And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. – Ephesians 3:18, NLT
On a crystal clear night with no humidity, you can almost feel the planet spinning. Staring up at one of the blackest skies and the brightest swaths of stars in the country at the McDonald Observatory, the sky seems alive with glittering pinpricks of light, and the Milky Way looks as if God took out a paintbrush and lavishly streaked it across the heavens in the way artists sometimes splash paint across a canvas with abandon. It’s so big. Big is inadequate. It’s as if the sky nearly swallows you whole. It’s bold and audacious and screams that this universe cannot be contained. It makes you feel small-yet-more-alive-than-ever, and it’s literally exploding with light and unknown possibilities.
Almost all of us like BIG. We like bold and audacious and unknown possibilities. I was 26 when we moved to China to work at New Day Foster Home. We could say ni hao but not much else, didn’t know a single person working at the organization, nor did we have a clue what we were doing. My husband and I simply quit our jobs, packed up our bags, and went on the grandest adventure of our lives. While it was terrifying, it was also bold and audacious and full of unknown possibilities. And when I first found myself standing solitary in the belly of a Beijing train station with a sea of Asian people swirling around me, I felt swallowed whole. Small-yet-more-alive-than-ever. I looked at their beautiful faces… in the train station, in the markets, and in my arms as I cradled the newly arrived babies, and my heart exploded with joy. For four years, we lived in a small Chinese village working with an incredible team to bring hope and healing to Chinese orphans. And it felt real. Significant. BIG.
I think I’d been holding my breath staring up at that sky. I felt a little dizzy and when I looked down, my eyes struggled to focus on what was close when they’d been searching for the high and lofty. I stumbled a bit in the dark as I followed my husband into a small amphitheater to watch a 1970s-era science movie called Powers of Ten. Though I confess I didn’t expect to be wowed by a science movie made in the 70s, in 9 minutes, my perspective on this world shifted a bit. The movie starts focused on a picnicking couple in Chicago. Every ten seconds, you view the starting point from ten times farther out until our own galaxy is visible only as a speck of light among many others. Then after flying back to the couple, the video zooms in on the man’s hand with ten times more magnification every ten seconds ending inside a proton within a carbon atom swirling inside the man’s white blood cells.
They zoomed in as many times as they zoomed out. Think about that for a minute and let the truth of that sink in. They zoomed in as many times as they zoomed out.
The small is as deep as the big.
My darling Cora Eve burst into this world on a cold Beijing January night. New motherhood isn’t easy for any woman, but the particular shape of my hard had a lot to do with struggling to focus my gaze on what was close when my eyes had been searching for the high and lofty for so long. Here was one healthy-in-every-way newborn who needed her mama every minute of every day. But across the wall from my bedroom slept 3 orphaned children with serious special needs who were part of our foster home. They didn’t get the luxury of a mama tending their every need every minute of the day. That it shouldn’t be a luxury wasn’t lost on me. I stumbled a lot in that first month as I reconciled what I knew I needed and wanted to give to my daughter with what I also felt the world and I owed the precious children next door — high and lofty and even holy visions of justice and redemption and restoration. When we packed up our belongings and headed home to the USA with our dog and our daughter, I was able to get the clean break I needed to be the mama I should, and I fell more deeply in love with my precious little girl and the season of life. But for most of the first 4 years of being a mama, part of me was always pushing back against what I felt was the smallness of motherhood.
But the small is as deep as the big.
It took my second daughter, Alea Hope, to really teach me that. She joined our family 488 days ago after spending 488 days in an orphanage in Zhengzhou, China. If you’ve followed our journey at all here on NHBO, you’ll know it hasn’t been an easy 488 days for any of us. But given what the previous 488 days must have been like for her, that’s really no surprise. As we learned to be a family, we hunkered down, eliminated lots of things from our lives, and made our world really small. I focused on the girls day in and day out even as I bucked against the reins of motherhood. I’d look up at that West Texas sky at night and dream of the days when I saw it from a different angle; I’d dream of riding our little scooter around the area surrounding Qingyundian, stopping to eat Chinese BBQ on a roadside and watching the smoke curl up into the dark sky. I was free, then, and the whole world felt big. And now I was always.always.needed and the whole world felt small. To be honest, I cried and I pushed back and I resented and I yelled at that black sky, but in spite of those reins I pushed against, I kept moving in the direction He was calling. We kept going in deeper and my soul was shaped in the fire of small motherhood.
