Chapter 1: Everybody Needs Somebody
It might seem inappropriate to start a column during National Foster Care Month with an account of how I, as a foster father, was physically attacked by one of the two young people in my care, but I do so only in the interest of full disclosure. Anyone who is considering foster parenting should enter into it with their eyes open. The unexpected can, and often does, occur.
On the night in question, an assault on my person was the last thing on my mind. I had merely entered my living room, searching for my reading glasses. I got down on my hands and knees to peer under the ottoman. While I was in that unsuspecting and all-too-vulnerable position, seemingly out of nowhere my foster son lunged at me in a senseless, unprovoked strike. His eyes, when they met mine for a split second, were ablaze. The young man’s speed and agility were simply too much – he was younger, faster and more cunning than I — and he overtook me quickly. It was all I could do to simply recoil and pray as the violence began. With a cry of rage, he began to pummel me, relentlessly battering my back and ribs with his determined, clenched fists. I tried not to panic as his arm tightened around my throat. I thrashed wildly, hoping to free myself from the chokehold. And it was at that very moment that an opportunity for escape presented itself: A momentary distraction, when he dropped his sippy cup, caused him to relax his grip. This proved to be his undoing. Seizing the moment, I arched my back and executed a swift roll of my shoulder. The tables had turned. The predator had become the prey. What began as a vicious onslaught of aggression then escalated into an all-out, hysterical tickle fight. Oh, the humanity!
Did I forget to mention that my assailant is two years old and just loves to “wrassle” with his daddy? Please forgive the oversight.
I first became a foster parent more than three years ago. At the time, I was the father of eight kids — with six still at home — so it goes without saying that I would have a burning desire to augment that modest little herd by a few more head, right? Actually, making the decision to become a licensed foster parent only came through the painful conviction of the Holy Spirit, and breaching my impenetrable shield of armor-plated rationalizations would require a series of divinely choreographed incidents.
As pastor of Rozetta Baptist Church, I am, of course, a spiritual colossus whose altruism knows no bounds. Yet my heels were dug in against this absurd foster parenting idea. My darling wife, Missy, had long before embraced the calling, but godly woman that she is, rather than nag me like some headstrong harpy, she chose instead the 1st Peter 3:1 approach: Gracious, prayerful submission, hoping to win me over “without words” as I saw the “purity and reverence” of her life.
It’s not that I didn’t know the commands of scripture; indeed, I had preached on them. James 1:27, for example, which tells us: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” As far as a foster care ministry was concerned, though, I was living as a hearer of the Word, but I wasn’t doing what it says. In other words, I was a big, fat ol’ hypocrite, and quite comfortable in that, thank you.
The first blow to my fortifications was served up by, of all people, Jane Fonda. I don’t admit this easily, and here’s why: On the political spectrum, I’m an arch-conservative; I find Ann Coulter just a tad too open-minded and civil. With regard to my citizenship in this great republic, I’m a Marine Corps veteran of the first Gulf War. In terms of my Christian theology, I’m a fundy right down to my undies. And in the realm of social issues, I’m a passionate supporter of the Pro-Life movement. I am, in every sense, the “anti-fonda,” diametrically opposed to all she stands for. To think that this unrepentant traitor, this subversive cultural Marxist, this rabid pro-abortion activist and, perhaps worst of all, this hollywood actor would have anything of value to say to me positively strained credulity. And yet, “God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise.”
Quite by accident, I caught her spouting her vile pro-abortion rhetoric on some cable news show and, as is always the case, my upper lip involuntarily curled into a sneer. Before I could change the channel, though, she said it. She said it. Right in the middle of extolling the virtues of Roe v. Wade at a N.O.W. rally, she said, “Conservatives only care about children until they’re born.” Touche’, Barbarella. Mea maxima culpa.
A few days later, I was talking with a member of my church about his son’s family. Though they had three children of their own, Stephen and his wife, Lydia, (not their real names) had answered Christ’s call on their lives to reach out to “the least of these,” and they resolved to become foster parents. Eventually a sibling group — twin baby boys and their older sister — was placed with them. They had been taken into the foster care system after physical abuse left one of the twins with mulitple broken bones. The other two exhibited the telltale signs of neglect. By God’s grace, the children were welcomed into their new home, loved and treated with generous care. They began to blossom.
