Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 6: Parting words for the journey ahead

Today is the final leg of our journey to discover what the Bible actually says about God’s heart for the fatherless. Over the past 6 weeks we have been studying the Hebrew word yātôm, translated into English as ‘orphan’ or ‘the fatherless.’ As we have studied how the Hebrew Scriptures use the word yātôm, four key themes have risen to the surface. And each theme has contributed greater clarity to the beautiful picture of God’s heart for vulnerable children: 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm

Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm 

Theme #3: God himself provides for and defends yātôm 

Theme #4: God calls his people to do justice towards yātôm because they to were helpless as slaves in Egypt.

Today we will look at the last key theme regarding God’s heart for the fatherless. And as you will soon discover, it is the perfect way to finish our study on the Hebrew word yātôm. 

Jeremiah 7 is one of those passages that everyone who desires to know the Bible should be familiar with. Chapter 7 is often called “Jeremiah’s temple sermon” because Jeremiah preached this message on the temple grounds to the people of God. Unlike many sermons in our day, Jeremiah 7 is not a warm, upbeat and encouraging message of hope. It is rather a word of warning that God’s people need to amend their ways or the Lord will bring judgment on the people and remove His presence from the temple. For those familiar with church history, it was the ancient equivalent of Martin Luther calling the church to repent and amend their ways by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the catholic church. 

God’s core problem with Israel in Jeremiah 7 is their hypocrisy. Throughout the week, Israel would commit grave injustice and idolatry. Then they would head to the temple to sing worship songs and offer sacrifices as if everything was cool between them and God. Jeremiah’s task was to announce a message of warning and potential judgment on the people if they did not repent of their injustice and idolatry and turn from their wicked ways to practice justice and righteousness.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel… “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever” – Jeremiah 7:5-7

God’s problem with Israel was they were living a double-life. On Sunday they would sing songs to the Lord, then on Monday they would oppress the poor. One minute they are offering ritual sacrifices, but the next they are taking advantage of the widow and orphan. God had had enough. The warning was clear: change your ways or I will forsake you and your temple.

What is remarkable about this passage – and others like it in Isaiah 1 and Zechariah 7 – is how God details what true repentance looks like. It wasn’t enough for Israel to just say sorry and offer another sacrifice. Jeremiah says that the proof of a repentant heart is love and care for the poor. In other words, for Israel to truly amend their ways they needed to do justice for “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” Professor of Old Testament Theology Dr. Todd Chipman says it this way,

“Jeremiah was as concerned for the orphan as he was the state of the temple, prophesying that unless the people of Judah took up causes like justice for the orphan, God would come and remove not only the temple from Jerusalem, but them from the land.” (1)

This is a truly amazing reality! God was so committed to protecting yātôm that he was willing to forsake his own temple if Israel was unwilling to start loving and caring for the poor. God was unwilling to dwell with his people if they continued to oppress and take advantage of the marginalized. And what would be the evidence that Israel had truly repented and changed their ways? The sign of true repentance would be doing justice for yātôm. And this is our fifth and final theme: doing justice for yātôm is a marker of true repentance from sin. (2)

Jeremiah was not the only one proclaiming this message. Listen to how similar the prophet Isaiah’s call to the people of Israel was to Jeremaih’s, “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes.” And how was Israel to go about purifying themselves? “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Is. 1:16-17). With remarkable similarity, Isaiah defines repentance in the same terms as Jeremiah – to bring justice to yātôm! As we conclude our study on the fatherless, I want to point out two life-shaping implications from this doctrine of true repentance:

1. First, true repentance is a whole-life action that leads to whole-life change. Biblical repentance is not only saying “I am sorry”, it is also saying “I will change.” The Christian who claims they have been forgiven by God must in turn forgive other people (Lk 6:37; Eph 5:1). The Christian who claims they have been adopted by God, must in turn care for the orphan (Jas 1:127). This is the very nature of salvation! The grace of God has appeared to all who are saved, teaching them to live a life of godliness, imitating the work of Christ (Ti 2:11-13).

2. The second life-shaping implication of true repentance is that we are all invited to repent and begin to defend and care for the poor. In some way, all of us have fallen short of God’s command to love the poor. And instead of trying to justify ourselves before God with a list of what we have done, Isaiah and Jeremiah invite us to repent of what we have left undone. Repentance is the first step in living a life of justice and righteousness before God. God’s mercies are new every morning and he is quick to forgive and empower all who come humbly before him to repent of sin and ask for help. It is the Father’s joy to teach his children how to love and care for the poor, especially yātôm.  

So there you have it. Five key themes that not only paint a beautiful picture of God’s heart for yātôm, but each one better equips us to love and serve children and youth in foster care. 

  • Theme #1: Because God is the one who brings judgment on those who oppress yātôm, my anger and lament of oppression is justified and I am free to love knowing that vengeance belongs to the Lord. 
  • Theme #2: Because God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm, I am invited to enjoy the deep, soul-satisfying joy of being with God in the work he is doing, getting a front-row seat to God’s redemptive work in the lives of the fatherless. 
  • Theme #3: Because God himself provides for and defends yātôm, I am free to love and serve children and youth in foster care because my confidence does not lie in my own ability to save and to heal, it lies with the Great Physician, the ultimate father to the fatherless and defender of the vulnerable. 
  • Theme #4: Because I myself was once spiritually vulnerable and in need of rescue, I have great empathy for children and youth in foster care and I am safeguarded against thinking I am the savior and main character of the foster care story. 
  • Theme #5: Because God is gracious and his mercies are new every morning, even when I fail to love, serve and protect yātôm, God offers me unlimited second chances through the gift of true repentance. 

