5 things to think about when preaching on adoption

img_0907This Sunday is ‘Adoption Sunday’ in the UK, which offers a chance for churches to have focused time to consider our adoption by God and also the needs of vulnerable children in the UK. Do visit Home for Good’s website for more information on this important day.

For my contribution I wanted to write something brief for those who are spending this week getting ready to preach or speak on the theme of adoption in their church. Plenty more could be said, of course, but here are five things to think about as you prepare.

#1  You are not asking the Church to do anything the body of Christ has not done before

As you step into the pulpit, remember that you are not bringing a brand new innovation to God’s people. At our best the Church has always cared for the vulnerable, including children in various desperate circumstances. Put simply, caring for vulnerable children is part of the DNA of God’s people. Have a look at last year’s series to follow this up: 5 reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the church

#2  ‘Orphans’ then and now

If you mention passages in the Old Testament like Deut. 10:18 ‘He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.'(ESV) or Ps. 146:9 ‘The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.’ (ESV), try not to make jumps that are too simplistic between ‘orphans’ in biblical times and today. The word, ‘orphan’ in the Bible tends to refer to a child who has lost their father and whose loss, because of the societal structures of the time, meant they were economically, legally, and socially vulnerable.

‘Orphan’ in the UK often conjures up Dickensian images that feel remote and outdated, implying a child who has lost both parents. While this might still be the case for some, most children in the UK care system have been removed from parental care. In over 60% of cases this has been because of abuse.

These texts are, of course, still deeply relevant but, as with all biblical interpretation, we need to account well for the original context and be sensitive to how we relate them to contemporary issues and people. Albeit with this caveat, do be adventurous in exploring the different strands of relevant material in the Bible…

#3  A rich tapestry

The Apostle Paul has some wonderful and profound things to say about adoption (see, for example, Gal. 4:1-7; Rom. 8:12-17), but there are many other ways of reflecting biblically on fostering, adoption and the care of vulnerable children. Here’s a few examples of texts that can be reflected upon:

  • Stories of ‘adoption’ in the Bible; e.g., Moses and Pharaoh’s daughter; there is also a sense in which Joseph is said to have ‘adopted’ Jesus;
  • The theme of God’s ‘adoption’ of Israel is a key way of understanding his relationship with his people. See this post for more: Why understanding adoption enriches our Bible reading;
  • God’s ‘adoption’ of king David’s descendants and how this informs our understanding of Jesus’ kingship (e.g., 2 Sam 7:12-16; Ps. 2; Mark 1:9-11);
  • The Torah‘s requirements that Israel look after the fatherless, widow and alien (Exod. 22:22-23; Deut. 24:17-22);
  • The Psalmists celebration of God’s fatherhood of the fatherless (Ps. 68:5) or crying out to God to intervene for the vulnerable (Ps. 10:16-18);
  • Job’s modelling of just and righteous behaviour towards the fatherless (Job 29:11-17; 31:16-23);
  • The prophets’ fury at the mistreatment of the vulnerable (Isa. 1:1-17;  5:20-31);
  • Jesus’ blessing of the marginalised children (e.g., Mark 10:13-16) and what this deeply subversive act means for the church today. See this post for more: Jesus blessing the children: why it isn’t a ‘nice’ story and why it calls us to action on behalf of vulnerable children
  • James’ call to authentic discipleship: ‘to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.’ (James 1:27, ESV)

There is an enormous wealth of biblical material that can help us reflect on God’s call to care for vulnerable children: be faithful and creative in how you approach the topic.