The situation eventually took a horrifying turn, however, when a judge inexplicably ordered that the children were to be returned to their birth parents. It seems the biological mother and father had completed some parenting class and, somehow, that was going to negate a protracted, well-documented pattern of drug-fueled abuse and neglect against their kids. Just a few days following the children’s court-ordered return, the same baby boy who had sustained the broken bones had been hospitalized again. Yet another beating had left him with severe brain injuries. To this day, he remains in what essentially amounts to a vegetative state and must breathe through a tracheotomy. Obviously, he requires extensive care and constant attention. But this extraordinary couple was not only delighted to welcome the children back into their home, they immediately began the legal process of adopting these three precious gifts. Today, those little ones have a forever home.
My grip on my selfishness was weakened a bit after hearing this amazing story of Christian charity, but my campaign of cold-hearted resistance to the Spirit’s leading continued. I mean, hey — I’m no quitter.
At long last, the turning point for me occurred at a church senior citizen’s luncheon. I was deep in conversation with Harlan and Edith Lain, an Oquawka couple who had spent their lives caring for countless young children who had no other place to go. I had asked Harlan to explain the motive for all that sacrificial service to children in peril. He did so in four simple words, and Jesus took those four words and formed a supernatural key out of them. With an agonizing creak, that key turned in the rusty lock I had placed on my heart. Harlan Lain had answered my question with a casual shrug and simply said, “Pastor, everybody needs somebody.”
Amen and amen, Harlan.
I returned to the parsonage that day and embraced my wife. “Okay. I’m in,” I said, with great fear and trembling.
Thus began one of the greatest adventures of our life together. I’ll give you the details in next Tuesday’s edition, but in the meantime: Prayerfully ask the Lord Jesus what he would have you do in response to his precious, endangered children. And when he answers, don’t be a foot-dragging hammerhead like yours truly. Serve your King in swift, joyful obedience and accept the undeniable truth: Everybody truly does need somebody.
Chapter 2: Mephibosheth and Me
If you read last week’s column, you saw how God freed me from my addiction to comfort so that I could, at long last, answer His call to serve as a foster parent. What I didn’t mention was the role that a particular individual played in my day of reckoning. One figure, since my own boyhood right here in Monmouth, has been setting the standard. It’s to his example that I turn whenever I need courage in the face of a daunting challenge. I have adopted his personal ethic as my own; indeed, the precious wisdom I have gleaned from him serves as my moral compass. I credit him, in large part, with making me the man I am today. In fact, he’s even the reason I started writing for a newspaper. And yes, he was raised by foster parents.
I am referring, of course, to Superman. Kal-el. The Man of Steel, baby. So, if the Last Son of Krypton was a foster child, who was I to tell my Lord Jesus that I had better things to do than caring for the fatherless?!
With that settled, I dove into foster parent training with uncharacteristic zeal. Maybe I was hoping the Mrs. and I would be like Jonathan and Martha Kent, charged by fate with raising a very special child who possessed extraordinary powers. Little did I know…
The ink was barely dry on our foster parent license when Mercy was placed with us. Just six weeks old, tiny and frail, she was taken into foster care when tests revealed that her mother had used methamphetamine while pregnant with her. Mercy also wore a heart monitor due to a family history of sudden infant death syndrome. But as vulnerable as she appeared, it was only a matter of moments until her super powers emerged. She changed the course of my mighty apathy. She bent the steel of my selfish heart. And she was able to leap my tall egocentricity with a single bound.
But what’s a superhero without a sidekick? A year later, our case manager called. Mercy’s biological mother had given birth to a baby boy. Again, she had used hard drugs during the pregnancy and this baby was taken into foster care too. Sam was three days old when he came to us, every bit as angelic as his sister. Our eight biological children have welcomed them with more sweet love and acceptance than I could have ever hoped for. (And incidentally, despite some early developmental delays related to their drug exposure, both Sam and Mercy are now physically and cognitively sound, by the grace of God.)
