Waiting for the Bus

The challenge of parenting a child with special needs often leaves me wondering who is teaching whom. And who has more to learn–me or her?

On weekday mornings, after the snail’s-pace race to get dressed and brushed and outfitted with glasses, backpack and lunch, my daughter waits for the bus to arrive that will deliver her to her special education program. Waiting for that bus with her is often one of those introspective moments where I wonder whether I should be taking lessons from her rather than assuming I have all the wisdom to dispense.

To me it’s a simple concept: We are waiting for the yellow bus. It’s the same yellow bus that comes every morning. It stops at the same place by our driveway. So we look out the dining room window and watch for the yellow bus to arrive. Not very complicated, right?

Wrong. To the simple mind of my special daughter, looking out the window to see a yellow bus that isn’t there is the epitome of stupidity. The look on her face seems to say, “Isn’t it obvious that there is no yellow bus there? How can I look at something that isn’t even there?”

We who are highly educated and supremely intelligent (note the sarcasm) sigh with impatience at this developmental disability that prevents her from grasping such a simple concept of watching for the bus to come. But in God’s delightful sense of humor, she sometimes mimics our sighs and rolls her eyes, as if she also is wondering when these silly parents of hers will finally understand such a simple concept–when the bus is not there, you cannot see it.

So what is she watching when she’s not looking out the window at the bus that’s not there? She’s watching me stuff food down my throat so I can hurry up and get to work. She’s watching her mom hurriedly putting meals together for the rest of the day. She’s watching her big brother do his devotions at the kitchen table. In short, she’s paying attention to what’s right in front of her in that moment.

The bus may only be 3 minutes away, but that’s not now. And if it’s 3 minutes away, it’s certainly not right in front of her. What matters to her is what’s happening right now and right here.

Are we, whose minds are unhindered by disability, really any better off? Or is she the unhindered one, and our minds are the ones truly disabled by all our preoccupation with things that are not right here and right now?

It seems more than a bit ironic that in our zeal to equip her for independent living, we are telling her to stop looking at us and instead look out the window at the bus that isn’t there. Yet perhaps God is also zealous to equip us, and perhaps He is telling us to stop looking at all the tasks that aren’t here yet, and instead notice the person who is right in front of us.

Brennan Manning writes that it is an act of radical trust in God to be fully present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us: “Being fully present in the now is perhaps the premier skill of the spiritual life.”

It is through immersion in the ordinary—the apparently empty, trivial, and meaningless experiences of a routine day—that life/Life is encountered and lived. Real living is not about words, concepts, and abstractions but about experience of who or what is immediately before us. The self-forgetfulness that such experience requires is the essence of contemplative simplicity.

The most fascinating and delectable fruit of attention to the here and now is compassion. Looking unhurriedly at a flower, staring at a small child asleep, offering a non-judgmental presence to a hurting loved one—these acts mysteriously stir gentle feelings toward ourselves and others. Through a long, loving look at the real/Real, we are, without any deliberate effort on our part, in the presence of the Compassionate One.

Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust, (c) 2000 HarperCollins, pp. 150, 156, 158-159.

Compassionate Father, help me to be fully present to the person in front of me right now. Help me to pay attention to the ways You are teaching me through my special daughter, even in these places where I am seeking to teach her.

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Ignorance Is Not Bliss

I have written before that to grow in maturity in Christ is to become increasingly dependent on God. Spiritual immaturity, on the other hand, is marked by an independent attitude that seeks to make life work according to our own resources.

But growth toward maturity in Christ also necessitates an increasing awareness of the depth of our depravity. Notice that does not say an increase in depravity, but an increase in the awareness of our sinfulness. Certainly, as Christians mature, there should be a decrease in our sinful thoughts and behaviors, but ironically, while the practice of sin may be decreasing, the awareness of sin may actually be increasing.

Paul Miller, in his excellent book, A Praying Life, says it this way:

We tell ourselves, “Strong Christians pray a lot. If I were a stronger Christian, I’d pray more.” Strong Christians do pray more, but they pray more because they realize how weak they are. They don’t try to hide it from themselves. Weakness is the channel that allows them to access grace.

As we mature as Christians, we see more and more of our sinful natures, but at the same time we see more and more of Jesus. As we see our weaknesses more clearly, we begin to grasp our need for more grace.

