Monday, March 14, 2011

If You Love Happy Endings …

I spent some time in court last Tuesday afternoon. No, I wasn’t on trial for anything. I was there to watch the next chapter in a story that I’ve been watching for seven years now. But I get ahead of myself.

It all started when a mother called the church to see if we could help with Christmas presents for her seven-year-old son Gunnar. The family's names were then given to one of our Sunday School classes. Two ladies in the class, Sally and Terry, were assigned to purchase and deliver presents for those two boys. Little did Sally and Terry know what they were getting into when they stopped by the house to drop off the presents! God had bigger things in mind. In fact, though unbeknownst to Sally and Terry, God was shaping an answer to a little boy’s prayer. And it wasn’t a prayer for nice presents or a new bike for Christmas. Gunnar had been asking God to rescue him from the situation in which he lived. I won’t go into the problems in their home, but suffice it to say they were serious and dangerous: two parents who loved their kids in their own way but with some serious issues. They were way over their head in trying to take care of a child.

So Sally and Terry dropped off the presents and Gunnar took more than the presents they carried in their arms; he stole the ladies’ hearts. They were drawn to Gunnar; Gunnar was drawn to them. And they knew this would not be their last visit with this family. So instead of turning a blind eye or writing off that family’s troubles as just tough luck for a little boy, Sally and Terry began to work with the family. The family even added another boy not long after—a little bundle of joy named Freddy. Amid many frustrations, Sally and Terry didn’t give up. They continued to try to help this family be a family. But it was a losing battle. And what began as an effort to help parents take care of their own children eventually became legal guardianship of those boys for Sally and Terry.

Sally is a college president. Terry is an administrator in a local public school. Sally has never married. Terry has already raised two kids of her own. Now, as longtime friends well into their 50s, they share a home, and they invited Gunnar and Freddy to live in their home and be their boys for awhile. The court agreed to legal guardianship, and Gunnar and Freddy moved in. Did I tell you that this answered a second prayer Gunnar had prayed: that he and Freddy get to move in with Sally and Terry?

Finally placed in soil with the right nutrients, Gunnar and Freddy began to blossom. Our church family watched this unfold before our eyes. We watched shy, insecure children become more confident, more open, more social, and less anxious. Hillary Clinton wrote a book in which she said it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it takes a church too, and a number of folks in the church stepped up to help Sally and Terry love and care for those boys. Mandy became the A-#1 babysitter, and R.L. and Diana provided a lot of care for the boys too (Sally and Terry have busy careers and lives). Dr. Lance took those boys fishing whenever he could. Our children’s and youth pastors reached out in a variety of ways. Sunday School teachers helped. It was a group effort. A good counselor and a kind attorney played their roles in this drama too. But it’s always been Sally and Terry on the frontlines. In spite of the emotional and physical weariness that comes from trying to raise two young boys (young enough to be their grandchildren), in spite of the extra emotional baggage those boys carry, and in spite of the demands of challenging occupations, Sally and Terry invested their lives and their time and their resources in those boys. They did it gladly. And in doing so, they rescued two boys from God-knows-what. Gunnar’s prayers were answered.

The rescue effort took a new turn on Tuesday. Gunnar and Freddy were officially adopted by another family. Sally and Terry were very careful about the process, but God opened the door to a Christian family that has raised some kids of their own and was ready to raise some more. After months of checking it out and giving the boys and the family plenty of time to see if this was right, they all determined it was. God was in it. God was for it. And God was going to get it done. And it’s a pretty sweet deal for Gunnar and Freddy. They get to live in the country. They have a horse to ride and woods to explore and play in. And best of all, they have new parents with the maturity to love them and guide them and provide for them. Add to their new family a couple of grandmothers named Sally and Terry, and God couldn't have been kinder to Gunnar and Freddy. The boys have even decided that they wanted to take their new family's name. Every kid should have it so good. And I'll admit it: even though I’m not as close to those boys as are several others, I got a little misty-eyed at court watching God pour out all this grace on those boys. I found myself praying He would do as much for so many other children who are in the same boat. As you can imagine, Sally and Terry were pretty emotional too. And they should be. They literally saved those boys lives in so many ways. And they did it when they didn’t have to, when nobody would have expected them to, and when some of the people who watched this unfold must have thought those two ladies were nuts to take on such a challenge. After the proceedings were over, I hugged Sally, and whispered these words the Lord gave me to say to her: “And God said, ‘I’m proud of my daughter Sally.’” And He’s proud of his daughter Terry too. A party followed in the jury room—and I'm pretty sure heaven threw a party as well. What can I say? I’m a sucker for happy endings.