I’ve been looking forward to tomorrow, our 489th day. I don’t expect the scales to magically tip and for everything we’re working on right now to suddenly become easier, but it’s symbolic to me. She’s been a daughter longer than she was an orphan. We’ve been together more than we’ve been apart. I keep picturing a string knotted 488 times, a gnarl for every day she spent sleeping and eating and staring at the ceiling in that room with 30 cribs. And I’ve been undoing those knots one at a time for the last 488 days. Each day digging in a little bit closer to her heart than the day before; each day pulling her tighter even when she pushes away. I keep picturing that movie, zooming into the proton within a carbon atom inside the DNA of a white blood cell, and I think about how we’ve now zoomed in 488 times. And if there’s one thing I now know, I can tell there’s no end to how deep the small can be.
I look up at the sky and I understand on some level that it never really ends. I’m not sure my brain can comprehend what that means, but I can just barely conceive of it going on forever. And as I look around the world, I see amazing people doing incredible world-changing work that is as big as that sky. My friend Meredith moved to China to be the director of a foster home in her mid-twenties. That’s planet-spinning huge!! She’s saving lives and transforming futures and the effects of her decision will go on forever. And sometimes when I’m texting back and forth with her about the battles she’s facing, I think about how my own day often seems like a string of battles, but of the far more mundane variety — be kind to your sister, don’t hit the dog, please eat your breakfast, no you may not pour the orange juice on the table and splash in it. I’d be lying if I said I never looked at Meredith’s big life and my small life and felt some wistfulness and longing for the “good ‘ole days” when my life looked a bit more like hers does now.
But in spite of those moments, the truth of the matter is I crave small now. I crave sitting long in the back yard with both of my girls, staring at the clouds and talking about ants and butterflies and all manner of important things. I crave picking raspberries with my grandma and papa and seeing Alea sneak them one after another out of the baskets instead of picking them off the bushes while we all pretend we don’t see her. I crave watching my girls scramble around the campsite with their cousins pretending they are wolves. I crave bedtime stories and one-more-hug-before-I-go-to-sleep moments when the lights are out and the day is done. I crave small because I’ve come to understand that it is as huge as the big. I’m no scientist, but that video taught me that technically speaking, the small never really ends, either. You can zoom in as much as you can zoom out. And whether we’re talking about adoption or something else entirely, for most of us, the real soul-transformation happens not in the big, but in the small. It happens when we’ve zoomed in deeper and deeper into the place of our wounding, trusting that somehow when we find the spot that feels most raw and fragile and vulnerable — the very nucleus of our pain — and bring it with shaking hands to the one who knit us together, God will heal our broken hearts.
The first night I put Alea to sleep, I held her while I was staring out of our hotel window at Zhengzhou’s hazily-dark night sky and I hummed the song I always used when I put Cora to sleep, Jesus Loves Me. I shushed, and I hummed, and I cradled, and she felt awkward in my arms. Somehow we both got through it, and we’ve done that nearly every time she’s fallen asleep for 488 days. It’s one of those thousands of small holy rituals that make up the liturgy of motherhood. Last week, I listened as she fell asleep in our camper a few feet away from me. I heard her humming, something she’s also done since the day she joined our family. But this time she wasn’t just making random sounds like she did when she was freshly-not-an-orphan. She was humming Jesus Loves Me, just like she’s heard these last 488 days.
She was humming her mama’s song. It’s small. But it’s big, and the effects will go on forever. I look at my beautiful daughter and I see her life is exploding with light and unknown possibilities.
– images by Tish Goff