My phone rang at 2 a.m., jarring me awake. I had been asleep for two hours in my hotel room, 1,000 miles from home. Not again, I thought. Which will this be—hospital or jail? It was jail. My son was calling to tell me it was all a mistake; he shouldn’t have been taken to jail and could I help him with bail. And so I faced one more event in a long and challenging journey of grace and gratitude for an unexpected gift.
Ten years before we opened our home as a foster shelter to a 9-year-old boy who had been taken from his alcoholic, drug-addict mother. With slight trepidation, we were excited about the privilege God was entrusting to us. We were sure this boy was a gift from God.
The next years were not easy. The neglect and abuse he had experienced overshadowed everything we did for him. Fetal alcohol syndrome spawned significant reasoning issues. Abandonment fears led to reactive attachment problems. Spotty school attendance robbed him of reading and writing skills. Most of all, he was sure we would be just one more in a line of those who left him. His need to be the center of attention shattered peace in our home. Our daughters were deeply disappointed—this was not the little brother they were anticipating.
Nevertheless, his mother’s rights were terminated, and we were encouraged to adopt him. Much prayer and family conversation convinced us he was a gift from God, so we welcomed him fully into our family.
The challenges of the early years paled in comparison to the difficulty of his teen and early adult years. The calls from jail and hospital evolved from middle school bullying, gang membership, drugs, alcohol, mischief, stealing, girls, and wrecked cars.
We encountered people and situations we would never have known. Every way we tried to help him toward a safe and productive life failed. He was failing, and we felt like failures.
This was a gift? If so, it was a grievous gift.
But he truly was a gift. Perhaps more a gift to us than we were to him.
How? For me, this became the question God kept before me: Could I continue to receive this boy as a gift? Slowly the Father opened my eyes and heart to see the many ways God had blessed me.
He drove me into God’s arms.
We tried everything: Fun family times together. Church youth group. Appropriate boundaries and consequences. Counseling. A residential program. Yet, our only hope became God himself.
My heavenly Father welcomed me into his loving arms, captured all my tears, listened to me cry out, yell at him, and beg him. When I was ready to give up, he held me up with his righteous right arm, sharing his strength and courage with me.
He taught me to pray.
I’m a ministry leader. I thought I knew how to pray. But this boy kept me on my knees. Yes, I asked, beseeched, and pleaded. And I lamented. I confessed. I reminded God what his Word said. I thanked. I listened. All of the above, almost all the time.
Prayer became breath, an ongoing, intimate conversation with this God I was knowing so much more deeply.
He taught me about unconditional love.
Along the way on this journey I fell in love with this boy—that love also a gift from God. As years passed, I asked, “Would it be so hard for him to be able to say those words—‘I love you, Mom’?”
God’s reply, in essence, was: Judy, unconditional love, by definition, doesn’t require love in return.
So I kept loving, and when 12 years had passed, I heard my son say, “I love you.” Those words come often now, and I am grateful. But I am also grateful for a small grasping of God’s unconditional love for me—and that he wants that love to flow through me to others.
He taught me God is always working.
Sometimes this boy/man made good choices. He wanted to turn his life around, to follow Jesus, and to have a good future. But those periods were brief, and his deep pain, fear and anxiety, his lack of coping skills, and his equally confused friends consistently drove him back to his destructive lifestyle. Despair hounded me.
But God would remind me time and again: Judy, I am with him. I started a good work in him, and I will finish it. Remember, “I am the Lord. In its time, I will do this swiftly” (Philippians 1:6; Isaiah 60:22b).
He taught me to give thanks.
The admonition to “give thanks in everything” became a way of life. When he came home drunk again, I thanked God that he was home safe. When he and his friends stole from me, I thanked God that he was working in them, even if I couldn’t see it. When he cut his head open with a chainsaw, I thanked God that my son’s first reaction was to thank God that he was not seriously injured. When I spent an hour texting with him to put down his gun and not take his life, I thanked God that long years of loving him prevailed.
And now? How is he now?
Prayers have been answered. Love is winning. God continues to give good gifts and teach me how to live a life overflowing with gratitude. He is married, with an angel of a wife, an artistic stepdaughter, and a new baby girl. He works harder than I have ever seen him work. He asks for prayer, advice, and sometimes a listening ear.
But any parent of a prodigal knows to be alert. I still live on my knees. This young man himself said, “Pray I can stay on God’s path. It’s narrow, and it’s easy to fall off.”
And how am I?
I’m grateful. I am such a different person because I received this gift. And as hard as the journey has been, my gratitude overflows.
Photo credit: Margaret Philbrick