May 14, 2016
I’m seven, he offers, before the question is even asked. He looks the receptionist right in the eye and instantly attracts her full attention.
His personality can only be described as BIG! He walks into a church or a building or a doctor’s office or a store or a friend’s house or the neighborhood playground, and the atmosphere instantly becomes alive. Children and adults alike can’t help but be drawn to his bright smile, his expansive nature, and his quick wit. The word “shy” is simply not a part of his vocabulary.
His charisma is partly a God-given gift, an instinctual interest in people and the ability to engage them. And it is partly the result of his early childhood experiences, when he learned that “survival of the fittest” means being the most charming kid in the room in order to get the attention and care that he needs. Regardless of how he acquired this congenial temperament, it is impossible not to adore him within minutes of meeting him. Every person he meets, he believes, has the potential to become his next best friend.
And therein lies the challenge. As he often hears from adults everywhere he goes, the woman at the desk croons, Oh, I just love you! While her comment is innocent and well-intentioned, it is nothing short of confusing to a child who accepts statements at face value. Oh, I just love you! means, quite literally, the same thing that his closest family members mean when we tell him how much we love him. My mom loves me . . . this nice lady at the doctor’s office that I just met two minutes ago loves me.
How can we help him to know the difference? To discern that one statement of “love” is a spontaneous emotional word that means I have a feeling of fondness for you at this moment, and the other statement of love means I am fully committed to you for the rest of my life. This is a distinction that is imperative for him to learn – not just now while he is young and adorable, but a lesson that he will carry into adulthood, when he is a grown man navigating the world of friendships and intimate relationships. Then, more than ever, he will need to understand that love is not just a word. It’s not something we say; it is something we do. Our actions are what prove the words true. Love works.
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.
1 John 3:16, 18
What’s your name, he asks her without hesitation? What are you doing? Can I work here too? He makes himself at home behind the counter, pretending to type on the computer and answer the phone. The other members of the office staff, who would normally declare their work area off-limits to small children, think his antics are hilarious. I cringe, knowing exactly what one of these nice ladies will inevitably say: Oh, I just wanna take you home with me!
How could these kind individuals possibly know the turmoil and anxiety that these kinds of remarks can cause in the hearts of children like him? Children who have known uncertainty and instability? Who have experienced the profound loss of a parent who was never supposed to leave? The pain of loneliness and fear in the darkest nights, with no comforting arms to hold them?
When he hears that she wants to take him home with her, he . . . well, he believes her. He assumes that she really means it. That he can just take her hand, walk out to her car, and then will become her son. I know this, because I know him. He is the child who sits on strangers’ laps. The one who takes their hands and lets them pick him up. Even though he is much too old for such things, his small stature lets him get away with it. When he is visiting my friend at her house one day, he asks, in all seriousness, are you going to be my family now?
He is the boy who, despite being adopted into our family three years ago, still doesn’t quite believe that he isn’t going to leave. Last year his teacher at school sent a note home with the students, asking them to bring in a favorite blanket for afternoon rest times. A benign request that Kindergarten teachers everywhere are inclined to make. I packed his little blanket into his backpack without a second thought.
In the car the next morning, he started crying hysterically, I don’t want to go to school! Please don’t make me go! Tears streaming down his face. I was completely puzzled. He loved school and always looked forward to going! I asked, over and over again, What’s wrong, honey? Why don’t you want to go? Can you tell me why you’re crying? He never could. What six-year old would be able to clearly articulate the inner workings of such complex emotions? I ended up half-carrying him to his class, where his teacher tried, nearly in vain, to coax him inside.
When I went to pick him up later in the day, he was surprised to see me. You came back! he announced, wrapping his little arms tightly around my neck. Of course I came back, Honey! Why wouldn’t I? He looked at me as if I was silly not to see the most obvious thing in the world: Because, he explained, you packed my blanket. Who knew that helping a child understand the permanent love of a family could be so messy?
So now, here at the doctor’s office, he is hearing a sweet woman say that she wants to take him home with her. Before the conversation goes any further, before he has a chance to really comprehend what she just said, I interject light-heartedly, There are lots more where he came from! It’s my subtle way of saying, I think, that this is my son. He already has a family. He’s not free for the taking.
I think it’s also a not-so-subtle hint. A slight admonition, reminding everyone within earshot that there are tens of thousands of children just like him – or rather, like he used to be – children who are stuck in the foster care system just waiting for someone to love them. For someone to really take them home. Not just to say the words to a cute kid when he is being charming, but to really mean it. To demonstrate true love by filling out the applications, taking the classes, getting the background checks. By rearranging the bedroom furniture and installing the car seat and assembling the swing set. By making the commitment. Love doesn’t say, I would take you home with me. Love actually does it!
But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? – 1 John 3:17
I put my hand protectively on my son’s shoulder while steering him towards the door. Out the door towards our car, which will take him to our home where he lives with our family. With his family. With the family who has opened their heart to him and who, every minute of every day, shows love to him: working hard to provide for his needs, teaching him how to ride a bike, training him to be responsible, reading to him, buying clothes for his growing body, tucking him into bed at night, getting him the medical attention he needs. Praying for him, training him to be respectful, molding and shaping his character, teaching him about the One who loves him most.
Here’s what love is: Love keeps going. Not just today. Not just when he’s cute and charming and funny. Not just when we feel affectionate and warm and tender. Love gives and serves and sacrifices. And when our energy is depleted and he is being disrespectful and disobedient and we’ve given all we have to give . . . we do it again.
And hopefully some day, when he has seen this love in action over and over again, when he eventually begins to understand that love is so much more than words from a stranger, then he will be the one to give love in return. He will be able to fully enjoy strong, healthy, mutual, faithful connections with the people God brings into his life. He will know what it means to be a man who gives of himself for the people who are important to him.
He will know, with settled assurance, that love works.