Less mature Christians have little need to pray. When they look at their hearts (which they rarely do), they seldom see jealousy. They are barely aware of their impatience. Instead, they are frustrated by all the slow people they keep running into. Less mature Christians are quick to give advice. There is no complexity to their worlds because the answers are simple—”just do what I say, and your life will be easier.” I know all this because the “they” I’ve been talking about is actually “me.” That is what I’m naturally like without Jesus.

Surprisingly, mature Christians feel less mature on the inside. When they hear Jesus say, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), they nod in agreement. They reflect on all the things they’ve done without Jesus, which have become nothing. Mature Christians are keenly aware that they can’t raise their kids. It’s a no-brainer. Even if they are perfect parents, they still can’t get inside their kids’ hearts. That’s why strong Christians pray more.

If we think we can do life on our own, we will not take prayer seriously. Our failure to pray will always feel like something else—a lack of discipline or too many obligations. But when something is important to us, we make room for it. Prayer is simply not important to many Christians because Jesus is already an add-on. That is why, as we’ll see later, suffering is so important to the process of learning how to pray. It is God’s gift to us to show us what life is really like.
[Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life, © 2009 NavPress, pp. 55-56, 57-58, 59.]

According to one of my profs at Talbot, Dr. Kyle Strobel, our awareness of our depravity grows primarily through the practice of self-examination. “One of the most foundational practices of the Christian life is self-examination. Every spiritual practice, to some degree, depends upon this foundation. Even reading the Bible and prayer depend on self-examination; without it these practices morph into tools of the flesh rather than means of grace.” [Kyle Strobel, Formed for the Glory of God, © 2013 InterVarsity Press, p. 107.]

Allowing the Spirit of God to examine our hearts in prayer leads to both honesty and humility–we come to see ourselves rightly before God. But that honest assessment of our sinful hearts before God, rather than resulting in depression or despair, instead actually allows us to grasp the amazing grace of God more fully.

The goal is not to show God that you know you are a sinner and then beat yourself up for it. Many attempt to make penance through examination, showing that they still try to save themselves rather than turning to the cross. Rather the goal is to be who you are with the God who died for you in the midst of your sin. The goal is to grasp grace as you are rather than as you wish you were. [Strobel, p. 109]

In this we come full-circle: the increasing awareness of our depravity pushes us toward greater dependence on God, as we cling to the grace that we realize we so desperately need. Ignorance of sin is not bliss–it is foolishness–which leads to independence and self-effort rather than growth in maturity.

Sustainable Pace

Biking has been both a pastime and a form of exercise for me for more than half my life: from my youthful days commuting in the rain to and from my library job in Portland, to chilly early morning rides with my young daughter through Bonelli Park, to what became the workout route with my then teenage daughter through the quiet neighborhoods of Claremont. Except for the four years when my daughter was in college, much of my riding has been with her, and that time together has been precious (as well as good accountability to get off my rear end and exercise).

The problem is that in my daughter’s years away at college, she biked much more regularly than I did and got stronger climbing the hills around her campus. So now that she’s back at home and we’ve had opportunity to ride together again, I’ve been humbled by the reality that I can’t keep up with her anymore. I don’t want to admit that middle-age and lack of discipline are having an effect, but I can’t help but notice when my legs and lungs are burning while my daughter is holding back to allow me to catch up.

So after one particularly painful ride with her (painful to my pride, as well as to my legs), I was feeling a bit discouraged because we did our regular route and I struggled the whole way through it. Then a couple days later, I rode again, this time by myself, and I had a bit of an epiphany as I was riding. Because I wasn’t trying to go at my daughter’s faster pace, I didn’t struggle nearly as much, and I actually ended up riding much further than the usual route.

The “lightbulb” thought that occurred to me on that solo ride, though somewhat obvious, was that my pace made all the difference. My body hadn’t suddenly gotten in shape between one ride and the next. The only thing that was different was that I was riding at a pace that was manageable for me, rather than trying to keep up at the slightly faster pace of my daughter. But that difference in pace allowed me to go much further and to enjoy the ride much more. The pace was sustainable.

Part of the reason that this bike-ride realization was such an epiphany to me is because it applies much more broadly in my life than to just a pastime of biking. For the past couple years, I have been wrestling with exhaustion and burnout, struggling to figure out how to keep going for the long haul. Developing “sustainable rhythms of life” has been a top priority every time I write out goals for myself. So what I experienced on the bike ride felt like a living metaphor of what I am needing to carry out in the rest of my life. I need to find a pace of work and relational life that will allow me to finish the race, and to enjoy the ride rather than just “gutting” my way through it.

