This is MY llama. - God
Last night Steven and I were conducting some heavy research, watching a marathon of Cesar Millan videos in preparation for getting another dog. We’re determined to do it right this time, and not unwittingly recreate another adorable bundle of canine neuroses, like Tinkerpaw, or a tyrannical overlord in miniature, like Tippi.
I LOVE Cesar Millan. His philosophy of dog training seems to inform his entire life. Though he is a man of small stature, unassuming in appearance and even perhaps categorizable as “cute”, he is The Alpha.
Oh, good grief.
Once he’s subjugated a problematic dog with the greatest of ease, he usually ends up subtly insulting, disciplining, and generally asserting his dominance over the owners who have created these monstrosities by infantilizing and / or allowing their dog to run rampant with little to no discipline.
In one of last night’s episodes, aptly entitled “My Dog Bites My Boyfriend,” a couple lamented that the woman’s husky mix hadn’t allowed her boyfriend to come near in months, shrank back from him and nipped his shins whenever proximity allowed her the opportunity. The man was muscular and covered in tattoos and exuded a pretty strong front of faux-machismo, but Cesar saw right through it and casually asserted his position as Top Dawg right away.
The man kept saying things like “I’ve worked with rescue dogs, really aggressive dogs, but they at least gave me a sign they wanted to work with me. This dog, she doesn’t even want to try!” He seemed to feel the burden of peacemaking lay mostly upon the dog rather than him. I get it, I guess. When something or someone seems to utterly despise you, it’s hard to keep motivated toward reconciliation.
Still, I had trouble summoning much sympathy for this young man. He stood with his feet far apart, arms crossed, shoulders and chest rigid and military-like but hunched offensively. He didn’t take instruction well from Cesar, still proudly resisting the belly-up submission which the alpha demands.
At one point, Cesar brought in his llama to soothe the dog and show it some solid leadership. The man recoiled as his girlfriend leant in to kiss the llama. “My llamas used to spit in my face if I looked at them,” the man said, retreating from the llama as its sleepy-lidded eyes appraised him.
Cesar’s head snapped up like that of a chihuahua sensing intuitively that someone has just committed the grievous affront of thinking about stepping on to its property.
“No, no, that was your llama,” Cesar scolded. “This is my llama.”
Somehow Cesar made the most innocuous of factual statements sound all at once like both a savage burn and a soul-piercing, philosophically loaded axiom. Cesar kept having to prompt the young man to live in the now, here, with this dog and this llama and not allow the freight of his memory and sullied expectations to pollute the present scenario.
Fast-forward with me, if you will, to the church service I attended this morning (I promise it will become clear in time that this is not a complete non-sequitur). Our pastor preached on Romans 8:18-25, a familiar passage – so familiar, in fact, that I half-expected today to be a somewhat somnolent stroll through a passage whose depths I’d already plumbed.
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently."
Yeah, I've heard it all before, I thought. But the word of God is living and active. (Heb 4:12) It is also not chained (2 Tim 2:9), not by our assumptions, not by the baggage of our expectations or our supposed familiarity or our dismissive arrogance.
Our pastor began talking about he and his wife standing in a courtroom in Addis-Ababa, finalizing the process of adopting their two sons. He spoke tenderly of the heartache of having to leave his two boys before returning a second time to pick them up and bring them home for good due to rules and regulations. The waiting, he said, was agonizing.
That’s when I started weeping, amid all this talk of international adoption and waiting and hoping and bringing home a child of promise, a child who is all dimples and gurgles and high-pitched baby babble and milkfat, a child who seems capable of breaking your heart only because your love for her threatens to shatter its dimensions.
I wasn’t there when my parents picked up my sister, Lia, from the airport. Wasn't born yet, actually, though my conception was only a month away. I can only speculate. But that’s not why I started crying, thinking of my parents being blindsided by that great love.