#4  Be rooted in your local context and, where possible, make it personal

With 70,000 children in the care system, including 4,000 waiting for adoption and 9,000 waiting for foster families, the national statistics can seem overwhelming or abstract. Try to find out about the local picture so that it feels more ‘real’ to people. If you are in England, a good place to look for the raw statistics is this page: Children looked after in England including adoption: 2015 to 2016. So, for example, I can see there are 550 children recorded as being in the care system in Gloucestershire, where I am based. This is perhaps a more ‘real’ figure but it is still rather abstract. So, are there ways we can make it more personal; for example, with an interview with someone who has experience as an adoptive parent or social worker? (stats on children waiting from Home for Good website)

#5  Be practical and join with others

What kind of practical details can you bring into your talk so that the biblical vision of God’s heart can connect with your church’s locatedness. Ask yourselves, how can we become a more supportive community for those caring for vulnerable children (either those already in the church or those who might come to us for the first time)?

Are there local networks you can become part of? If you haven’t already, could you connect with the excellent work of Home for Good?

What attitudes, structures and practices (small or big) might need to be changed to respond to this challenge from Krish and Miriam Kandiah:

‘What if we the Church could be known as the people who truly care about the pain and problems of children who have no other family to turn to and whom, it seems, nobody wants? What if the Church was known as the most compassionate and hospitable family in the country?’ (Home for Good, p. 4)

 

What advice would you want to add? Leave a comment here or on Facebook to join the conversation.

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What happens when you google, “theology of fostering”?

addtext_com_MDYwNjQxOTQ0MjUThis morning I googled the phrase, “theology of fostering”. The results page returned the following hits:

7 adverts for fostering agencies/recruitment
5 links to sources that use fostering as a verb to develop something (e.g., ‘A theology of fostering ecclesial communities’), so not relevant
And that’s it: I’m not just talking about the first page of hits; those are all the hits!

The same search on Amazon results in, ‘Your search “”theology of fostering”” did not match any products.

The questions this (admittedly) rather crude pair of searches suggests is:

Where on earth is all the theological reflection on fostering?!?

What is the ‘status’ of theological thinking on fostering? Is it derivative of our thinking on adoption? If so, are we selling foster carers short by not providing a rigorous and specific framework for understanding fostering theologically? Obviously fostering and adoption are very closely linked but is there nothing that could, or needs, to be said theologically that is unique to fostering?

How do we develop excellent theological thinking and resources specifically on fostering that will resource the Church?

I have some ideas but I’d love to know what you think!

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Reflecting on the ‘Holy Family’ this advent

Reflecting on the Holy Family

A guest post by Dr Grace Milton

I suspect that the events we retell and celebrate during advent were not how Mary and Joseph expected their first child to come into the world. Aside from the social stigma attached (Matthew 1:18-19) the logistics of the birth were a nightmare. Had Mary and Joseph been in control of their own family planning, they would have perhaps attempted to time conception so that the birth would not coincide with a major census involving extensive travel and uncertain accommodation.

In many ways it would have made much more sense for Jesus’ birth to have followed biblical tradition and been the result of the miraculous pregnancy of a barren woman who was already married, socially and financially secure and who longed for a child of her own (a la Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth). I certainly would have been sympathetic had Mary responded to the angel Gabriel’s announcement with a polite, “No thank you. Joseph and I plan to wait until we are married and then we will have a baby”.

However, the birth narratives we see in the Gospels subvert expectations of family at a personal and a community level. While Mary and Joseph’s expectations of how their family would grow were undoubtedly flipped on their heads, the theological expectations of how the family of God would grow were also subverted and foreshadowed by the key players in the nativity. Through the Magi the gentiles are invited to participate in the birth (and work) of the Messiah and, through the Shepherds, the marginalised are brought into the heart of history.

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husbands will, but born of God. (John 1: 12-13)

Throughout advent we are offered a glimpse of God’s view of family which is surprising and at times uncomfortable, but which ultimately exceeds our expectations.

Perhaps if we allow the Christmas narratives to challenge us this advent season we may consider what our expectations of family are (whether our own or our wider church family) and ask ourselves, what room is there in these plans for the vulnerable and the “outsider”?

