The Dentist’s Perspective

This morning I took my daughter Anah to her regular 6-month appointment at the dentist. They took x-rays of her mouth, cleaned her teeth, gave her a fluoride treatment, and even did some extra work of putting sealant on her lower teeth. Then she got to pick out a prize from the “treasure chest” and get her picture taken for the “Zero Cavity Wall” of photos. It felt almost normal.

dentist-officeWhat a difference from 4 years ago when I took her to the same dentist shortly after arriving home with her from China! In that first visit, she fought against everything they tried to do–she was terrified of the x-ray machine, she had to be physically restrained in the dentist chair, and they did well just to get enough peeks into her mouth to see that she had cavities on just about every tooth. Even after all of that initial work was completed (under general anesthesia), she still fought and struggled with everything–especially x-rays–so I dreaded those trips to the dentist.

In time, however, she gradually has learned what to expect at the dentist’s office. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for her dentist and the hygienists and office staff there, who have been truly kind and gentle and gracious (and persistent!) with her through all of this. And so this morning, they all were commenting what a huge difference it was today compared to that first year or two.

As I drove home with her, I thought about how much I need the dentist’s perspective on all the other areas of Anah’s life too. The dentist only sees her 2 or 3 times in a year, so every time she sees her, she can see some significant change in Anah. I see Anah every day, and oftentimes the continuous daily battles and struggles eclipse any sense of progress or growth. It’s only when I step back and look at last year or 3 years ago that I can see that there really is improvement.

I suppose it is the same in my life too. When I fall again to the same sin or struggle that I’ve dealt with for years, it feels like I will never change. But if I can look beyond the daily battle to see the longer term perspective, then I can see that indeed God is at work changing and sanctifying my heart in Him. It’s just a slow process.

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”          Philippians 1:6

Adopted, yet Waiting for Adoption

Romans 8 has long been a favorite Bible passage of mine, because of the strong undercurrent of HOPE that runs through it. Hope, for me as a Christian, is not merely a nice-sounding wish that maybe things will get better someday, but it is a certainty of glory that will surely come but is not yet. Because that hope is certain but yet future, we as Christians live in a tension between what is already true and what is not yet realized fully.

Spiritual adoption is one aspect of this already-not yet tension. Human adoption–to the extent that it mirrors this same tension–gives us a more tangible picture of this spiritual reality.

Romans 8:15-17 says that we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons,” and therefore “we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ.” We have received adoption–it is past tense, completed…already. Adoption gives us a new status as children of God and heirs with Christ. That is what we are–present tense…already. But then just a few verses later, in Romans 8:23, we see that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” That’s something we’re waiting for and hoping for…it’s not yet. So we are adopted already, yet we’re waiting for adoption. How can that be?

Adoption changes our status. God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). That is the already part. But adoption doesn’t immediately change our situation. Our status has been changed to son/daughter and heir, but we have not yet received the inheritance. Whether a child enters a family biologically or through adoption, they are still a child and do not receive their full inheritance until adulthood. And therefore we groan and wait and hope (Romans 8:23-25).

ice-cream-for-anahI see this same already-not yet tension at play in my family’s adoption of my daughter Anah. This Saturday will mark 4 years since her status changed from a ward of the state in China to the daughter of Daniel & Vera Christian. All the mounds of paperwork have been completed. She is officially ours…already. And yet in many ways it feels as if nothing has changed. We still can’t have a conversation with her–only scripted lines that we tell her to say. We don’t really know her–we don’t have any clue who she really is as a person because she’s lived her whole life letting others think for her. And we’re no longer sure if any of these things are going to change…certainly not yet. Her family naimg_0364me has changed to ours, but inside she seems to still be the same little girl that marched into our room–and into our lives–four years ago. Already…but not yet.

And so we groan, and we wait, and we try to hope. But we are realizing more and more that our hope cannot be in what we will do to train her and help her to grow. No, the only real hope we have is that God also will adopt her into His family. Because then–and only then–will there be the certainty that her broken mind and body will one day be redeemed and made whole (Romans 8:23). And then we will know her for who God has made her to be, in all her sweetness and silliness and creativity, without the dull mindlessness that now remains as a frustrating reminder of her pre-adoption life.