Kidding aside, I truly was inspired by a foster child I read about, though not in a comic book. His name was Mephibosheth and his story is in 2nd Samuel, chapter 9. When David became king, he remembered the loyalty of his late friend, Jonathan. Jonathan’s father, King Saul, wanted David dead; in defiance of his father, Jonathan protected and cared for David. Once David was established as ruler, he asked, “Is there yet any that is left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?”
There was just such a person: Jonathan’s own son, Mephibosheth, who had been permanently disabled since the age of five. Unable to walk and fatherless, Mephibosheth lived in a wretched region called “Lodebar,” a Hebrew term which is translated variously as “land of no pasture,” “place of no bread,” and “land of desolation.” David summoned this desperate young man out of this wasteland and into his opulent courts.
As grandson of the deposed king, Mephibosheth approached the throne on his face, expecting execution. But “David said unto him, ‘Fear not: for I will surely show thee kindness for Jonathan thy father’s sake, and will restore thee all the land of Saul thy father; and thou shalt eat bread at my table continually.’” Mephibosheth had come prepared to die; instead, he entered foster care as the child of the king. Overwhelmed, he asked his royal foster father, “What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am?”
It occurred to me that every follower of Jesus is a Mephibosheth. Without our Savior, we dwell in spiritual desolation. We too are dead dogs – dead in our sin, crippled by it – and we certainly have no claim to a royal inheritance. But when we respond to Christ’s summons and turn in repentance from our desolate home of sin and come to Him, trusting in Him alone, we are given a free, eternal seat at His table. We are adopted into the family of the King.
But as a Mephibosheth myself, why did it take me so long to finally ask, “Is there yet any that is left, of the house of God, that I may show him kindness, for Jesus’ sake?” Why are so many Christians allowing these children to languish in their desolate Lodebars of abuse and neglect, just as I once did? The foster care system is in the throes of a devastating parent shortage; what a golden opportunity for the body of Christ to do His work and to love his children! If only we, like King David, could put aside our self-absorbed obsession with personal comfort and tell a child, “I will surely show thee kindness, and thou shalt eat bread at my table continually.”
Listen, I know all the excuses, and only because I personally have used them all. Your favorite is probably the same one I hid behind: “I could never welcome a child into my home and love and care for that child, only to have to give him up.” It has a nice beat. You can dance to it. I give it a 79, Dick.
First of all, statistically speaking, it’s unlikely you’ll have to do that. For example, Missy and I adopted Mercy and Sam in February, forever and ever, amen. Our daughter Krystal and son-in-law Nick are now in the process of adopting their foster son, Asher. But yes, there is a small yet real chance you might have to say goodbye to your foster child. And that most certainly would be painful.
But ask yourself: Does the possibility of undergoing a painful experience justify your inaction and indifference to the plight of these kids? Now, if you are not a Christ-follower, then I certainly would accept that excuse as a perfectly legitimate reason for you to stay out of foster parenting. If you are not a Christian, then I believe that an aversion to risking that painful experience is an appropriate, understandable response. I’ll even write a note to your gym teacher.
But if you are a Christian, just what do you think you signed up for? Samba lessons and hors d’oeuvres on the Lido deck? Jesus says, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” That’s what following Him involves: Your cross, your self-denial, and your pursuit of His way. It’s pretty straightforward.
Will being a foster parent disrupt your comfy routine? It certainly will. Will you have to make some sacrifices? Undoubtedly. And is there a real but statistically small possibility you might suffer the pain of saying goodbye to a child you’ve grown to love? Yes. Okay, with this list of challenges, you’ve got an abundant supply of building materials.
Cobble them together into your very own cross.
Then, take up that cross.
Now, cross in tow, follow Jesus.
You just may find, as we have, that it’s the most ecstatically joyful, fulfilling, and hilarious cross you’ll ever carry.
(Call Lutheran Social Services in Galesburg at (309) 343-7681 and ask them for information on becoming a foster parent.)