I wept because I thought of the pain, of the brokenness. I filled with bile thinking of this rosy picture of adoption, of the gall God had to analogize our relationship to Christ this way. Bitterness seized my heart. Attachment disorder, broken bonds, the wasted womb of a birthmother condemned to pine away forever: I associate adoption with pain.
Even now, when I see adopted children gamboling happily – at church, at a playground, wherever – I think: just wait until they hit adolescence. Just wait until the buried pain of broken attachment gushes forward seemingly overnight in a torrent of rage. How do you think you’ll escape this brokenness? How do you think they won’t turn out like her?! How do you think it won't end like that?!
I wept. I wept voluminously, though as quietly as possible because we arrived late to church per our custom and had to sit front and center. And the thought that rang through my head as the pastor spoke of the “miracle” of adoption, of the wonder of bringing home his two sons?
Maybe that’s your llama. But that wasn’t my llama.
It’s bizarre, I know, as the associations our minds make often are. And I know a human being is not a llama, but a highly complex hominid, the only creature made in the very image and likeness of God, and one who tends to complicate even the simplest of matters with its big fat bloated brain, like whether God said not to eat the rotten fruit of all this useless and pointless knowledge (thank you, Bob Dylan).
Clearly, two very different creatures, and God forbid someone thinks I am conflating the two. (I will complicate matters further with this parenthetical: we had an actual llama when I was growing up. Nasty creature, who was good for little besides tossing his haughty head high in the air, looking down his shuddering nostrils at you and expectorating diffusely upon you with little to no warning. His other favorite stratagem to flush you out of his space and further express his posture of unwavering disgust toward you, in which he leaned against you hard with all his weight, had more of a passive-aggressive flavor.)
I hadn’t thought about my sister that much in awhile, honestly. Sure, I see her photos every day – the one of her and her boys in the living room, plus the picture-day portrait from her freshman year in high school on the wall in our kitchen, where she looks downright giddy in the Calvin Klein babydoll shirt she never let me borrow despite my repeated pleadings and briberies.
In it, she is 15, at the emotionally-laden crossroads of child and girl and young woman. She is also poised, as I remember, to become hungry for identity and belonging, a hunger that would compel her to dump all her Caucasian friends from middle school and take up with a whole new group of black and brown girls. It was a hunger that would compel her to disown us for a long season, to act out violently, to break our parents’ hearts. Hunger, brokenness, all of its muddled and entwined and highly combustible.
That’s your llama, maybe. This was my llama.
That’s your story, maybe, though I’m giving it a hard side-eye, a watchful suspicion. But this was my story.
Adoption immediately puts me on the defense. Oh, you want to adopt? My sister was adopted. Inevitably, more questions are asked and sooner or later I must drop the bomb: she died a few years ago of a drug overdose. I’m ashamed to say at times I’ve taken a certain obscene relish in popping the Pollyanna bubble of hopeful adopters with the saga of my sister’s embattled life.
My bitterness goes ahead of me. God, forgive me. There’s a perverse part of me that thinks everyone else’s bubbles should have to be popped, because mine sure was. Before Lia died, I wanted to adopt a child. Then the lightning-shock of her death and all the secrets it unearthed made me question whether I had really even known my sister at all. So this is how adoption goes and this is how it ends, I thought. Pain, detachment, secrets, anger. There is no good here, I decided for myself.
In the months after her death, I was a little too forthcoming with my questioning when I met someone who had an adopted child or sibling. “So, are they… okay? Have they had any issues stemming from being adopted?” I bonded with some parents all-too-familiar with attachment disorder, by whom I felt seen and validated. Two others with adopted siblings shrugged, said they seemed to be just fine. I invariably smiled, offered some comment about how nice that was. They’re just hiding it, I muttered inwardly.
Your llama is my llama. Your sister is my sister. They all erupt sooner or later, they all grow up to hate you. One day, they won’t hide their disgust any more. One day, their pain will runneth over. You’ll see.