May God’s word continue to be a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path as you follow him on this beautiful yet challenging journey of caring for children and youth in foster care. 

Ryan MacDonald
Regional Director, SoCal

(1) Todd Chipman, Until Every Child is Home p.54.
(2)  
See Is. 1:17; Jer 7:5-7; 22:3; Zech 7:10.

 

Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 5: Don’t forget where you came from

I love the movie Lion King – I think it’s one of Disney’s best animated films. And any fan of the movie will tell you that the most pivotal scene is not – contrary to popular opinion – when Scar convinces little Simba that his father Mufasa’s death was his fault. The most pivotal scene happens after adolescent Samba has run away from the Pride Lands and bumps into a strange shaman named Rafiki. Rafiki attempts to offer Samba guidance, but Simba immediately writes off the deranged mandril primate as crazy saying, “I think you are confused,” to which Rafiki responds, “I am not the one who is confused. You don’t even know who you are.” At this point Rafiki reveals that he not only knew Simba’s father but claims he is still alive! Rafiki then leads Simba to the revelation that his father is alive… in that part of Mufasa lives on through him. Simba, in a moment of vulnerability, confesses that it is painful to remember his father’s death. And Rafiki, without skipping a beat, responds by saying, Yes, the past can hurt, but the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it.” This sage insight is just what Simba needed to realize he was the rightful King of Pride Rock and it was time for him to return and take back his kingdom from the evil rule of Scar.

What happened in this scene has been played out in a thousand movies and sung out in a thousand songs. It is the pivotal moment when a character understands that the hardship of their past is – in the words of Rafiki – not something to run from, it is something to learn from. The basic message of these profound moments can be simply summarized in the common expression, “don’t forget where you came from.” The principle behind this expression is that the pain of our past is often the door to our future. 

This was just as true for ancient Israel as it was for Simba. In the last 3 blog posts we have been unpacking some of the key themes regarding how the Old Testament uses the Hebrew word yātôm (which is translated to English as “orphan” or “fatherless.”) And this week we arrive at theme #4 which is that God calls his people to do justice towards yātôm because they to were helpless as slaves in Egypt (Deut 16:12; 24:18, 22). This is God reminding Israel, “don’t forget where you came from.” God expects Isreal to love and care for the fatherless because they themselves were in desperate need of defense and protection while slaves in Egypt. Listen to how the following passage from the book of Deuteronomy puts it:


“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.”

Deuteronomy 24:17-18

God redeemed Israel from their helpless state as slaves in Egypt. He listened to their cry for help and responded in compassion. Israel, more than anyone else, should empathize with the powerless and the oppressed because they were once in the exact same state. God’s love for his people is not only a blessing to be received, it is an action to be imitated. Being loved by God is a transformative action! When you are loved by God, you are changed by God. As God loves you, you learn to love others. And as God abides in you, you have the love of God to give away. 

Because of this, God expected – even demanded! – that Israel would follow His lead and take concert steps to care for the yātôm among them. The Lord even gave detailed instructions about how to harvest grain and gather produce in a way that nourished and provided for the vulnerable within the community. 

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.”

Deuteronomy 24:19-22

It is precisely because Israel was helpless and hungry in their bondage that they are now to be generous and compassionate in their freedom. And this “don’t forget where you came from” theme is not only found in the Hebrew Scriptures; it carries on throughout the whole Bible. In the Gospels when Jesus would heal, bless, redeem, and forgive he would often turn to his disciples and say, “go and do likewise” (Mt 6:14; Lk 10:37). And the apostle Paul exhorted the church in Ephesus to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1-2). It is because Christ has given himself up for us that we are called to give ourselves away to others. 

This means for the Christian, foster care and adoption are simply a response to what God has done for them. Christians are the ones who were spiritually orphaned, yet now adopted by God into his family. And since God graciously brought them into his family, they are called to open their homes to children who need a family. 

The call to “not forget where you came from” has two significant applications that help to fortify and strengthen those who care for children and youth in foster care. First, it creates empathy. Followers of Jesus know first hand the experience of being vulnerable and defenseless. We too were those in need of defenders and advocates when Jesus, our great mediator, came to our rescue and spoke up on our behalf. It is only through the work and love of Christ that we have been reunited with our father in heaven. And second, it prevents us from feeling superior. The “savior complex” temptation is real. It is easy to feel like foster parents and advocates are the heroes of the social welfare story. But “not forgetting where you came from” provides the sobering and needed perceptive that apart from Christ we can do nothing! Every righteous impulse and kind act is simply the kingdom of God breaking out of a life submitted to Christ. 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm
Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm
Theme #3: God himself provides for and defends yātôm Theme #4: God calls his people to do justice towards yātôm because they to were helpless as slaves in Egypt. (Deut 16:12; 24:18, 22)

Ryan MacDonald

Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 4: The promise that makes all the difference

I hate letting people down. I hate that feeling of realizing that you promised to do something but failed to follow through, especially when it comes to my kids. The other day I told my 4-year-old daughter that I would take her to the park after I got home from work. She was really looking forward to it and brought it up several times throughout the day. However, I was unable to get home in enough time to take her. She was crushed. Many tears, a tantrum, and 30 minutes later I was finally able to calm her down and get her to bed. Let’s just say it was not my best moment as a dad. 

Letting people down is hard, especially little children. There is something about the joy, anticipation and excitement children express that makes it particularly crushing to disappoint them. That is why I find so much comfort in the third most common theme found in the Bible about yātôm [YA-tome] (the Hebrew word for “the fatherless”). 

