Father Ron meant well. He would never have intentionally excluded some children from his sermon. It was Wednesday mass, and the congregation was primarily children--kindergartners through eighth-graders--with a sprinkling of teachers, administrators and parents. The text was Colossians 1:15: Christ is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation." Father Ron developed his theme: Children look like their parents; Jesus as God's Son reveals what God is like. He gave examples, picking out children: "You look just like your mother. You have her eyes, her nose, her dimple." Or: "You are an athlete just like your Uncle Sam. You have his genes." The point was profoundly simple: We know what God is like by looking at Jesus.

The comparison was not lost on the two third-grade girls seated directly in front of me. Both were dark-skinned, one from India and one from Southeast Asia. Both had Caucasian parents.

Two-thirds of the way through his sermon, Father Ron realized his miscalculation. He then acknowledged that there were those in the church who were adopted into families, and he asked them to raise their hands. Now the children were confronted with a choice: either hide their identity from the Catholic priest, or reveal an aspect of themselves that some children consider personal or private. Hands went up at half-mast.

Having witnessed this scene, I can well believe German sociologist Christine Swientek's account of another well-intentioned pastor's ineptness. At confirmation class, this pastor spoke about being "children of God" and looked for an example to illustrate this special relationship between father and children. He focused on a boy named Hannes, and said in front of 35 snickering and giggling adolescents: "You should try to imagine what it is like to be Hannes at home--his parents are not his birth parents. Hannes's parents are his adoptive parents who took him and raised him. They do not love him any less." Hannes was dumbfounded. He did not have the slightest idea that he was adopted. He stood up, went outside, and then ran away. He was first found three months later in juvenile detention for stealing food from a supermarket.

These stories indicate how the church has failed to be sensitive to the reality of adoption and failed to recognize adoption is a paradigm for the church--a "family of faith" made up of people who are not biologically related. When Father Ron thought of "family," he thought only of the biological family--unwittingly relegating other kinds of families to a second-class status. The church has often followed society in idealizing and even idolizing the genetically linked family. The scriptures themselves bear evidence of a male preoccupation with his blood lineage.

There is another image of inclusion in the Bible: the image of adoption. The invitation and inclusion of gentiles into the family of God occurs by adoption through Christ, the firstborn. Yet many communities of faith exhibit an unconscious aversion and defensive reaction to the notion of adoption. Adoption is unconsciously seen as an aberration from the norm of the biological family.

Adoption in the New Testament is the central biblical image for entrance into the family of faith. From a New Testament perspective, adoption is the paradigm for all who come into the family of Christ through God's adoption. This perspective has ramifications for the counseling ministry of the church, for sermons and Christian education and for the life of Christians in communities of faith.

Sam and his wife, Peggy, tried for years to become pregnant. After infertility workups, which Sam called "agonizing" and "humiliating," they decided to adopt a child from another country.

Sam and Peggy stayed in Peru for ten weeks, a period they describe as emotionally chaotic. Their story involves delay after delay, complications with exit visas and birth certificates, additional expenses, closed doors. Pushing past Peruvian guards to knock on closed embassy offices, Sam recalled the story in the New Testament of a persistent woman going before a judge. He pleaded and begged. During the waiting in Peru, Sam experienced in a profound way a reality he had often preached about: reliance on the sovereignty of God.

When Sam and Peggy at last had an adopted son, the moment of the child's baptism arrived. As part of the service, the parents were asked to affirm that the child was not theirs but God's. After all that he had been through, Sam wanted to shout: "This kid is mine." At the same time, said Sam, "It was the most freeing experience I've ever had to realize there's a God that doesn't desire for this little kid's hairs to be harmed, whose arms are so much sturdier than [my] shaky arms." Adoptive parents have a keen awareness that children belong to God, not to their parents.

"Womb-love" (rahum) is synonymous in the Old Testament with the mercy and compassion of God, according to scholar Phyllis Trible. Womb-love as expressed by God is not biologically based. Womb-love, that yearning from the very center of being, describes the tenacious compassion in God's desire and mercy. That yearning is there in Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she searches for her lost 12-year-old, and it is there when her heart is pierced at the foot of the cross. It is there with the widow of Nain pleading for her child. It is there as King David weeps for his son Absalom.

When adoptive parents recount their emotions, their struggles, their worries and their faith, the clear theme emerges of receiving a child as a gift from God. Whereas the biological connection identifies birth parents as the agents of creating, or those sowing the seed, the adoptive connection is dependent on external agency. There is a higher source than flesh and natural conception.

Statistics show that adopted children face special challenges. Many deal with concern over abandonment, and they face crises over identity and intimacy. Adopted children have an above-average rate of seeking therapy. Four to 5 percent of adopted children are referred to outpatient mental health facilities. Ten to 15 percent are referred to residential care facilities. Adopted children have higher rates of delinquent behavior, learning disorders, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than their nonadopted peers. Drug abuse is prevalent. Adoptive parents usually know these realities. Thus, for adopting parents, the joy of receiving a child into the home is a preamble to facing the crises of child development.

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