“There are some men and some women in whose company we are always at our best. While with them we cannot think mean thoughts or speak ungenerous words…

…Their mere presence is elevation, purification, sanctity. All the best stops in our nature are drawn out by their intercourse, and we find a music in our souls that was never there before.” – Henry Drummond

George Muller’s father was a tax collector. By the age of ten young George was an expert thief, liar and gambler who pilfered government money from his father. While his mother lay dying, George was out playing cards and getting drunk. Nowadays we’d look for a cause. The parents were lax or some such thing.

I sit at church sometimes and wonder about the perfect families seated in the aisles in front of me. Many of the children are schooled at home, taught 10 different musical instruments and sit quietly taking sermon notes. Marriages are intact. The fathers attend services and participate in church planting.

I imagine my family being much more like George Muller’s. Deaths, remarriages, wayward children and absent parents. Misspent youth, deaf ears to truth and heartbreaking regrets.

George described himself as wicked and unrepentant in his young adulthood: “Despite my sinful lifestyle and cold heart,  God had mercy on me. I was as careless as ever. I had no  Bible and had not read any Scripture for years. I seldom went to church; and, out of custom only, I took the Lord’s Supper twice a year. I never heard the gospel preached. Nobody told me that Jesus meant for Christians, by the help of God, to live according to the Holy Scriptures.” George Muller’s Autobiography

Yet the supernatural is obvious to anyone who looks. The miracle of life is a trite phrase to some but worthy of contemplation. How is it not a miracle that we live, talk and watch seasons change?

Hedonism has many pleasures. What convinced a young liar and thief to embrace miracles?

George attended a Bible study at someone’s home that he credited with changing his life (a small miracle?). Something made him pray. Something convinced him that his prayers would be answered. Most people scoff at such faith (myself included), but the truly insane thing is that his prayers were so often answered.

orphansGeorge and his wife decided to open their rented home to 30 orphans and rely solely on contributions that came through prayer. No flyers, marketing campaigns or begging.  One morning George and the children (now 300 of them) prayed for food. The cupboards were bare. A passing milk truck broke down outside the home and a baker felt compelled all through the night to offer free bread and arrived just after morning prayers. This story is well-documented but still my jaundiced heart rebels. How can such a thing be true?

“Every morning after breakfast there was a time of Bible reading and prayer, and every child was given a Bible upon leaving the orphanage, together with a tin trunk containing two changes of clothing. The children were dressed well and educated – Müller even employed an inspector to maintain high standards. In fact, many claimed that nearby factories and mines were unable to obtain enough workers because of his efforts in securing apprenticeships, professional training, and domestic service positions for the children old enough to leave the orphanage.” Wikipedia

After living life as a thief George obsessively documented incoming contributions. As contributions poured in people were amazed by George’s transparent bookkeeping. More contributions poured in. More orphanages were built.

orphans 2

George was one of those rare individuals who remained dependent from day to day on God’s provision.  Even as I write this I have a hard time imagining such a person really  existed, but he did. In his lifetime he cared for 10,024 orphans and opened 117 schools!

One man and prayer!

What is more miraculous: Answered prayer or the heart ready to pray for 10,000 orphans?

Do you believe in miracles? Have you experienced one you’d like to share?

GEORGE MULLER’S WORK LIVES ON!

 

 

Anne with an “E” and the Reality of Orphans

cropped-michelle-photos.jpg

We all have something of the orphan in us. Rejection, loneliness and the bleak reality that we die alone color some of our darker imaginings. I’ve a soft spot for fictional orphans.  As a writer I collect broken people. I give them homes in MY BOOKS. They tend to wreak havoc. The same is true for real orphans.

Watching the first episode in the new series about the red-headed orphan girl Anne of Green Gables with my own orphan girl last week offered striking contrasts and similarities. I applaud the new edgier Anne. She comes far closer to the reality of orphans.

