Cava has been with us just a little over two years now. In that time, we have renegotiated what it means to be a family. We have overcome obstacles and encountered some again and again. But there has been progress. Yet with the progress we have made, we also learn how much further it is to healing in a child who has spent most of his life feeling alone, abandoned, and unloved. Our family has strived to give Cava a home where he can feel at ease, at peace, loved, and safe. So it came as a bit of a shock when, just last week, he confided to me that he often didn't feel loved and that he was still afraid we were going to send him back to Ukraine.
Now having read a great many books on adoption, on attachment disorders, and so on, I never expected Cava to grasp how much we love him right away or that love would be instantaneous. I understood, mentally, that he is overcoming eight years of rejection, loss, and hurt. Should I have expected that in two short years he would understand something that many adults don't even truly get?
We constantly tell Cava that we love him and he responds back that he loves us. When he confessed that he didn't always feel loved, I paused, processed, and prayed before I responded. The first thing I asked him was, "Cava, do you know what love means?" He admitted that he didn't.
Before now, how would he? What would he have to understand or measure love by?
I took a deep breath and tried to explain love in terms that he would understand. I told him how, out of love, we flew to Ukraine to adopt a child. How, after spending only an hour with him, we wanted him to be part of our family forever. We talked about how extremely difficult it was for all of us when he first got here, but no matter how bad it got, we loved him and would never, ever consider sending him back. I also told him that he will never fully get how much his Mom and I loved him until he had his own children. I said that when you have a child and they are sad, you feel that sadness even more so because you want desperately to wipe it away. How parents want their children to be loved and accepted wherever they go and how much it hurts us when they aren't. As I watch Cava struggle so hard at school to fit in and know how deeply sad he is that he hasn't, my heart breaks and I continue to reassure him how great he really is. To let him see that he is worthy and deserving of love and acceptance, even when he can't love and accept himself.
We talked about the turmoil that goes on inside him. How he does not feel peace like calm lake but that his insides feel like the constant crashing waves of an ocean.
After we talked for about half an hour, which is amazing in and of itself and was a real gift because I got to see into Cava's heart and thoughts, I told him, "Buddy, whenever you feel this way. Whenever you feel unloved or are afraid that we will send you back, please come and talk to Mommy or I. We want you to feel like this is your home and that you are loved, wanted, accepted, and that your thoughts and feelings are valuable." I made him look me in the eyes and I asked, "Will you promise me that you will try to do that?" He nodded. "I want to help you and I never want you to feel unloved or afraid at home."
Do I think this settles the matter?
Do I see that we still have a lot of work ahead of us?
Yes! But I'm glad to have a better understanding of how I can work to help this scared little boy to feel loved and to understand what love really means, not by just giving him a definition in one short talk, but in being there for him day after day after day. Loving him when he's at his most unlovable. Reminding him through words and actions that I love him. As an example, I said, "If someone told me, you can either keep all of your books or you can keep Cava, which one will you choose?" I looked at Cava, who, knowing how much I love to read, was a bit worried, so I reassured him with, "I would always choose you. You and Mommy and Benjamin mean more to me than anything else in this world. I would never, ever give any of you up." He smiled a smile of relief that I didn't pick the books and sighed, "Good!"
Every time I see that Johnson's Baby "So Much More Commercial," my heart aches because I know that Cava never got that. He didn't get that attachment as a baby. Eight years he has had to self-soothe and comfort himself, so it will take time for him to understand that strong bond a child can have with its parents. How a parent is there to take care of, nurture, protect, love, celebrate, find joy and pleasure in, teach, and even punish out of love. The latter is really something he struggles with, so we make sure he understands why he's being punished and that we are doing so out of love and not malice or capriciousness. He must see that everything is done out of love, for his best interests, and for his well being.