 

The VIM of Retreats

Image 12I have said before that I believe spiritual retreats are a foundational discipline–not of greater value than other disciplines, but foundational in the sense of primary. In the hurried, noisy culture in which most of us live, we rarely pause to reflect or listen, and even more rarely do we pull aside from the busyness to simply be alone with God with no agenda. Yet it is in those quiet places of solitude that the truth of the Gospel sinks deeper than theological knowledge and moves our hearts to worship the God who saves. Retreats create space in our lives to pursue other vital disciplines, which otherwise would not happen (or would only happen sporadically and distractedly).

So if that’s the case, why don’t we retreat more often? If retreats set the stage for so many other areas of spiritual growth, it would be foolish to allow retreats to be a rarity in our lives. And yet for most of us, myself included, rare retreating is the reality. Why is that?

Dallas Willard used the acronym VIM to describe the elements necessary for spiritual transformation into Christlikeness. There has to be the right Vision, the right Intention or decision, and these have to be accompanied by adequate Means of carrying it out. Willard says “We simply cannot accomplish at the intention level what has to be accomplished at the vision level, and we cannot accomplish at the means level what has to be accomplished at the intention and the vision level. One common problem is that we tend to accentuate the means and get all the means, but we do not have in place the vision or the intention” (from a lecture given at Talbot Seminary in 2008, called Beyond Pornography). I think this goes a long way in explaining why retreats are so rare even though they accomplish so much good in our hearts.

Retreats are part of the Means of growth toward maturity in Christ. But if our Vision of retreats is that they are merely optional luxuries that are nice occasionally, then we will not be likely to utilize the means available to us, no matter how many opportunities and resources we might be given. Likewise, if we see retreats as important, yet never Intend or decide to build them in to our schedules, they will not happen.

Therefore if we are going to make the most of this foundational means of spiritual transformation, we must first be convinced that retreats are indeed vital–not in and of themselves, but because they create space for deeper relating with God and one another. And as that vision grows, we must then make it our intention to actually retreat–something as time-consuming and counterintuitive as a retreat will not just happen unless it is decided on and planned for. And then, only when that vision and intention are in place, will retreats become a foundational means of growth toward maturity in Christ.

Of Parables and Picture Books

When Jesus used parables in His teaching, the stories were often aimed at listeners “on the side” who weren’t necessarily the direct audience. In the same way, we as adults are sometimes touched deeply through “children’s stories” even if they aren’t written directly to us. The Jesus Storybook Bible has had that effect on me–I used to read it to my children, but I would be the one getting teary-eyed from the beautiful depiction of the Gospel in those faImage 6miliar stories.

So the picture book that I published recently did not come about because I wanted to write a story for children, but because I wanted to help us as adults understand and connect with God’s mercy in a deeper way. It’s one thing to know the mercy of God conceptually–as a theological truth to be grasped with the mind–but a different thing entirely to embrace that mercy experientially–as a reality that touches the core of our being. My prayer is that this simple story, accentuated by Hailey Wada’s beautiful illustrations, would awaken our hearts anew to the wonder of God’s mercy.

If you attend Evergreen SGV, we’ll have copies available for purchase (at a discounted price) in the coming weeks. If you don’t attend my church, you can purchase copies of the picture book here or through amazon.com. So even if you don’t have children to read it to, get a copy for yourself and let your heart be moved by the depth of God’s mercy…for you.

I Haven’t Arrived

The repetition of the word “continually” in Psalm 71 reminds me that on this side of heaven I won’t be able to say that I’ve conquered sin or arrived at a point of complete spiritual maturity. Instead I will need to “continually come” (vs 3) to God as my “rock of refuge” and “hope continually” (vs 14) in the help and deliverance of my Savior, so that my praise of Him would be continual as well (vs 6).

I’m thankful that the psalmist uses that word, because my human tendency is to equate understanding with change or conviction with transformation…but they are not the same. Just because I have gained some insight or understanding of a particular struggle or sin does not mean that my heart has changed in that area. Conviction alone does not produce transformation. I have not arrived.

Rather, I need to be humble enough to recognize that since my struggle with sin is continual, so also my need for deliverance and help from God is continual. I must come continually, hope continually, and praise continually. There is no other way. Therefore habits of prayer and habits of rehearsing the Gospel and habits of worship are vitally needed to open my heart continuously to God’s ongoing work of transformation. Moment-by-moment communion with God in prayer is a way to come continually to Him. Regularly rehearsing the Gospel is a way to hope continually in Him. And listening to or singing songs of worship is a way to focus my praise continually on Him.

