Unseen Mercies

I had to change the tires on my car last week, and I found out that two of the old tires were really bad–the tire was starting to split apart and bubble up in places. That was rather sobering, as I thought about all the places I had been driving, and who had been riding in the car with me, and how likely it could have been for one of those tires to blow out. Then it was sobering in a different way as I reflected on the fact that a blow-out had not happened.

It made me stop and think, “How many of God’s mercies are like that–unseen in the moment and perhaps never even realized at all?” Usually when I think of God’s mercy, I think of Him healing or helping or saving someone out of a difficult situation. In those cases, the need is very apparent and God’s mercy is clearly seen. But what about all those places where we are not even aware of our need and God’s mercy is not overt rescue but quiet prevention?

My daughter recently side-swiped a pickup truck with her car, but there was hardly any damage and the other driver was very kind. In that case, too, I realized how merciful God had been–if the car she hit had been a brand new Porsche, or the driver had been money-hungry, or her friend hadn’t been in the car with her, the results could have been drastically different. That was God’s mercy.

How many other unseen mercies do we receive every day? We would likely be blown away by the sheer number of instances where God’s mercy holds back evil or prevents calamity or nudges us in the right direction, all without fanfare or recognition. We praise Him for His visible mercies–especially in the Cross–but we do well to also notice the hidden mercies that indeed are new every morning.

 

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A Culture of Inclusiveness

As a pastor, one of the complaints I sometimes hear is that church feels exclusive and cliquish to a newcomer and it is hard to get connected. Why is that? Why is the Body of Christ, which by definition includes all who belong to Christ, such an inhospitable place?

I’m sure there are many factors involved in this dilemma, but I want to zero in on one possibility. Perhaps church culture is exclusive to the degree that we fail to realize the simple truth that all of us are both needy and needed (as Ed Welch describes in his book Side by Side).

If we do not see ourselves as needy, then we most likely come across as a little condescending to those we don’t know–like we are the put-together ones reaching down to help those in need. But that condescending attitude keeps others at a distance rather than truly drawing them in to our community.

If we do not see ourselves as needed, then we constantly defer to others and neglect the unique ways that God has crafted us to contribute to the Body. In doing so, we miss the opportunity to bless others with our unique contribution, and we ourselves miss out on the blessing that comes when we use our gifts for the Kingdom.

In contrast, when we recognize both our neediness and our neededness, there is a humility and genuineness in our manner which makes us approachable and safe for others to connect with. We are not aloof or condescending because we are very aware of our own struggles and insecurities, therefore we are free to receive from others’ giftedness. At the same time, we confidently exercise the gifts God has given us, knowing that we have something that is uniquely vital for the functioning of the Body.

If we could understand–and live from–this reality that we are both needy and needed, the culture of the Body of Christ might begin to shift toward a greater inclusiveness and true hospitality.

The Secret to Productivity

I love Matt Perman’s book on “Gospel-Driven Productivity” called What’s Best Next. My wife and I recently led a married couples retreat focused around that topic of how to structure our lives to be most productive in the things that matter most. Being productive for the Kingdom of God is a very good thing.

I now am reading a book called The Radical Pursuit of Rest, with a subtitle of Escaping the Productivity Trap. It has been an interesting contrast! So I was intrigued by a paragraph in the second chapter that puts rest and productivity together.

Rest is a practice because the “work” of rest is rooted in the finished work of God. The effort of the Christian life is energized by rest. Biblical rest does not make us passive or unproductive. It is the secret to all productivity in the Christian life. But before rest can be a practice, it must be a spiritual location. Rest is a state of being that is essential to Christian living; it is the engine that drives all Christian action. What we do for God is dependent on what God has done for us. Here is the fundamental difference between God’s rest and ours: on the seventh day of creation God rested from his work. We enter this same rest when we rest in God’s work.  [pg 43-44, emphasis added]

When he says that rest is the secret to productivity, I don’t think this author means merely that recreation or sleep rejuvenates us so that we can work harder and be more productive (which is essentially the habit of “sharpening the saw” that Stephen Covey speaks of in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Instead, this author is saying to us as Christians that because our position is anchored in the finished work of Christ, the work that we do “in Christ” comes from a state of rest. We do not, by our work, gain a right standing with God, nor do we earn His favor through what we do–our standing and favor with God comes through what Christ has done. Thus the work that we do for God flows from that place of resting in Christ’s work, and because it is not frantic striving for acceptance and favor, it can be truly productive for the Kingdom.