Grace is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Birmingham and an Honorary Research Fellow at The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education. She has recently begun working with Tim Davy (lead of the Fostering, Adoption and the Church research project) to develop a piece of research looking at fostering and adoption within Black Majority churches in the UK.
image  by Jeff Weese (Flickr: Nativity) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ANativity_tree2011.jpg
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What is marriage for and what has this got to do with fostering and adoption?

https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-couple-sweet-married-2226/

I was reminded recently of something the preacher said at our wedding, which now strikes me as deeply relevant when considering issues concerning vulnerable children, fostering, adoption and the Church.

He quoted from a letter written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written from prison in 1943. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian who had been imprisoned for his opposition to the Nazi movement, and was writing to his niece, Renate, on the occasion of her wedding.

What really strikes me is the vision of the ‘other’ that is embedded in the purpose of marriage; as if to say that marriage is about you in one sense but is about so much more that you in another. This is how Bonhoeffer puts it:

“Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy institution, through which God wishes to preserve humanity until the end of time. In your love you see only each other in the world; in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations that God, for the sake of God’s glory, allows to rise and fade away, and calls into God’s kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, in marriage you are placed and given responsibility within the world and the human community.”

Christian marriage is not ultimately about the married couple. It is about the glory of God, which is seen in part in the working out of the couple’s ‘responsibility within the world and the human community’.

This is important when we think about issues surrounding the vulnerable and marginalised. This vision of marriage contains an ‘assumption of otherness’, which causes us to look together-but-beyond-ourselves to society. For some this will mean embracing the needs of fostering and adoption, not as something outside of ‘the norm’ of family life but as something that is at its very heart.

Click here for details of Bonhoeffer’s book:

Letters and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010)

For more on vulnerability, I wrote a post back in July on Vulnerability is the Norm

Image courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/food-couple-sweet-married-2226/

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Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the Church – part 5

Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the ChurchReason five: Because, at our best, it is what we have always done

To look after vulnerable children is, for the Church, to continue what we have always done when we are at our best.

Reflecting on the rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark suggests that:

‘Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope… To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.’ (p.161)

In the Ancient Roman world it was common practice to ‘expose’ unwanted babies; that is, leaving them out in the open to die or (at rare best) be rescued by a benevolent stranger. The Church became vocal in its criticism of this practice and there are suggestions that this critique was accompanied with action; that is, rescuing these abandoned children. As Gerhard Uhlhorn put it, ‘When we first meet with the mention of adoption and bringing up of foundlings, this work appears not as a novelty, but as one long practised.’ (p. 186)

There isn’t the time or space for great amounts of detail concerning the innovation and compassion with which the Church has in its history cared for vulnerable children. Certainly, there have been tragic and reprehensible abuses of the care systems put in place. But, at its best, the Church has always advocated on behalf of the vulnerable and put into practice our calls for society to protect and nurture children.

To encourage your Christian community to mobilise and support those involved in fostering and adoption is just one way of expressing this rich history and to participate in something that has been ‘long practised’.

To summarise this week’s series, we have seen that a commitment to fostering and adoption is aligned with the very essence of what it means to be Church. It reflects who God is, the story into which he has called us, a commitment to justice and shalom that marks our mission, our identity as adopted children of God, and our history of working out our faith in society.

A commitment to supporting fostering and adoption makes sense of where we have come from, who we are, and to whom we belong.

Read part one of the series: Because of who God is
Read part two of the series: Because vulnerable children occupy a significant place in the biblical narrative
Read part three of the series: Because it is a justice issue
Read part four of the series: Because it explains, expresses and celebrates who we are

Further reading
John Aloisi, Orphan Care, Adoption, and the Church: Historical Reflections and Contemporary Challenges
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity
Gerhard Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church

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Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the Church – part 4

Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the ChurchReason four: Because it explains, expresses and celebrates who we are

The apostle John famously declared that ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19) What better way to demonstrate the love we have received from God than to express it? What better way to celebrate the love we have received from God than to show it to others?

