How long is this the song that we sing?

The words below are from an email I sent to Amy and Juliette late Saturday night. These words have a lot of context, but the short story is this: Eva, a Ugandan orphan Juliette knew very well, died in a freak accident last week. This was a girl who had been left alone as a child after tending to her dying mother. Somehow – miraculously by Ugandan standards – she had been rescued into an orphan village to be raised. Then, too soon, her life was ended by a thrown rock and a tale of “medical” care that shames folks on all sides of a western health care debate. We have no idea how rich we are, even if we are uninsured and poor.

The news about Eva’s death was devastating to Juliette, who lived for several months last year in a small Ugandan home with both Eva and Sharif, the boy who threw the rock. It was also very sad for our family even though we didn’t know Eva. We feel very connected to these kids through Juliette. Also, as I’ve shared here before, we have a particular affection for the children of Uganda. Juliette’s time there and our family’s journey with Uganda are very intertwined. And beyond all of that we’ve been in a season where the harder edges of life are more real to us and to many of our close friends.

In the midst of all of that, and after returning from a day-long out of town wedding, I wrote these words. I’m copying them here mostly to record them for myself. I expect I’ll need to read them again and again in the years to come.


Tonight as we were driving back, Amy was silently reading the letter about what happened to Eva. I was thinking about all the sadness – in the world, but especially in Eva’s life and death; especially in Sharif’s life; especially in the lives of all the Alma and other Bethany children – lives so surrounded and deeply altered by death, even before they were born. I was thinking about how we can’t explain all that sadness; how we can’t even take it in. At some point my ability to even think about and feel it breaks down. At some point I realize that I don’t have enough capacity to perceive – much less carry – all that sadness.

And that’s where I find Jesus.

That’s where I decide again that there is no other story that can possibly be true except the one of a good, gentle, ferocious King who is gathering all his people and preparing to devour death forever. It’s not just that no other idea of God will do. It’s that no other idea of existence will do. All of our living and dying can’t have any real meaning if there is no love – and no Lover – bigger and better and faithful to redeem it all.

In the midst of all of that, I thought of Andrew Peterson’s new song, The Reckoning. Somewhere years ago, Rich Mullins helped keep me alive. When I was discovering that there was something really wrong – with the life I knew, with the people I knew, and most of all with me – Rich sang to me. He sang mostly with his songs, but also with the way he lived and talked. He was the best there was back then at acknowledging everything that was wrong about everything and then living and singing like there was something that was making everything that was wrong right again. He embraced the tension of God’s goodness and life’s cruelty.

Most people think it’s best to ignore that tension as much as possible, probably because we fear we’ll discover God can’t be good if life is so cruel. It’s understandable. That discovery would be the most hopeless of all discoveries.

And that’s why I love Rich. He stared that tension in the face, as scared as anyone else, and he came back from it with songs and stories about hope. Those songs and stories helped me know Jesus and his good news in ways that were both very old and very new to me. I discovered he is not only the good guy among lots of bad guys in life’s big drama, but that he is the guy who shows up in the midst of life’s cruelest moments, whispers hope, then raises the dead. He isn’t the guy who is biding time until he comes to steal us all away from real life to the sweet by and by. He is the guy who appears where God shouldn’t go and does what God shouldn’t do – love everything that’s so wrong with the world until it’s right again.

Rich said he was the guy who would bloody your nose and then give you a ride home on his bicycle. I’ll never get over that one.

I know it’s weird, but damn I miss Rich Mullins. When he died in September of 1997, it was the first time I cried over someone I didn’t know dying. I never met the guy and I actually miss him on a regular basis. He helped keep me alive by seeing that something was really wrong with me and everyone around me, then telling me that Jesus only really hung out with people who were screwed up; that he wasn’t a million miles away from all of us. He was right in the middle of all our mess – all my mess. He was the hint of life in the midst of a sea of death; the hint that could swallow the whole sea, if only we’d just have the faith to believe…and the guts to admit we don’t have the faith to believe.

Anyway, this note isn’t about Rich Mullins.

