The bedroom door was pockmarked with fresh dents. I swung it closed, leaving it ajar, and walked the ten steps down the hall to my own room. I had just coaxed my child, who had spent four hours slamming furniture, throwing blocks at my head, and screaming expletives, finally to bed. My mind reeled from all I had heard: “Fucking asshole! I hope you stab yourself until you die, you idiot!” I sat down shakily and realized my hands were trembling. I had never felt visceral fear like this before, fear because of my own child, a child I had invited into my home and into permanent, intimate relationship by adoption.

Even though I wasn’t exactly surprised by the evening’s events, I felt disoriented. I had never questioned that adoption was family, but that evening I found myself asking, “Who is this person in my house?” Parenting under these circumstances seemed a far cry from my notion of family. It resembled something closer to hospitality.

Photograph by Olga Dobrovolska. Used by permission.

Before our children arrived from foster care, my biggest question about inviting others into our home had to do with how much cleaning to do before guests arrived. I was cavalier about some messiness, but my husband preferred a tidy house – it was more welcoming, he said. It turned out we had glossed over the most important question of all: “Who is our guest?” Like others we knew, we were comfortable with the expected hospitality of having friends and family over. But that evening, as I shook with fear, it struck me that churchgoers rarely talk about hospitality to people who are rude or unruly. We seldom invite people who are disabled or injured, and we definitely do not have guests who are not safe.

The uncomfortable truth was that we had some unsafe people in the house, people we had invited in. In becoming their family, we had promised to love them unconditionally, and we did. But we had no practice in this kind of hospitality.

Biblically, guests are venerated and sometimes divine. “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest” is the opening of a prayer that recognizes this. Theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen names children as our most important guests. “They enter into our homes, ask for careful attention, stay for a while, and then leave to follow their own way,” he writes. Whether by birth or adoption, any child enters a family as a guest. We cannot predict beforehand exactly what hardships we sign up for when we welcome a child, but we are certain to encounter some.

We may feel that we know birthchildren before we meet them, while children who enter a family by adoption seem defined by their strangeness. The truth is that strangeness accompanies all new arrivals. My friend anticipating a new baby put this idea to poetry: “You, the long-expected stranger, who are you to pierce my heart so wide?” To welcome any child is to enter the rich stream of hospitality that God initiated when he formed Adam and Eve, when he called Abraham in the wilderness, and when he granted David kingship. King David was a “man after God’s own heart,” who experienced such deep intimacy with God that he belonged to him as a child – God called him his firstborn (Ps. 89). Yet David himself was acutely aware of his guest status with the Lord, praying, “we are foreigners and strangers in your sight” (1 Chron. 29:15). Hospitality and family are closely related in the Lord’s taxonomy of welcome.

As I faced the problem of my child’s difficult behaviors, I found that my larger problem was the flimsy theological framework that “family” alone lent to my efforts to understand and love my child. The framework of family was the preeminent concept undergirding every adoption handbook, memoir, and theological treatise in our library. It makes sense. Unattached children need a family, adoption provides one, ergo adoption is a family matter. Everyone, adoptive families included, expects adoptive families to look, feel, and act like families – without a solid understanding of what “family” might mean.

There is also an expectation that “building a family” through adoption provides a permanent solution to a child’s problem. A child is family-less, then is adopted. Problem solved. This is upheld in popular narratives about adoption, such as Anne of Green Gables. Affectionate, eager, and motivated, Anne articulates a conscious desire for a family and has the relational skills to thrive there; truly her problem is solved when she’s matched with a family. Once she works through a few minor episodes of name-calling and slate-breaking, she is good to go as a connected and well-adjusted teenager.

In reality, children needing adoption come to their new families with profound experiences of loss. They have lost the primary relationships that are the foundation of their whole existence. Many have additionally suffered the loss of healthy development in utero and of loving nurture in early childhood. If, as psychiatrist Curt Thompson writes, “we are all born into the world looking for someone looking for us,” many children have never found what they’re looking for. The early losses of “children from hard places,” as developmental psychologist Karyn Purvis calls them, become a permanent physiological blueprint that gives rise to ongoing impairments in loving others, regulating their emotions, and organizing their inner selves. Such children are frequently unable to show reciprocal affection to their caregivers, which Deborah D. Gray, in her book Attaching in Adoption, describes as not “gratifying.” A gratifying child, like Anne, instinctively shows consideration, tenderness, and a sense of exclusive attachment. Even a healthy parenting relationship is likely to entail more giving than receiving – but for caregiving to have no apparent impact on the child is quite discouraging.

Photograph by Marco Piunti. Used by permission.

I treasured the times when I could easily tell that my children needed me and regarded me with affection. My two-year-old would stop screaming and nestle in my lap when I picked her up and rubbed her back. My son would lean into me comfortably as I read Faster, Faster! Nice and Slow! before bedtime. He’d place his hand on my shoulder as we cooked pancakes together the next morning as mother and son. As my children grew, I delighted in their insight that showed they both knew and loved me. My daughter came downstairs the other day wearing jeans I had recently told her were a bit tight. As she walked into the kitchen and saw me gathering my energies for a lecture, she looked smilingly in my eyes, caressed my arm, and said, “Mom, you’re going to be fine.”

