- John Van Sloten
The Story of Edward's Birth (and my call to become a pastor)
This morning I woke up thinking about my son Edward's birth, and how God so powerfully used the event to call me into the ministry. Not only that, but God also embedded the very nature of my calling - my passion to name his providential presence in the world - into that call.
Here's the story again (from Chapter Two of The Day Metallica Came to Church);
I was working on an out of town project; retrofitting a dilapidated old office tower. The goal was to take this tired, outdated structure and make it commercially viable. Early one afternoon, as the project architect was explaining one of his design details to me, I got a call.
“I’m in labour John... [heavy breathing]... your mom is going to drive me to the hospital right now... [more breathing]... you better get on the road quick!” Five minutes later, I’m whizzing down the 401 and heading back toward Toronto, calmly going over what was about to play out. Baby number three – been there, done that – no need to worry. In a couple of hours I’ll be there and then, a few hours after that it’ll all be over. I wonder if it’ll be a boy or a girl. Shouldn’t change things all that much at home as we already had one of each. Hope I get there in time. I’ll get there on time. This will not be a problem.
As usual, things were under control. By the time I arrived at the hospital Fran was well into labor, and, even though it was coming early, everything seemed to be proceeding normally. Then our obstetrician showed up. As she calmly assessed the situation, her demeanor suddenly changed, “The baby is breech and we need to do an emergency C-section – right now!” Ok, this is different... goodbye cozy delivery room equipped with a television and an easy chair; hello, sterile operating theatre... hospital greens all around! Fran wasn’t all that excited about the change of accommodation either (something about not wanting to give up the nitrous oxide gas she was so enjoying). C-sections; they take all of the romance out of childbirth. Thank goodness for the green sheet that hung between Fran’s head and her abdomen. One epidural later the two of us were having a nice relaxed conversation on one side of the table, while 3 or 4 medical staff were frenetically rushing around on the other. We both tried to hide our worry. Thirty minutes into the procedure, they lifted a baby out of her womb – a boy!
“The cord was wrapped around his neck twice,” the doctor said. “Good thing we took this route.” I kissed Fran on the forehead and then walked over to the table where they were cleaning Edward up. The nurses all seemed so serious. It must be some kind of C-Section protocol, I thought. Staring at my new son, I felt this weird feeling. He was kind of funny looking. At first I thought he looked a lot like my brother-in-law’s funny looking kids. I figured he’d grow out of it and, a few minutes later, I made my “it’s a boy” phone calls. When they whisked Edward off to the ‘special care nursery,’ I thought, Okaaay...this is different. No normal family bonding time, but hey, that’s probably part of the C-section thing again; obviously they need to put Fran back together first. As I shuttled back and forth from the nursery to the recovery room, that weird feeling kept nagging at me. I sensed that something was wrong. Edward was getting a whole lot more medical attention than either of our other kids ever did. And he still looked kind of different. I couldn’t really put my finger on it but something was seriously off.
But I didn’t want to voice my concern. I kept thinking, a good father wouldn’t question his son in this way.
Finally I just had to know. So I asked the attending nurse, “Is there anything wrong with him?” She didn’t say anything (hospital policy... only a doctor can tell the parents). Again I asked her if there was a problem. Silence. Head down she kept working on Edward. Then – and I still don’t know how I knew enough to ask this question – I asked, “Does he have Down syndrome?” The nurse lifted her head and looked me in the eye; tears were streaming down her face.
I was stunned. On that endless walk back to my wife’s recovery room, I couldn’t even begin to process what was happening. I couldn’t see, or hear, or feel anything. I was totally lost. There’s no rehearsing for something like this. How could I possibly tell her?
Barely able to enter her room, I just stood in the doorway. When Fran saw my shaken demeanor, her face changed from exhausted to concerned to panicked within seconds. “What’s the matter,” she cried out. “What’s the matter with Edward?”
She thought he’d died.
