Don’t Force The Duck: 16 Years After Adoption Day

A mom and dad awaiting baby on adoption day.
Before: Adoption Day Wait At O’Hare Airport

There are good reasons people choose not to adopt. I heard a lot of them. But this week, we celebrate adoption day.

Don’t Force The Duck

Think he’ll like the duck? I wondered aloud.

No idea. We’d never done this before. Jim was as clueless as I.

But I had followed the agency directions and all the pick-up-your-baby rules. The Britax car seat was firmly strapped in the back seat and the paperwork was in hand. Bottle, formula, blanket—check, check, check. My sister met us at O’Hare with the orange-beaked, yellow fella to mark adoption day.

The experts said it would be best to let him wear the clothes he was in and use the bottles they sent and slowly ease American formula into a blend with Korean. They said all the new sights and sounds and smells would be jarring to this six-month young sensory system. They said, Ease in.

No. I wouldn’t force the duck.

They Broke Her Heart

But let me back up. Before we met A#1 at the airport, we heard lots of reasons why we shouldn’t adopt.

The one I remember best came two summers before adoption day. My husband and a good friend, Jo, sat around me on the cafe veranda. I’m not sure how we landed on the topic of adoption. But suddenly here we were.

My friend Caroline’s adopted children both went bad. They rebelled in their teens and never did seem to accept her and Tom as their parents. They broke her heart. Even though they were treated like their own flesh and blood children, it just didn’t work out.

I’m not Pollyanna now and I wasn’t then. Nor were all my hopes of happiness hitched to the adoption cart. All the sessions with our adoption social worker guaranteed some measure of realism. Still, this was a bitter pill.

It happened to my college roommate Pat too. Her adopted son John never seemed to bond, even though he was with her from day one. He said vile things to them, left home at 18 and never came back. Pat said he’s only called a handful of times in all the years since. And then, only to ask for money.

Sobering isn’t strong enough to describe the effect of her words.

No, adoption just doesn’t seem to work out.

No Illusions Of Adoption Grandeur

That bubble-bursting conversation wasn’t the only one. We can’t say we weren’t warned. Our social worker, our friends, and our own knowledge of adoptions gone sour insured we were under no illusions of adoption grandeur.

But no illusions does not mean no hope. Not living life like I wrote it frees me to take part in a far grander story. The hard and heartache in this chapter does not mean adoption wasn’t part of God’s plan for our family.

Still, a grand story with a hope and a plan don’t make living it easy. A#1 tests my mettle and I test his. This National Adoption Month, I admit, it’s been harder than I ever imagined.

Mom and dad with baby on adoption day
After: First Day as a Family of Three

Make No Mistake

Do heartache and pain mean we made a mistake? Do conflict and strife mean we misread God? Does trying and hard mean we’d all be better off if we’d chosen not to adopt?

Absolutely not.

Because adoption is forcing us to trust, causing us to hope and teaching us to love. And last I knew, those three were the only lasting things: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

This is the adoption month message that came.

But it’s not just for those directly impacted by adoption. It’s for all of us who second guess decisions made in good faith whose results are far harder than we imagined. Maybe it was a decision to get married, to bear children or to remain a faithful friend. The message is for all of us who, for Christ’s sake, love right on.

For us sinful, disobedient people who keep on loving and, as we do, come to know and love our Father better. Our heavenly Father had a chosen, child named Israel who spurned him. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the hand, but they never knew that I healed them (Hosea 11:3). And, All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people (Romans 10:21). To love this way, those who do not repay, is the love that God rewards (Matthew 5:46).

So my adoption month message for us is a question:

Could it be that the love you give with no earthly return

is the most godlike thing you will ever do?

Don’t Force. Trust.

I didn’t force the duck on November 2, 2005. And 16 years later, on November 2, 2021, I didn’t force a hug.

I can’t force golf, chess, or good friends and I can’t force dental floss, haircuts or good books. I can’t even force the veg. Once I was a royal tastemaker, but now I’m a short order quesadilla chef.

In all these things, I must trust that my God will meet all of this son’s needs without me pushing my way. In other words, this adoption, this son, and this God—his way is perfect—are forcing my force-it, control issues.

Could it be that one big reason God formed our family is so that that I’d quit thinking I can force my way? So that I’d trust that the perfect Father—whose own children resist and rebel, who spurn his love and break his rules—is completely able to lay hold of a heart?