Let’s play a game. I will quote a few passages about yātôm from the Bible and you try to guess what today’s theme is. Ready? Okay, here they are:

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. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.  – Deuteronomy 10:17-18

 

But you [the Lord] do see, for you note mischief and vexation, that you may take it into your hands; to you the helpless commits himself; you have been the helper of the fatherless. – Psalm 10:14

 

Sing to God, sing in praise of his name… A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads out the prisoners with singing – Psalm 68:4-6

 

The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow – Psalm 146:9

Were you able to identify the theme running through all four of these passages? All four of these texts – and many others like them – strongly communicate that God himself provides for and defends yātôm. As one article puts it, “the Bible presents God as the special representative of [yātôm], both attending to their cries for help (Exod 22:23) and performing justice on their behalf (Psa 68:6).” (1) God himself is the one who “executes justice for,” helps, sustains and fathers the fatherless. He is the one watching over them, fighting for their well-being and guarding their every step as they walk through life. 

I find profound significance in how this third theme connects with the previous two (if you haven’t already read the previous three blog posts, I recommend you do so). The first theme is a warning from God, “If you mess with my kids, I will mess with you.” The second theme is an invitation from God, “If you bless my kids, I will bless you.” But the third theme is a promise from God, “No matter if people oppress or bless, I will protect and defend the fatherless.” It is a beautiful promise that reveals the deep nature of God’s compassionate heart. God hates watching yātôm suffer, and in time he will bring them justice and provide what they need. 

As a foster dad who also works in child welfare, I find incredible confidence in the doctrine of God’s love for yātôm. It fortifies my work. It gives me strength to keep going. There is so much brokenness in our child welfare system. Children and youth in foster care have seen the worst humanity has to offer, and if their restoration solely rested on my shoulders, I would crumble. That is a weight I simply cannot carry. But if God is at work among the lives of yātôm, if He is the one ultimately providing for and defending these amazing children, then I have the greatest ally anyone could ever hope for. If the ruling, reigning Christ is on the side of children and youth in foster care, that is a team worth joining. That is a task worthy of my labor. 

The doctrine of God’s love for yātôm is far from being an excuse to disengage – instead, it is an invitation to partner with God. The one who says, “well, if God loves yātôm, then I don’t need to,” misunderstands the means by which God cares for the fatherless. Yes, God can and does directly provide for and defend yātôm himself. But even more often He works on the hearts and souls of men and women of faith, calling them to be His hands and feet. God primarily cares for and defends yātôm by animating the church to act on his behalf. We are God’s holy ambassadors, sent out by the father to care for those he loves and protects. God’s people are called to move towards yātôm in the name of Jesus, for the sake of God’s glory (Matt 5:16).

This is certainly the case in my story. Growing up I had no context or understanding of foster care. There is nothing in my nature that desires to care for kids in the foster care system. But as I began to read the Bible, the Holy Spirit filled me with a conviction that God was calling me to be a father to the fatherless. The only reason I said “yes” to being a foster parent is that I had directly encountered the unconditional and sacrificial love of God through Christ. It is because God has placed his love deep inside my heart that I have love to give to the children who enter my home. 

My prayer for all those involved in caring for yātôm is that they would love and lead from a place of confidence knowing that God himself cares for and defends the fatherless. We can rest assured knowing that God himself is the one who sets the lonely in families. Our confidence doesn’t lie in our own ability to save and to heal. It lies with the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It lies with the Great Physician, the ultimate father to the fatherless and defender of the vulnerable. God’s people are free to serve and love and care and give knowing that at the end of the day, it is God who brings the increase (1 Cor 3:7) and it will be God who gets the glory. 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm
Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm
Theme #3: God himself provides for and defends yātôm 

Ryan MacDonald

1 – Blois, I. (2014). Protected Classes. In D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Lexham Press.

 

 

Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 3: You are being lied to (the truth about who is truly blessed)

What does it mean to be blessed? According to Bruno Mars in his hit song 24 Karat Magic, its “Cuban links,” “designer minks,” and “Inglewood’s finest shoes.” It’s having “money in my pocket” and “so many pretty girls around me.” Endless parties, bottomless drinks, beautiful bodies and all the money you could ever want, that’s the blessed life. 

Bruno Mars is not alone in his thinking. If you search #blessed on Instagram, you will find over 141 million posts. And you don’t have to scroll very far to realize that Bruno’s ideology has permeated the thinking of (literally) millions. The top photos are all of sculpted bodies, elaborate vacations and expensive vehicles. The testimony of millions across the world affirms that if you can achieve success on this level, you too can be blessed. 

But how does this ideology line up with what the Bible has to say about who is blessed? And wait a minute! Isn’t this a blog series about the fatherless (in Hebrew, yātôm)? What do Bruno Mars and yātôm have in common? I suggest more than you think. 

In the last blog post, we discovered that the number one use of the word yātôm in the Hebrew Scriptures is that God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm – the basic idea being that God loves yātôm enough to protect them. In light of this, what do you think is the second most common use of the word yātôm? I will give you a hint: it has to do with Bruno Mars. 

Contrary to the ideology of millions, the blessed life is NOT found in wealth and sexual experience. It is found – at least in part – by caring for yātôm. Listen to the promise of Deuteronomy 14:28-29:

At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.”

