It’s a God Thing (or not) (Probably not)

Any student who has occupied space in my classroom quickly learns my writing pet peeves. Whether there is any logic behind my peevishness matters little: it is what it is.

Saying “it is what it is” captures two of my peeves in one blow:

  • I hate weak expletives (not words like shoot or darn, but those are stupid, too).
  • I hate the word “it.”

Hate might be too strong a word, I suppose. Despise, maybe? It’s not like I fail students who use “it” or “it is.” Tempting, God knows, but sometimes using “it is” seems necessary (see previous sentence).

A word even more despicable than “it” is “thing.” Thing means nothing to me: thing is a word so bereft of meaning, it could mean anything. Or something. Or everything.

So when people say that they have experienced a “God Thing,” I shudder. I know what they mean: whatever happened feels so serendipitous and providential, God must have played a role. Still, I dislike the use of “thing” in the phrase, one of the weakest words possible; and even more, I dislike the theology the phrase exemplifies: that when we experience serendipity, God must have played a role. When our lives are lousy—when our dog runs away, or our kids get the flu, or we lose our jobs/our families/our health—we don’t call that a “God thing” (except maybe the dog-running-away part).

Does God only give us a thing in serendipity?

Often, when we were in the process of adopting our two boys, people would proclaim that the adoptions were “a God Thing.” The phrase started to grate on me, much as I am grateful for these boys. I’m amazed that two kids, born in developing countries thousands of miles away, came to live in my home. I’m amazed that they survived difficult births and poor health, that they thrived, that somehow their files landed in my email. I’m amazed that I get to be their mother. I’m amazed, grateful, stunned by this gift, and by the circumstances that made this gift possible.

But I cannot see their adoption as a God Thing.

Because of this: I cannot imagine a God who would make a woman feel like she had to surrender her child to strangers, which is what my sons’ birth mothers had to do. Since their adoption, I’ve wondered often about the immense grief that could have accompanied that surrender, and the sense of loss these women might feel, and the life-long emptiness left by the departure of their babies. I wonder how they feel when they see other children the same age as my children; I wonder if they wonder about their kids. And I mourn the opportunity they’ve lost, to know these two amazing boys, who are smart and lively, fiercely noncompliant and loving all the same, and who are both wicked funny (especially when it comes to poop jokes, I might add).

That their birth moms cannot know them? Not in any way a “God Thing.”

Nor is it a “God Thing” that these women were compelled to relinquish their children, for whatever reason. Would God endorse the conditions that made this necessary? Is it God-blessed that people live in abject poverty, unable to feed their own progeny or provide them the medical care they need to survive? Does God carry disease to some people, so that they die young and cannot raise their families? Does God celebrate cultures that make it impossible for women to avoid the stigma of single motherhood?

That families cannot raise the children they bore: this is not a God Thing.

Some people will tell me that despite these awful circumstances, my sons’ adoptions are a “God Thing” because we saved them from another life: that God redeemed their difficult beginnings by compelling us to adopt them, allowing them to live a comfortable life in our Christian home.

Perhaps this idea, above all others, is hard for me to accept. I am not a savior, by virtue of my desire to have children, nor given my western privilege. My boys are not mission projects. They are autonomous beings, created in God’s own image and loved and cared for wholly by God, whether we adopted them or not. They were not taken from their home cultures and given to me by God so I could make them Christian, save them from some other religion, assure their happiness in an after life.

Several years ago, I wrote an essay to honor Mother’s Day in which I explore the complicated paradox that makes it hard for me to see adoption as a “God Thing.” Much as I love my boys, and am exceedingly grateful for their presence in my life, I know this: that my joy in being a mother comes because others, including my own sons and the mothers who bore them, have experienced a loss I cannot fathom.

In that essay, I concluded by turning to my favorite writer, Anne Lamott, who argues in Traveling Mercies that sometimes we want God to be a little less mysterious, to provide for us “permanence, a guarantee or two, the unconditional love we all long for” (p.168). Lamott says she demands assurance from God, but gets only silence. In that silence she realizes the only promise, the only thing in this life not shrouded by mystery, is “the moment, and the imperfect love of people” (168)

My sons’ adoptions remain a mystery to me. Why I was lucky enough to be their mother is also a mystery. Why I get to live where I do, with the community I have, doing work I love, surrounded by family and friends I adore: only mystery. And grace, I imagine, because I certainly didn’t do much to receive these gifts.

We can talk about serendipitous encounters as God Things, or finding a parking space near the mall entrance as a God Thing, or even adopting two of the cutest boys in Yamhill County as God Things, but such rhetoric seems to diminish the power and mystery of what a God Thing really is: this very moment, the imperfect but holy love of the people around us, and the perfect and holy love of God for us all. A God Thing can be nothing–and everything–more than that.

I’ve been thinking about God Things for awhile now, but must admit that this blog post was inspired, in part, by my need to make a shameless plug for a new book I’ve co-edited with Martha Diede and Jeremiah Webster, called The Spirit of Adoption: Writers on Religion, Adoption, Faith, and More. The book uses the stories of birthmothers, adoptees, and adoptive parents to explore the ways adoption has deepened, complicated, and reshaped the writers’ religious faith. My essay, “On (Not) Fearing God,” considers evangelical adoption ministries, my sons’ adoption into a Christian home, and how I’ve become a little (a lot?) more universalist in my worldview since becoming a mother. You can read more about the book here