Vent…or Lament?

In the sermon I preached this past Sunday, I said that learning to lament is one way to practice the Romans 12:12 command to “Rejoice in hope; be patient in tribulation; be constant in prayer.” My understanding of lament is that it is pouring out my heart and pouring out my complaint…to God. And the operative phrase there is to God. The orientation of my heart makes all the difference between sinful complaining and God-honoring lament.

I read a wonderful description of lament in a brand new book that I’ve been devouring in the last couple days since it arrived. Andrew Wilson, a pastor in the UK, along with his wife Rachel, have written an incredibly hopeful and helpful little book called The Life We Never Expected, reflecting on their still-very-raw-and-painful journey of learning to live and love in the midst of a regressive autism that has begun to affect both of their young children. This is what Andrew writes:

Lament is more than crying, of course, although it is certainly not less. It also involves putting into words the depth of feeling and sadness we’re experiencing: in prayer, in a journal, in a song, or whatever. Doing this forces us to give due weight to our emotions, which many of us (particularly the English among us) are not always very good at; articulating them carefully helps us understand them, as well as handle them wisely. But it also forces us to take our pain to God, first and foremost, before we take it to other people. Lament, you see, is about bringing your sorrows to God, in painful description, petition, and confusion, and throwing all your doubts and questions at him. Rushing to dump them on friends, on family, or on Facebook, without having gone to God with them first, is not lamenting but venting, and in the long run it doesn’t do nearly so much good. With the best will in the world, people aren’t big enough to absorb your grief. God is.

And so, less than an hour after reading those words, I found myself yelling at God in exasperation over the impossibility of breaking through my daughter’s institutionalized-stupor-made-worse-by-Down-Syndrome, which was being displayed in her bath time routine. No one else was in the house to hear me, and I’m not sure what my yelling accomplished, but it was a lament, and in it my heart was oriented toward God. Because He alone can awaken life and mindfulness in my daughter…and He alone can bring healing to my angry, hurting heart.

God’s Good Design in Down Syndrome

I’m currently taking an ethics class as part of my MDiv studies at Talbot, and the topic for this week is biotechnology and genetic therapy. Since I am a father (adoptive) to a daughter with Down Syndrome and an uncle (biological) to a nephew also with Down’s, the questions being raised in this topic are not just theoretical by very personal. Since the technology exists which can identify the gene responsible for Down Syndrome, then if a couple is tested and one is carIMG_0427rying that gene, should they be morally obligated to not procreate in order to prevent the conception of a child with Down’s? And the bigger question that follows logically
from that: Is Down Syndrome something that humans should be seeking to eradicate (like malaria or scarlet fever), or does its presence in society serve a larger purpose of God that humans should not be messing with?

To be clear, my question is NOT whether those living with Down Syndrome among us are somehow less than full persons or whether they are problems to be done away with–certainly not!! Those whom I am related to and know with Down’s are beautiful people who enrich the lives of all those around them. Rather, the question is whether medical science should be pursuing genetic testing and genetic engineering that could eventually lower or even eradicate future occurrences of Down Syndrome.

I do not have the definitive answers to those questions, and one blog post can only scratch the surface, but here are some of my initial thoughts and wrestling…

I believe in a God who is both sovereign and good, therefore I wholeheartedly agree with how Desiring God worded their theme statement for the conference on disability that they hosted in 2012: God’s Good Design in Disability. Disability (including Down’s) does not somehow fall outside of God’s sovereignty and intentionality, as if it were a cosmic mistake or oversight, rather it is part of His purposeful design. And disability does not somehow compromise God’s goodness–His mercy and kindness is displayed through all His works.

Therefore if I believe that Down Syndrome also fits within God’s sovereign purposes and good design, my gut response is that maybe He has good reason for allowing it to continue.  As Christians, science (and medicine and genetic manipulation) is not our Savior, nor is our hope in this life here and now. As Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer writes in one of the textbooks for my ethics class, “If life’s fundamental problems can be reduced to (and solved by) science, then there is less need to trust in or pray to God. In the modern social imagination, even hope has become this-worldly: medicalization is nothing less than the secularization of salvation.” Sin is our most basic problem–not genetic anomalies like Down Syndrome–therefore salvation in Christ is our most basic need–not freedom from suffering or syndromes or sickness.