Israel was instructed to bring a yearly tithe to the central sanctuary. This money was used to support the ongoing work of the Levites. However, “every third year, the tithe was to be stored in the Israelite’s own town or village to provide a charitable fund for the needy, the Levites, the resident aliens, the widows, the orphans.” (1) How beautiful is this?! Every three years God called each local community to replenish a food bank to provide relief and support for the most vulnerable. The heart behind the project being that the poor “shall come and eat and be filled.” I love this simple yet profound threefold vision of caring for the vulnerable: come, eat, be filled. ‘Come’ speaks of invitation, intimacy and relationship. ‘Eat’ speaks of sacrifice, love, attention and care. ‘Be filled’ speaks of connection, joy, support and hope. 

These three words somehow get to the heart of every foster and adoptive parent. Each one who sought out and welcomed children into their home – ‘come.’ Then sacrificed, loved and nourished that child from the inside out – ‘eat.’ All for the sake of seeing them connected, whole, known and hopeful – ‘be filled.’ 

And what is God’s incentive for such work? Why should people disadvantage themselves for the disadvantaged? “That the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” As it turns out, the blessed life is not found in money, fame or exotic experiences. The blessed life is found in obeying the Lord and caring for the marginalized. And the people who do so – as Deuteronomy 26:12-15 teaches –  can pray with full confidence “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel.

God’s blessing is NOTHING like the world’s. The shallow and empty promise of finding happiness in success only leaves you wanting more. God’s blessing is something other-wordly. It is the deep, soul-satisfying joy of being with God in the work He is doing. It is the permanent joy of God’s presence. It is the abiding knowledge that we are loved by God. 

In my own experience as a foster dad, caring for yātôm has been one of the greatest joys of my life. Even this morning, as I opened the door to our nursery, my one year old foster daughter greeted me with a massive smile as she jumped for joy while exuberantly waving her arms in the air. That’s the blessed life. It’s also watching my four year old adopted daughter – by God’s grace! – surpass all expectations for how she would be able to learn, regulate her emotions and connect socially. There is nothing like getting a front row seat to God’s redemptive work in the life of yātôm

I also experience God’s blessing in dark moments. In times of trouble, sorrow and difficulty, God has been my refuge and an ever present help. I am convinced that the blessing of God is felt with particular warmth by those who care for yātôm in the midst of their darkness. God is with yātôm, and his presence is felt by all who obey his command to care for the fatherless.  

Bruno Mars may be a lot of fun to dance to (as I have done many times before!), but he is a terrible guide to a blessed life. Let us reject his lies – and the ideology he stands for – and return to the sacred and honest pursuit of finding our blessings in obedience to God’s commands to care for yātôm. Support friends, Advocates and Foster Families alike will be the first to testify that God indeed will bless those who care for the fatherless. 

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm
Theme #2: God will bring blessing on those who protect and care for yātôm 

Ryan MacDonald

1 – Thompson, J. A. (1974). Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 5, pp. 199–200). InterVarsity Press.

 

Categories
Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 2: I couldn’t believe what I found

When most Bible teachers talk about God’s heart for the fatherless, they all seem to draw from the same few verses (ie. Ps. 68:5-6; James 1:27). But the Bible – especially the Old Testament – is full of passages that disclose God’s heart for the fatherless. This is a problem. It’s like we have been trying to put together a picture of God’s heart for children who need a family but we are only using a few pieces of the puzzle! It’s time we stopped being content with an incomplete puzzle and go looking for the remaining pieces. 

I’m not going to lie, before I started my study on God’s heart for the fatherless (the Hebrew word translated ‘fatherless’ or ‘orphan’ is yātôm [ya-TOME]) I had several assumptions about what I would find. One of those assumptions was that when God talks about the fatherless in Scripture, he does so primarily with soft, warm, empathic language. The picture I had in my mind was flannel-graph Jesus (sorry Gen Z, google ‘flannel-graph Jesus’ if you don’t know what I am referencing) welcoming sweet little children to gather around while he told happy and engaging stories for his time in eternity with the father. Yet when I actually started looking at the 42 passages that talk about yātôm, I couldn’t believe what I found. 

Instead of warm, welcoming language towards children, I found harsh, wrathful language towards those who oppress the fatherless. In fact, the first mention of yātôm in the Old Testament is a strong warning that anyone who mistreats the widow or orphan will experience the curse and wrath of God. 

You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Ex 22:22-24) 

Yikes… Try sewing that on a pillow and selling it at your local Christian book store! Let’s be honest, this seems like a difficult passage to square with the loving and gracious character of God. In Exodus 22 God is threatening to kill those who oppress yātôm. And in a tragic – and somewhat ironic – reversal of judgment, oppression of the widow and orphan results in a widowed spouse and fatherless children. Now that doesn’t seem very loving, does it? What about grace and forgiveness? Surely this verse is a one-of-a-kind outlier! Right? 

The reality is that Exodus 22:22-24 is not some fringe verse that is unsupported by the rest of Scripture. It actually represents the most prominent theme about yātôm in the entire Bible. The most common idea about yātôm in the Bible is that those who oppress the vulnerable will be judged and cursed by God

‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deut 27:19)

Woe to those who… to turn aside the needy from justice… that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?” (Is 10:1-3)

They have become great and rich; they have grown fat and sleek. They know no bounds in deeds of evil; they judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the Lord, and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” (Jer 5:28-29)

These are a few of the many passages in the Bible where God promises to bring judgment and curses on those who oppress yātôm. (1) When it comes to children in need of protection, God is not fooling around

At this point, some of us might be wanting to run back to the warm and soft verses about God setting the lonely in families (which He does!), but I would humbly suggest that if we disregard God’s warning to the oppressor, not only will we have an incomplete picture of God’s heart for yātôm, but oppression against vulnerable children will increase. Maybe, just maybe, if the full picture of God’s wrath against the oppressor was still taught today, fewer children would be abused and neglected by those God tasked to protect them. 

