Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (Psalm 139:23, 24).
The telephone rang at 2:00 a.m. “This is the police department. We’ve picked up a mother and three children. The kids are in pretty bad shape.”
Once again, I forced myself out of bed, picked up my well-worn list of foster families, and started calling. My goal: to find a family who could provide a safe, nurturing environment, as well as keep the children together. Although on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, I was thankful I could return to bed once I found that placement. The foster family’s work had just begun.
In almost thirty years as a social worker, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or severe neglect colored my world. Drug abuse, mental illness, economic pressures, lack of support systems — a never-ending stream of dysfunction filled every day. Anger burned as I viewed bruises, burns, broken bones . . . a horrific mix of unimaginable scars inflicted by out-of-control adults. Sorrow followed as many children learned the defense “I’m gonna hurt you before you hurt me.” Their behavior spoke more loudly than words. Without intervention, they could easily follow their abusive parents’ pattern.
I worked for a government agency. Nevertheless, that agency, along with nationally recognized trainers, shared in great detail and with eye-opening examples the biblical truth that in order to give love, we must first receive it. I daresay many of those specialists would have been shocked to realize how consistently their words matched those of Paul’s: “receive one another, just as Christ also received us” (Romans 15:7).
A frequently used expression that matched those words: “We must parent the parents.” Many of the adults in my caseload had never experienced genuine love and acceptance. They didn’t know how to appropriately care for a child. Someone had to teach them. Words alone could not do the job. They had to see it and live it for themselves.
Yet I often faced the temptation to go through the motions without genuine love and respect. Like onions, these families covered their brokenness with layer upon layer of defensiveness. Finding a core of neediness under all that attitude demanded staggering amounts of patience and effort. Labeled as hopeless cases by more professionals than they could count, many had accepted that label and given up on themselves as well.
I wish I could say I consistently saw the potential God gave, or loved as God loves. In reality, I’m also a work in progress. But I did learn that when I allowed God to love through me — to change me — I increased the likelihood of lasting change in both parents and children. My training about the power of pain, illness, addiction, and negative thought and behavior patterns was never enough. I had to acknowledge everyone’s inclination, including my own, to hurt others. By confessing my brokenness, I could more effectively minister to theirs.
Only when we acknowledge our personal imperfections can we point others to God’s love, which heals the brokenness in us all.
My prayer, then as now: O God, work through me, love through me, heal through me.