This talk was delivered at the Chaplain’s Breakfast of EnergyCAP, Inc.’s annual software training conference.
Panic crashing down, I awoke when it was still dark outside.
My heartbeats thundered through my veins, I could feel them speeding up and getting heavier: Boom, boom, boom.
No, slow down, breathe, find peace. I practiced the normal tactics in times like this—tried breathing slower, tried to think a happy thought, a kitten, a puppy. I tried to pray. But nothing worked—I was a wreck.
I lumbered downstairs and plopped on the couch in my office. Why was I so anxious?
Then two thoughts came to mind.
First, the shocking thing that happened this past Christmas Day. A few days prior, I began feeling pain in my chest. At first it felt like a pulled muscle, tightness, like a rubber band being asked to stretch beyond its capacity. It was irritating, so I took aspirin and did my best to ignore it. I went to work, did last minute Christmas shopping, attended the Christmas Eve service and had Christmas Day at home.
But it was while watching The Christmas Story in the evening, after Ralphie asked for his Red Ryder BB Gun, when I couldn’t take the pain anymore. My chest felt like shards of glass were being scraped under my skin. I could only take short, narrow breaths. I went to the ER.
They did various tests and scans, and finally delivered the diagnosis: I had suffered a pulmonary embolism–a blood clot in my lung. They admitted me to the hospital and I stayed there for a week.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 60,000 to 100,000 Americans die every year from blood clotting in a vein. I later learned that my wife’s grandmother died from it, as did a friend’s brother. And just a few days after my clot, a 29 year-old woman, newly married, who was a bank teller in our town, died from it.
My life could have been over, but it was not, so now what? What about these new pains, tingles, sensations? Would this happen again? What caused the clot?
Parenting Traumatized Kids
Second, parenting traumatized kids. We adopted our son Rex from the Philippines four years ago; he’s seven now. And this past August, we adopted our other son Asher from the Philippines; he’s four.
If you were to check my boys’ resting heart rates, you would find faster heart rates than their contemporaries. Sometimes one of them will climb onto my lap to snuggle or watch a movie. After some time, I’ll place my hand on their chest to feel their heart beating. The beats feel like they just got done running, although they had been lounging, relaxed, for 20 minutes.
An elevated heart rate is common for children who have suffered trauma. But I didn’t have to take their heart rates to know they had suffered trauma. We had begun to see more signs of it in their behavior. I wondered if I was up to the task – fathering traumatized kids.
Trauma brings unfair challenges. For example, normally the brain is a wonderful thing. It releases chemical messengers called neurotransmitters whose jobs are to regulate our nervous system to keep us balanced. There are excitatory neurotransmitters that rev us up when we need to be on alert and inhibitory neurotransmitters that calm us down when we need to be calm.
Let’s say you’re driving in the car and suddenly someone cuts you off. Your body flooded with epinephrine to help you deal with the threat—it revved you up to help you decide to act.
You were pretty angry, but soon you felt calm—this was the work of serotonin. Balanced neurotransmitters help you to respond appropriately to stress.
However, says the literature, “Early deprivation and abuse can disrupt the way a growing child’s body and brain develop, even the way the body produces and manages neurotransmitters. Infants who were abused before the age of two have enduring structural changes in the right hemisphere of the brain—which in turn affect their ongoing ability to cope with stress.
“Many children who come from hard places are stuck in the imbalanced state. Their biochemistry has difficulty self-correcting, so they feel the ups and downs more dramatically than other people do. These children struggle, physically, just to keep their emotions on an even keel.”
That early morning I struggled with this question and my part in it: Can an orphan heal?
Dr. Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist who works with traumatized children. He writes about one of his patients, a boy named Justin.
Justin was six years old when he was admitted for pneumonia to the pediatric intensive care unit of a Texas hospital. Were you to visit Justin, you would see a skinny boy wrapped in a loose diaper. The diaper was full, but staff waited longer than normal to change him because of the fight he put up. You would see remains of food scattered around the room. He threw back any food that was given to him.
You would hear him shrieking loudly and wildly, never using words. And you would see the cage that held him—a crib with a plywood panel wired to the top. This was how the staff contained Justin.
On brain scans, Justin’s brain looked like someone with advanced Alzheimer ’s disease; his head circumference was below the second percentile for his age.
How did Justin get like this?
Justin was born to a 15 year-old who left Justin with his grandmother when he was just two months old. Grandma was a kind and loving woman who adored Justin. But unfortunately, she was hospitalized and died when Justin was 11 months old.
The grandmother’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur, babysat Justin when Grandma was sick. After she died, he called Child Protective Services and asked if they would find a permanent family for Justin. CPS said they would, but understaffed, they didn’t act.
So Arthur, a mentally challenged man who meant well, did what he knew to do. He was a dog trainer, so he applied that knowledge to the care of the baby. Arthur began keeping Justin in a dog cage. He made sure the baby was fed and changed, but rarely spoke or played with him. Justin lived in that cage for five years, mostly with dogs as his only companion.
Tell me, can an orphan heal?
Let me ask you a question—what wounds are you carrying today?