I think there are several things we need to take away from the Bible’s teaching that God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm. Let me briefly give you four. 

  1. God takes mistreatment of yātôm seriously.

For those of us who have been called to teach the Bible or speak on behalf of yātôm, we need to re-examine the tone in which we communicate God’s heart for the fatherless. If we only ever use soft, flowery language, we are misrepresenting God. The primary voice God uses in speaking on behalf of yātôm is not gentle language towards children, but aggressive warnings for those who oppress. 

  1. God will make right injustice towards yātôm.

Those involved in child welfare have seen terrible evils done to children and youth in foster care. Like the prophet Habakkuk, sometimes our hearts cry out to God “Why do the wicked prosper!?” and “why do you allow abusers to harm children?” Though we will never have a fully satisfying answer until we meet God face to face, we can and should take comfort in knowing that God is a righteous judge and he does not let evil go unpunished. All sin done towards children is either dealt with at the cross or paid in full through the judgment of God. 

  1. It is ok to be angry at oppression.

In some circles of Chrsitianity, anger is explicitly (or implicitly) seen as sin. But the Bible teaches that there is a way to be angry without sinning (Eph 4:26). Knowing that God regularly expresses anger towards the oppressor gives us freedom to express our own anger towards the pain foster and adoptive kids have endured. As followers of Jesus, injustice should make us angry! And like Jesus we should do whatever we can to stop oppression against the poor (Matt 21:12-14). Expressing anger – especially through the discipline of lament – can be a powerful tool in processing the suffering that comes with caring for children and youth in foster care. 

  1. We can love (even the oppressor) because God will avenge. 

Romans 12:19 says “beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God”, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Jesus’ radical call for disciples to practice loving their enemies only makes sense because “vengeance is mine… says the Lord.” There is a great temptation to hate or wish evil on those who oppress children (I have certainly felt this before!). But God, the righteous judge, judges with total perfection. This frees us from the need to practice our own imperfect judgment towards the wicked, and instead seek the Spirit’s help to love our enemies. We can rest assured that we serve a God “who will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:7).

So, there you have it. The number one theme in the Bible regarding yātôm is an assurance that God loves vulnerable children enough to bring judgement on those who oppress them. But we still have a long way to go. There are many other pieces of the puzzle we need to collect in order to have a full understanding of God’s heart for yātôm

Theme #1: God will bring judgment on those who oppress yātôm.

Ryan MacDonald

1 – See Ex 22:24; Deut 27:19; Is 10:1-3; Jer 5:27-29; 22:1-5; Zach 7:4-14; Mal 3:1-5

 

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Blog Theology Thursday

Yātôm Week 1: What the Bible Really Says About the Orphan

I grew up with a deep love for the outdoors. From a young age, my dad would take my brother and me camping and backpacking. One year we were gearing up for a 50-mile backpacking trip with several of my friends and their parents in Lassen National forest through the beautiful Cascade Mountains of California. In preparation for the trip, everyone had to read about how and what to pack. Preparation was very important because primitive trails like these have no running water, bathrooms, or trash cans. You had to pack in and pack out everything you needed for the 4-day journey. Mount Lassen was a particularly difficult hike because the trails were covered in sand which made walking even more tiring. Carefully reading about how and what to pack was essential for completing the journey alive and healthy.

For the most part we had all prepared well and were equipped for the hike. That is, all of us except my friend Jason. Because Jason had lots of experience camping, he only skimmed the material that told him what to pack – but packing for camping and packing for a hike are completely different. Only a half-day into our wilderness journey, we noticed that Jason kept falling behind, so we stopped to see how he was doing. Jason told us that he felt exhausted and that his back was really hurting. We were all surprised by this, because Jason was in great shape! We decided to divide some of the items in his pack to help lighten his load, but when we opened his backpack, we couldn’t believe what we found. Jason had packed multiple non-essential items that were making his pack exceedingly heavy, including several cans of food, a large bottle of hair spray and – wait for it – a blow dryer! After we recovered from the shock of how poorly Jason had packed, we ate all the canned food, distributed some of Jason’s items among the other hikers and went on our way.  

I believe there are many ‘Jason’s’ among those seeking to advocate for children in foster care. There are many people who set out on the journey of foster care having read only part of the manual. Like Jason, they have made assumptions about what the Bible says about the fatherless and these assumptions have left well-intentioned travelers exhausted or unable to complete the journey. Advocating for children in foster care – like hiking the Cascade Mountains – is a beautiful yet changeling journey, and one that we must be diligent to prepare for. 

Pastor Rick Warren helps us unpack why seeing the Bible as a manual for life is so important. He says, 

life can be dangerous, so it’s essential that you use the right equipment. One of those pieces of equipment is the Bible. It’s like God’s owner’s manual for your life. Like any good owner’s manual, the Bible gives you instructions and you can consult it when you need help. (1)

The path of life can be dangerous and the Bible helps us find our way. It is a life manual, full of wisdom. It contains the teachings necessary to prepare us for the journey of foster care.  

The problem is that when people refer to the ‘manual’ about God’s heart for the fatherless, they often only point to one or two verses in the Bible. Be honest – how many times have you heard or read content about foster care or adoption that references either James’ call for “true religion” or the Psalmist reminder that “God sets the lonely in families?” Both passages are certainly important for helping us know how and what to pack for the journey of foster care, but is that really all the Bible has to say about the fatherless? Are these two passages really enough to understand God’s heart for vulnerable children? And most importantly, are they adequately preparing us for what’s ahead? Because unless we truly understand what to pack, we will not have the necessary supplies to finish the journey – let alone finish in a place of health. 