I pray every day that Cava will grow in the knowledge that he is loved, accepted so that he can feel peace inside. I know this will come, slowly, but it will come. As I told him, "God loved you enough to send a family from a city in North Carolina to a small village in Ukraine so that you could be a part of us. And He loved us enough to send us all the way to Ukraine so that you could be a part of our family. Cava, God knew all of this before either you or I were ever born. Before He even formed us in the womb, God had it planned out so that we would be a family. He loved us that much." Knowing how much his Heavenly Father loves him is going to be a key to his healing. Teaching him "For God so loved the world . . ." can heal this child more than our imperfect love ever can.
So we will continue to let Cava know that he is loved and will be loved. That he is and always will be a part of our family, on good days and bad. I just can't wait to see the day when Cava knows some real peace in his life. Jesus calmed the seas and I know He can do the same for those inside our son.
Recently I went on a men's retreat with some guys from my church. Before I did, I explained to Cava that I would be going, where I was going, how long I would be gone, and when I would be back. He seemed to be okay and understood. While I was gone, my wife did special things with the boys. When she asked Cava, "Aren't we having fun?" Cava replied, "No, I'm sad that Papa's gone." He told her that he had also been crying at school because of this. When I returned, she told me all of this and I asked Cava, "Didn't you think I was coming back?"
"No," he replied.
Despite my explaining to him where I'd be going and how long I'd be gone, he still feared that I had abandoned him. It made me wonder how deep this fear was and made me realize we still had work to do to make Cava feel secure.
It shouldn't have surprised me like it did since adoptive children have deep rooted insecurity and deal with a real sense of abandonment. They have been "rejected" by their birth parents and have seen others come and go in their lives with regularity in the orphanage system. Psychologists believe that children remember their birth and following events, including relinquishment and adoption, up to the age of three. If children at such a young age deal with separation trauma, then how much more for the child who spends years in orphanages? And the more years they are there, the deeper the wounds. All of this does damage to a child's psyche. As Jane Brown wrote in her article "Helping Children Cope With And Understand Abandonment": Any stress associated with these moves (foster care, orphanages, adoptive homes) floods the brain with corrosive neurochemicals that pave the way for the individual to be more vulnerable to stress than the individual who has consistent care from his original parents.
This sense of abandonment and loss will create special needs in the adopted child throughout their lives. How they react to this sense of grief and loss can come out in a myriad of ways (such as acting out, or becoming withdrawn, putting on an act of self-sufficiency, or by being adaptable and compliant). The key is seeing past the actions or behavior to the root of it and dealing with this in a way that will help heal the wounds that cause a child to feel they are alone.
When I asked Cava why he thought I had abandoned him, he answered as he often does with, "I don't know." And he probably doesn't. He may not be thinking so much as feeling this sense of abandonment that stems back to his mother relinquishing him as a baby, at the number of moves he has gone through in his life (baby house, orphanage, and boarding school), as well as going through numerous caregivers, and watching other kids come and go from their lives frequently. This will cause them to question their own self-worth. Adoptive children may question why they were given up, as well as having numerous questions about their birth parents.
After Cava told me that he thought I wasn't coming back, I sat him on my lap, held him close to me, and told him that I would never leave him or "Mommy, or Benjamin." That I loved him and could not imagine my life without him in it. "You are my son. We are family," I reminded him. "I am not going to leave you. Ever. I will be here to love you, take care of you, and protect you." I also said, "Do you remember how, before I left, I told you where I was going and how long I would be gone and when I was coming back?"
"Did I lie about any of that?"
"No. And didn't I call you every night before you went to bed to check on you and tell you that I loved you?"
"I did that because I love you and I didn't want you to worry. And I also did that because I missed you, and Mommy, and Benjamin. It was okay for you to miss me, just as I missed you, but you never have to worry that I am going to leave you."
And I just held him for awhile and, as I did, I quietly prayed for this little boy who has such big hurts. Every day I pray that he will continue to heal, that he will feel a sense of peace, of love, and of security. I pray that I can be the Papa he desperately needs and that I can respond in ways that helps healing not hinders it.