Could the same be true in the sphere of fostering and adoption: ‘The people of God care for the vulnerable because God cared for us when we were vulnerable’? ‘We adopt because he first adopted us’? Of course, not every individual or family unit can adopt or foster but we the Church can all support those that do.

In an article on ‘Adoption in the Bible’, David Bartlett summarises the language of adoption in the Bible in the following way:

  • Adoption is a powerful image for God’s activity with humankind because it makes clear that membership in God’s family is always the result of God’s activity.
  • Adoption is a powerful image because adoption transcends the boundaries and barriers set by biological and ethnic identity. Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free – all can be adopted. And all become part of the same family.
  • Adoption is a powerful image because it can be used both of individuals and of peoples. Israel is adopted by God’s activity, but so are King David and the kings that follow him. Jesus is adopted at his baptism or at his resurrection, but the whole Christian community is adopted into the family along with its elder brother.
  • Adoption language often implies that the adoptive parent names the newly adopted child. It reminds us that the identity of faithful people is in the identities God gives rather than the identities we give ourselves.
  • Adoption language points both to the present reality of God’s grace and to the future promise of participation in God’s glory…
  • Adoption language allows believers to lay hold of the two sides of God’s parental role as we see it in the adoption poems in the prophets. On the one hand, they are called to live under the parental discipline of a wise God and to expect dire consequences if they fail. On the other hand, we know the God who adopts them may chastise them but will not let them go. (p. 395, my emphasis)

For the biblical writers, adoption language was the norm for describing who we are before God. One of the wonderful things about the renewed sense of energy in the Church for recapturing the language of adoption is that is helping us see more clearly what has always been there. We are adopted children of God. The more we are attuned to this aspect of our identity the more normal it will be to move from the vertical (God has adopted us) to the vertical (what is God calling us to do on behalf of vulnerable children in our midst?).

Read part one of the series: Because of who God is
Read part two of the series: Because vulnerable children occupy a significant place in the biblical narrative
Read part three of the series: Because it is a justice issue

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Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the Church – part 3

Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the ChurchReason three: Because it is a justice issue

The story within which we have been called as Church is the story of God’s mission to reconcile all of creation to himself. One of the great strides of the second half of the twentieth century was the growing understanding the big story of God’s mission (the ‘missio Dei’) as a holistic endeavour. As well as a commitment to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins, the Church is called as part of our participation in God’s mission to live out the characteristics of the Kingdom of God in society (expressed, for example, in the call in Micah 6:8 ‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’.

In Monday’s post we saw that a passion for justice is an essential part of who God is. One way in which the Church in the UK can celebrate and express this Kingdom characteristic is to seek goodness, wholeness and ‘shalom’ in society. And this has incredibly practical implications for looked after children.

It simply isn’t right that the life chances of looked after children are so much poorer than those in permanent families. Consider these statistics:

There is a 40% gap in GCSE attainment between children who are in care and those who are not. Only 12% of looked after children achieve five or more GCSEs (including Maths and English) at grades A-C. The figure for ‘non looked-after children’ is 52%

Children leaving the care system are about six times less likely to go on to higher education than other young people

About 40% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training, compared with a national average of 15% of all 19-year-olds

“children and young people who are, or have been, in care are over five times more likely than other children to get involved in the criminal justice system” (Prison Reform Trust)

About a quarter of prisoners were in care at some point in their childhood or adolescence

30% of homeless people were in care

There is an intolerable inequity going on around us. The Church’s call to advocate for a more just society simply must address the lack of wholeness and shalom experienced by children in care. Despite the many efforts of many excellent people who work in the care system, could we not do more to improve the life chances of these young people.

What could your Church community do to improve just one of these statistics? In the light of these statistics, and the many stories behind them, what does the LORD our God require of us?

