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An Open Pair of Arms

The headline grabbed me right off the bat: Alberta couple blindsided after adopted girls turn out to have fetal alcohol disorder. The story was heartbreaking in the way that only stories about wounds inflicted from close proximity can be. A couple took on two foster kids but one of them quickly proved to be quite a bit more than they could handle, There were repeated assaults of her sister, there were angry words and abuse, there were doors locked from the outside and alarm systems set up, there were desperate calls to social services.  There was the shrapnel of toxic rage flying around shredding everyone in the vicinity.

The story is a terrible one. But it was a few words in the headline that caught my eye. Words like “blindsided,” “adopted,” “turn out,” and “fetal alcohol disorder.” The parents were evidently not aware that the girls had FASD when they decided to foster them. And now their entire history with these girls (the elder one, in particular) was being read through the lens of this discovery. FASD was and is the cause of their heartbreak. If only they had known that they were getting damaged goods. They knew that the situation was not ideal, of course. It never is, in cases of children requiring foster care. But FASD is a game changer. If they had only known that there was this one critical factor. They would never have signed up for this, if they had only known.

I do not judge this couple. Of all the lessons I have surely failed to properly learn in my fourteen years as a parent, the one that I have learned is that there are few easy roads on this journey. Every child is delightful and challenging in his/her own way, and every parent copes the best way they know how. Sometimes we fail spectacularly and the pain and misunderstanding just bleeds through all that our days contain. Sometimes, against all odds, we get it right—or at least right enough—and we all live to fight another day. It’s so easy to cast stones at other kids, other parents—to sit in silent judgment over their inadequate methods, their laziness, their insolence, their disrespect and selfishness. But often we have no idea what’s going on under the surface, behind closed doors, where skeletons lurk, where the sadness and confusion just soak through everything.

But the way the article was framed made me uneasy. How many of us, after all, know what we’re getting into when we sign up for this parenting thing? How many of us encounter things along the way that send us reeling and staggering, things we could never have imagined, could never have adequately prepared ourselves for? For how many of us do things unfold the way in which we mapped them out way back in the beginning when we held these precious tiny bodies in our arms? Some, perhaps. I suppose that idyllic situations must exist out there somewhere. I see them on Facebook, after all. 🙂 But I’m guessing that the majority of us are forced—abruptly or more gradually—to come to the uncomfortable realization that kids are not like products we get off the shelf, where all we have to do is to provide the right inputs and— voila!—at the other end we get a wonderful, well-adjusted adult human.  Not exactly.  To be a parent is to be blindsided.

I’m not suggesting that the parents in the story above were or are naïve or idealistic. Far from it. Their story makes my heart hurt. As I said, the last place I would position myself would be in judgment over them. Sometimes, tragically, the only conclusion that can be arrived it is encapsulated in the last paragraph of the article:

[W]still love them, and we want the best for them, but the one — she can’t get the best here. We’re not capable of giving her what she needs.

It’s true. Sometimes we’re just not capable of giving each other what we need, not capable of doing enough, being enough, loving enough. Christ have mercy.

I go through seasons in life where a single story from the gospels will just hover in the periphery of my consciousness for long stretches of time. Over the past year or so, it’s been the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15:11-32. Who knows, it might even be more than a year. Maybe even the better part of a lifetime. This story moves me in ways that I can often barely express. I have seen and continue to see myself in both sons and the father, and in various ways.  This story tells my story in a way that few others can.

As Christians, I think we’re often pretty anxious to get to the end of this story. That’s where all the reconciling goodness comes, where the moralizing payoff is to be found. This is where we say, “You see, the wayward son recognized the error of his ways and so must we…” or “You see how the father forgave so readily? So must we…” or “You see, how legalistic that older brother was? We mustn’t be like that…”   All these “musts” can get in the way of the deeper realities of the story, though.  And our lives are lived in middles not just endings. Sometimes all the moralizing can be practically useless. Or worse.

So, about these middles where we live. I often find myself wishing for more when it comes to the middle part of the story of the prodigal son. I often wonder what it was about him that caused him to wander away to destroy himself. Did he have a genetic condition? Some kind of “oppositional defiant disorder?” Did his mom drink too much? Was his dad too demanding? Did he expect too much? Did he push the son away with endless haranguing? Was the younger son’s brain corrupted and rotten from too much TV and video games? We don’t know. But oh how we hunger for the magic bullet, the single cause to pin the pain to, the simple explanation to cut through all the thorny thickets of complexity.

Jesus doesn’t give us the middle part of the story. But he does invite us into a few very important realities about who we are and how we are to be in the world. Chief among them, I think, might be that we are all damaged goods. We are not all damaged in the same ways or to the same extent, to be sure. We each encounter unique strains and sorrows. Our individual stories are all the product of this impenetrable mixture of biology, social location, and long trails of relationships and the pressures that they exert upon us and upon those who gave us life. But we are all prodigals stumbling toward ruin and home.