This small incident showed me that this will continue to be a process that will take time, but I want him to always know that I will be there to be a part of it for him.
To read more in-depth about this issue, here are some links to other websites with articles about adoptive children and abandonment:
Because of all the inclement weather we've had in our area, Cava's school just had their President's Day program last night. My favorite part of the whole show was when Cava sang about being American. I glanced over at Danelle, who had tears in her eyes.
Our little Ukrainian-American singing this song not only had an impact on us, but also on others. After the program was over, staff from the school came over to tell us just how much it moved them to see Cava singing about how happy he is to be an American, which is something he really and truly means. Hearing him reminded us what being an American can really mean and how much it can mean to someone. It's also what this country is all about.
America to him is more than just a country, it's a place where he is now loved and accepted. Not only has our family embraced him as one of our own, but so many others around us have fallen in love with this little boy and the amazing journey he has taken, the bravery he has shown, and the progress he has made in just two short years. America to him means a home - as well as being the home to Walt Disney World (easily one of his favorite places on Earth).
Ever since he fist got here, he has proudly proclaimed, "I'm an American."
I can't help but love Cava.
I love that he makes me aware of how grateful I should be for what we have in our lives, especially him.
These are three ministries with one goal: to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world. They were all started by people who headed God's call and said, "Yes." They are all ordinary people falling an extraordinary God. They are all taking care of the least of these and seeking justice for the oppressed.
As Cornell West said, "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."
How many of us search the scriptures, seek wise counsel, pray and then, when it's time to act, want to go back to our Bibles some more, seek out more advise, want more confirmation, and pray some more? Jesus spent time in prayer but then He went out and did His Father's will among the people who so desperately needed Him. Why are we so reluctant to do likewise?
Does scripture not tell us that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and a sound mind?
Not to mention that we are constantly reminded that God will be with us.
Are we afraid to leave our comfortable lives? We can either seek the comforts of this world or we can seek the Truth. Truth will never let you be comfortable. Many may turn away because of this fact. Like the rich young ruler, we will cling to our things and fear that following Christ means we will go without them. As David Platt wrote in his book Radical, "Radical obedience to Christ is not easy . . . It's not comfort, not health, not wealth, and not prosperity in the world. Radical obedience to Christ risks losing all these things. But, in the end, such risk finds its reward in Christ. And he is more than enough for us."
Do we live our lives as if we truly believe that?
As a girl, Katie Davis read her Bible and, even at the young age of 12, gave her life to God for whatever purpose He had for her. At the age of 17, she went on her first missions trip to Uganda. It was there that she felt God's purpose for her life, so that after she graduated high school, Katie returned and became a kindergarten teacher. As she walked to school each day, she saw so many children that were too impoverished to get an education because, in Uganda, they are charged a fee. Seeing a need, Katie started an Education Sponsorship Outreach that now sponsors over 700 children. Not long after that, she started Amazima Ministries to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the Ugandan people. While working with the Karimojong people of Masese, who live in dire poverty, she went on to start the Masese Feeding Outreach. They provide meals Monday through Friday to over 1,000 children. To help the women, Katie started a self-sustaining vocational program to help them generate income by making their unique beaded necklaces and selling them on the Amazima website. As if, by our standards, this weren't enough, she has adopted 13 girls of various ages.
"I am not really very brave; I am not really strong; and I am not doing anything spectacular," Katie Davis said, "I am simply doing what God has called me to do as a person who follows Him. Feed His sheep, do unto the least of these."
Katie, like the great figures of faith in the Bible, are not any different from you and me. The only difference is that when God called them, they were obedient and moved forward in faith that no matter what happened to them, God was with them. We are all called to be Paul, Mother Teresa, Gary Haugen, Dru and Asher Collie, and Katie Davis because we are all called to do unto the least of these. The only thing that separates us is our excuses.