A#1 wasn’t much of a snuggly, stuffed animal guy. But this beloved son is fond of the duck. Sixteen years after we met our stoic, six month-old A#1 at the airport, I snuck into his room to take a picture of Duck

I didn’t force the duck and the duck stuck.

Don’t force the duck has become my reminder to trust. The duck is my reminder that God can lay hold of hearts without me.

I know this adoption story isn’t over.

Stuffed animal yellow given on adoption day
“The Duck” 16 Years Later

Afterward: Two Quotes from Two Articles About the Good and Hard of Adoption

  1. There is no such thing in God’s economy as an “adopted child,” only a child who was adopted into the family. “Adopted” defines how you came into the household, but it doesn’t define you as some other sort of family member. In the Book of Romans, Paul defines all Christians, both Jew and Gentile, as having received a common “spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15; 9:4). -Russell Moore, Adopted For Life, Ten Years Later
  2. Some adoptions cause quite a bit of pain and grief in the lives of moms, dads, sisters, brothers, and other relatives. But just because there’s conflict, it doesn’t mean that the adoption wasn’t meant to be…God uses all things, especially conflict and struggle, to work together.. and bring about a good “end.” -Mark Gregston, Pitfalls Of Adoption

Discountenanced: When God Hides His Face

Angry boy facing away discountenance

We didn’t know what discountenanced really meant until Bilbo started his smuggle in Smaug’s lair and Gabe bawled, I’m not listening.

Then he plugged his ears and shouted, I can’t hear you.

But he could.

We can’t hear, Bud. If you don’t obey and quiet down, you will be punished.

He did not and he would not. So I did what I had to do. I sent Gabe from my presence. I turned my face away.

Gabe, go out in the hall. You may listen there. Come back when you will listen.

He balked. Instead of heading to bed, he clapped hands over his ears, and wailed louder.

Go. A. Way. Get out of my sight. You may come back when you are quiet.

Then I waited for him to return. How I waited for him to return.  

A Most Grueling Parental Duty

You have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Isaiah 64:10

A lego man with face turned away from another lego man.

It had held every promise of a perfect night. 

Apart all day, we four were back together at night. We feasted on our favorites: beef fajitas topped with home-made salsa and vanilla bean crowned with Magic-shell. Then Chinese checkers and baths for the boys before we all snuggled in for a first-rate family film.  

Gabe was in a very good place. The boundary lines had fallen for him in pleasant places. It began a night of delight.

But the DVD stopped and bedtime came and Gabe pushed the boundaries. He was bent on hearing his bedtime story— THE HOBBIT—on the couch. I agreed to that. But when finally bedtime came, he stomped and stormed and plopped himself down defiant. He turned his back on me bawling like a little man banshee. 

That’s when the night turned ugly. But the next hour included a most-grueling parental duty. 

Your Sins Have Hidden His Face

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you… Isaiah 59:2

Some wise Christians won’t use the word punishment when they discipline their kids. I do. Not often, and I wish never. But in this fleeting season, sometimes I do punish. By punish, I do mean that bit of discipline that is intended to inflict a penalty for an offense. 

I don’t mean paying them back or giving them what they deserve. That work is entirely God’s. And thanks be, He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10). 

But our merciful, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness Lord does discipline his children. He lets our sins separate us. The perfect Father found it necessary to punish his hard-hearted children. God turned his face from his people (Ezekiel 14:8, Leviticus 20:3-5, Jeremiah 21:5). He did not approve. He could not approve.

So when our children turn away, rebel and refuse to obey, we cannot approve. We cannot countenance, we cannot look on or look past defiant, hands-pressed-over ears rebellion.

So we discountenance. We turn our faces away.

Defining Discountenance

“In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:8

The Westminster Catechism (1648) uses the word discountenance to describe the “Duties Required of Superiors towards their Inferiors” (Q. 129). Scripture seems to reserve the punishing job for parents and for civil authorities. It is not our job to punish a spouse or friend—or an enemy. It is for us to do good, love mercy, and walk humbly and with truth in love. These are our appointed tasks. 

But for our children, punishment may be right. Two centuries after the catechism, J.C. Ryle listed punishment as one of The Duties Of Parents:

Fathers and mothers, I tell you plainly, if you never punish your children when they are in fault, you are doing them a grievous wrong…Reader, if you would train your children wisely, mark well how God the Father trains His. For He does all things well. 