Even with such moments of tenderness, adoptive parents and children must often live as a family while not feeling how a family is expected to feel. Our household resembled a family in that we had the ordinary assortment of adults and children doing family activities, but we didn’t feel like a family in some key ways. At a Christian conference on foster and adoptive parenting, my husband and I sat together listening to a pediatrician give a workshop titled, “Can We Get to Happy and Calm?” After we had spent ten years providing our kids with specialized parenting, intense educational accommodations, predictable routines, weekly counseling, grandparent involvement, thoughtful extracurriculars, and both parents working part time so we could be home as much as possible, the answer was apparently “no.” We had been trying to be the best family we could, and it didn’t work. We knew the truth of psychologist Gregory Keck’s observation that children from hard places “bring their pain into their new families and share it with much vigor and regularity.”

A nurturing adoptive family sometimes isn’t enough to bring healing to children shaped by trauma. Children who don’t heal “end up filling our jails, our welfare rolls, and our medical clinics,” according to trauma researcher Bessel van der Kolk. Kids from hard places are wounded and vulnerable, in need of distinctively Christian hospitality that Christine Pohl describes as pressing “out toward the weakest, those least likely to be able to reciprocate.”

A big part of feeling like a family today is matching the idealization of home as a wholesome retreat and of family as a healthy and mutually supportive group of loyal, like-minded individuals. Rodney Clapp, author of Families at the Crossroads, characterizes our culture’s pervasive concept of family as private, inward-focused, and dedicated to sentiment. We are biased toward health, and we assign success only to families that match what I call Christmas card criteria, where everyone is “healthy and doing well.” Unsuccessful families often take on the shame and isolation that come with failing to match these ideals.

This family framework is inherently difficult for adoptive families because the kids may be impaired and needy. But we are far from alone. Poverty, disability, chronic illness, misfortune, generational trauma, and our sinful nature complicate the realization of this ideal for so many people. An affectionate, supportive, and healthy nuclear family is a beautiful gift from God. But admiring a gift, especially when it’s bestowed on someone else, can distract us from the Giver.

Moreover, when we conceptualize family only as a safe home base rich in good feelings and comfort, we stunt the family’s purpose and calling. Our aim easily becomes too narrow, too fleeting, and most of all, too protectionist. Jesus predicted that in this world we would have trouble (John 16:33), and he called his followers not away from pain but toward it, provided we take courage from the right source – his victory over the world. A comfortable family ideal makes it easy to look askance at the risks of involvement with a needy and dangerous world and to justify insularity for the sake of preserving the family.

When I was able to reframe our calling as one of hospitality, it was a divine paradigm shift.

Of course, not all adopted children struggle with attachment or dangerous behavior. Many thrive in healthy homes with no such problems on the surface. But all have endured profound loss. Adoptive parents must understand that their role has to be broad enough to encompass the full range of trauma.

To practice adoption well, to do what Deborah Gray calls “the most valuable work accomplished in society” of helping children forge attachments after loss, we need a sturdier framework to enable adoptive parents to love a child despite the pain and suffering it often brings.

Considering adoption through the lens of hospitality anticipates a real encounter with suffering and offers a means of accounting for it. The primary movement of adoption is not away from brokenness but toward it; adoptive parents give it room at the very heart of their homes. Practitioners of biblical hospitality expect to suffer because they continually lay their lives down “in little pieces and small acts of sacrificial love and service,” writes Pohl. This costly calling is compassion, literally “co-suffering,” in which parents begin to bear not only their children’s old pain but also the pain that results from a new configuration of vulnerable, fallen individuals.

Suffering can dehumanize us with its anarchy and break our hope of God’s goodness. Hospitality renders suffering not less painful but instead centered in the heart of God. “God is near to lowliness,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer; “he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.” When we practice hospitality toward the neediest and the weakest, by proximity we also experience the great love of God: outwardly we may be wasting away but inwardly we are being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). Christ, the ultimate host, suffered greatly. He left his honored place as adored Son, and took pain, humiliation, and death to himself on behalf of those he invites as guests. Jesus pulls the suffering of hospitality into the service of God’s intentional and relentless overthrow of brokenness.

Adoption as an expression of hospitality looks for the possibility of entertaining angels. This is both comforting and alarming.

In God’s economy, hospitality is never a one-sided practice in which the host does all the giving, and the guests do all the receiving. In biblical stories of hospitality, guests have a special way of connecting their hosts with God and his extravagant gifts. The Shunammite woman who kept a guest room for Elisha was thrice blessed by God in the birth of her son, his later resuscitation, and the restoration of her property. Abraham and Sarah’s mysterious visitors were heralds of God’s gift of a long-awaited child. Mary was the first host to the Christ Child; she cherished her unexpected pregnancy, singing that the baby’s arrival was also the advent of the Lord’s full mercy, justice, and abundance for herself and all people. Other hosts to Jesus, like Zacchaeus, who invited him to his house to dine, and Mary, a follower who anointed his feet with perfume, were honored beyond their deserts and given a special place in Jesus’ heart and the history of the world.