And in light of all this? Well, increasingly I think that the most important conclusion that we human beings could ever come to is as simple as it is profound. Mercy.  And an open pair of arms. Even when those arms have been wounded before.  Even if opening them again might lead to further pain.  Even when love proves to cost us more than we could ever have imagined. We keep opening them—or at least trying to open them—because we know how desperately we long for there to one day be an open pair of arms to welcome our damaged selves to our eternal home.


The image above is, of course, Rembrandt’s famous “Return of the Prodigal Son.”  The painting is as moving and evocative as the story it is based upon.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    I came across this quote from Stanley Hauerwas recently: “We never get the children we want. To the extent we think we can, we wreak havoc on our children – to the extent they come to believe they can only be loved if they fulfill their parent’s desires.”

    The story of the prodigal(s) is a beautiful antidote to these tendencies that we parents have. It’s not that the parents’ desires are invalidated (the father wanted the right things for his sons, after all); it’s that the desires were subordinated to a greater love.

    June 16, 2015
    • Fantastic quote. Thanks for sharing it.

      Oh, to have our desires—as parents, as human beings—”constantly subordinated to a greater love.”

      June 16, 2015
  2. This was an amazing and beautiful post, thank you Ryan.

    June 16, 2015
    • Thank you, Petra. It means a lot to hear this from you.

      June 16, 2015
  3. mike #

    This is probably the most personally meaningful, deeply moving, tender, and compassionate message that I’ve ever read or heard. I feel as if I’ve been led to and seated at the feet of Jesus anew. My tears are redemptive and healing as I accept His Mercy and forgiveness. And an open pair of arms.
    Thank you, Lord Jesus. Asperges me, Domine.

    June 16, 2015
    • Thank you, Mike. This really means a lot. I’m so grateful for an open pair of arms for all.

      June 17, 2015
  4. mike #

    “Sometimes we’re just not capable of giving each other what we need, not capable of doing enough, being enough, loving enough. Christ have mercy.”

    Thank you so much for this post, Ryan.

    June 16, 2015
    • The church calls it, “the faith of the little ones”. A simple supernatural bond, often mediated through icon, relic and sacred holy spaces. Bound in prayer, (often to the Blessed Virgin) and the Eucharist.

      For those struggling with the complexity of modern life this simple means is a proven antidote. Likely for us all. Certainly for those whose only other alternatives seem to be incarcerations and psychotic medication.

      ….”unless you come to me like little children”…

      June 17, 2015
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Ryan, my brother in Christ, when does optimism arrive for you? When are glasses, “half full”? What were the likely outcomes for these young ladies apart from the intervention of loving adoptive parents? What of the success of the younger child? She is safer now. She seems self aware beyond her years. Removed from the threat of physical abuse her prospects seem improved, don’t they? Some children prosper in the home environment, some don’t. Some feel stifled. Some do better away from the home.

    To recognize that your child needs a different environment in order to prosper, is love not abandonment.

    June 18, 2015
    • When does optimism arrive? When lions lie down with lambs. 🙂

      I do not discount that there is love and hope even in sad stories, and I am grateful for every appearance of these things. But I think it’s important to give expression to the complexity and the pain of these situations, too. Rightly or wrongly, this seems to be one of the things that I feel called to do in this world.

      June 18, 2015
  6. Paul Johnston #

    You have such a heart for love. 🙂

    Giving expression to complexity, I’m not so sure of. The devil does indeed lurk in the details. Know enough to defend the truth to yourself and to others. Live the events of each day in a way that is consistent with the truth. As for the rest of life’s complexities, defer them to God. Trust in faith that all is, as is ordered, by the Holy One. Believe everything that is good and true. Everything that is good and true, will be redeemed. Nothing that is His will be lost. All who proclaim Him sincerely, in word and effort, will be saved. All of us.

    Have the courage of a redeemed man, because you are one. 🙂

    To meet people in their pain, to witness it, share in it, console through it, is to be like Jesus. Remember though that Jesus heals and that through Him, Him alone, so may we. Any detail that perpetuates pain, perpetuates unforgiveness, perpetuates victimhood must be abandoned. It is not from Jesus. Jesus heals.

    To those who would be offended by such a claim we must say, come dine with us, laugh with us, pray with us, live with us and rejoice as your heart abandons the painful details. Rejoice and give thanks as Jesus heals you through community and fellowship.

    The truth is simple really. We make it so hard.

    Lions eat lambs here, there is no denying it. In the end all the lamb has is her faith in the Good Shepard.

    I love you, my brother. Thank you for this space. This community, this fellowship. This healing. 🙂

    June 19, 2015
    • I appreciate your sentiments here, Paul. I truly do. I believe what you say—nothing that is His will be lost. I’m not sure I would say everything that is good and true will be redeemed, because if things are good and true they have no need of redemption. It is the ugly things, the false and damaging things that require redemption.

