On Sunday, May 2, 2004, Gael and Steve Shaffer of Woodstock, Va., walked into New Hope Church ready to worship. When they walked out an hour later, they’d taken an unexpected call from God.
With permission from the pastor, a local woman named Carol stood that day and announced to the congregation that she was suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had only a short time to live. The single mother didn’t ask for prayers, money or a healing miracle — she pled for someone to adopt and raise her 7-year-old son.
The sickly, long-suffering woman had already made arrangements for her son and daughter to be adopted after the mother's impending death. But plans for her son, Max, had fallen through. His 12-year-old sister would move to Maine to live with her biological father, but young Max had no such options.
Through the salty tears of a dying woman, Carol stood spiritually and emotionally bare before the worshippers and asked, “Will a family please adopt my son?”
The Shaffers’ eyes met and they exchanged more than just a quiet glance. They shared the kind of moment that only comes when husbands and wives recognize that God isn’t just their perfect creator, he’s also a partner in any healthy marriage.
The Shaffers had been married just two years, and the middle-aged couple had already raised children in their first marriages. They’d considered and investigated traditional adoption and the idea of raising a baby together was attractive. But if the pieces couldn’t fall into place, they’d take the time to enjoy their new life together.
Over the next few days, Steve Shaffer says that friends, family and their pastor encouraged them to consider adopting Peyton Maxwell "Max" Mahaney. But it wasn’t earthy voices that had the greatest impact. “All week long,” Steve said, “God worked on our hearts.”
Six days after Max’s mother stood in church, the Shaffers took the young slugger to his Little League baseball game and to lunch. It seemed as though they chose to try to behave as a family to determine whether they could actually become one.
The next morning they all awoke to Mother’s Day. As is custom in many churches, each of the children at New Hope was given a flower to present to their mother. When Max approached his mom sitting reverently on her pew, she quietly suggested Max deliver the rose to someone else. “She told me to give it to Gael,” he recalled. “She was going to be my new momma.”
Watching her son walk away and hand the rose to another woman must have been among the difficult things for a mother to do. But when God called, Carol answered.
He was also calling the Shaffers, and they answered with courage. On Monday they began meeting with lawyers and social services. On Friday, Max came to spend the weekend with them.
He never left.
Just 12 days after his mother stood up before God and the congregation to ask for help from his children, Max had a new home.
As expected, Carol’s health deteriorated, and within two weeks, she was gone. A few days after her death, the couple had legal guardianship and the entire journey had lasted less than one month.
Though the housing arrangements and other logistics took time — Max slept in a hallway for some time — Steve noted how prepared they seemed in other ways. “God prepared our hearts long before the physical things were ready. Though we have no blood connection, there’s been a matching of gifts and talents. Somehow, it’s all just worked.”
That what happens when you answer the call.
Nine Mother’s Days have passed and Max is more grateful than ever for his adoptive parents. “I feel so privileged and blessed to have them in my life,” he told me. “They've provided everything I need, and even some things that I want.”
Max admits that he was “worried, nervous and scared” in the early days of their relationship because he was too young to appreciate the miracle of the moment. “Today I know they want the best for me and they also help me to reach my best. I appreciate that, even though I do not show it.”
Spoken like a true teenage son.
Gael Shaffer, the woman who became guardian with a simple Mother’s Day rose, was quick to deflect praise to her husband. “I’ve learned what a tremendously important thing a father is in a child’s life. Max had never known a father until Steve. Max was hungry for what a father could provide, both the shared experiences and the discipline. I hadn’t had the opportunity to observe the change that occurs when a father appears in the life of a child who has never had one.”
Keen observations from a humble woman, but may she never forget that when God called, she was on the other end, too. Families start with mothers.
To flavor my understanding of Max's unusual journey, I asked his first grade teacher for her observations on this unique family saga. Melissa Dodge of W.W. Robinson Elementary School was Max's teacher the year his mother succumbed to her illnesses.
After heaping praise on the Shaffers for opening their hearts and home, Dodge offered that Max was her special challenge that year. "Max was defiant, stubborn, contrary, bright, strong and loyal and he knew exactly how to find my last nerve — every single time. Max has grown from a defiant little sparkplug on his own agenda to an amazing young man. He has become exactly what I knew he could, what I hoped and prayed for. He always had that special spark but in his early life it was diminished and overshadowed by his circumstances."
Dodge calls Max her greatest success story. "Not because of anything I did for him, but for what he has accomplished. He has taught me that no child is a lost cause and each one has potential for greatness. Sometimes you have to go digging for it."
Most of us will never adopt a child, much less in such unusual fashion. Nor will we likely be asked to grant a dying mother’s wish or upend our lives in some other dramatic way. No, our opportunities to serve probably won’t include a Mother’s Day miracle.
But what if the call came? Could I have responded the way this family did? Would you have recognized heaven’s hand in putting that particular son of God in your path? Shouldn’t we all be ready to embrace one who might not share our blood, but who shares our spiritual DNA with the same eternal father?
On a Sabbath Day in Virginia nine years ago, without knowing, a Christian couple set an example for the rest of us. No matter the question, no matter the service and no matter the sacrifice, we must be ready.
When God calls, will you have the courage to answer?
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters," and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at [email protected] or jasonfwright.com.