You don’t have to suffer what these kids have suffered in order to be wounded. What is your pain? What tightens your throat and clenches your fist and fills your eyes with tears and spirals and drops in your belly?
Unworthy of God’s Love
One of the top ten most viewed blog posts of mine in 2013 was one called, “When You Feel Unworthy of God’s Love.” It hit a chord with people. Here’s an excerpt:
When you feel unworthy of God’s love, don’t.
Not all feelings can be trusted. They come and go as the wind blows. They can lead you astray. Feelings are not your true north.
God will never leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). He has compelled himself to obey His own Word because God never breaks His promises. God’s Word says He will never leave you, so He won’t.
God’s love is not based on your own nature or ability or goodness—it’s based on His. God is a God who abides, so believe it.
God loved you as a sinner (Romans 5:8). He’ll love you if you sin today. He’ll love you if you sin tomorrow. Your sin does not determine if God loves you or not. God’s love is a fact that resides apart from the fact of your sin. Your sin does not disqualify you for God’s love.
God loved you first (1 John 4:19).
So preach the love of God to yourself.
Receive it while God is near.
Because He is.
Only you and what you do with your experiences, can make yourself feel unworthy of God’s love. God’s love is a primary reality, standing apart from space and time, circumstance and consequence, people and places. God’s love is essential—remember He loved you first. First in chronology, first in importance.
You feel unworthy because you want to. Not because you are. Not because of what they did to you. Not because of what you did. And certainly not because of what God thinks of you.
You are worthy of His love. He delights in you and rejoices over you with singing (Zephaniah 3:17). Yes, God’s delight erupts over you in great choruses of joy. Mere words cannot release the thoughts and feelings He has for you. God must sing over you.
You are not beyond His love. How can you be? A love that is higher than high, deeper than deep, wider than wide? Love that searches you out and hems you in and sees your most ugly, most unlovely moments? Love that sees you. God’s love was released for moments such as these, for a person such as you.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it (1 John 1:15). Nothing can put out the light of God’s love. Want proof? For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16).
There was a comment from a lady named Dawna:
“What you write is what everyone tells me is the truth, but what if some of us are truly unworthy? I just can’t help thinking I must be the exception not the rule!”
I wonder what happened to Dawna to make her think this.
When you’ve been abandoned, abused, neglected, or wounded, what do you believe about yourself? What do you believe about others? What do you believe about God?
There are two main building blocks of belief: words and experiences. Words and experiences build belief. Belief forms emotion. Emotion forms behavior. We behave out of our belief. So it matters deeply the words and experiences that have shaped us.
What words and experiences have shaped your beliefs about God? I think God is saying to get your belief about him in check.
Three Words to Save Your Life
So there I was that dark early morning—anxious, panicked, in despair—God spoke into my circumstance. He said three simple things:
- I love you
- I’m here
- I’ll take care of you
I realized these are the words of a father. When you think about it, don’t these words cover our deepest longings?
Why is this important? We’re all born as orphans.
In John 14:18, Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans.”
What has made us orphans?
We all, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
Our sin has made us orphans.
I believe there’s an orphan cry in each of us. We’re crying out to be loved, to be seen and cradled, to be cared for by our Father. We’ve been separated from God. And we will keep searching, pining, striving for something until that orphan cry is removed.
Can an orphan heal?
It’s only done by removing the sin that stands between us and God. And that is done through Jesus.
“For God so loved the world that He have his only son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
And once you believe in him, you’re not an orphan anymore, you’re an adopted child of God.
Being an adopted child of God means two incredible things.
Romans 8:14-15 says, “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption.”
In Roman history, adoption was common. Families were small because cost of living was high. Families would sometime disown their children in order to adopt more favorable ones. But once you were adopted, it was illegal for you to be disowned. This is to say, biological children could be disowned, but not adopted ones. Adoption brought more security than being in your birth family!
This means that when you’re adopted into God’s family:
- It’s because God favors you.
- Your position is forever secure.
Back to Justin
Once Dr. Perry began working with Justin, he was discharged after two weeks into a foster family. Two years later, Dr. Perry received a letter from Justin’s foster family giving an update. He was continuing to do well and rapidly hit developmental milestones that no one expected him to reach. Now eight, he was ready to start kindergarten. The little boy who was raised as a dog now was all dressed up, holding a lunch box, wearing a backpack and standing next to a school bus. He was going to kindergarten. And there was a note, “Thank you, Dr. Perry. From Justin.”
You cannot change what happened to you, but you can change the effects of your words and experiences.
- Settle who God is to you.
- Answer the call of the orphan cry to become adopted.
- Hear God saying to you,
I love you. I’m here. I’ll take care of you.
And receive God’s words over you:
How great is the love I have lavished on you, that you should be called a child of God! [1 John 3:1] Be convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you from my love that is in Christ Jesus. [Romans 8:38-40]. For I created your inmost being; I knit you together in your mother’s womb. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. Your frame was not hidden from me when I made you in the secret place. When I wove you together in the depths of the earth, my eyes saw your unformed body. All the days ordained for you were written in my book before one of them came to be. [Psalm 139].
Can the orphan heal? Yes, the orphan can heal!