Adoption as an expression of hospitality looks for the possibility of entertaining angels. This is both comforting and alarming. Biblical visits by angels are rarely serene affairs. Angels often bring difficult news, messages of what God is doing to accomplish his will, and challenging directives. But angels are a visitation by God himself.

Our adopted children have brought many blessings – the sentimental blessings of cuddling their small bodies and receiving their affection; the practical blessings of bringing me into contact with our community and other families for support and friendship; even the psychological blessings of developing my emotional intelligence and discovering my own neediness. But the main blessing is that to parent them is to rush headlong into the presence and love of Christ.

The very experiences that are the most painful are the ones that give me the most personal encounter with Christ’s love for the world in general and my family in particular. This is often not the blessing I want – sacrificial love sounds beautiful, but it is not nice. Sacrificial love is an emptying process; it strips us of things we hold dear, even our agency, our very ability to influence events or control our environment. Somehow, though, this love is the means to experiencing the devastating beauty of the love of Christ.

Jesus was a princely host who also relied on others to continually supply his needs. His risky hospitality did not occur apart from regular displays of neediness as a vulnerable stranger and guest. Biblical hospitality joins the expressions of hosting and guesting, bringing us into childlike dependence on our Father. Christine Pohl explains that “this intermingling of guest and host roles in the person of Jesus is part of what makes the story of hospitality so compelling for Christians.” Framing adoption as an intersection of guest and host strengthens all parents, adoptive or not, by barring the treacherous path of self-sufficiency. To the extent that Jesus our Savior and ultimate host was dependent on the provision of others, so parents can openly practice Christlike dependence on their God, friends, and even strangers.

I reached a point in parenting where I did not, because I could not, conceal my feelings of poverty. Somehow all my yearnings were at the surface. I missed a call one day from the Christian high school principal and had to call him back. I dreaded a sermon, perhaps with allusions to the Church Fathers, about my child’s behavior. I was surprised when I started telling him about my child’s losses and impairments, and even more surprised when he responded with empathy and hope. He did quote Augustine: “Since love grows within you, so beauty grows,” bringing tears to my eyes. The friendships and divine appointments that have arisen from sharing my fragility with others have been my best joys and firmest assurance of God’s personal concern for me.

Risky hospitality is different from recklessness. Violence or danger in the home is serious, and biblical hospitality to one guest must not endanger other members of the household. A hospitality framework charters its own limits. We may be tempted to think that a family will do anything for its children, and when the goals are to secure comfort and affection, parents can easily assume responsibility for the family’s entire psychological environment in addition to how the kids “turn out.” My friend Annie has five children, and she articulated to me the mental exhaustion and emotional heaviness of this kind of striving. “I can do a good job loving and caring for my kids,” she said, “but I can’t analyze and correct all the interactions everywhere in the household.”

Jesus healed some but not all; his calling was not a rush to reach every sick person immediately. In Christlike hospitality, we recognize that much brokenness will go unremedied for now, and our call is to generously offer what we can while fostering a trust in God’s nature as redeemer and healer. This is how we may sacrificially love without losing our souls. It isn’t ours to fix our guest but to keep a place where we watch for what God will do. The tenets of hospitality can help us see what care we can wisely provide in our home and when, like the Good Samaritan, we need to turn the care over to others.

Photograph by Jacob Lund. Used by permission.

Hospitality has grounded my emotions, actions, thoughts, and prayers regarding our children – all that constitutes discipleship – in the alternating guestness and hostness of Christ. Within that framework is his mysterious love that shapes me to be the parent I need to be for my needy little strangers. The fruit of hospitality is sometimes painfully unseen and sometimes astonishingly beautiful.

My teenage children all still let me put them to bed. Recently I went to tuck in my son whose distress and challenges leading up to bedtime were so difficult for everyone. He needed much more than a cozy goodnight, but that was all I had to offer. I asked him how he wanted me to pray for him.

“I dunno,” he said, “maybe for a good day tomorrow.”

As I prayed, I felt his shoulders twitch a couple of times – he was falling asleep. At the end, his eyes fluttered open, and he asked, “Can you sing that other song real quick?”

“Which other song?” I asked. “All Praise to Thee My God This Night?”

“Yeah,” he said.

My heart was heavy, but I sang to him:

All praise to thee, my God, this night, For all the blessings of the light; Keep me, O keep me, King of kings, Beneath thine own almighty wings.

He was asleep by the second stanza. Those verses were a prayer, that the King of kings would keep both of us in his protection and in the light that shines in the darkness. Whether I was host or guest in that sacred moment, I do not know; God knows.