Here’s what orphans do (well, my orphan in particular):

THEY TALK. Non-stop. Anne talks about poetry and at times is quite insightful. Our orphan girl was so brutalized at a young age we may never fully understand how much of her  potential was lost. Entire blocks of learning do not exist. The level of trauma was so severe in her early school years that while she was there, she really wasn’t there at school. Her last IQ test score was a 57.

But talk she does. When not talking about earrings or insane arguments that make no sense she sings gibberish songs. A rink-dink-dink-dink-dinky-doo is one of her favorites. My teenage son  whispered to me in the kitchen the other day, “Oh my god, I’ve got a rink-dink-dink-dinky-doo stuck in my head. Please kill me now.”

Kids with reactive-attachment disorder (RAD) never shut up. They rob the air from the room. They MUST be in CONTROL of all time, all space and all people. Anne makes it look kind of cute but in reality it can be “nerve-grinding” (a new phrase I’ve learned from books on RAD).

This winter the incessant talking and stalking caused me to question my sanity many times. Not cute. According to the books, people who take in RAD kids have a higher suicide rate. (Don’t worry. I’m not there yet)

ORPHANS CHARM: When I first met our orphan she told me I was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. After ten awkward minutes of playing  a board game she didn’t understand our orphan announced that she loved me and wanted to live with me forever.  The director of the children’s shelter told me  not to feel too bad if it didn’t work out because no one thought it would. I remember how eagerly the shelter workers hustled the orphan into my waiting car and how relieved they all looked when the girl was strapped in.

I like how in the new Anne series Anne manipulates RACHEL LYNDE into forgiving her. Our orphan has many people in the system and at her school convinced that she is the sweetest kid on the planet. At home she writes sexually explicit stories in her notebooks and calls me a lot of names (on papers she leaves around her room) that paint another picture of me.

ORPHANS STARE: They just sit there and stare. The occasional weird grown-up will actually get offended and ask our orphan why she’s staring at them. She often doesn’t know. Sometimes a face or color, the tone of a voice or the feel of a fabric will bring something back to her that she can’t put a finger on. The terror it taps into is so profound it causes all rational thought to cease. And then it’s gone and she wants ice-cream.

ORPHANS DO THE DISHES: And then they break the dishes. Anne, trying to prove her worth, jumps from the table to wash dishes. She drops them in  nervous haste. In that moment we see the terror rise up. Mistakes made by orphans remind them of other mistakes–and punishments: the belt, the switch, the name-calling and the being tied to a chair for days with the help of duct tape.

Our orphan always wants to help out and do dishes. It always ends badly. We say, “You’re still loved, but, really, stay away from washing the dishes.”

ORPHANS HAVE WEIRD DIETS: Anne gets into trouble when she serves her friend wine by mistake. She’s never had wine or fruit drinks and doesn’t know the difference. Our orphan eats goat food right out of the dirty feeders. The feeders that little shitty goat hooves have trampled in. Our orphan ate green beans off of the floor of a public bathroom at the beach last summer.

“Safe” is just another word that makes her stare.

ORPHANS HURT SMALLER CREATURES: Anne is kind to animals. Our orphan girl pretends to be kind to animals. She is not to be left alone with our dogs. She’s broken hard things over the soft belly of our retriever. We didn’t even believe it at first, but it’s true. Her moods and tempers must be harnessed. Her brain retrained, but it’s a hard road (especially when she laughs at an animal’s suffering).

Being an orphan is a life sentence. We all end life alone, but we’re drawn to the redemption stories of orphans. The homecomings, the healing and the forgiveness of great sins.

I believe in destiny, God and his command to take care of the orphans. Loving the unlovable looks so nice in period costume.

As spring comes on strong here at the farm I see some growth in the orphan (and maybe a little in me). The girl didn’t know how to read last year. It was painful to hear her butcher Dr. Seuss. Now she reads chapter books and understands some of the jokes. She sucks at math but her teacher raves about her blossoming storytelling on paper.