What does it take to establish a sustainable pace? Doubtless there are many factors involved, but humility is certainly a foundational one. Humility to admit the limits of my humanity, and humility to live within those limits. Just as I cannot ride now at the pace I used to ride or the pace I’d like to ride, so also I have to accept that I cannot do everything I used to do or would like to do in work or relationships. As I rode, I was noticing in how many ways I was pulled to increase my pace: the vanity of trying to make the number climb on an electronic speed indicator along the road, the competitive drive when fellow bikers are on the same route, the boredom of pedaling slowly through a long uphill stretch, or even the prideful concern that drivers passing me will not be impressed with my riding. It took conscious mental effort to resist the pull of pride and maintain the needed pace. Humility is crucial for a sustainable pace.

How does humility affect my pace beyond the bike rides? In the rest of life, am I merely chasing vain indicators of personal accomplishment? Am I trying to outperform others or prove (to myself or them) that I can keep up? Am I getting stuck in the mundane realities of everyday life and forgetting where I’m headed? Am I thinking too much about what others think of me? In 1 Corinthians 9:24, Paul challenges Christians to “run in such a way as to win the prize.” The humility required to maintain a sustainable pace is a vital aspect of running in “such a way.”

Is God Good?

Two months ago, a good friend of mine suffered a massive heart attack. It could have killed him, and it could have left him severely brain-damaged. But it didn’t. His life was spared; his full functionality was retained; his wife and young daughters still have their husband and father. What a relief!

Twelve years ago, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with lung cancer. She could have been healed. She could have pulled through. But she didn’t. Her life was not spared; she passed away; her husband and young daughter have lived these twelve years without their wife and mother. What a tragedy!

When my friend recovered from his heart attack recently, I found myself thinking and saying, “God is so good!” But there was something in me that pushed back against that statement, because even after twelve years, the sorrow and questions that came from the untimely death of my other friend are still present in my soul. If God was so good to spare my friend recently, does that mean He wasn’t good to take my other friend home twelve years ago?

I believe God is still good, even in the grievous loss of a young wife and adoptive mom–His goodness did not cease simply because He allowed her to pass away. So then maybe my internal pushback is not so much questioning the essence of God’s goodness as it is questioning whether God’s goodness is the appropriate quality to praise in situations of answered prayer.

Perhaps it would be better to respond to momentous answers to prayer with “God is so gracious!” or “God is so merciful!” After all, God’s mercy is not the same as His goodness. His goodness is seen through His mercy, but His goodness may also be revealed through things that we as finite beings do not perceive as merciful.

Goodness is an innate quality of God’s unchanging character. Thus God will always be good, whether or not we perceive it as good. Mercy, on the other hand, is a way God acts toward His people, but as Sovereign King, He also chooses not to show mercy in some occasions. His innate character of goodness does not change, whether or not He acts with mercy in a particular situation.

So was God good in answering the prayers of thousands of people around the world who interceded and fasted for my friend who suffered the “widow-maker” heart attack? Yes. And was God good in not answering the prayers of thousands of people around the world who interceded and fasted for my friend who passed away from lung cancer? Yes. God’s goodness remained the same in both situations.

Was God merciful in healing one of my friends? Certainly. And was God not merciful in choosing not to heal my other friend? Perhaps. (I do know He was merciful in many ways even with my friend who passed away, but that’s a different discussion.) Mercy is something He has the prerogative to grant or not to grant. “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.'” [Romans 9:15]

And, in fact, mercy can only be known as mercy when it stands in contrast with its opposite. If God had no justice or anger toward sin, if He was only kind to everyone, mercy by definition would not even exist, because favor with God would simply be the status quo. So it is only because “God hardens” some that we can then understand the beauty of the mercy that He lavishes on His own [Romans 9:18]. Likewise it is only because He does not heal every disease that we can rejoice so greatly when He does heal.

Maybe I’m just being picky with word usage. But I want to think rightly about God’s character and God’s actions. I want to be intentional about noticing the difference between God’s goodness and His mercy, so that I don’t inadvertently set myself up (or others) to be disillusioned or disappointed when God doesn’t respond in the way that I expect or desire.

But we had hoped…

In the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we are introduced briefly to two despondent disciples walking a long road home while discussing the disturbing events that have just transpired that weekend. The resurrected Jesus (unbeknownst to them) comes alongside and invites them to share their sorrow with him. As they explain to this seemingly ignorant rabbi about all that has happened, their perplexity–and despair–show through in their comment, “But we had hoped that he [that is, Jesus] was the one to redeem Israel” [v. 21].