      Re: the truth being simple. This may be so, but the roads that we take to truth are not always simple, nor are the reasons for why the truth is hard to embrace. I have seen “truth” used as a blunt instrument far too often, just as I have heard people offer simple platitudes in the face of real struggle. In my experience, I have found that many people simply need to know that someone understands and is willing to walk with them through dark valleys without defaulting to what can often sound like trite expressions of piety, at least to those in pain. This is what I try to do.

      Thank you for your kind affirmation. I, too, am grateful for this space and for the people (like you) who contribute to it.

      June 19, 2015
  7. Paul Johnston #

    Good and true have always been under attack, Ryan. Only by God’s grace can they be redeemed.

    Our material realities were intended as blessing. Blessings can only be shared if they are to remain blessings. Every heart that desires to possess, to own, more than is their need, attacks what is good what is true. Our very first opponent is the self.The attack from within. This is the only fight we are called upon to win, we must overcome the desires of the ego. Without selflessness there is no love. Without love there is no God.

    As for the external forces that attack us we are called to discern between those, like ourselves struggling with ego, and those not like ourselves. Those others who choose what is false, what is ugly. To those struggling like ourselves we are called to community. To build up one another, to edify. To be “church”. To the others we are to leave them to God. God will repay.

    If it is God’s will to redeem that which is false and ugly, that which is evil, surely it is the prerogative of God Almighty. If this is the way God chooses to destroy wickedness….. by redeeming it….holy is our God!!

    As for me I must admit to a lesser ambition. I simply look to find the strength, through Christ Our Lord, to endure evil and not become of it. I simply wait to see evil destroyed. One way or another.

    June 20, 2015
  8. beverley #

    Thank you, Paul Johnston, for your words of acceptance and grace. As an adoptive parent of twins who are now in their 30’s, the post entitled ‘An Open Pair of Arms’ brought back the judgment and lack of acceptance among many Christians as we raised these dear children who have FASD. I am the parent described by the social worker in the article…the mother with profound depression, etc., even though I am a Christian and love God and His Word.

    As our twins attempt to live independently, most Christians still can’t be bothered with them, and they easily fall in with those who would use them.

    But I would ask Ryan: what need is there for optimism once the lion lies down with the lamb? When we are finally with Christ eternally we will no longer have need of hope, but here on earth it is our Hope that sustains us. I’m clinging to it!

    June 20, 2015
    • Thank you for sharing here, Beverley. I am so sorry for what you experienced from Christians as you raised those precious kids. It grieves me that those who claim to follow Jesus can so often be the source of such deep wounding. It grieves me that your twins must walk the road that they are on. I will pray for you and for your girls Truly, I will.

      Re: optimism, lions, lambs, etc, that comment was mostly tongue in cheek. I fully agree with what you say here. All hope/optimism takes place in a context where it is not always obvious or self-evident. Sometimes, as you say, it is clung to.

      For me, I prefer the word “hope” to “optimism.” Optimism seems to be a general sense that things will turn out well based on the way things look at the present; hope is about a settled conviction that things will turn out well no matter how things look in the present. Optimism is based on observation and the way things tend to go. Hope is based on the One I believe holds the future.

      Whatever terminology we might gravitate toward, though, I wish you the grace and peace of Christ for the journey ahead. I wish you the deep hope in Christ that sustains.

      June 22, 2015
  9. Paul Johnston #

    Dearest, Beverley, angels sing your praises! You are so loved. 🙂

    Your sacred vocation has not been in vain, your children will be redeemed. You will be honored in heaven. I truly believe these words. 🙂 These words are not mine. 🙂

    Forgive us, those who say we travel with you and yet have not been there for you in your times of need. We have sinned against you. We have sinned against God. Please forgive us.

    How may I pray for you, dear? Tell me so that I may pray for you. 🙂

    You are a daughter, in whom He is well pleased. 🙂

    June 20, 2015
  10. beverley #

    I will treasure your kind and caring words, Paul!

    We are in a loving and caring church community, and I enjoy the fellowship of a wonderful group of Bible study women. Also, I’m thankful for helpful medication (which some may judge me for taking, but I’ve made peace with it). So we’re doing quite well, thank you.

    Prayer for the twins (and their children!) would be much appreciated. They’ve always had a normal desire to be independent and haven’t lived with us since they became adults. They ‘ride a roller-coaster’ through life that is not of their choosing, and of course our hearts are on that roller-coaster with them. We truly believe your statement that they will be redeemed. God knows their abilities or lack thereof, and He is a righteous Judge. He is so good!

    Again, thank you.

    June 20, 2015
  11. Paul Johnston #

    I will pray. It will be an honor. May His peace continue to be with you, Beverley. 🙂

    June 20, 2015

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