Part of the problem is that most people have neglected the Old Testament – the place where the vast majority of references to the fatherless are found. In fact, James 1:27 is the only place in the New Testament that orphans are explicitly mentioned. When we compare this one reference to the 42 mentions of the orphan in the Old Testament it becomes clear that the vast majority of the Bible’s teaching comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. 42 times in the Old Testament God reveals his heart towards children who do not have a home. 42 times God provides the insight and perspective we need to care for these amazing children. If we have any hope of truly understanding God’s heart for vulnerable children we can no longer neglect the truth these passages have to offer. 

I mean, can you imagine trying to do a 42 piece puzzle with only one or two pieces!? How frustrating!? How incomplete!? Yet I am proposing this is exactly what we do when we neglect the majority of God’s thoughts about vulnerable children. It’s time we stopped being content with one or two pieces of the puzzle. It’s time we go looking for the rest of the pieces so we can see the beautiful picture of God’s heart for the fatherless. 

So for the next few weeks we will open the manual and start gathering the missing pieces of the puzzle in hopes that we better prepare ourselves for the journey. But before we start, it would be helpful to understand a bit about the trail ahead. 

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew. Anytime you study the Old Testament, you should do a bit of research to discover what key Hebrew words are used and what insight those words offer regarding your topic. Most English translations use the words ‘fatherless’ and ‘orphan’ to describe children who need a home. But when we look at the Hebrew we learn that both English words are translated from the single Hebrew word yātôm [ya-TOME]. As I have mentioned already, yātôm is a common word occurring 42 times in the Old Testament. What is interesting – and very insightful – about the word yātôm is that it is constructed around the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to be lonely.’ One would expect the word to mean something like ‘to be without parents.’ Yet in the Hebrew mind, to be an orphan, is to be lonely

I believe this small insight offers profound wisdom to help us navigate the needs of adoptive children and kids in foster care. There is a cold isolation and loneliness that many children in foster care experience. Even once children find an adoptive home the experience and trauma of being removed from your birth family never completely goes away.

I was talking with a mom just the other day who was sharing how her teenage adopted daughter told her how isolating it was to be the only adoptee among her peers. This experience left her feeling like she was the only one who didn’t belong in the group.  Another adoptive mom shared how after her 4 year old daughter’s birth mom’s parental rights were terminated she sat in her lap crying out “mommy, mommy!” Even though this precious little girl was actively being held by her forever mom, somewhere deep down inside, she felt alone. 

I don’t cite such examples to be fatilist or hopeless. As one of the most quoted passages about yātôm says, we serve a God who is “a father to the fatherless.” A “God [who] sets the lonely in families.” (2) I mentioned these stories to highlight the brilliance of Hebrew wisdom. The very word yātôm gives us deep insight and direction on how we can best love children without a family – to be present with them in their loneliness. Once we correctly understand the word, yātôm becomes a safeguard against thinking there is an easy answer to meeting the needs of adoptive children and kids in foster care. It teaches us that yātôm’s very experience has been marked by loneliness and what they need most is for us to be with them. God calls his people to be the embodied presence of Christ – a presence that stands with yātôm through their best and worst days. 

Over the next few weeks we will be diving into the Old Testament scriptures to learn what the Bible actually says about yātôm. Each Thursday we will post a new blog that unpacks a new aspect of God’s heart for the fatherless. My hope and prayer is that by the end of our time together we will all be a little more equipped for the journey. And by God’s grace, more of us will not only make it to the end of the trail, but when we arrive at our destination, we will be healthy.  

Ryan MacDonald

1 – https://pastorrick.com/the-bible-gods-owners-manual-for-life/
2 –  Psalm 68:5-6

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Blog

What Does Love Require of Me?

June is National Reunification Month, and it is no coincidence that we are reunifying our sweet baby love with family this month. In the past 6 years, we have said “yes” to 12 children, and 11 of them have reunified with their parents or have moved into kinship care with family. When I think of the beginning of our family’s journey to where we are now, I can pinpoint the various moments when we chose to lay our desires, expectations and dreams at Jesus’ feet…when we chose to “get out of the way”, so to speak, so families could be made whole and children could remain with their families of origin.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Loving a child with everything in you…with your entire soul, body & mind and then watching them literally walk out of your life, majority of which we never see or hear from again, is incredibly heartbreaking. 12 goodbyes means that my heart is fractured in ways that will never be made whole this side of heaven. 12 goodbyes means there are moments that trigger memories from seasons of our life that bring a wave of immense joy and immense grief at the exact same time. And…yet…

Jesus laid down his life for mine. Jesus cried out to his Father, begging for another way. Jesus lavishly loved and gave and sacrificed knowing there was nothing that could be returned…knowing his heart, mind, body, and soul would also not receive the wholeness and redemption this side of heaven. When I think of championing reunification, it means I ask myself “What does loving this person at this moment mean? How can I bring a small glimpse of heaven down to them in this interaction? How can I use the love that is poured out onto me and lavish them with that love? How can I align my heart with the Father’s heart for families to be reconciled?”

I heard a question a few years ago that has become the foundation of our fostering journey: “What does love require of me today?” Not just the easy kind of love….not the kind where you only show up for the people who can reciprocate that love…but the Jesus, lay-down-your-life, expect-nothing-in-return, kind of love.

What does love require?