Andrew Peterson sees what Rich saw, and he writes songs about it like Rich wrote. He embraces and exposes the tension. The new song I mentioned – The Reckoning – is one of those. I wanted Amy to hear it, so I played for her after she finished reading the note. I don’t know if she was able to listen or not. After I got home and read the note, I realized she might have been so overwhelmed by the sadness that she couldn’t hear words in a song. We also passed a wreck surrounded by no fewer than seven ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars while it was playing. Life is weird. God is weird.

Anyway, I need songs like this – songs that are infinitely hopeful, but also honest enough to ask: How long is this the song that we sing?

Also, after that song played, I just hit “shuffle” to let it play through Andrew’s other stuff. I was taken aback by the songs that played, one after another. They were all about the same thing, at least to me. One of the songs is called Lay Me Down and the punch-line is: “When you lay me down to die, you lay me down to live.” The bridge of the song says this:

I believe in the holy shores of uncreated light
I believe there is power in the blood
And all of the death that ever was,
If you set it next to life
Well I believe it would barely fill a cup
‘Cause I believe there’s power in the blood

I’m sad about Eva. I’m so sad for Sharif that I hit that point where I can’t take in the sadness every time I think about him. When I reach the end of myself like that, I only have two things: the Jesus that shows up where I can’t imagine something that good showing up and the hope that “all of the death that ever was, if you set it next to life…it would barely fill a cup.” That has to be true.

Should we take other people’s kids?

If your life intersects with mine through Community Church, facebook, or twitter, you are well aware that much of my time and energy over the last few weeks has been focused on Haiti. Our church community is blessed to have some direct connections to people who live and work there, and we've been fairly engaged in what they've been doing since very early after the earthquake. I encourage you to check out the amazing work happening on the ground and give generously to Heartline.

I've been so engrossed in all things Haiti that I sometimes forget that not everyone around me is quite as preoccupied as I am. I'm not mad about that. I'm well aware that tragedy occurs everyday without me giving it more than seven or eight seconds of real thought, much less any investment of actual time, money, or energy. I'm obviously no hero for caring about Haiti (or for any other reason…well, unless you count my ability to perform Ice Ice Baby from memory, which is borderline heroic anyway you slice it). I can't completely tell you why I've been so captivated by this one. But here I am.

There is so much that I'd like to write about as a result of what I've witnessed, even at a distance, over the last couple of weeks. So much that I'd like to write about, but most of it is still a big swirl of stuff inside me for which I can't find words. Maybe soon.

Until then, something tangential has emerged that I can wrap some words around: children.

Over the past two weeks, I've watched from afar (but weirdly up close thanks to the disturbing and wonderful magic of the interwebs) moments and events that have been both soul-crushing and utterly inspiring. I've seen pictures of freshly orphaned kids having limbs amputated and witnessed (virtually) the unification of multiple families. It is simultaneously invigorating and devastating to be reminded that children are not exempt from the indescribably wide range of human experience on this planet.

The most beautiful and fascinating aspect of this unfolding drama that I've witnessed has been the forming and reforming of families changed forever by the arrival of Haitian children – orphans, but orphans no more. Against the backdrop of blood and bone and utter ruin, kids with no families were suddenly at home. Moms. Dads. Brothers. Sisters. All at once, and sooner than anyone expected.

We are connected by one degree of separation to at least four such families. These are folks (Americans) who were well into the process of adopting children from Haiti, still waiting on the red tape to play itself out so they could go get them. In the early days after the quake, the Haitian and U.S. governments worked together to expedite the last stages of these adoptions.

It made sense. These were adoptions that had been approved by both governments (and all sorts of other people – this isn't like buying groceries) which were just stuck in various kinds of waiting periods. If you don't know much about adoption, know this: it's as much about waiting as anything else. Lots and lots of waiting. So the powers-that-be agreed to set aside some of the waiting and get these kids out of Haiti and into homes they were headed to soon anyway.

And that lasted for a very short time.

Details are still not entirely clear – Haiti wasn't great at details before the capital city and virtually all of its infrastructure was completely destroyed – but essentially the Haitian Prime Minister declared that no child could leave Haiti without him personally signing off on that child's exit.