When I told her that he had Down syndrome, she exclaimed with relief, “Oh, is that all.”
After making a second set of phone calls to family, and spending the rest of the evening sitting with Fran and the baby, I finally made my way home. Alone in my car I couldn’t stop crying; not the safest driver on the road that night. When I got home I ran down the hallway, fell face first onto my bed, and screamed out to God, “I can’t do this... there is no way in the world I can handle this... I cannot do it!” “You’re right! You can’t John,” was the response. “But I can.”
No angel at the foot of my bed, no audible words, just that ‘know that you know that you know’ kind of feeling that only God can evoke. In the middle of a storm, in response to all of my ranting and raging, there was this mysterious, overriding word of peace; of hope.
But I wasn’t able to listen. Catching my breath, I started to run scenarios of how rotten it was going to be being the father of a retarded child (sorry, no political correctness yet). I imagined going to church that Sunday and having to tell the entire community about my disabled boy. How would I be able to talk about him when I wasn’t even sure that I could love him?
Then I thought about how crappy things would be when he was eight years old. We’d go bowling with other dads and their retarded kids, and they’d have to put those big bumpers in the gutters because none of the kids would be able to throw a ball straight.
Then I envisioned Edward at age eighteen, sitting at a table in the corner of some high school cafeteria, all by himself, staring at his lunch. Who would ever befriend this severely disabled teenager?
And then finally, I imagined him at the age of forty, walking down a gloomy corridor of some dismal institution, dirty, disheveled, and completely lost, alone, and unloved. At that point in his life Fran and I would be dead and only the state would be left to take care of him. It was a very rough night. Three months later, the pain had subsided somewhat, and I left home for a week long trip to Rochester, New York. A year earlier, I’d committed to taking a group of teens on a community service road trip; six days of helping the down and out. I really didn’t want to go, but Fran thought it would be good for me. The first evening in town our group attended a special church service designed to welcome and orient us to the upcoming week’s activities. At the end of the service, as we all stood to leave, I turned around and looked at the people in the pews behind me. Three rows back, I spotted what looked to be a forty year old man with Down syndrome. Beside him stood two very old, frail looking, grey haired parents. Taking in the scene, my gut churned. Sensing I was about to lose control, I quickly headed out to the car and called my wife. I told her what had just happened, “Obviously I’m not ready for this week yet Fran... I think I should come home.” My wife, being a very tender and compassionate person, the kind who always listens and understands, knew exactly what to say. “Suck it up John, right now. There’s no way you’re coming home, so get over it. Get back into that church right now and do what you went there to do. You’ve got a group of teens that are counting on you!”
So tender – so understanding! After re-composing myself, I walked back into the church foyer. As soon as I had walked through the door the man with Down syndrome saw me. From the other side of the room, he quickly made his way over and introduced himself as Mark. Then he wrapped his arms around my waist, hugged me, and lifted me off of the ground. Again, the tears flowed. When his parents saw what their son was doing, they were horrified. Rushing over they told him to put me down. By then I recovered enough to explain the real reason for my tears. They breathed a sigh of relief and we all talked. They offered me a different vision of what parenting a disabled boy could look like. As the father spoke, I kept looking into his eyes. “He’s okay with this,” I thought, “...with this special needs life that he’s been dealt. He’s at peace with it all. He’s okay!”
His peaceful demeanor was at least partially explained by what he told me about the place Mark lived. It was part of a huge, state funded, network of assisted living group homes specially designed for people with disabilities that Mark’s dad had been able to envision, start up and operate. Mark was living in one of those homes with a few close friends. Two days later our group hit Rochester’s downtown streets and we found ourselves serving up lunch to the urban homeless. My job that day was to hand a plate of food to each of the clients/customers. I tried to say something nice, fun or witty to each person and make them smile. Half way through the lunch rush, I was looking at Crystal’s smiling face. She was about thirty years old, dressed in rags and all of her teeth were rotten; a drug addict living on the street. As I stared at her, she looked down to her side and introduced the next person in line, “This is my son.” An eight-year-old boy with Down syndrome.
