Three sets of folded legs sat in a shaded circle in Cape Town. Three sets of hands plucked blades of grass and doodled with twigs in the dirt, mirroring our internal fidgeting that day. Our family gathered in Chris and Lifa’s favorite Frisbee field to talk to Lifa about what to expect before we took him to visit his biological father.
As Lifa has learned to thrive in Chris’ loving, engaging fatherhood, it became almost unbearable for him to know anything different. As he thought about visiting his biological father, he created a fantasy, hero-dad that takes him shark-diving in the middle of a dry nation. He developed an entire relationship that never existed. Lifa had amped himself up to the point of exhaustion for visiting his hero-dad, and we had to help him put himself together and develop some realistic perspective before we could drop him off.
He was sure it was going to be different this time.
We all hoped it would be different.
We expected it to be different because we’d made some major investments into some major changes.
While we were moving to Cape Town, we were also moving Lifa’s dad away from the oppressive household he was living in before. Lifa’s father has always lived in other girlfriends’ homes, full of chaos and people. He has little contact with Lifa during Lifa’s visits, and it’s been an increasingly unpleasant experience for Lifa. With the help of a local pastor, we secured and furnished a home for Lifa’s father in a safe community near people we know. We tried to set him up for success, to be the head of his household and have all the physical elements he needed for a good Christmas with his son. It could be his first experience getting to know Lifa.
Lifa was STOKED. He felt so loved that his dad got a new house, that he would have his own bed for the first time, and he would never have to go into the scary house with the mean family he’d visited before. Chris and I were excited to know that Lifa would be safer, closer to us, and great pastors were watching out for him. We knew parenting would be a whole new ball game, so Chris shared some basic principles of how to protect your child with Lifa’s father and taught Lifa how to make his own eggs. I filled a suitcase with enough clothes to never have to do laundry and enough activities to keep him busy.
With Lifa’s nail-biting anxiety in full-form, Chris (also a nail-biter) made a deal that if Lifa’s nails were longer than his when we picked him up, we would go straight to Toys R Us. Lifa could choose any toy in the store he wanted. (Chris the super-dad has a super-soft heart… he basically just agreed to spend our life savings on Lego’s so Lifa would have something to look forward to. That’s my man.)
We want his dad to always have a hero’s place in Lifa’s heart, and we’re committed to doing whatever is within our capacity to help with that.
Lifa has been at his dad’s house for 10 days now.
It’s not been what we expected.
The Ladd Family arrived with Lifa and a truckload of home goods. With the pastor’s translation, we told Lifa’s dad stories of Lifa’s strengths, skills, and Lifa made plans to make placemats for new table we had just delivered.
Although we’ve helped change his physical circumstances, Lifa’s dad is recreating the lifestyle he lived before. Most days, Lifa has slept over at the pastor’s house because his dad invited a new girlfriend and her child to live with him. Lifa doesn’t have enough space to sleep and the girlfriend doesn’t treat him well. Lifa told me on the phone the other day that he worries relentlessly because his dad is not home at night, and he’s afraid he will never come back… but he has not touched his nails. “No way, not even once. How’s dad? What’s he doing? Is he biting his nails?”
Chris and I considered abandoning all plans and going to pick Lifa up. I cried on the phone with the pastor, prayed with Lifa, and pressed deeply into God with my husband. Finally, we had nothing left to do but remember the promises and instructions God had given us before because He is the only One who does not disappoint.
Years ago, when I cried by myself on the road to drop Lifa off with his father, God told me to keep making that drive until He told me to stop. I have no authority to take Lifa’s relationship with his father in my own hands. I don’t have to understand God’s plans for them to be fulfilled. I just have to get in the car. The distance is a lot further, but that word still stands true.
The King of Kings spoke to my husband about one little warrior He is raising up with passion and purpose for the nation of South Africa, and that warrior training was not something we should protect him from. He said to Chris, “It is finished.” His Fatherly seal of guardianship and safety is over Lifa and that would not be compromised. God’s protection, training and purpose fulfillment may not look or feel the way we want it to, but it’s good. It’s better. It’s bigger. It’s everlasting.
It’s Christmas week. It’s not exactly the way we would have planned it, and it’s not the kind of Christmas we expected Lifa to have with his dad.
That puts us in the perfect position to celebrate Christmas for what it really is.
If there’s any holiday built on not being what was expected, it is Christmas.
Can you imagine the potential for devastation of unmarried teenagers on a government-mandated, extraordinarily uncomfortable, 9-month-pregnant road trip on a donkey - only to find out that their baby would be born in a stinky stable?
Can you fathom the disappointment of history itself when a dirty, fatherless baby entered the working class world and called himself the Way to the Father?
That first Christmas might have been the greatest unmet expectation of all time for those who thought they knew what salvation and redemption would look like. Expectations can disappoint us, and they almost always do. But hope… Hope does not disappoint.
Just like in Lifa’s life, the words the Father spoke are still true for all of us. We can try to make life look the way we expected, or we can believe for something bigger than we can fathom. We can celebrate that His Family makes room for the illegitimate, the dirty, the downcast, the ones who don’t know how to live any way than they’ve lived before. We can celebrate the Father who will go the extra mile, even when it looks like suffering, to make sure we’re strong enough for what He has planned.
We can celebrate that Christmas is the miracle of a family that lets go of their dreams of the way it should be for the way it could be.
We could go pick up Lifa right now and have a rockin’ family Christmas filled with Lego’s and pumpkin cake. Everyone would be relieved for the moment. We could undo all our unmet expectations with our own hands and hugs.
But there’s more than that.
My man and I are going to have a two-person, awe-filled, sweaty, summer-in-Swaziland Christmas together. We are going to give deep thanks to the God that has more for us and for Lifa than we could ever dream, think or imagine.
His safety is better than ours.
His purposes are eternal.
His preparations are far better than scrambled eggs and clean laundry.