But it is so hard. Done right, discipline truly hurts me more that it hurts you. But it is a work to which all loving parents are called (Hebrews 12:6, Proverbs 23:13-14). And it is a purposeful pain maturing saints are called to bear (Lamentations 3:22-30, James 1:2-4). 

So we pray that after the hard work, and all discipline- from correcting to training to punishing- is hard work, it will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness

He Longs To Be Gracious

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:31-33

There is such grace in God’s face. It was there for the woman caught in adultery when Jesus stood up and looked at her, and for the rich young man and the Gadarene who was Legion. 

But when hearts are diamond-hard, our ears are plugged, and we sinfully walk away, our lovingly jealous Lord doesn’t shove up our chin and force us to face him. He waits, but He won’t approve. He longs, but He won’t condone. God yearns for our return, but he might look away until we turn to him.

  • The LORD waits, He longs to be gracious to you, to show mercy. In repentance and rest is salvation, he said. But you were unwilling (Isaiah 30: 18, 15, see also Isaiah 8:17 and 54:8). 
  • Return to me, your fountain of living water and I will heal you. But my people have forgotten me, forsaken me, so I will show them my back, not my face (Jeremiah 18:15, 17).
  • My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. But, when I would heal Israel, the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed (Hosea 7:1). 

While we sit and bawl in the hall, he may let us feel the shame and disgrace we deserve. Being discountenanced is bitter. Divine disapproval of our defiant disobedience smarts. Therefore repent and return, Peter preached, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

The Grace In His Shining Face

The LORD bless you and keep you, the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The LORD lift up his countenance to you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

But then we remember the bitterness and the gall, and the pain of being separated from His shining face drives us back to its light. Then we confess our sin and he covers it. And the moment he does, we cry with Micah, Who is a God like you, pardoning sin and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love (7:18). 

But that covering and passing over comes at high cost. It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10). We considered that Son smitten, stricken, afflicted by his Father. But he bore our punishment. Like disobedient sheep, we’d strayed. We didn’t heed his voice. But now we’ve returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). 

Maybe it was for sheer fatigue or for want of blanket and brown Bear-bear, or maybe he was contrite to the core. Maybe the little banshee boy simply came to his senses and realized he’d be better off beside brother in bed. Or maybe it just sounded cozier to hear how Smaug was taken down while mom rubbed his back than to rage alone at the far end of the hall.

Whatever the reason, Gabe obeyed and lay down his sweaty little head.

Then you better believe I turned my shining face to him.

“Sorry for plugging my ears. And interrupting and being a crybaby.
Sorry for grumbling when you told me no.
Will you please forgive me?”

(But of course, my child.)

Dad Made It Easy

We Are Our Father’s Daughters

Dad has three daughters. That’s us at a surname bakery in Kilrush, County Clare.

Mom and dad took us to Ireland two Junes ago and in a week we all were smitten. We’ve since lost the lingo and forgotten what towns we toured, but Erin’s feeling lingers. Someone said, People will forget what you say, and they’ll forget what you doBut they’ll remember how you made them feel. 

As I sat down to throw a few Father’s Day memories together, my sisters conference called. Then I mentioned about Dad and they gushed.

They gushed, I think, because it’s so easy to remember how our Dad’s love makes us feel.

Faith Working Out In Love

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love. Galatians 5:6

Let us not love in word or tongue, but in deed and in truth. 1 John 3:18
Maybe the reason we remember is that Dad lives and breathes Galatians 5:6. Without love, we’re nothing and Dad’s faith works its way out in love. We all remember how love feels.

Like when he’d let one of us sleep in on Monday mornings until the last second and then he’s wake her and drive her the two hours to college. She’d grab the special Dad-made latte with just his right touch of honey. And she’d sip her grogginess away while Dad drove the miles back up to UW. 
When one of us bounced a check in college, Dad didn’t criticize. Just ask if you need help, he said with concern writ-large in his eyes. And when one locked her keys in the car (again), Dad was Johnny on the spot. With a smile. No guilt trip. That was that and life goes on. 
One remembered stay up late, late, late to make sure the driveway was cleared of snow. He’d let his gardening be hindered by grandsons at the drop of a hat. And drop his plans without complaint and dash to town to deliver a forgotten trumpet or, more recently, a laptop. 
Or drive his John Deere tractor eight miles into town to drag a pesky bush out of city daughter’s backyard.

