I sometimes think that the greatest accomplishment of my life will be teaching my daughter with special needs to effectively bathe herself. I love to plan retreats and train disciple-makers and teach and write and build furniture, and certainly there is fruit that God has brought from all of those things, but none of those things have required the same level of perseverance and creativity and prayer and focus as teaching my daughter to take a bath.
Anah, my daughter, is now 10 years old, but because of her Down Syndrome and because she spent the first 7 years of her life in an orphanage in China, her mind operates at about the level of a 2-year-old. So while her body is fully capable of coordinating the movements needed to bathe, there is no sense of reasoning as to why she is doing what she’s doing, therefore taking a bath is merely a memorized list of actions to perform.
And have you ever considered how many incremental steps there are in taking a bath? For instance, this is the process that Anah has memorized in order to wash just one arm: 1) Decide which hand to put soap in, 2) Pump soap into hand, 3) Decide there is enough soap in hand, 4) Stop pumping, 5) Rub soap up and down top of arm, 6) Stop rubbing, 7) Turn hand over, 8) Rub soap up and down underside of arm, 9) Stop rubbing, 10) Lift arm, 11) Rub soap in armpit, 12) Stop rubbing, 13) Put arm down, 14) Rub soap on shoulder, 15) Stop rubbing, 16) Rinse hand.
It is close to 3 years now that I have been working on teaching Anah to bathe herself. She has memorized somewhere around 97 steps in the process. She can now fully wash her body on her own, and she is about 70% there with washing her hair. But I haven’t even attempted to teach her how to turn the water on and off, how to towel herself dry, and how to put lotion on before getting dressed. Then after all that, she’ll need to learn to stand up and do all these steps in a shower rather than a bathtub. So it might be another 3 or more years before all of that is happening.
The other day, a command in Romans 12:16 caught my eye and stabbed my heart. It says “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” The footnote in my ESV gives an alternate reading for the second phrase: “Do not be haughty, but give yourselves to humble tasks.” Whether it is a humble task or a lowly person, that is where God wants me to give myself. In my mind, repeating these incremental steps to a 10-year-old, over and over and over again until they are memorized, is a humble task. And frankly, I do not like it. My attitude is rarely one of gracious giving, but is far more often marked by grumbling and impatience and anger–which essentially is haughtiness (thinking of myself as “above” this kind of menial labor).
But it is precisely IN the giving of myself to this humble task and lowly person that God carries on His work of transformation in my heart and life. The command in Romans 12:16 is one of a long list of specific commands that flesh out the bigger command in Romans 12:1 to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” which then leads toward being “transformed by the renewal of your mind” (vs 2). So perhaps God is trying to imbed in my thinking a similar process of steps: 1) Stop grumbling, 2) Smile at your daughter, 3) Pray, 4) Cheer for her progress, 5) Resist the urge to mentally “check out”–stay engaged, 6) Pray, 7) Smile again.
Maybe bath time will be my greatest accomplishment, not because Anah learns to bathe herself, but because I learn to give myself joyfully to the humble task and person God has put before me.
NOTE: Paul Miller, author of A Praying Life, has a wonderful article that shares some of his similar experiences of God’s transformative work in him through humbling situations with his disabled daughter.