It means waving and smiling to bio dad from my car every visit for 18 months because I was not allowed to have contact with him. Loving him meant making sure he did not feel like the enemy…that even though he would never be able to hear my voice, he would know that he was seen.

What does love require?

It means making newborn footprints into a Christmas tree card framed side-by-side with a photo of baby smiling. It means wrapping that framed gift, tying it with a bow and a note of genuine affection and encouragement for a momma navigating the darkest season of her life.

What does love require?

It means hugging a mother during a Family Meeting as she sobs uncontrollably at the thought of losing her babies. It means holding her face in your hands and looking into her eyes and to tell her to keep fighting…that you will be there for as much of her journey as possible, and that her babies are safe in your care while she works tirelessly to find wholeness and healing so she could bring them home.

What does love require?

It means looking into the eyes of the little girl you’ve known all her life…that you love so deeply that you don’t even know where she ends and you begin….and come to the realization that loving her means you will need to say your hardest goodbye so she can live the rest of her life in the next city over with her siblings. It means actually fighting for that move to happen because, although it’ll break your heart, you know being with her siblings in kinship care is the best place for her.

What does love require?

It means putting on the necklace mom gave to her baby every visit so her beliefs and hopes are seen and respected. It means dressing that toddler for this week’s visit with the outfit mom gave you at last week’s visit. It means advocating for more visits because it is in the best interest of the child and parent to bond. It means texting mom after court and rejoicing with her after a long awaited ruling. It means praying for the mom or dad you will never have the chance to meet, but are loving their child for this season. It means smiling, showing up, adjusting your schedule, expecting the unexpected, looking someone in the eye…Love requires seeing the person in front of you for who they really are, not the choices they have made or the trauma they have endured, or the judgements that have been made of them. Every person I have met in this system over the past 6 years needs someone to see them and have deep compassion.

Choosing to step into this broken world of foster care means we are choosing to champion reunification…it means we are faithfully following the Father as he leads us on a messy, complicated, heartbreaking path toward what we hope and pray is healing and wholeness. It means that we step into every encounter and ask ourselves “what does love require of me in this moment?” 

Christina B.

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Blog

Our Journey to “Yes”

I remember learning in high school that there were so many children who were given up and needed families – either because their mother was too young or unable to care for them, their family was poor and had no way to support them or they were simply unwanted.  I came to the conclusion that if I were to have a family, I wanted to care for someone who is already here and needed a loving family.

My husband and I met at our church’s Young Adult group.  He had been adopted when he was 15 months old.  As we discussed marriage, he also did not have a desire to birth our own children.  We married in our late 20’s and were very busy with our careers.  He had his own business and I worked for a large corporation.  Time went by quickly.

About ten years ago, we started taking steps to share the blessings God had provided us with those children and youth who needed families and homes.  We had an extra bedroom, means, and love to share.  We heard about a group at another church which was exploring how churches could support homeless/foster youths who were graduating from high school.  The staff from the Mount Diablo School District, who worked with this population, was invited to come to our meeting to share information and help us with our goal.

After that meeting, we met with Mount Diablo School District Staff, another couple, and two foster youth to discuss more about how we might help those who were graduating and needed homes.  That year, everyone was placed.  One year later, we got a call from the Mount Diablo Staff that they had three siblings who had been living in their car with their Dad.  Their Dad had died suddenly and they needed a home.  We moved the two girls into our extra room, and my husband made part of our family room into a bedroom for the boy.  These were good kids that through no fault of their own, needed a loving family.  We helped the oldest girl through Vet Tech school, and were blessed to celebrate the youngest’s sixteenth birthday in our home.  That was our first experience with foster care.

Over the years, another sister in Christ and I used to talk about our mutual interest in foster care and our heart for these vulnerable children.  Through a Christian business group called Barnabas, we heard about a wonderful organization called Foster the City.  We learned that in Contra Costa County there are about 1000 children in foster care, and roughly 30 percent of them need to be placed out of county due to lack of available homes.  We were inspired by Foster the City’s dream to have a waiting list of families, rather than a waiting list of children.

We quickly decided to become advocates for this cause and our church leadership approved for us to become a FTC partner church.  When we became a partner church, we were not aware of any families in our church with foster children.  In less than a year, we had four families in various stages of becoming or considering becoming foster parents, and one family with a placement.  We also trained 8 support friends.  This was truly exciting to see God moving in our church!

That one family with a placement was us.  I had already retired from my corporate position and my husband had finished building our new house.  We had even more room to share, and time to give!  We went through the Resource Parent training, and requested a youth in the 16-21 category.  We knew that could be a difficult, yet rewarding time of life.  We trusted God to lead and protect us all.

Shortly after we were certified, we got a call that they had a 15-year old youth who needed placement.  We met with him, his current care giver, and the Social Workers at a park just to see how we clicked (or not).  He has been part of our family now for over seven months. He is an amazing kid and we have been so blessed.  He plays sports and wants to go to college.  It has been a challenge learning how to relate, discipline, and care for a youth we have not raised from birth.  We have had to work on becoming a family, learn how to develop and enforce expectations, share our values and our faith, and ensure we were always loving, respectful, and approachable.  Our support friends are a God-send.  They pray for us, supply meals twice a month and really help lighten the load.  It is a great model.

In our retirement years, there are many ways we could spend our time and money, but none more worthy and rewarding than pouring our lives into caring for the vulnerable and orphaned. We may not be able to change the world for everyone, but we are changing the world for this someone.

1 Cor. 15:58  Be strong and immovable.  Always work enthusiastically for the Lord. For you know that anything you do for the Lord is never useless.

