You can read all Mike’s previous posts on NHBO here.
Eight Chairs Around the Fire
This story begins last summer outside of a house we had rented on the banks of a beautiful lake in central Wisconsin. As our first real vacation with all eight of us, we had splurged on a house that had every amenity we could possibly want, from a swimming pool to a tennis court to a movie theater in the basement.
In the wooded plateau between the house and the lake, there was a picturesque stone fire pit surrounded by eight Adirondack chairs. And on this particular night, we spent the first few minutes of dusk running joyfully through a sea of lightning bugs and then collapsing laughingly into each of the eight chairs around the crackling fire… a fire I particularly appreciated because it took this former Eagle Scout 45 minutes, three boxes of matches, and six newspapers worth of kindling to start earlier that evening.
But aside from my gross inadequacies in the firestarting department, everything else about that moment epitomized what Anne and I had always dreamt for our family. To fully appreciate what that night represented for us, I would have to walk you through the preceding 15 years as God built our family through two births and four special need adoptions.
That long season of seemingly omnipresent doctor visits, attachment journeys, and transitions was finally over, and we were ready to celebrate. Sitting around the fire that starry Wisconsin night, I memorized the sunkissed faces of my high school sweetheart, our three daughters, and our three sons, and I was overwhelmed by the goodness of God. Everyone was healthy and happy and whole. In that moment, everything was perfect.
Inviting God to the Fire Pit
After our first full day of swimming and fishing and s’mores, Anne and I decided that we wanted to introduce a spiritual component to the trip. Believing that this was the first of many such weeks together as a family of eight, we wanted to establish some vacation traditions with God at the center.
Our first attempt was creatively called “Five Minutes of Prayer.” As the name would imply, this was simply a time blocked out for everyone to find a private spot on the property and pray. Some sat by the pool. Some went to the dock.
Five year old Sam decided he would be closest to God if he climbed on the roof to pray… which precipitated a bonus sixth minute of prayer from the rest of us while we helped him navigate safely back down. After that, we established some additional “ground rules” for the prayer time… which for Sam meant staying on the ground.
Our second idea was to introduce a Bible study component to our time around the fire. Each night, one of the kids would read a passage aloud and then lead a discussion about it. Somehow we ended up deciding to study Ephesians that week.
Safely nestled in the woods outside our over-priced Wisconsin “cabin”, we expected God’s word to underscore our mission that week with sweet scriptures about kindness, family, tradition, and prayer. But, as he so often does, God surprised us with how sharp and alive his Word can be as our kids read passages like:
“He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” Ephesians 2:10
“I want you to get out there and walk — better yet, run! — on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere.” Ephesians 4:1-3
“His love was not cautious but extravagant!” Ephesians 5:2
“Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times!” Ephesians 5:16
With each passage we studied and each five minutes spent in prayer, Anne and I felt a growing conviction that God might want more from our family than fireside s’mores and an occasional bible study. We started to realize… or, more accurately, to remember… the amazing gift of our family was not a treasure to be hoarded but a gift to be shared.
Throughout the week, one idea kept gnawing on me. It was from a book by Francis Chan (an author people who are done adopting should generally avoid), “Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”
In Wisconsin, we were succeeding by every earthly standard… and God was beginning to ask us if we were playing the right game.
But perhaps the most poignant God moment of that trip was not during a time of prayer or Bible study; it was during a game of Freeze Tag.
Our family likes to play Freeze Tag, and I am the default “It”… meaning my six kids run around trying to avoid being frozen by me. Our version of the game includes the “freeze ball” concept I developed around the age of forty when I realized I could no longer physically catch some of my kids but still had good enough aim to hit them with a volleyball.
When caught (or “hit” in our case), that kid is “frozen” and cannot move until one of the other kids “unfreezes” them by tagging them.
Now what I lack in speed I make up with strategy and treachery. I know just where to stand to make it hard for the other kids to easily free their frozen siblings.