 

Sin-Killing Habits: #3

Most often in our lives, sin does not suddenly clobber us over the head with a major failure, but rather it creeps in by one little choice at a time. So when the “big” sin happens, it really is not surprising because there have been so many “little” sins leading up to it.

The same is true when it comes to killing sin. Most often, a sin is not suddenly and emphatically eliminated from our lives with one major decision or prayer or commitment. Instead, it gradually loses power over us with each little decision to fight against it. So the habits we need to develop to war against sin are the daily little things that help us move away from sin and toward Christ in the 1001 everyday moments of our lives. Here’s another one of those sin-killing habits to develop: Set up guardrails.

Sin may be pleasurable for the moment, but the consequences of sin are always dire. Eternity in hell apart from God for those who reject Christ is not the only dire consequence of sin–Christians also experience devastating results from sin, even though that sin is forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice. Therefore setting up guardrails to keep ourselves away from the danger of sin is a wise habit to form.

P4102360-1050x788If you are hiking the narrow rock fin called Angel’s Landing at Zion National Park, and there are 1000-foot sheer cliffs on both sides of the path, you would be wise to stay on the path rather than seeing how close to the edge you can get without falling off. Likewise, if you don’t want to experience the deadly consequences of sin, then rather than just assuming you’ll never go there, put guardrails in place to keep you as far away from the sin as possible.

So if you are not yet married and you want to save the beauty and wonder of sex for the context for which God designed it, then don’t ask “How far can I go with my girlfriend without sinning?” Instead ask “What will help us keep this God-designed good gift of sex in its proper context?” And then construct a guardrail like deciding not to kiss each other until your wedding day, or to not say “I love you” until you get engaged.

Or if you struggle with an addiction of any kind, you know it doesn’t work to just say “I’m not going to give in to that again.” But instead set a guardrail that keeps you away from the places or situations where you are most tempted to give in to that addiction:

  • Make it a rule to only access the internet in a room where other people can see what you’re doing, or set up filters and password parameters that require a trusted friend or spouse to grant access to certain places.
  • Agree to regularly show your credit card statements to a trusted friend or financial advisor.
  • Make yourself a shopping list for the grocery store rather than wandering through it, and stay away from the alcohol aisle or the candy aisle (or in my case, the ice cream aisle).
  • Give someone else the TV remote and ask them to turn it off after an agreed upon time. Or get rid of cable entirely, and learn a new hobby instead.

Some might argue that “rules” like the above are just legalistic, and that we should enjoy our freedom in Christ. But it is not legalism to put up guardrails that make you stick to the straight and narrow path–it is wisdom. And it is not freedom that moves you off the path and onto the edge of the cliff–it is foolishness.

[For a much more detailed teaching on this subject of guardrails, check out Pastor Andy Stanley’s series called Guardrails here.]

 

The Gift of Humble Listening

A few days ago, I received a valuable gift. It was not anything with monetary value. Nor was it a tangible possession. But it was tremendously valuable to me. It was the gift of truly and humbly listening to my need.

As a father of an adopted special-needs daughter, I sometimes feel very alone. Some people understand the struggles associated with foreign adoption. Some people can relate to the difficulties in parenting a child with Down Syndrome. Fewer understand the different struggles associated with adopting an older child. And fewer still understand the complexities of trying to care for a child that fits all of these categories together.

Because these are struggles that few can easily understand or relate to, people around me tend to either avoid the topic or skim the surface. And because I know that they can’t relate, I usually don’t share very deeply. But the net result of that is a sense of being alone in the struggles.

So the other day, when a friend took the time not only to ask me how things were going, but then to really listen, that was a tremendous gift. It was a gift that cost her something, because it wasn’t just a 20-second conversation. But what was even more valuable in that gift that she gave was the humility to not assume she knew the answer to my troubles. Others will listen briefly, and acknowledge that it must be hard, and then say something to the effect of “Have you tried ____ ?” or “Maybe ____ would help.” I know that when people offer advice or assistance, it is done with a heart that truly cares and desires to help, but sometimes that quickness to “find a solution” actually ends up making me feel even less understood.

For me, and I’m sure for many others who are dealing with suffering or troubles of various kinds, there is not an immediate solution to be found. In fact, there may never be a “solution” at all. And so what I long for is for someone to acknowledge that it is hard, and then stop there. Rather than feeling compelled to offer a solution, let the solution be simply to acknowledge that there may not be a solution. That is what it means to listen humbly. And humble listening is a tremendous gift.