Obviously one of the legitimate concerns in Haiti right now is human trafficking. Our community has also been involved in the efforts of International Justice Mission over the past couple of years. IJM may be the most amazing organization on the planet at the moment. Imagine the Super Friends (only without Marvin and Wendy but with a pile of lawyers to go along with the butt-kickers) commissioned to end slavery and sex trafficking around the world. These people are kicking in doors and putting the baddest of the bad guys in the world behind bars every day. I can't articulate with enough passion how much I and my people believe in that cause. It's the Gospel – the cause we've staked our whole lives to – in action.

So we want the Prime Minister of Haiti – and everyone else who can – to protect the most vulnerable people in Haiti, certainly including and especially displaced and orphaned children. In that sense the Haitian Prime Minister approving kids leaving the country might not sound crazy. After all, we aren't talking about hundreds of kids a day. Under normal circumstances, it might be possible for the PM to review these cases in a timely manner and approve the legal adoptions that have followed all the accepted international protocols. Under normal circumstances.

These are not normal circumstances.

It might not surprise you to hear that the Prime Minister of Haiti has a few things on his plate today. And piled among the utter chaos he's managing is now the paperwork for kids who already have been legally adopted by families outside of the country but who are stuck in a Haiti that simply cannot care for them at the moment. Some of them have nowhere to go. There are a large number of them literally living at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Case in point: Ernest and his wife Debra, another couple we have multiple once-removed connections to, have already legally adopted their son Ronel from Haiti. Like many others, they were just playing the waiting game. Ronel was supposed to be on a military flight to Florida on January 22 with a number of other orphans granted humanitarian parole, but something got goofed up in the paperwork and he wasn't allowed to board the plane. He rode a bus to the airport expecting to fly home to his family, and he rode that bus back to the orphanage. He was devastated.

When Ernest and Debra found out about this, Ernest became one of my (and many other people's) new heroes and tunneled his way to Port-au-Prince to get his son. [The tunneling part may not be true. It's just how I like to imagine it.] That journey started nine days ago. Tonight Ernest and Ronel are sleeping on the tile floor of the U.S. Embassy for the seventh straight night.

Their paperwork is complete, despite it taking our highly efficient and compassionate government several days and four sets of fingerprints to make that happen. They're just waiting for the embassy to tell them that the Haitian Prime Minister has released Ronel. There are about sixty others, most of them orphans, waiting with them in the same predicament. We all thought they were coming home today because, in a twist that managed to shock even my no-faith-in-government system, the staff at the U.S. embassy apparently lied to them and said they were cleared to leave if they could find a plane. They found a plane. The folks at the embassy then said, "Oh, uh…we weren't serious about that. The Prime Minister still hasn't signed your documents." Yeah, me either.

Ronel and the other kids have been thoroughly checked by the U.S. government, granted humanitarian parole, and will be received int
o the U.S. under the watchful eye of immigration services. And yet they can't go anywhere because they either can't get the Prime Minister's attention or he's afraid to let them go.

Why would he be afraid?

There are a number of international aid and child advocacy groups, with UNICEF at the front of the line, that are prone to oppose international adoption in virtually all forms. If you've watched the national news much this week, especially in the wake of the debacle involving the Baptist group from Idaho, odds are good you've heard their point of view. In short, they advocate almost exclusively for these children to be left in their culture of origin. They passionately argue, in this case, that Haitian kids should grow up in Haiti, period. And they make the same argument in similar situations around the world. This is not my slant on UNICEF or like-minded groups – they are clear about their position.

This is something I've thought about more than just a little. Amy and I have known since before we married that adoption was likely in our future. In the ten years since, we've discovered two things: we make kids very easily, and we are more passionate about adoption after having three kids biologically than we were before.

For most of that time, we believed we'd adopt hard-to-place kids from the U.S. There were lots of reasons for that, and we never gave much thought to anything else. About two years ago, God began to do something in me that I can only describe as him sort of consistently grabbing me by the chin, turning my head, and saying, "Look: Uganda." It wasn't about adoption for me at first. I just suddenly was aware of Uganda. All the time. And then, over time, it became about adoption. That is a long overdue post for another time. For now, what matters is that it happened.

Since then, we've been dialed into Uganda, mostly assuming our next children will come from there. [I say "mostly" because we've well-learned to live by the closing line of the terrific move, Dan in Real Life: Plan to be surprised.] Our sweet friend Juliette spent four months living in an orphan village on the backside of Lake Victoria, mostly because she's about as upside down for the real Kingdom as anyone we know, but partly because she got on board with our passion for that people and place. Or maybe she was ahead of us. I'm not sure.