It took me a second or two, pretending to work in the back corner of the kitchen, to pull myself together. Then I walked around to the other side of the serving counter and sat at Crystal’s table. Her son’s name, coincidentally, was also Mark. We talked for ten or fifteen minutes, about life as a parent of a special needs kid, about Mark’s progress and prospects. Crystal didn’t seem to grasp how tough her situation really was. Not just living in poverty, but also having to handle Mark’s special needs on top of it all. All she could do was talk about how good a boy he was. And the whole time she spoke, Mark kept pulling back his t-shirt sleeve, showing me his biceps and telling me how strong he was.
I kept peering at him. He was so beautiful. And he appeared to be quite fit, with hard well-defined biceps, and a lean, taut body. That was comforting for me to see, since, surrounded by early intervention therapists, we’d been working on trying to help Edward lift his head off of the carpet; his muscle tone was so poor! And yet this eight-year-old boy was so strong.
Two days later our community service assignment involved taking a group of disabled teens to the Buffalo Aquarium. Arriving at their group home, I fully anticipated again meeting someone with Down syndrome and I wasn’t disappointed. Sitting on the couch in the living room was an eighteen-year-old named Joe. The moment I sat beside him, he shot me this glare. When I introduced myself and asked him if he’d be joining us for the day trip, he responded by telling me that he wasn’t interested at all. It was Friday and he was heading off to the cottage for the weekend with a bunch of his friends. As he spoke he gave off this vibe like, “Why in the world would I ever want to hang around with a bunch of people like you, at some aquarium, when I could go to the lake with my buddies instead?” And you could tell that he would have friends. He was confident and had a pretty sharp wit. Even though he was somewhat rude, it was perfect! Just like any other teen, he had a healthy amount of disdain for the patronizing likes of an adult like me! The next day, we packed our car and began the long road trip home. Along the way, in one of those totally exhausted, no-one-in-the-car-is-talking moments, I found myself thinking of home. I missed my family, and in particular I desperately wanted to see Edward. Then I realized that this was the first time I’d ever felt that way toward him. And the thought hit me, “If I’m missing Edward, then that must mean I love him.” Three months after his birth I finally realized that I loved him. At that moment, a deep sense of peace washed over me.
And I began to listen. The night after arriving home, I sat down to journal about my amazing Rochester adventure. Then it hit me, “that night, three months ago, when I was lying in my bed running all of those awful scenarios of how terrible it was going to be to be Edward’s dad, God had the events I had just experienced in mind. God knew. And right down to the last detail, each one of my anxious imaginary stories was recast, retold, and redeemed.” I can still remember the moment as if it were today; sitting in my living room, laptop on my knees, my whole being trembling in the awe of it all. Overwhelmed by the profound reality of Divine sovereignty; blown away by the very real and tangible presence of the providence of God. I had never, ever felt what I was feeling in that particular moment. It was like I was standing before Him... seeing Omni-presence, feeling All-Knowingness, allowing the All-Powerful force of my Creator to wash over me. Never before had I ever experienced or understood what I was experiencing and understanding in that moment.
That God would love me so much that he would show me this. At that precise moment, I knew that something inside of me had been profoundly and un-alterably changed. How could it not? It felt as though I’d just been introduced to the maker of the universe! It was like he was walking beside me and then sharply elbowed me into this new direction, onto a different path. And while I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant, I felt as though I needed to work for him in a more formal sense, full-time. I remember saying, “God, if this is who you really are, if you really are this much in control, this big, this powerfully and mysteriously at work in the world, then I’ll do anything for you, I’ll change my whole life. The world needs to know about this!” This, of course, was God’s mysterious plan all along.
Photo credit; Noah Fallis