Symbiosis: How Foster Care Saved My Life

Matthew was placed with us on a Friday afternoon. The next day, Erica went to the NICU to visit him for the first time. We were no strangers to this part of the hospital; our eldest son, Evan, had spent a week in the Special Care Nursery following his traumatic birth many years ago. We didn't know the circumstances surrounding Matthew's situation, we only knew that he was there and that we were his, at least for the time being.

Erica spent the day at the hospital, feeding and changing Matthew every few hours, and holding him in between for as long as the nurses would let her. She came home that night smiling and raving about Matthew's nurse, a young thing named Carrie. I still felt distant. Intellectually, I knew that we were now responsible for an infant, that we would be taking him home from the hospital in a matter of days, but his life had not yet intersected with mine. I was holding down the fort with our two children and finalizing details of the next day's worship services at our church. On Sunday morning, I would stand before the congregation to lead worship, and then to announce my resignation. After spending the last four years pouring my heart and soul into the life of this church and community, this was a task I was not looking forward to. 

The truth is that the previous nine months had been the most challenging season of ministry that I've ever encountered. It was possibly the most difficult season that I had ever been through in my life. While the details of what transpired during those months need no elaboration here, the result of it all was that I was a different person in January than I had been when we started the foster care process back in May. Typically a jovial, lighthearted, and optimistic person, I found myself - for the first time in my life - dealing with anger, bitterness, and a biting disappointment. Erica and I had taken some pretty hard shots at the hands of people we cared about, and we felt very much like we had been kicked to the curb. Emotionally and spiritually, I was walking wounded - we both were. Most days I fought hard against these forces that were tearing my heart apart; most evenings Erica and I wept, shook our fists, and shrugged our shoulders. This was new territory for me, for us both, and I was unsure of how to deal with the pain.

All of this bore down on my soul that Sunday morning, less than 48 hours after receiving word that Matthew was being placed in our care.  God had provided clarity with a new ministry opportunity - a new job - and simultaneously He provided us with a brand new life to love. I led worship that morning and then stood by our new pastor as he made the announcement of my upcoming move. I shook hands and shared embraces with many people who meant more to me than they will ever know, and then I drove to the hospital. 

I was a bundle of nerves walking into the NICU. Our youngest child, Elysia, was ten years old at the time, which meant it had been a full decade since I had held a newborn baby. Matthew was a tiny thing, still hooked up to wires in his little plastic tub-on-wheels. Carrie The Nurse was every bit as gracious and helpful as Erica had described. I fumbled to keep the wires straight as I picked the baby up for the first time; Carrie untangled them with a smile. She walked me through a refresher course on diaper changing and explained pleasantly the way she tracks his eating habits and bowel movements. The whole thing was felt awkward and perfect. 

My first visit with Matthew was short-lived, as we were asked to leave so the nurses could manage their shift change. Erica and I had a quiet dinner in downtown Lexington, where we counted down the minutes until we could go back for the baby's evening feeding. Upon our return, the nurses put us in a separate waiting room and brought Matthew right to us. We were allowed, for the first time, to hold him in privacy. I still had a hard time processing the fact that I was in a hospital feeding an infant who would soon go home with me, and I was mesmerized by this little baby in my arms. I tried to understand how a child like this could be left alone, but that kind of question defies any rational answer. 

"I think I love him already." I said, hesitantly.

"That's ok." Erica said with a gentle smile, as if giving me permission.

I woke early the next morning so that I could drive to the hospital and take care of Matthew's morning feeding. The nurses can do it when we're not able to be there, but that was out of the question for me. This child needed to know that he was loved and that he belonged somewhere. I wept uncontrollably whenever I thought too hard about how a baby could be without a family. I was a mess.

I made it in to work that morning just a little later than normal, but my mind wandered. All morning long, all I could think about was wanting to be back in the NICU, holding onto this fragile, fatherless baby. My coworkers could see this all over my face and simply said, "Go." I was back at the hospital by 11:00 for another feeding. There were six other infants in the room with us, and I wondered about each of them as I sat holding ours. My prayers covered him, but worked their way around the room to each of the others as well. The child in my arms had no biological connection to me, but he was all I could think about. My heart broke for the other babies in that room. In the hours that I had spent with Matthew so far, some of them had received no visitors. No father or mother had come in to hold, to cry, to pray, to be with. Some of these babies were far worse off physically than our Matthew. A wave of emotion swept over me again as I thought about the possibility that some of these infants could possibly die without ever being wrapped up in the arms or prayers of a parent. 

Erica and I returned in the evening for another feeding and a chance to hold Matthew. "This kid has completely wrecked me," I whispered to my wife. It absolutely broke my heart to think that this child - that any child - could find himself born devoid of love and family. At the same time, I was overcome with a profound sense of gratitude, joy, and humility that Erica and I could have the opportunity, if even for just a few days, to provide stability and love. If ever I lingered on any of those thoughts for too long, I would have to turn my head away so Carrie would not see me crying.

We got word in the evening that a member of our church had a family member who was in the same hospital with some potentially life-threatening heath complications. Normally, I would have dropped everything to spend some time with them, praying and comforting in whatever ways I could. This day, however, I simply couldn't bring myself to walk up to the next floor of the hospital. Matthew had wrecked me in ways that I had never known, and I was emotionally fragile. I didn't want to stand by the bedside of someone who was fighting for her life and break into tears. 

In the months that followed, there were many ups and downs for our family. We said goodbye to one church and hello to another, sold a house in one city and bought one in another. There were stressful days, sleepless nights. But there was also something new. There was new joy, new laughter, new purpose. In opening our hearts and our home to a child who was not our own, it was changing us - changing me. This was love like I have never known before, a new understanding of what it means to love without rules or borders. 

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But there was more. Matthew had given us something else to focus on. In the middle of some of the deepest pain and frustration I have ever experienced, God gave us a child. It was an opportunity to rediscover God's goodness, in obedience to his word that had long been ignored or cast aside in our lives. We had spent so much time in the last six months looking at ourselves – the good the bad and the ugly. And now out of one simple step towards the heart of God, he was drawing all of our thoughts and emotions toward himself, manifested in the life of an abandoned child.

Matthew was the happiest baby I'd ever seen. Even now, many months later, I don't think I've ever come across a child who is so cheerful, so happy, and who brings so much joy to everyone with whom he comes in contact. Not long ago, Erica sat in our living room playing with Matthew, and I watched as her shoulders relaxed and a smile swept across her face, pushing aside all the tensions of work and questions about the future. She felt my gaze, and looked up at me with an expression of complete contentment.

"He is so healing, isn't he."

It wasn't a question. It was a statement of fact. God has been using Matthew, this tiny infant who is not our own, to help us heal. I realized something in that moment that, on some level, I think I had known all along: we needed this baby as much as he needed us. 

Edit: Since the original publication of this post, we have adopted Matthew. His is now, legally, what he always has been in our hearts: ours.

DAN JACKSON

Dan is a pastor, writer, and speaker. He is the host of the Ordinary Faith Podcast and currently serves as a Campus Pastor for Southland Christian Church in Georgetown, KY.