That’s our Dad. Drop everything, drive far, go low to show his love.

Kind of like Christ. 

Wise True Words, Too

I will run in the path of your commands for you have set my heart free. Psalm 119:32

Man looks at the outward appearance but the LORD looks at the heart. 1 Samuel 16:7

God cares not so much what you do but what is in your heart. Faith expressed in love. Those are prime-time, all the time, for ourDad. Loving kindness comes out in words, too.We remember the feeling of love and we remember his wise words, too. 

God’s given our Dad a well-instructed tongue to sustain the wearyWhen one sister’s baby died shortly before she was born at 36 weeks, Dad had healing words for her. Hope is in the best place. We can never protect our children fully. Hope is perfectly happy, perfectly safe. Hope is home. 

When one sister couldn’t decide on which college and another was torn apart about leaving a career she loved and another about taking on a new job, that was dad’s advice. It didn’t always make the deciding easier, but still, Dad’s insight was freeing. Love God and do as you please.

When one sister was on the fence, conscience-stricken about whether watch a friend’s dog one week, Dad helped work that through, too. Loving that friend by loving her dog will limit the way you love your other friends who don’t like dogs. Being human means loving one will limits love for another. God knows. It’s okay.

Dad’s no blow-hard. He doesn’t bluster on. Dad didn’t make up rules that seem good to him, and then say he speaks for God. He quoted Augustine and lived it: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity. Charity. Love. What counts is faith expressing itself in love.

John Calvin knew about fathers who get preeminence and then become presumptuous. This seems good to me, they say and subject their family to their own opinions. Instead, Calvin urges fathers, Let there be no teaching authority that advances what we invent, but let us learn from God so that He will dominate and alone have all preeminence. (Quoted in Sermons on Genesis, Vol.1, Banner of Truth)

What does the Bible say? If it’s not plain, if it’s a non-essential, then Dad wouldn’t come down hard either. Dad’s words were not presumptuous. Dad’s opinions didn’t rule. God’s Word did.

That’s kind of like Christ, too.

Love The Body

This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 1 Corinthians 8:1
Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10

Our Dad deeply loves the body. He doesn’t much applaud we sister’s in our fitness kicks. But how he loves Christ’s Body. And he’s taught us to love it, too.

Not that it’s limited to Sunday worship. But maybe four times in four decades have I missed a Sunday service. Not because of guilt. I want to be there. I love a worship service and for that, along with the Spirit, I credit Dad. 

Dad was my pastor most of my growing up years. And while some pastor’s kids are irked and recoil at the PK spotlight, I relished it. I relished worship. I relished the singing and the preaching and the being with my friends. It was all good.


There was that one Sunday when Dad interrupted his sermon. He stopped mid-stream and craned his neck up to address the kids up in the balcony in back of the church. That’s where I sat sans parent beside Mike and Trish and Scott and Stacey. 

Where Trish was talking and the guys were laughing and the preacher’s kid must have been carrying on, too. We all carried further than we knew. Then Dad looked up and didn’t pull his punches that muggy Sunday in June. Smack dab in the middle of the sermon, Dad’s big pastor voice boomed, 

Would the youth in the balcony please stop talking? Your voices are disrupting the service. 

So I learned a meaning for mortified. But I also kept learning to love this sacred coming together time. Gathering on Sundays was no penalty but joy to our young spirits.

And still is. The sisters invest themselves in the church’s children’s ministries and worship teams and life groups. Because the three see that building the Body of Christ is a treat. Our Dad showed us how. He made is easy.

Kind of like Christ

Like Father, Like Daughter (And Grandson)

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness. Oscar Wilde

Not that I’ve already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Philippians 3:12

Dad’s not perfect. He doesn’t claim to be. When my nine-year takes the Heinz and dabs it bite by bite on his brat, then licks his ice cream bowl clean, explaining, 

That’s the Grandpa way. 

As if that’s the final word on etiquette.

I’m not proud that I nibble right down to the nubs. I don’t know why I do. But Dad bites his nails too. 
I walk fast. Strolling sort of hurts. Sometimes I grab weights to handicap my pace, and impatience, when friends go slow. Dad’s real fast, too. Ask Mom. Especially on vacations.