And for the same reason, we are free to recreate and sleep when that is needed, because we do not gain any greater standing before God by our restless (and reckless) striving. We are still anchored in Christ, even with unfinished work and unmet goals. Our standing in Christ allows us to work passionately and to rest peacefully.

 

Insidious Productivity

Productivity is a major value of the culture in which we live. Because we tend to see time as money, then productivity is the means toward greater wealth, and therefore also the means to the ease and comfort and happiness that supposedly comes with wealth.

Productivity by definition requires speed, intelligence, ability to reason, and independent thinking (among other things).

  • A person who thinks fast, moves fast, decides fast, and even eats fast is generally considered to be productive. A sloth working at the DMV is not, even if his name is Flash.
  • A person who commands a plethora of information about math or science or human existence is thought to have the mental competence to be productive. Anyone who does not get above a 4.0 GPA surely must not be very intelligent, even if they can write a symphony or figure out how to fix a car.
  • A person with a high capacity for reason and logic is put on a pedestal and lauded as being highly productive, while one who requires tedious explanation for everything is shoved aside and forgotten.
  • A person who can think and work independently generally accomplishes more in life than one who is dependent on others for information or decisions or motivation.

Productivity is a major value of our culture, but it may not be as high of a value for God. Therefore God in His wisdom and grace ordains circumstances and people in our lives which force us to face our idolatry of productivity. In my life, that God-ordained circumstance and person is my daughter with special-needs. She is not fast. She does not have high intelligence. She has almost zero ability to reason. And she is far from independent in her thinking.

In short, she does not contribute to the “productivity” of our family, or at least not in the type of productivity that we esteem so greatly. But in other ways, though I am sometimes loathe to admit it, she is an indispensable tool through which God is carrying out the productivity that matters most–the formation of my heart into Christ’s likeness. Her slowness is forming the sweet fruit of patience in me (slowly!). Her lack of intelligence is revealing my self-righteous pride. Her inability to reason is stretching my creativity in teaching. And her dependence and neediness is developing a heart of mercy in me. That is a productivity which matters for eternity, and thus is far more valuable than the long list of things I think I need to accomplish in order to be productive.

More Questions than Answers

Dr Coe, my professor in Talbot’s Institute of Spiritual Formation, has said that a person’s spirit is formed by the age of six, and that by the time one is even aware that such a process of formation is happening, their formation is complete. What comes after, the part that we consciously participate in, is really a process of re-formation or trans-formation of that which has already been formed in our spirit at that young age. A Children’s Ministry Magazine article agrees, saying that “Developmental experts believe the first six years mark a child for life. By age 7, the “personality” mold has been cast.”

I don’t have reason to disbelieve those conclusions, though I have not found actual studies that give hard evidence of such. But if that is true, it raises a whole bunch of questions as to what I can expect with my adopted, special-needs daughter.

Since we adopted her at age 7, and therefore her “formative” years were all spent in an orphanage, how much can we expect to see change? Is it possible–and if so what would it take–to see her grow beyond the institutionalized habits and mindsets that have been formed in her? Can the childlike characteristics that seem to have died within her–natural creativity, curiosity, and playfulness–ever be re-born?

What is it exactly that is formed by age six? Beliefs about self? Beliefs about how life works best? Understanding of how to relate with people? Habits of living that bring the most comfort? What does it take for those beliefs and habits to change? Or can they?

Where does her Down Syndrome fit into the mix of things? Obviously it means that her learning is delayed and very, very slow, but is it possible for her to learn some of these foundational beliefs and habits and relational skills? Once the institutionalized behaviors are cemented in her long-term memory, can they ever be un-cemented or replaced?

And if some of these things cannot be changed, then how should we be treating her? We have set the bar high, believing that she will rise to that–but how do we decide that the bar is too high or when do we give up on those expectations and say this is just how she is going to be?

It really comes down to two questions: 1) Can she change? and 2) What is our role in that process? I don’t have any answers right now…just lots of questions.