Tonight my family gathered for dinner. I was too worn out to fuss with dishes so we dealt paper plates around the table while little hands over-filled water cups. Silverware drawers slammed. Chaos, mess, laughter, shouting. My kids were excited because they happen to love casserole (or “hot dish” as its called in Minnesota) and I rarely make it. I didn’t make this one either. A dear friend from church dropped off a meal and a hug because she knew that amidst this everyday chaos, we are setting an extra place at the table.
Setting an extra place at the table. It sounds so simple. It’s what we tell families interested in hosting kids whose parents are in crisis, “You don’t have to rearrange your life, you just set an extra place at the table.” And we aren’t lying. In a practical sense, that’s exactly what we do as host families. We wrap these kids into the folds of our routines and household rhythms – treating them both as a guest and one of our own.
But any host family will tell you that opening your door to a child is sets in motion a chain of events in our hearts and lives far more complex than merely setting an extra place would imply. It’s complicated, poignant, and life-altering.
And the little one sleeping upstairs is a perfect example of why.
This is our fifth time hosting this particular child and there is a connection between us forged in familiarity. He lights up with joy when he’s reunited with my kids, and believe me the feeling is mutual. He knows where the bathroom is and makes himself at home in the kitchen. He joins forces with my youngest in a quest to see who can be the silliest and loudest. And just when I murmur to myself, “Lord have mercy, two preschool boys are going to be the death of me,” he melts my heart with his toothless grin as he hands me a huge bouquet of weeds picked from the pasture he was told to stay out of.
I know him well enough that when he turns on the tears at bedtime, I simply raise an eyebrow call him out on the theatrics. He knows me well enough to giggle and dance off to get his jammies on without further ado. He used to be terrified of nighttime in our big quiet house but now nestles into bed among mounds of stuffed animals and peacefully drifts to sleep. I know he likes the door wide open and hall lights on and he knows I’m good for a quick cuddle if he wakes up scared in the middle of the night.
This child has been in and out of our home and other host family’s care for two years and many reasons. He has has amassed a mini army of individuals head over heels for him – and who can blame us? He is charming, gregarious, silly, and adorable. I swear we borderline fight over him when he needs care.
But along with the familiarity comes sadness. Because its not just his favorite foods and bedtime preferences that I know about. I know about the hard places he comes from and goes back to each time. I know something about what he’s seen and heard and how this little life has tread a rocky path. I desperately want stability for this little man. I want the happy ending to come and its not coming.
I pray and silently cheer for his sweet mama to make it. Come on, mama, you can do this.
But a little voice nags me, asking what if she can’t? What if his story looks the same or even worse years down the road? When will the success story play out? Why does he keep coming back into care again and again? Should we still be helping here?
These are hard questions to chew on for a compassion-driven fixer like myself.
The longer I am involved with hosting children, the more I’ve come face to face with my American need for gratification. It’s tempting to treat our time and energy as a precious commodity only to be meted out to the most deserving. And when I don’t see a whole lot changing, its tempting to move on to another family more needy, more deserving, more likely to have a happy ending that I get to feel good about playing a role in.
But that’s not how serving works. Does Jesus pick and choose whom He will show mercy to? Is that how I wound up saved? Where are we told in the Bible to serve for our own self-interest or personal gratification? Who exactly is responsible for the results in any ministry?
Jesus taught us how to love our neighbor: Unconditionally. With long-suffering. Placing his needs above our own. The good Samaritan didn’t wonder about outcomes. He didn’t consider if there was someone more worthy of his assistance down the road. He didn’t tap his foot impatiently and tell the man to hurry up and get his act together or he was moving on. He simply extended generous, self-sacrificing mercy in that moment.
We are told to go and do likewise.
God is teaching me so much. I don’t get to be the savior in this boy’s life. I don’t get to be the hero to his mom. Heck, I don’t even have him in my home as often as some other hosts and am only playing a tiny part in his story. I just get to set another place at my table this week and be a safe harbor for the time I have him. I have to pray and fully trust God with his life. There’s nothing more I can do.
God has to be the more.
In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind. Job 12:10
So yes, I am setting another place at my table. I’m chasing preschoolers, reading the “just one more” story, and doling out midnight cuddles. But I also am developing a love and burden for the kids I serve and seeing my own smallness in their story.
I am also realizing how amidst all of this, God is setting a place in my heart. Not only for this boy, but for Christ, himself. He is using this place to mold and shape me into His image. He is humbling me and teaching me that His timetable is not mine. His definition of success is beyond what I can even comprehend. And God is reminding me that He is not just the hero of this story, he is the author.