Jesus listens compassionately to their woeful tale, but then gently chides them for their slowness to believe all that was written in the Scriptures. Particularly, Jesus points out to them that it was necessary for the Messiah–the One they were hoping for–to suffer and die before entering into his glory. Their problem was not that their hope was misplaced, but that it was shortsighted. It wasn’t that they got it wrong and put their hope in the wrong One–Jesus implicitly affirms that they had hoped rightly. But where they went wrong was in giving up hope when Jesus suffered and died.

Eventually Jesus reveals himself to these two disciples, and their hope reignites as they realize that the One they had hoped in is now alive and well. In fact, they are so pumped up over all that he showed them from the Scriptures that they speedwalk–in the dark–the seven miles back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples of their encounter with their risen Lord.

How often do you and I say those same words: “But I had hoped…”? How often do we spiral into despair when what we hoped for seems completely derailed by suffering or even death?
But I had hoped that I would be married by now…
But I had hoped that the cancer wouldn’t return…
But I had hoped that I would land that job…
But I had hoped that my kids would follow Jesus…

I find myself saying these words in regard to my adopted daughter:
But I had hoped that she would be bathing herself by now…
But I had hoped that the struggle of caring for her special needs would draw our family together…
But I had hoped that she could communicate her heart with us…
But I had hoped that I could be patient and kind with her…

In these dark places where hope gives way to despair, we desperately need to hear Jesus’ gentle chiding for us as well. Perhaps our hope also is not misplaced but is simply shortsighted. Perhaps this is an opportunity for us also to share in the sufferings of Christ (Romans 8:17, Philippians 3:10-11) before entering into the glory that he is preparing for us (Romans 8:18).

As Christians, we bank everything on resurrection. “If in Christ we have hoped in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” [I Corinthians 15:19] When our hope is shortsighted–in this life only–it easily withers and fades. But when our hope is anchored in the reality of resurrection, it can flourish even in the face of circumstances that seem unchanging and hopeless. The disciples’ shortsighted hope saw Jesus’ death as the end; but resurrection is only possible after death has occurred.

So we also, who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, may face the death of our dreams and desires, but that does not have to bring an end to our hope. Instead, may we hold on to a farsighted, resurrection hope, that the same God who raised Jesus from the dead will also bring resurrection to the places of suffering and death in our lives.

To Be Known…and Loved

Virtual friends may “Love” the carefully edited version of ourselves that is seen in a social media post. But if they knew the ugliness that lurks in the dark corners of our hearts–the stuff that won’t ever be posted for the world to see–they would quickly disappear.

True face-to-face friends say that they love us for who we really are, yet the reality is that there is much we are ashamed to reveal, and because we’re not sure whether those shameful parts will be accepted, we cover them up and hide–thus we are only partially known.

Those who are closest to us–family members, our spouse, even our closest friends–are well aware of our sins and faults and insecurities. They see through our foolish attempts to make ourselves more likable, and they are not fooled when we cover up the shameful places. But sometimes, because they know us so well, they struggle to truly love us in our brokenness.

As human beings we deeply long to not only be loved, but to be known. And not only to be known, but to be known and still loved.

So when we come to realize that Jesus knows us fully and yet still loves us deeply, there is such a freedom and relief that floods our souls. We see this very poignantly in the woman of Samaria (in John 4) who times her trip to the well in order to hide from those whose knowledge of her shameful life prompts only condemnation. But instead of finding no one at the well, she is met by a Jewish rabbi whose kind eyes seem to penetrate to her very soul. He knows her past. He is not shocked by her current situation. He does not condone her choices. But neither does He condemn her like everyone else does. This is not an unknowing, shallow love that is cheaply won by seductive smiles. This is not a selfish love that ignores or accepts her sin in order to get something from her. No, this is a love she has never experienced before, a love that knows her completely and yet somehow still invites her in.

To be know as fully as Jesus knew her could have prompted further shame in this Samaritan woman. She could have felt accused or found out. Instead, she felt–perhaps for the first time–truly known and truly loved. Thus rather than running from this startling revelation, she went back to her town and invited everyone to see this man who knew her so completely.

