About ten years ago, Marvin Saunders fainted at work. Not sure why, he went to the doctor. The doctor diagnosed him with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Marvin and his wife, Joan, had a hard time remembering the name of the disease, but not the result. Marvin’s heart was dying. At 55 years old, the doctor told him that he had only three months to live.
When he arrived home, Marvin sat down in his recliner in the living room and there he stayed for weeks, depressed and waiting to die. His energy slowly dwindled as his heart lost strength. But, surprisingly, the three months came and went, and then a year went by. Though only functioning at 25%, Marvin’s heart kept on beating. That’s when Marvin and Joan decided they needed to do something. They still had something to give. What they found was foster parenting.
Four years after the fainting spell, they applied for a foster license and went through all the training. They were certified as foster parents that same year.
Soon the first foster children arrived at the Saunder’s home. Over the next six years, 28 children, mostly infants and toddlers, would pass through their home, some staying for only a few days, others for up to two years. At one point, they had six young foster children at the same time.
Most people thought they were crazy. At their age and with their health, was that such a good idea? But what Marvin and Joan lacked in youthful energy, they made up for in experience, love and time. The foster agency continually wanted to send them more children because every child who went to their home thrived.
Even more importantly, every child who went to their home attended church and Sunday School. Every child learned to pray before meals and at bedtime. Every child was told and shown how much their Savior Jesus loved them.
But as the years passed, Marvin’s heart grew weaker. Soon, he was forced to spend his entire day sitting in his recliner in the living room. He would often get frustrated and depressed. He had always been extremely active, hard working and independent.
When I visited Marvin and Joan during that time, we had long talks about his frustration. As we visited, however, I noticed something. There was always a child on Marvin’s lap. Joan told me that every day, for hours on end, the children would come and sit on his lap. He would rock the babies to sleep. He would hug and play and laugh with the toddlers. They would nap together.
Marvin struggled with why he was struck with a terminal heart condition. He struggled with not being “productive” anymore. But he came to see God’s loving hand at work in his life. If Marvin hadn’t been sick, he wouldn’t have had time to sit and hold all those children on his lap. Twenty-eight different children from broken and abusive homes, homes filled with violence and addiction—28 different children sat on Marvin’s lap, felt his warm embrace, and learned from him of their Savior’s great love.
When our bodies are weakened by disease and eroded by age, we can easily come to feel like Marvin Saunders did. “What good am I? I can’t do what I used to be able to do. I am worthless like this.” We too can be tempted to sit in our recliners and wait to die.
As Marvin learned, God always has a purpose for us. In Christ, our lives always have meaning. Don’t focus on what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do to serve God and others. It may be simply holding a child on your lap or having one sit next to you in church. It may be showing and sharing Christ’s love with them. It may be praying for your neighbor or being an example of faith for your grandchildren. Know that if God has you here on earth, it is because your life has meaning and a purpose.
Marvin’s lap is usually empty nowadays. His health has declined to the point that he and Joan are no longer able to have foster children. Though he misses the children terribly, Marvin now knows and understands. If God has us here, he has us here for a reason. And even though his heart is dying, Marvin is at peace. “I’m not worried,” he tells me. “I’m pretty well content. Whenever Jesus is ready for me, I know where I’m going.”
(A version of this article was first published in 2010 in the national Christian magazine Forward in Christ. Marvin was called home to heaven that same year.)