Adoption stands incomplete until that moment when your child adopts you back. He calls you Mom not because it’s your name, but because he’s naming who you’ve become to him. When she’s with you, whether you’re crossing a street hand in hand or she’s jumping into your arms in the pool, her trust is evident.
Relational reciprocity is more than a mere exchange or the returning of a favor. Philosophers talk about reciprocal altruism, where you give what you expect another to give you and cultivate a pragmatic goodwill that allows for group formation and cohesion. While the dynamic is similar, adoptive reciprocity burrows deeper, pushing toward family formation. This kind of reciprocity has a force all its own—a centrifugal force that pushes outward toward others, including them in our embrace.
The soil of gratitude
When Emma was 18 months old, Claude and I brought her home. Her birth mother had died of AIDS. It felt like we had snatched her from death and disease, from a life defined by a hospice order and lived out in a small orphanage. Her homecoming was a healing.
Months later we sat in her room. After a cavalcade of kisses and giggles, she stilled, then looked at me with a hint of a smile. Her eyes reflected an awareness she didn’t have words for yet. Gratitude. That’s the only way to describe what I witnessed deep in her eyes. My husband thinks my imagination got the best of me that night. But my observation stands. She’s grateful for her life; she knows she almost lost it.
Gratitude isn’t unique to those in the company of the adopted. But adopted living can shape something deep in us. We know our life could have turned out otherwise. We could have been left to sickness, resigned to death, or never brought home. But someone decided to welcome us and make room for us at their table.
I don’t take for granted family photos, birthday celebrations, frequent hugs, and nighttime prayers. Even mundane sundries and stern words eventually find appreciation because they point to the truth—I belong here. Against all the biological odds, I found family and a daily table set for me.
I’m grateful for the unconditional love my parents continue to offer me, 40-plus years into our adopted life together. And more often than not, my son can express gratitude for our shared life, even as painful questions about his birth mom and relinquishment punctuate his thoughts on adoption. Our daily diet of love tells us we irrevocably belong.
Gratitude is the soil where mutuality sprouts. We recognize the goodness of our life, how it’s better than it could have been or once was, and we’re ready to reciprocate that goodness. They’ve adopted us and we, in turn, adopt them.
This mutuality, the adoption of one another, cements our connection. My parents adopted me, making me a daughter. My adopting them acknowledges them as parents. We erase the lines between yours and mine, making everything ours.
This movement of mutuality, where everything is ours, is most vividly seen in the Trinity. In this mysterious three-yet-one, we witness a deep relatedness that the early theologians and mystics likened to a dance, a constant movement in and around each other.
The divine dance shaped the internal relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. The continual giving, deferring, receiving, and sharing strengthened the eternal bond among the three persons. But that incessant activity did something else: It generated a momentum that could not be contained within the three.
Theologian Leonardo Boff writes in Holy Trinity, Perfect Community that in Genesis humanity is created in the image and likeness of God, revealing traces of the Blessed Trinity. The overflow of Trinity relatedness embraced us, inviting us into a life qualitatively and quantitatively different: eternal, abundant.
To describe the divine reciprocity of the Godhead, the church uses the word perichoresis. Parsing the Greek, we see the word suggests a rotating movement. One translation speaks of choresis as the choreography of making room; combine that with the prefix, and you see their constant motion of creating room one for another. Belonging is not only about the bonding of one group of people, but a force that reaches out, a magnetism that embraces others. When we extend belonging to others through generous inclusion, we reveal God’s divine perichoresis-shaped image in us.
Sharing the feast
Relational reciprocity bears witness to the truth that there’s enough room—in my own heart, at our family table, and certainly in our Father’s house. The centrifugal force of belonging reaches outward, hooking wide to bring others into a place where they fit.
Adoptive reciprocity is real but cannot be assumed. For some there’s a natural inclination to respond to family members with an equal measure of hospitality. I’ve felt this mutuality with my own parents; I’ve seen it in my own daughter. This mutuality creates a kind of flow that allows us to embrace others with a similar kind of generosity. But unrequited reciprocity is equally real, the chronic pain of trauma making it difficult for a child to respond with appreciation or affection. Sometimes there are periodic pangs of hurt that cripple us from entering into full reciprocity with those who love and care for us. To say this is to recognize that we are still beset by brokenness and dogged by relinquishment. Our ability to respond to others and adopt them back, as it were, can never be taken for granted. For many, reaching back in mutuality toward parents and loved ones is a hard-fought choice.
When we adopt a child from a hard place, we know at the outset they might be limited in their capacity to respond to us with unfettered affection. Their early circumstances might have crippled them, preventing them from being able to fully express gratitude for the gift of a home, a family, a future. And yet it is just like God to include them in the feast with no strings attached (see Luke 14:12–14). This is our invitation—to give our children a feast and not demand a repayment that they cannot offer. Instead, we share in the feast together as best we can on this side of the hurt, on this side of eternity. Then we remember what Jesus says at the end of the parable in Luke: There will be repayment at the resurrection of the just. In essence, our participation in God’s justice toward a child will be rewarded. God will reciprocate on behalf of those who cannot do so yet. We may die to the joy of reciprocity now, but there will be a resurrection to come.
Jesus tells us there is plenty of room in the Father’s house. It is a spacious landscape where all of us can experience homecoming. We may enjoy a foretaste now, but we are assured full participation in this dynamic of belonging when we arrive at the Father’s doorstep at last. True belonging is part of the divine dance that always makes room for others at God’s table. When we belong well to others, that connection cannot be contained. The goodness within spins us out and creates our capacity to include others.
Kelley Nikondeha (MDiv, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World and the co-director of Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. Excerpted from Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World by Kelley Nikondeha (Eerdmans, 2017). Used with permission.