C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, reflecting on the love he and his wife had shared, writes: “one of the miracles of love [is that] it gives…a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.” In fact, that power to see and know the other truly is, Lewis says, “To see, in some measure, like God. His love and His knowledge are not distinct from one another, nor from Him. We could almost say He sees because He loves, and therefore loves although He sees.” [p. 84]

God “sees because He loves”–His love does not allow Him to ignore or excuse the dark, ugly corners of our hearts; rather it pushes Him to see and know us fully. But because it is that depth of love that allows Him to see fully, we can rest assured that He will continue to “love although He sees.”

So in the midst of the high expectations–and the deep longings–that come with Valentine’s Day, may we rejoice like the Samaritan woman, knowing that in Christ we are truly and fully known…and yet truly and deeply loved.

The Frustrations of the Older Sibling

If you are the oldest daughter or son in your family, you know full well the frustrations of that position. It simply is not fair. Oldest children are raised by parents with zero experience, who are learning–often by trial and error–how to care for this new little life that has been added into their family. Oldest children usually deal with the strictest rules, the least privileges, and the most responsibility. As a result, though, oldest children typically become super-responsible, overachieving, hard-working adults who are devoted to their families and their careers.

The Bible speaks of two such older siblings–an older brother and an older sister–and the frustrations they both faced. When we look at their stories side by side, we see similar situations and similar responses, but with one important difference: how they engage with their Father.

The older brother we meet in Luke 15, in Jesus’ parable about lost and found. He is a typical oldest child–responsible, dutiful, hard-working. His father depends on him, and he serves faithfully in the fields doing a man’s job from a young age, setting a stellar example for his younger brother to follow.

The older sister we meet a few chapters earlier, in Luke 10, where she welcomes Jesus into her home. (Note that Scripture nowhere says she is the oldest sibling, but that can be reasonably inferred because her name is almost always mentioned first and she is referred to as the owner of the house.) She also is a typical oldest child–responsible, dutiful, hard-working. Her family counts on her, and she serves faithfully in the home, welcoming with warm hospitality all those who enter.

But both of these hard-working oldest siblings have a problem–their younger siblings are not nearly as responsible as they are. And that is frustrating. The older brother’s younger sibling in Luke 15 goes so far as to insult their father, bring shame on their family, and run off to a far country to squander the family’s wealth, leaving the older brother to bear the brunt of double the labor in the fields. All the older brother’s responsibility has earned him is an increase in chores. It’s not fair!

Likewise the older sister’s younger sibling in Luke 10 ignores her culturally-expected duty of hospitably serving her male guests, choosing instead to presumptuously sit at the guest Rabbi’s feet to listen, leaving her older sister with double the labor in the kitchen. The older sister’s attentiveness to the needs of her guests has only increased her workload and kept her out of the coveted conversation. It’s not fair!

So far these older siblings’ stories are pretty similar. But there is a subtle yet significant difference in the way they deal with their frustrations, especially in how they engage the Father.

The older brother’s anger at the unfairness of his father’s celebration of the younger brother leads him to push his father away and refuse to enter the party. His father graciously pursues him, though, even suffering dishonor by leaving his guests in order to find his older son and entreat him to join the party. But the older son’s harsh words to his father begin with a sneer of disdain, “Look…” [Luke 15:29]

In contrast, the older sister’s anger at the unfairness of Jesus’ welcome of her sister–while she does all the work–leads her to bring her frustration to Jesus. She went to Him. Angry? Yes! But she took that anger to Jesus. And her words to Him–though laced with frustration–began with a humble recognition of Him as her “Lord…” [Luke 10:40]

Martha–the older sister–models for us the art of lament. She does not hold back from speaking her frustration. She does not water it down and make it “spiritual” or “nice.” She simply vents her anger at what is obviously an unfair situation. But she brings that frustration and anger to Jesus.

Perhaps Martha was familiar with Jesus’ earlier words to those who diligently followed after Him: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” [Matthew 11:28] So in her labor of hospitality, when she was burdened by the insensitivity of her sister, she did the best thing she could do–she came to Jesus.

Not long after Martha’s encounter with Jesus in her home, Jesus Himself faced an even more unfair situation: as the sinless Son of God He prepared to bear on Himself the weight of the Father’s wrath against sin. And as our perfect Older Brother, He took the sorrow and grief of His impending death to His Father, pleading for some other way, yet submitting to the will of His Father. [Matthew 26:39] We follow in His footsteps–and in Martha’s–when we bring the frustrations of our unfair situations to Him, trusting that our anger does not rattle Him, but that He welcomes our lament and meets us in our pain.