As all of that has happened, we've talked and thought a lot about what we're planning to do. We've not only answered other people's questions about the ethics of trans-racial, trans-cultural, trans-continental adoption, we've asked ourselves those same questions and then some. It is not a simple issue, and it doesn't take long for the romance of the thing to dissolve into the hard realities involved.

As I watch this international debate literally play itself out in the lives of friends and friends-of-friends, I'm also contemplating our future. We care deeply about culture. We have no desire to raise dark-skinned Norvells who have no sense of their history or culture of origin. It matters to us that our family – and even more than that, our greater community – have a long-term connection to Uganda or to whatever culture or country produces our future children. Honestly, we've steered clear of larger adoption agencies and sought out smaller, more localized opportunities for this very reason. As much as it's up to us, we want to do this in a way that allows the development of life-long relationship and mutual ministry between the people who our children grow up with and the people from whom they come.

That may all sound great, but I also know the reality of that will not be a fairy tale. It will be years of hard, tearful, and (since we're most connected to really hot countries) sweaty work, and we might ultimately be completely disappointed in any number of ways. I just choose to believe that if those doors are opened to us, we're right to walk through them no matter what's waiting on the other side.

So I get the cultural complications and ramifications of international adoption – at least I get them as much as I can from this side of the chasm. And, frankly, I don't get the dogmatic opposition to international adoption by people who claim to be interested only in what's best for children. I understand that raising a kid in his or her natural home and native environment is ideal, assuming that environment can sustain that child physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But for UNICEF and others to claim that's always realistic is, at best, ignorant and, and worst, disingenuous. They know better. 

They know that the large majority of kids in orphanages in Haiti and Uganda and other places ravaged by poverty and war and famine and genocide are there precisely because their original environment could not sustain them. Their extended families, villages, and so forth could not or would not care for them. And when the case for returning children to untenable situations can be made no longer, they begin to talk about international adoption as some sort of act of cultural aggression – an American enterprise certain to doom the future of already flailing third world nations.

And despite my passion for adoption, I understand that concern in its purest form. I want Uganda and Haiti to be healthier, hopeful places. I'm not interested in robbing those nations of their children or their futures. I'm not.

But here's what I'm also not interested in: I'm not interested in looking in the face of a kid without a family and telling him that he doesn't get a family – that he has to stay in a country literally torn apart by an earthquake and rife with abuse and neglect because Haiti will need him in twenty years. I'm not interested in telling the baby girls without mothers in Uganda that an international aid group thinks it's best for them to grow up in an orphanage so that Uganda has a chance at a more egalitarian future.

Does. Not. Compute.

Regardless of culture or country, we do not mortgage our children's present for anyone else's future. 

I understand that we must take great care in how we do this. And I know that people at both ends of the issue can do tremendous harm if they are not careful. I just don't find any rationale for laboring to subvert cross-cultural adoption that is ultimately and triumphantly loving to children. I am happy for UNICEF to exist and do all kinds of other good work (read here about their history on adoption and here about what they can and should focus on in Haiti and elsewhere).

I'm white, so feel free to discount my opinion accordingly. But let me say this: EVERY SINGLE PERSON I've seen on TV ranting against international adoption is white! [I never use all-caps or exclamation points…Can you feel me here?]

It is one kind of cultural elitism for a white guy to assume he can give an African or Haitian orphan a better home and future than that child has without a family (not because he's white, by the way, but because he's a Dad and can offer a family).

It is another kind of elitism altogether for a white guy to tell an African or Haitian child that s/he needs to just stay right there in poverty and despair because, well, kids should just stay with their own kind. 

So if God gives me a daughter from Uganda or a son from Haiti, I will teach them
where they came from. I will take them there. I will pray for them to have vision for that nation and those people. I will encourage my blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids to have the same passion for Uganda and Haiti and the rest of the world – all of it, including us, groaning in anticipation of our adoption. And if and when God sends any or all of my kids to one of those nations – to stay or to find children of their own – I will weep and dance and shout that Jesus is the King of the whole world, and his Father is the Dad of all children everywhere, forever.

Well, I don't dance a lot, but I'll weep and shout for sure.