I talk with zeal and interrupt. I’m not naturally slow to listen. Sometimes Dad talks with passion too. But I’ve also learned from him how to slow down and apologize.

I indulge-sometimes overmuch- in ice cream. Preferably cappuccino almond fudge. And drink to addiction strong coffee. My first cup was one Dad brewed. 
Even here in temptation, Dad shows me how much he needs God’s grace. Dad points me up to God.
And that too, is kind of like Christ.

Sowing Gospel Seeds

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. 1 Corinthians 3:5-6

I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. 3 John 4

I know Dad holds these verses close. He knows his children walk in truth in part because he did what he was assigned to do. Dad did his job.

He planted. And watered. And sprayed and weeded too. Dad’s a faithful hard-working farmer. He knows that when the Word goes out, it doesn’t return empty. He did his job even though he didn’t know which seeds would grow.

Dad knows how rain waters the earth, and makes it bring forth and sprout. How many times he prayed the ancient prayer with us, Blessed are you O Lord our God the King of the universe who brings forth bread from the ground and fruit from the vine? Dad knows who brings forth.

Dad would be first to say- and his daughters would be fast to agree- that it was God who made the seeds of faith that he and mom planted grow.

Dad’s taught me to embrace this divine paradox. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are not incompatible.

Christ Jesus taught that,  too.

Words fail and wounds still heal, so I’ll hold some details back. But I’d like to paint one more picture.

When I was thirteen, Dad was offered the pastorate in a small church in a smaller place called Lyons, Wisconsin. I was in my last year at a little K-8 school across the border in Illinois. You’d think Dad would have jumped at it. By then, he’d been mopping floors and driving a school bus for five years.

But Dad didn’t jump. He weighed it with mom and prayed. Then he weighed it with his children, too-including an insecure, adolescent me.

What do you think, Ab? I know you’d have to leave your friends and you like our little farm here? Would you be okay if we moved? If I took the job in Wisconsin? 

I was okay. We did move. I met my husband there. Eight years later, when Dad gave this bride away, he said, He must increase, I must decreaseand did.

Things at church got rocky and dad resigned just shy of two decades at that little church. He left graciously and meekly, and- as I’m coming to see- partly he left for me. The peace of Christ must rule.

But God is ever on the move and works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. And discretely and gently, considerate of his wife’s wish to worship with the kids and grandkids, after a decade in a church two towns away, Dad decided to come back.

Which is a story in itself, but not where this one’s heading. Because this one ends in the basement, in the church nursery. That’s where Dad, with Mom, heads. To basement depths, and nursery deeps, Dad goes low. To dwell with babies and toddlers who barely talk and cannot grasp his great wisdom.

Which is a lot like Christ.

Dad Made It Easy 

But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” Matthew 19:14

[B]ut we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 1 Corinthians 9:12

Dad made it easy for his kids to come to Jesus. Some of you don’t have a dad like that. Some fathers make it hard. They lay stumbling blocks instead of sowing gospel seeds.

A good father lays down his life for his kids. He goes low to love his ownDad feeds his kids what his sweat has grown, potatoes and berries and beans. He watches grandkids, unlocks cars, and, for love, drives his John Deere miles to uproot a single bush. Where once he preached in the pulpit, now he plays in the nursery. That’s Dad.

He’s probably blushing at this. Not because nursery is beneath him. Not at all. He’s the one who taught us to walk humbly with our God. So it’s not because of spit-up and runny noses and diapers. No. Dad doesn’t mind his big farmer hands getting dirty.

If he’s sheepish at all, it’s because of this semi-public sort of praise. He prefers his praise come later, from his heavenly Father. Which is where I’ll leave off.

The first church Dad pastored had Swedish roots. They sang a song that Dad still sings. Maybe you know it. It’s called Children of the Heavenly Father.* 

It goes like this.

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever
Unto them His grace He showeth
And their sorrows All He knoweth
Though He giveth or He taketh
God His children ne’er forsaketh
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy
Good dads make it easy to come to Jesus. They don’t hinder it. Good dads make us want to seek our Heavenly Father. 

Our dad made that easy.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God.

1 John 3:1

*Words by (Swedish pastor’s daughter) Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg and translated by Ernst William Olson