I Will Stay
This Lenten season, I have been reflecting on two areas of my life where I have experienced both the blessing and the challenge of saying “yes” to God. The first is in the area of work, the second area is in parenting. Everyday, in each area, I am faced with uncertainty. Despite this uncertainty, I feel tremendous grace to remain in and fully inhabit the spaces where God has placed me.
For a number of years I worked in a hospital with patients and their families at the end of life. For me, it is privilege and an honor to spend time with the dying. My ongoing experience of death - the “good”, peaceful deaths, and the not so peaceful deaths - is not what I expected when I started working in the palliative care field. To be present at the moment of death is, for me, to be very near heaven. The veil is especially thin; it feels as if I can almost touch heaven. When I think of death I cannot help but worship God for his victory over death, even as I mourn for those who have died. Christ’s victory on the cross has removed the sting of death. Death no longer has the final word. I can echo Paul’s words, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting (1 Corinthians 15:55)?” I am in awe of God’s work of redemption, his saving power over death, and the fact that he has conquered what we fear most – death itself.
I am also a foster mom. My husband and I love our foster daughter and want to adopt her if given the opportunity. However, it is not clear what will happen with her case, and every few days we receive more information about her situation that only further drives home how precarious it is; how uncertain the outcome. It is easy for me to become anxious about the future. I am powerless to influence or direct the course of events but I desperately want to have control over what happens. I have an idea of what seems best for her but I can’t know for sure what is in her best interest long term: staying with us, returning to her family of origin, or going to live with a blood relative.
People often ask “how do you do it?” How do you find strength to work with the dying? How do you open yourself up to loving a child who may not remain in your home?
If one looks at death from a solely human perspective, it is horrible, hopeless, and final. When viewed with spiritual eyes, it helps us to place our hope in a merciful God who loves us and desires life, not death, for us. Christ came to a broken and sinful world to heal, restore, and make all things new. He changes death into life. This life lives in me, and I bring it with me into every room, every situation, every encounter - including foster care.
None of us can know our children’s futures or say with certainty that they will remain with us. We are called to love them today. For love, in God’s economy, is never wasted. Because I cannot hide from the reality of an uncertain future, I am continually reminded that my foster daughter is a gift to love and cherish fully, with all of my of heart. That reality is something I can be present to, act on, and influence now, even in the midst of uncertainty. “When one loves, one does not calculate,” wrote Therese of Lisieux. Such action (to love her without calculating) is absolutely and always in her best interest, whatever the future may hold.
But remembering all of the things the Lord has done for me in the past, and the things he has done for my foster daughter, keeping her healthy and safe through pregnancy and delivery, keeping her safe now, gives me hope. To paraphrase Psalm 43:5 “Why, my soul, are you in despair? Why so anxious within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him my savior and my God.” God has acted and protected. He acts and protects now. He will act and protect in the future. Rather than be consumed by worry, I now say every day: “Thank you for letting me be her mom today.” I hope I can say the same thing tomorrow.
Both at work and in my personal life, being near death, pain, uncertainty, and suffering presses me to find my hope and strength in God’s love. He has poured his love into my heart through the gift of his Spirit (Romans 5:5) and that gives me strength to love fully and without counting the cost in return. There is so much pain and ugliness in the world, so many needs that are larger than what I have to give. I do not have enough within me to meet all of the demands and concerns of my family or those I serve at work. I do not have what it takes to comfort them, change their circumstances, or control outcomes. I am often in situations where the need is overwhelming and I am so lacking that I feel helpless and unsure of what I can do; I want to turn and walk the other way. From a human perspective I recognize that I have little or nothing to give.
I am a beggar and only God can make up for what I lack. In my want I can say like Peter who met the lame man in the temple, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you” (Acts 3:6). I can sit, listen, and be present to each patient, to witness their experience, and uphold their dignity. I can love my foster daughter today, even with the uncertainty of what tomorrow may bring. I can choose not to run away, but to stay, be present, and love. Christ did not shy away from pain, from ugliness, and from suffering when he embraced the cross for my sake. I know that his cross can give me strength to embrace suffering and be a light in painful places.
There are times when I am tempted to think that my competence, efforts, skills, and training are enough to get the job done. But, daily, as I am pushed past my natural abilities and skills, and recognize my limitations, I get a glimpse of what Paul the Apostle means when he says, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” It is God’s mercy to place me at the edge of my capabilities so that, in humility, I will know my reliance on him. I know that his love is stronger than death, stronger than my own anxiety, more powerful than the foster care system, and more powerful than my own expectations about what is best for my foster daughter. With God’s ongoing grace may I stay faithful to his call.
By Janice Firn
Janice Firn is a member of the Word of Life Community. She and her husband, Dallas Burkholder, live and work in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They have fostered 3 children and hope to foster more. Janice has a PhD in Palliative Care from Lancaster University in the UK and is a social worker by training, having worked in oncology, palliative care, and now ethics. She loves to travel, especially if it involves using her passport, and enjoys reading, dark chocolate, and a good cup of coffee. (Photo credit: Melissa Giles Photography)