That’s probably a good place to stop, but there’s one more thing I want to tell you about this story. Around three years ago, Gunnar trusted Jesus as His Savior and Lord. God had answered Gunnar’s prayer that he and Freddy be saved from their dangerous home. And now God answered Gunnar's prayer for the salvation of his soul. In obedience to Jesus, Gunnar followed his commitment to Jesus with baptism. I’ll never forget it. It meant so much to him and to everyone who had played a role in Gunnar’s story. It was emotional for a lot of us.

And at the end of the service when I was giving him his baptism certificate and Bible, I reminded him that while he no longer lived with his birth family, adoption is a beautiful thing because that’s the only way any of us can become a child of God. The apostle Paul put it this way: “God predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph. 1:5).

Then, God prompted me to tell him a Fred Craddock story that came to mind. Craddock writes that while eating dinner at a small restaurant in the Smoky Mountains, he and his wife were engaged in conversation by an old man. The old man asked them lots of questions about where they lived and what they did. When Craddock told the man that he was a minister in the Christian church, the old man said that he owed a great deal to a minister of a Christian church, and he pulled up a chair to tell his story.

The old man said that he grew up in those Tennessee mountains. His mother was not married and everybody in town knew it. He was what people called an illegitimate child, though most used the more degrading and derogatory term. The old man said, “In those days that was a shame, and I was ashamed.” He felt the stares and the glares of people everywhere he went. He heard the whispers when he entered a room, heard people trying to guess who his father might be. Needless to say, he tended to stay to himself and really didn’t have any friends.

In his early teens he started to attend the Laurel Springs Christian Church. He was attracted to the minister, a man with a chiseled face, a heavy beard, and a deep voice. “I waited until sermon time to enter the church,” he said, “and I hurried out as soon as it was over, fearing that someone would stop me and say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing in a church?’”

One Sunday as he was trying to hurry out, he got trapped in a line of people. That’s when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the minister. “He turned me around," said the old man, "so we were face to face. He studied me for a moment. I knew what he was doing: he was trying to figure out who my father might be.” A moment later the preacher said, “Well, boy, you’re a child of …” and he paused there. “I knew what was coming,” said the old man. “I knew I would have my feelings hurt and I would never come back to that church again.” And then the preacher finished his sentence: “Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance, boy.” Then, the preacher swatted him on the bottom and said, “Now, you go claim your inheritance.” The old man concluded his story by saying, “I left that building a different person. In fact, that was really the beginning of my life.”

Craddock was so moved by the story he had to ask the old man, “What’s your name?” The man said, “Ben Hooper.” And that’s when Craddock recalled his own father once telling him about how the people of Tennessee had twice elected as governor an illegitimate named Ben Hooper.

I told that story to Gunnar and I could tell the same story to his brother Freddy. Why? Because I see a striking resemblance of their Heavenly Father in both of them. And with a Father like God, who knows how He might bless and use their lives in years to come. You should have seen God use Gunnar’s life and testimony at a camp our church hosted last summer for at-risk kids. Everybody saw the resemblance of Gunnar’s Father in him at that camp. Anyway, that’s a bit of the rest of the story—a story yet to unfold in it fullest. Makes me think of something else the apostle Paul had to say, "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6). I guess God loves happy endings too.

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