Read part one of the series: Because of who God is
Read part two of the series: Because vulnerable children occupy a significant place in the biblical narrative

[stats from:

https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Care-leavers-transition-to-adulthood.pdf
http://www.thewhocarestrust.org.uk/news.php/475/the-who-cares-trust-aims-to-raise-number-of-care-leavers-going-into-higher-education
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/384781/Outcomes_SFR49_2014_Text.pdf
http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/ProjectsResearch/CareReview
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/278837/prisoners-childhood-family-backgrounds.pdf
http://www.thewhocarestrust.org.uk/pages/leaving-care-what-happens-post-16.html ]

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Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the Church – part 2

Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the ChurchReason two: Because vulnerable children occupy a significant place in the biblical narrative

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells a big story (the big story) of God’s purposes to restore the whole of creation to himself. This is the story in which we find ourselves, encompassing the past, present and future of the Church.

In a previous post I noted the characteristic of vulnerability in this grand narrative. Let’s think about just some of the examples:

  • Consider the plight of the outcast baby Ishmael in Genesis 21 whom God sees, protects and enables to flourish;
  • Consider the helpless baby Moses in Exodus 2, floating on the Nile in his basket, who went on to lead God’s people out of slavery;
  • Consider the unnamed (trafficked) servant girl in 2 Kings 5 whose wisdom puts Kings and Generals to shame;
  • Consider the fatherless children whom Job protected and nurtured, who ‘grew up with me as with a father’ (Job 31:18);
  • Consider Jesus himself. What could be more vulnerable than a child born in his circumstances? The God of the universe chose the vulnerability of an embryo inside a young girl to enter the stage of history as a human being. Born into hardship and suspicion. On the run at an early age with his family, fleeing for his life (Matthew 1-2).

The biblical ‘norm’ is for God’s purposes to be fulfilled in and through vulnerability. These are the embedded traits of the biblical narrative, of the Church’s story. What could be more natural, then, than for Christians in the UK to recognise and resonate with the vulnerability we see and experience in society and to be involved in (and support those involved in) fostering and adoption?

Read part one of the series: Because of who God is

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Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the Church – part 1

Five reasons fostering and adoption are in the DNA of the Church (public domain image https://pixabay.com/en/dna-biology-medicine-gene-163466/)Reason one: Because of who God is

To mark national adoption week (19-25 October) here in the UK I’m going to post each weekday on a different way in which caring for vulnerable children is at the heartbeat of the character of God and the calling of his Church.

Today we’ll consider who God is:

17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. 18 He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. 19 Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:17-19, ESV)

This brief text from Deuteronomy dwells on God’s supremacy and authority. Israel’s God, the supreme authority in the universe, chose to dispense his power in such a way that those at the opposite end of the power spectrum benefited. What this text seems to show is that it is in God’s nature to fiercely protect the vulnerable and it is therefore a requirement of God’s people to reflect this commitment in society.

It simply won’t do to consign advocacy and action on behalf of the vulnerable to an optional extra. This, of course, will mean more than just engagement with fostering and adoption but the framework for the Church’s calling is defined by the character of God and the character of God is marked by, among other things, a commitment to the poor and vulnerable.

In the UK today this commitment is not restricted to looked after children, but it absolutely must include them.

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Calling all academics with a passion for Fostering, Adoption and the Church!

Man with Megaphone (creative commons)One of the aims of this project is to produce ‘rigorous published research that raises the profile of fostering and adoption in the academy and the Church.’

We want fostering, adoption and the Church to be on the agenda of academic communities.

We want fostering, adoption and the Church to be a more common theme in scholarly journals and at conferences.

We want the academic community to serve vulnerable children by thinking deeply, rigorously and creatively about how Church and society can support them better.

We want Church communities to see that academic theology, Biblical studies and missiology have important roles in motivating and supporting Christians in fostering and adoption.

Are you an academic with a passion for fostering, adoption and the Church? Are you a student wanting to think and write about this topic?

We’d love to gather a network of scholars interested in fostering, adoption and the Church. Whatever your field of study, drop Tim a line and let’s connect: tdavy@redcliffe.org

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