnosis.  But even though I didn’t have the vocabulary to put a specific label on her, it didn’t take long for me to notice that something wasn’t quite right. Her withdrawn, sad expression never changed, and her squinty, wary eyes never once made contact with mine, not in the entire year that she lived with us.  But every day was a new opportunity for me to try again, to hope that maybe this would be the day she responded to my attempts to reach her.  I was eventually able to hold her on my lap for brief periods of time, but only if she was facing away from me, and even then her body was limp and unresponsive.  How is it possible to love such a child?

If God were to categorize his children, I wonder what symptoms He saw in me those early years.  Has difficulty connecting?  Unable to bond?  Has no ability to form close relationships?  Of course He is the One who created me, and knows everything about my personality and experiences, so there was no guesswork involved5.  Without a doubt He was fully aware of my short-comings, and He knew that He would need to be extremely patient, tenderly offering love and affection, day after day after day.6

One thing that I never quite understood about this little girl was her unpredictable and frequent screaming.  She would occasionally reach for me, but if I tried to touch her, or hug her, or pick her up, she would screech in distress.  Her screaming was so common, in fact, that I cringed at the thought of taking her out in public places.  When those other moms in the grocery store looked at me with scorn, no doubt criticizing me for my inability to calm this out-of-control child, I almost wished I had a banner or t-shirt that read, “Don’t blame me, I’m just the foster parent.”  Or better yet, “I’d like to see you try!”

One day, when we were all home in the afternoon, another foster baby was asleep in the room down the hall.  When this little girl’s screaming started – yet again! – my first and foremost thought was that I didn’t want the noise to wake up the baby.  I abruptly picked her up, carried her out to the back porch, and propped her on a chair, informing her that when her screaming stopped she was welcome to come back inside the house.  In my annoyance and intolerance, I didn’t realize that it was a hasty, unwise decision.  Moments later a passing neighbor heard the screams and reacted as any concerned citizen would:  she called the police.  Oh, great!  Now I had to humbly explain a questionable situation involving a child whose erratic behavior I could barely comprehend.  Where was that “Don’t blame me” sign when I needed it?

How thankful I am that my Heavenly Father never, ever treats me that way!  He is never embarrassed or shamed by my volatile outbursts.  His unlimited patience is never diminished with use.  Never once has He banished me from His presence because of my unmanageable tantrums.  And in His perfect wisdom, He faithfully, gently, consistently teaches and trains me in just the right way, not according to what is convenient for Him, but with means that He knows will be beneficial.7  I’m so thankful that He never gives up on me!

Every mealtime was the same story:  a nightmare that the whole family dreaded.  She would double-handedly stuff her food into her mouth as fast as she could until she was practically choking, making an awful mess of her face, hands, and table in the process.  But if I tried to help her, or feed her, or moderate her portions or regulate her frantic pace, she would react violently by refusing to eat, arching her back, and beginning her high-pitched, hysterical shrieking.  She rarely used words, but the few times she verbalized her thoughts, she would demand stubbornly, “I do it myself!”  How would she ever learn to eat properly and regulate herself if she never accepted my assistance?

Oh, how untrusting and self-reliant I can be also!  I stubbornly refuse My Heavenly Father’s attempts to help me.  Every time I spend a day without seeking His Word, or rush into a decision without praying for His wisdom, or rely on my own miniscule knowledge and abilities instead of His infinite ones, it’s as if I am arrogantly insisting, “I do it myself!”  When, oh when, will I learn to fully place my confidence in Him instead of foolishly relying on myself?8

Slowly but surely, as good nutrition, regular sleep, and daily sunshine became part of her routine, I witnessed the change in appearance.  Her hair started to exhibit a healthy shine.  Her thin arms and legs began to turn into chubby pinchable rolls, and the rosy tint on her cheeks became more and more noticeable.  But even more astonishing, the day came, months after she began living us, when I caught the first glimpse of her cautious smile.  I was so accustomed to seeing her despondent countenance, her disinterest in toys, her stubborn refusal to respond to my clumsy attempts to connect with her, that this tiny glimmer of light in her eyes was wholly unexpected.  So there really is a resilient, happy girl somewhere inside after all, but her fear and suspicion had been hiding it all this time! 

A foster parent’s rewards are few and far between, but these are the times that make the difficulties all worth it.  The tantrums, the unpredictable behavior, the turmoil it causes in our family schedule, the unrequited affection – all of it is soon forgotten when a child finally finds the joy and security she denies that she needs but is so desperately seeking.  The road to wholeness and healing will remain a long one for this little girl, possibly her entire lifetime, but what a privilege to be right there when she chose to take that first tentative step.

My desire to give refuge to needy children is at times passionate and intense.  It has propelled me forward and has been the driving force behind many of our family’s decisions over the years.  It is beyond my comprehension, however, to think that my Heavenly Father pursues me with that same consuming motivation. For some amazing reason, He finds joy in being my Father, in guiding me, protecting me, teaching me, and providing for me. 9  He doesn’t expect me to be perfect; He knows I am only a small child with so much yet to learn.  He isn’t disappointed when I realize I can’t feed myself; He is waiting for me to receive nourishment from His outstretched hand.  He reached out to me when I was utterly unlovely, unloving, and unlovable,10 gently and patiently healing my wounds and teaching me how to trust.11  When I see the unlovely children whom He brings into my life, how can I offer them anything less?12

1.    Isaiah 64:6
2.    I John 1:9
3.    Ephesians 1:5
4.    Ephesians 4:22
5.    Psalm 139:1-3
6.    Lamentations 3:22-23
7.    Hebrews 12:11
8.    Proverbs 3:5-6
9.    I John 3:1
10. Romans 5:8
11. Psalm 25:5
12. I John 4:19

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful the way you compare it to our Heavenly Father's love for us! I can also relate with so many similar experiences with our foster children. I remember "playing beauty shop" in order to clean up a smelly, dirty little 5 year old little girl without hurting her feelings. Another child informed me "my mama said I don't have too take a bath at your house!" She looked so sadly neglected, with such dry skin and dull hair and her teeth were rotten gray pegs. Thankfully the pediatric dentist was able to bond them, and healthy meals along with a little corn oil added to her food helped her dry skin and dull hair. Amazingly people began to treat her better. I so wanted people to treat our foster children kindly and did everything that I could to help their appearance and get them healthy. Of course it was always fun to put pretty clean clothes on them too.
    Perhaps it's similar to how our Heavenly Father washes us white as snow and gives us a robe of righteousness and wants us to strive to be more like Him. What you described about God's guiding, protecting, teaching, providing for us even when we are unlovely, unloving and unlovable; not expecting us to be perfect and waiting for us to receive from His outstretched hand is especially relevant to how we should love them even after they've grown up and sometimes regressed, seeming unable to overcome the effects of their early childhood neglect and abuse. We have to keep showing God's love while He gently and patiently heals their wounds and continues to teach them how to trust and as He teaches all of us about His powerful love. I love the way He helps you put it into words! Keep on writing.