And this is the moment where each kid decides how they are going to approach the game. Some choose to retreat to the far corners of the yard and live in relative safety… knowing I cannot go too far from my frozen prisoner without risking their release. But others – and it is not always the same ones – experience a sudden onset of courage. They emerge from behind trees and begin sprinting towards their captured brother or sister.
They know it would be safer to stay where they are. They know that there is little risk of being caught if they retreat from the battle and camp behind some distant trees.
But they also know that a family member needs them. They know they have a choice to trade their safety for a chance to free the captive. And so at grave risk of their own virtual security, they run towards the danger.
It always brings a smile to my face when I see that decision in their eyes and the resulting sprint across the lawn to tag a sibling into freedom.
Don’t tell them, but my throws tend to become less precise in those moments. I sometimes choose to throw a little too high or too wide to avoid hitting them… so I can watch the shared joy when they tag their sibling and both run gleefully away. (The one exception to this rule is the final game before bedtime where I become the greatest freeze ball sniper in the world and grant no “courage” exemptions.)
One particular, non-bedtime moment in Wisconsin involved Ellie running as fast as her little legs could carry her to free her younger brother Sam… while Sam cried out her name at the top of his lungs. That particular freeze ball wasn’t even close… perhaps because the tears threw off my aim.
I have had the great privilege of watching four orphans “unfrozen” and restored into the communion of family. And, while it would still be several months before I would admit it even to myself, I think I knew in that moment that I did not want to retreat into the relative comfort and safety of the perimeter trees.
I wanted to run once again into the field… risking it all if need be… to bring one more home.
Back home in Ohio, it did take a few hundred miles of late-night walks and a few thousand budget spreadsheet iterations in Excel (frequently noting that we probably shouldn’t have spent so much on the vacation rental…) before we finally admitted out loud what we had suspected since Wisconsin. The Lord was inviting us back to China.
Our previous adoption journeys involved a lot of paperwork and processing before we were matched to a specific child, and that was my expectation for this one… so I was surprised one afternoon when Anne asked me about “Sunshine”.
“Sunshine” was a 4 year old boy in Xi’an, China who was given the nickname by his orphanage caregivers as a reflection of his personality. We had first encountered Sunshine several months earlier (and well before Wisconsin) when Anne noticed him on the Waiting Child list.
I recall reading his amazing write-up at the time and saying something foolish like, “If we were ever going to adopt again, he sounds like exactly the right kind of profile for our family.” (This felt like a safe statement since we were 100% not going to adopt again.)
So when his file appeared again six months later (and in the post-Wisconsin window), there was palpable excitement.
Having not started our paperwork, we agreed not to lock him up in case another family could bring him home sooner… and we imagined that the list would be long based on how amazing he seemed to us. We started our paperwork, but when we wrote to check up on him each week, the reply was always the same… “No one else has called about Sunshine.” And while we hated it for him, I confess that we started to hope no one else would.
So as his file was coming to a close with our agency and the prospect of him never being in a family started to look like a real possibility, we jumped. (This forum does not allow me to share all of the ways that God helped confirm him as our son, but rest assured that there was no doubt.)
Our final paperwork was received in Beijing several weeks ago, and we are on track to bring Sunshine (aka “Benjamin”) home this fall.
I cannot wait to introduce Ben to his amazing brothers and sisters who are each excitedly and prayerfully waiting for him to arrive.
And in particular, I cannot wait for that first game of Freeze Tag when I see the flash in his eyes that says he’s gonna risk it all to unfreeze one of them. I don’t care if it’s way past bedtime, I can assure you that particular “freeze ball” won’t even be close…
What if it ruins everything?
I loved hiding with our current family behind those tall Wisconsin trees last summer, and there are moments when I struggle with the idea that it’s all about to change. It is so impossibly sweet right now, and I am desperately aware that this could ruin everything.
But I also know that I would rather fail at pursuing God’s will for our family than succeed at pursuing my own.
And so, here we go… sprinting into the open field and praying like crazy that God will bend the freeze balls just out of our path one more time.
– Philippians 3:12-14