On June 24, 2013, a missionary came to live in my home. He arrived without pomp and circumstance, but demanded that every member of my family participate in his mission. We welcomed him gladly, little knowing how much he would change us for the better and teach us about the meaning of life.
He could never walk or talk – or even see or reach out a hand toward us. In time, he brought complexities, challenges, and, yes, suffering into our home. He required our energy, time, and resources. How, then, could we call him a missionary?
Let me tell you about Matthew. Born nine weeks early, he came to us after spending the first three weeks of his life in the NICU. His mother, knowing she would be unable to parent him, surrendered her parental rights after birth. She hoped Matthew would have an adoptive family who could more adequately provide for him. We took him in as a foster child until a permanent family was found.
At first, Matthew seemed to be a healthy baby who would be easily placed in a loving adoptive home. As weeks turned into months, however, it became increasingly clear that Matthew was unable to meet even the simplest developmental milestones. Matthew could not roll over, crawl, lift his head, sit up, or even move his body slightly to relieve an uncomfortable position. He suffered from a seizure disorder, and the medication he needed to control it made him lethargic. At times he was too weak to eat, and when he did, he suffered from digestive problems. He was often in respiratory distress and could not engage in play. Although his eyes were beautiful and structurally fine, a neurological impairment claimed his sight. At twenty-two months of age, Matthew had a list of medical conditions, medications, and treatment plans that easily surpassed those of my five biological children combined.
We were not initially prepared to care for a medically fragile infant. But because Matthew’s story unfolded slowly and his ailments increased gradually over time, caring for him did not overwhelm us. The medical equipment arrived as needed, nursing care was set up in our home, and doctors were added to the team. We discovered that Matthew’s older brother, placed with the same agency thirteen years prior, had died as a foster child at age three of complications from an unknown genetic disorder. Might Matthew be a victim of the same genetic disorder that had claimed his brother’s life? Because the agency still had case workers’ notes from his brother, we were able to find similarities in Matthew’s condition and make more informed decisions regarding treatment. We felt God’s grace guiding us throughout.
Loving Matthew was not for the weak of heart, though, for every day with him was a reminder of his imminent departure from this world. There are no words to adequately express what it felt like to know that his genetic disorder was pulling him toward an early death, while simultaneously feeling immense gratitude for every moment spent in his presence. Each moment was a moment of surrender. All too often, the boy I had put to bed the night before was replaced by a child with new symptoms, new ailments, and new difficulties the next morning. As Matthew’s family, we welcomed each new version of him and learned to accommodate his growing needs, while simultaneously grieving the person he had been just days before. Every morning, we were simply thankful that he was alive. Without an intuition that Matthew’s precious life had a spiritual purpose, the daily letting go of the boy I had come to know and love might have seemed impossible. Through Matthew, surrender to the natural ebb and flow of life was written into our hearts. We felt privileged to be the ones closest to him because he transformed us from people who were merely living to people who were living with purpose.
We may recognize that God alone has control over each of our days, yet all too often as soon as our feet hit the floor in the morning we jump behind the wheel to navigate our own path, neglecting to consult the divine map created for each one of us by God. More than anyone else I know, Matthew was weak and helpless, relying completely on prayer, grace, divine help, and the loving care of those around him. His life was like a car without a steering wheel. We had to trust God with the steering of Matthew’s life and, as a consequence, our own. Life with Matthew was a lesson in surrender, in giving up all control. Matthew allowed us to care for him. That is why he was our missionary.
Someone recently asked me, “Why did you waste a year and a half fostering that boy when you could have been making a difference by fostering a healthy child?” Although a well-meaning question coming from an individual with a deep love for God, it stung me profoundly. Have we forgotten that we, as human beings, are called to do more than just live healthy and successful lives? Have we forgotten that we are called to do more than simply nourish our bodies? Have we forgotten that we are called to give, that we are called to community? Have we, as a culture, given up on the intrinsic value of each human life?
Every day we hear stories of broken people who are choosing to die because of challenges or illnesses; we hear they are choosing a “dignified death” over a life of suffering. Sometimes their loved ones, while perhaps not applauding their decisions, support their choices to end their lives. This can only happen when people fail to understand the value of life or its true purpose. So many people spend their lives eating and drinking, sleeping and waking, working and seeking entertainment. Their bodies may be living. But until they embrace the service to others that we are each called to, they will never become truly alive.
Perhaps they have never had the opportunity to learn from a teacher like Matthew. He represented all that we are called to be as members of the human race. He was commanding as he delivered his message, causing all who knew him to pause and pay attention. We witnessed firsthand his power to bring grown men to tears. We saw him bring people together through his love, his needs, and his gentle smile—people who would have otherwise had no reason to unite. We experienced his ability to change our perspectives on the marginalized, on service, and on life. And over time, we watched his purpose in life increase, even as his body deteriorated.
A few weeks ago, Matthew moved across the country to his adoptive family. I watched the faces of his nurses and my family and friends as they said their goodbyes. They were not the faces of people unaffected. They were the faces of people who had been deeply touched, changed forever. They were people grieving at the realization that their time with this great person had come to an end. His absence would be their loss. Each one had been touched directly by the love of God bestowed on earth in the form of a broken body: a beautiful boy named Matthew.
As I fold the few remaining shirts and pajamas that Matthew left behind, allowing myself to feel the pain of letting him go, I realize that I am truly alive. I have a mission beyond myself and my immediate family. The pain I feel is a testament that Matthew has done his missionary work well. He has enlightened minds, softened hearts, and drawn many souls nearer to God.