Too many of us want a content, cozy, and comfortable Christianity, but that's not the Christianity of Christ. He calls us to "deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." This is not something we see on bumper-stickers. This is not what most of American churches talk about because we often want a God to serve us, instead of us serving Him. But when one looks closely at those who are strong examples of the faith, we will see that they did not have this false idea of God. They knew that to stand for Christ was to stand even when others didn't.
Just look at the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would go on to write a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor during the rise of Hitler. While others in the church were caving in to the world around them, Bonhoeffer stood firm against Nazism and continued to proclaim the truth that he saw in the scriptures. Later, he would be imprisoned and died at the gallows. As he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Now, he was referring to dying to self, but he also meant that standing for one's faith can often cost a person their life. So why would he be willing to literally die for his beliefs? It lies in this:
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price,' and what has cost God cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of Christ.
God love us so much that he withheld nothing from us, but gave up His only Son. So why do we hold back from Him?
Do you know where most of the art in many museums, like the Louvre, are?
In the basement. Away from sight. Unseen. Beautiful, priceless works of art that cannot be appreciated which is their very purpose of existing. Those artists did not create to have their work hidden away.
How many of us do that with parts of our lives from God?
How many of us only give God part of ourselves? "You can have this God, but not this over here." Waht are we withholding from Him? Our families? Our jobs? Our finances? Our talents? Our security? Our priorities?
How many of us will be like the one in the parable of the hidden talents who will stand before Christ and say, "I was afraid . . ."?
Or will we give all to Him, for His glory, and hear, "Well done, good and faithful servant"?
According to Hebrews 11:6, ". . . without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."
Do we, like Esther to Naomi, tells God, "Wheresoever you go, I will go also"?
Is it self or Savior that we are focused on?
Remember we are not called in this life to build monuments, we are called to leave markers. What will yours be pointing others who come after you to? Christ? Or the things of this world that you chased after?
We can either retreat or risk? Obedience is risk. Always. Paul knew this. Yet he said, "Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, sword separate us from the love of Christ?" He goes on to answer his own question, "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35 - 39).
God will not impose His will on us. It requires our active participation. We have to follow Jesus. He may lead us through strange and unfamiliar territory, but we know that despite the ever changing circumstances, God never changes and He will never leave us nor forsake us. How many of us sing the lyrics to Hillsong United's "Oceans" without even thinking about what they really mean? The chorus goes:
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever you would call me.
Many of us sing this, but how many of us mean that?
Isaiah 1:19 tells us, "If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the good things of the Lord. . ."
We can choose obedience or independence. We can either go after our own wants and the things of this world or we can go fervently, single-heartedly after the things of God.
When the Lord divided Canaan among the tribes of Israel, Levi received no share of the land. Instead, the Lord told him, "I am thy part and thine inheritance." How many of us would be happy to hear that? How many of us prefer the land to the Lord that created it?
As the wife of the missionary Jim Elliot, Elizabeth, said, "The will of God is not something you add to your life. It's a course you choose. You either line yourself up with the Son of God or you capitulate to the principle which governs the rest of the world."
When we have lined ourselves to the things of God we are willing to risk it all and take that first step. When we trust God wholeheartedly and without reservation, we may not be able to see where He is leading us, but we know that we don't have to because He does. Like Peter, we take that first step. He knew that, no matter what, Jesus would not let him drown. And He won't let us, either.
Saint Francis said, "Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible."
That is exactly what Katie Davis did. That's what Gary Haugen did. That's what Dietrich Bonhoeffer did. That's what Dru and Asher Collie did. They saw a need, took that first step, and saw God work in their lives and the lives of others. They understood that by us being faithful to God's call, He would be glorified and others would be drawn to Him.
What will you say, "Yes" to? What are you willing to risk? Where do you need to take that first step?
When we do, we will learn what the late Rich Mullins did when he said, "A faith that moves mountains is a faith that expands horizons, it does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers, but into a larger one where there is room to wonder."
Please say, "Yes." Please take that risk. Please take that first step. If you do, it won't be just your life that will be transformed.