Our orphan wants to dress like Anne and is now able to take long walks in the country by herself without fearing death. Sometimes she tells us things that are coherent and interesting. She tries using big words. No one really believes her true IQ is so low. Tests scare her.

Anne’s adoptive parents initially think Anne is a big mistake. They wanted a boy, but Anne was their destiny.

Our orphan is not what we thought we wanted. She’s just as cute as Anne of Green Gables, but she’s real. Broken things in real life don’t often mend with beautiful music in the background.

Yet there is a reason orphans are mentioned so often in the Bible. It’s easy to love a beautiful little girl on the big screen, but we are commanded to love the beaten, the neglected and the people everyone else has kicked to the curb. yes, sometimes it sucks. But I live for the signs of spring, new growth and happy endings.

***Not all orphans come with the same problems, skills or attitudes.

ANNE WITH AN E (the darker Anne)

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

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James E. West: Orphan and Hero

Ogdensburg. City Hospital and Orphanage

Ogdensburg City Hospital and Orphanage [courtesy harvardartmuseums.org]

When my son was six he begged me each day not to leave him on the steps of the large Brooklyn school house. He hated his teacher. Fair enough. When the bell rang and the kindly police officer took my son’s hand and led him inside, my son looked back in panic and I’d have to turn away. I ended up homeschooling him that year but that’s another story.

When our foster kid was taken to a mental health facility after finding out her mother had given her up to the system she cried for days. We’d visit and she’d beg us to take her home. When she said “home” it was expressed with such  profound yearning and pain it was hard for us to bear. Home meant with us or with her mother or with the last foster family who decided they could keep only her siblings.

A long time ago a six-year-old boy named James E. West took his last walk with his mother. I imagine it a quiet, tense one. Maybe James sensing his mother’s anguish held her hand a little tighter. Maybe Mother didn’t say where they were going for fear that young James would make it more difficult than it already was going to be.

Coughing blood into her soiled handkerchief Mother knocked on the orphanage door in Washington and left her boy with his large, panicked eyes on the steps as she raced away, unable to look back. She died three months later of tuberculosis.

When James complained of hip pain it took a while before he was treated for a tubercular infection in the hip. It took two years (one of those years strapped to a painful leg brace intended to straighten his bones) for him to be strong enough to get around on crutches.

Most boys were loaned out to work, but poor James with his weak leg was sent to sew with the girls in the sewing room. Across the street was a real school for normal kids and James spent many a sewing afternoon gazing out in envy at the kids with books and nice coats. A friend of his mother’s made the effort to lobby for James to attend school. And so he went and excelled.

James was one of those exemplary people who when fortune smiled his way he shared it. He begged the orphanage to open its library to the children and when they said the books would get too worn out James organized the children to cover every single book. Using the money he earned sewing he offered his fellow inmates a penny for every book they read. He taught himself how to ride a bicycle, graduated high school and left the orphanage as a staff member at age 19.

James studied law and passed the bar, never forgetting the children. When Theodore Dreiser hired him to oversee The Delineator Magazine “Child Rescue Campaign”  for orphaned children James found his calling. Each issue  featured an orphan and their needs. The response was tremendous. Requests to adopt poured in. People all over the country wanted to help.

I wonder what James thought. He was no longer a child and no one had begged to adopt him yet he worked tirelessly for others. Eventually he met the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Jacob Riis, Jane Addams, and Booker T. Washington at The White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. He asked this question which revolutionized the way Americans looked at child welfare: “Should children of parents of worthy character, but suffering from temporary misfortune…be kept with their parents–aid being given to the parents to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of the children?”

The question is loaded, isn’t it? Worthy character, temporary misfortune, suitable homes . . . we still struggle with the messy, horrifying realities of child abuse, neglect and poverty, yet there are little known boys and girls who rise up despite their misfortune. There are men and women who nudge the system to send a child to that school across the way.

James West gives me hope.

Essay inspired by The Rise and Demise of the American Orphanage by Dale Keiger