“[We] groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” the second part of Romans 8:23 reads. Why does it have to be adoption, I think, a word so encumbered for me by pain, by loss, by grief?
I don’t want that word. I don’t want that reality, I don’t want a world where babies are taken from or surrendered by their mothers, where the stripping away of the most primal and primeval of bonds inaugurates a life. It’s not supposed to be this way. So why this word, God? Why this process, this covenant, to reveal the sons of God, as Romans 8:19 puts it?
I wish I knew, but now there is just a slow outworking of trust between me and God, a dance not unlike that between Cesar Millan and a skittish pup. My bitterness goes ahead of me, yes, but so does Christ. God’s choices are never haphazard and never meaningless - no, they are saturated with meaning. He chose adoption as the process by which he will reveal the sons and daughters of God, even though it seems, to my half-blinded eyes, an almost irremediably messy process here on earth.
When you get down to it, no adoption story is neat and tidy. There is always pain, there is always heartache, there are tearful visits with birth mothers and legal troubles and skin that doesn’t match and a ruptured sense of identity and belonging. But doesn’t the latter describe, well, all of us?
We are all adoptees, God reminds me. You are an adoptee. All descendants of the Adamic legacy of pain, of sin, of attachment disorder. Our attachment, our perfect communion, was broken violently, suddenly. A doom-laden note sounded from our guts where the rotten fruit of the forbidden tree fermented, shame fell like a shadow, clouds of fear scudding in like demons and dashing out the sunlight. We were cut off in an instant, in a flash. One moment we were safely ensconced in the womb of God's love and the next we fled from Him, grasping for anything which would cover our nakedness, to which all menacing corners of the now hostile world seemed to point and laugh.
This isn't to delegitimize the very real and unique experience of literal, not just spiritual, adoptees here on earth. But God is showing me that adoption isn't a dirty word. A complicated word - yes. But as rife with a unique kind of beauty as it is with sorrow.
In the dog-biting boyfriend clip, Cesar crouches next to the dog in question, which has been miraculously transformed into an unflappably calm pup, and analyzes the llama incident, extrapolating its implications. “It’s like, ‘I had all the llamas that would spit on me, therefore Lorenzo [Cesar’s llama] will spit on me,’” Cesar says, referring to the young man’s thinking. “It’s not fair for Lorenzo.”
It’s not fair for other adoptees, what I do in my head, thinking I’m God and know how that story ends. And I tell you, it’s not fair for Lia, either. She wasn't a liability, she wasn't a trauma. She was my sister, and she was a gift.
It’s not fair for me to hang on to her pain when even she no longer knows it, when there is a redemption and a glory coming that makes it paltry and forgotten, absorbed seamlessly into a sweep of restoration unimaginably grand and immeasurably richer for the pain.
It’s not fair for me to let her death tarnish all of her life, to see it as one big open wound instead of one that was troubled and ended tragically, yes, but otherwise as mixed a bag as all of ours: good, bad, beautiful, ugly.
It’s not fair for me to act as though I regret her being adopted, being my sister, when I never, ever could.
It's not fair for me to hold adoptees apart, almost as some other group of beings, characterizing them by what I've allowed my pain to imagine is irreperable brokenness, a lost cause just waiting to implode. Cesar Millan never sees any animal that way. And, thank God, He never sees any of His children that way.
Forgive me for straining to carry this llama thing all the way through, but I gotta try. God says to my arrogance, to my cynicism: that was your llama, this is my llama.
That was your narrative of brokenness, of pain, of hopelessness. This is My story of infinite goodness, of indestructible hope, of future glory beyond glory. “See, I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it? See how it springs up in the wilderness!”
Just watch me now, He says. Look away from the former things and see what I do. That was your story, yes, but it is time to let it go, because this – this, this present moment, this persistent hope, this body broken on your behalf and this blood shed for you – this is mine. And it is all for you, if you will only receive it.