Jan Gordon

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Blog

Build the Bed

IKEA holds a unique spot in my heart. It has never failed to offer me a furniture or home goods solution that both met my needs and fit my budget. In fact, I think IKEA could provide a unique framework for pre-marital counseling. The betrothed couple could be required to plan, design, furnish, and decorate their new shared bedroom solely with products from IKEA. Counseling sessions would be structured throughout the process, and the couple would have a chance to practice everything from budgeting to compromise to forgiveness. (Lots and lots of forgiveness if my marriage’s history with IKEA is any indication.)

Now that I’m a foster parent, IKEA is practically my fifth Support Friend. Need a bed? IKEA’s got it. Need another set of sheets? IKEA’s got them. Need a fluffy, soft stuffed animal? IKEA’s even got those!

I promise this isn’t an advertisement for IKEA. The store is simply on my mind, because I just finished building another bed in our home.

A few days ago, we got a call we didn’t expect – a young man that we care about had been placed in foster care. He’s outside of our expected age range, and, even though we had space in our home, we didn’t have a proper bed. Without hesitation, I donned a face mask and drove to Palo Alto.

I walked through that massive warehouse and prayed for this young man. He was no longer a nameless, faceless foster youth. He wasn’t an ambiguous anecdote or a harrowing statistic. He was a teenager who appears in my Google photos. He was a young man that I’ve known for more than a year. He was a boy sitting in a “welcome center” waiting for a family to say, “Welcome home.”

Over the past several years, we’ve received placement calls for every age range: newborn, toddler, preschooler, elementary student, pre-teen, and now, teenager.

Every time we’ve accepted a placement in a new age range, I’ve built a new bed: cribs, toddler beds, twin beds, bunk beds, and now, a sturdy bed for a boy who is becoming a man.

I haven’t yet discovered how to cure the ills that make foster care necessary, but I have figured out how to read IKEA instructions.

So as long as a child needs a safe place to lay their head, I will continue to build the bed.

“Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

God, give us the courage to build the beds. Instill in us a holy spirit of hospitality. Create in our homes safe spaces for children to heal and grow. Create in our communities safe spaces for families to recover and reunify. Give us the ability to bear one another’s burdens and offer each other rest. Give us the humility to rely solely on you in these efforts and to give you all the glory for the results. Amen.

Erin O’Roarke

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Blog

Beauty for Ashes

Isaiah 61:3 “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes”

October is a harvest month where all roads lead to falling leaves, pumpkin carving and candy. However, it  means something different to the people of my community in Sonoma County. Just two years ago we were faced with devastation beyond belief that impacted every human being within our borders. The Tubbs, Atlas, and Nuns fires swept threw our communities leaving a wake of devastation both physical and emotional.  We have been slowly picking up the pieces ever since. Now, in the wake of the Kincade Fire, those pieces were dropped, and we are currently living in a smoky haze of déjà vu. We are experiencing this trauma all over again.

Yesterday, I packed up my kids with our important belongings and drove south to cleaner air and safer outcomes. Our home is just two blocks from the evacuation zone and the winds were projected to head our way. We were evacuated by police sirens and bullhorns in the 2017 fires. We returned after days of being displaced to the blessing of our home still standing. Others were not so lucky.

The tragedy of fire affects so many categories of life.  We could spend pages discussing the hardships, but what I am acutely aware of is how fires affect families. Families that are strong, and families that are fragile – fire does not discriminate. Post 2017 we stood beside some of  those families. Those who were bogged down in fear. Mothers unable to reassure their kids because they had no assurance of their own. Fathers angry at themselves for the things they should have and could have done due to an unfair retrospective mindset. In this breakdown, our county saw more foster kids enter the system. This tragedy shook the foundation of families and made the need that much greater to come alongside them, ready to love on those that are hurting.

I am new to the amazing team of Foster The City. Up until this point, my connection to children in foster care has been as a volunteer CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).  My church, Refuge Christian Fellowship in Santa Rosa, has been actively seeking a way to meet this deficit in the foster system. This deep desire has been multifaceted and been gaining speed for a few years now. We are excited to partner with Foster The City and co-labor for this calling. In my personal journey,  I felt the Lord lead me to become a CASA volunteer. I have been placed with a sibling group for over a year and have heard the whispers of God in each step of the process. In one of our first meetings when the topic of their mother came up, both kids expressed that she had always had a drug and alcohol problem but it GREATLY intensified after the 2017 fires. Just two months after the fires she lost her children due to her substance abuse. This is just one story….of many. Unfortunately, this story has the potential to rewrite itself in varying forms in the months to come for so many other children.

Foster The City has just launched in the North Bay – and it couldn’t be at a more appointed time. Our community, that has not fully healed from our previous trauma, has just had their wounds and scars reopened; exposed with much pain. Families will fall apart, in desperate need.  Fears and worries must be answered with love and faithfulness. God wants to bestow on his people a crown of beauty amongst new and old ashes. Lord knows we need it. We have seen physical restoration in regions of our town – we will see it again. We also long for restoration in the depths of our hearts and souls and in the lives of the families affected to their very core. It is a promise from God that we will cling to and take part in!

Foster The City’s motto, “a church for every child”, has been a vision and also a prayer for bay area children since its start.  It brings me such joy to know it was a prayer for our North Bay children as well; a cry for healing for those whose needs have escalated in our crisis. These prayers have been echoed before, during, and now in the wake of our devastation. The need for restoration and help is real and we get to be apart of God’s promise, his hands. Lord, we are willing!

Deana T.