In a recent “Ask Pastor John” interview, John Piper dealt with a similar question of whether medicine (in that case, chemotherapy) impedes God’s good plan for our suffering. Piper’s answer (in part) was that the use of medicine is not in itself a sinful intervention; rather it is how we think about that medical science that could be a problem (i.e. is it our savior?), and how it relates to God and to faith and to love for one another.

So while I certainly understand (from first-hand experience!) the difficulty of caring for someone with Down Syndrome and the limits that come with that extra chromosome, I would be very reluctant to say that we should mess with genetics in order to eradicate all future possibilities of Down’s. While there may be some who disagree with me in this, I think there are many who would join me in saying that society would not necessarily be “better off” without the existence of Down’s, but in fact that God does have a good design in allowing it to continue.

Does God Create Exceptions?

How is a thoughtful Christian to respond to the cultural issues surrounding gender identity versus biological sex? And how is a Christian to love a person who may be struggling with the very issues being debated?

I have great respect for Andrew Wilson, a pastor in the UK, whom I have never had the privilege of meeting but have learned much from through his preaching and writing. A month ago, Pastor Andrew preached a message to his church family about this issue of transgender. It is well worth a half-hour of your time to watch (or listen) to his teaching on this issue from Matthew 19:1-12. Especially if you have school-age children, this is not an issue that can just be ignored. Click here for the video (or audio), along with some written summary and thoughts. I especially appreciated the distinction Andrew makes between our response to those who are actually affected by these issues, and our response to the activists, educators, progressives, etc. who are using this transgender issue to carry out a larger social agenda.

So watch…and think…and long for that day when the dissonance that every Christian feels between who God says we are in Christ and how we feel about ourselves will finally be wiped away and all will be made right.

Hidden Joy

My friend and colleague in ministry, Ian Nagata, released his first album this past week, and I was very excited to listen to it. A year ago I had blogged my thoughts related to one of the songs on this album, called The Joy that Hides in You. That song, along now with a few others on the album that take the form of laments, continues to minister deeply to my heart in the midst of struggle and suffering and sorrow. What resonates so deeply from those songs is the reality that suffering, though very real, does not have the final word. And in that there is a joy that is hidden (i.e. not immediately apparent)–that the sorrow and suffering I face brings me into deeper communion with my suffering Savior, and in fact He is using that suffering to form His character in me in a way that could not happen apart from the pain. So rather than finding joy by escaping from the suffering, there is actually joy in the midst of the suffering–that is the joy that hides in Christ, and that is the joy that shines so clearly in these beautiful songs that Ian has put together.

You can check out Ian’s album here.

Unhurried

One of the reasons I love leading retreats is because a retreat can provide unhurried time to be with God and with one another. We so easily get caught up in the busyness of trying to live productively, but we end up just living hurriedly instead. And a hurried existence is not productive, nor is it sustainable. Retreats–whether a personal retreat or A Day with Jesus or a weekend with a small group–give us an opportunity to set aside the hurry and enter into a greater depth of rest and relationship and worship.

Alan Fadling is a friend and mentor to my wife and I, and he–together with his wife Gem–has recently launched a new ministry called Unhurried Living. Last week Alan was interviewed in a podcast from Renovare [look for Episode 32] about this concept of an unhurried life. One point that stood out to me was the comparison he made with breathing: It is impossible physiologically to only exhale for a day (or a week!), without also inhaling. Yet spiritually we live as if “inhaling” (i.e. rest, recreation, community, worship, etc.) were optional or only needed occasionally, and all of life becomes “exhale” (i.e. activity, service, productivity, ministry, etc.). There is certainly nothing wrong with activity and ministry, however if we are to sustain those activities and ministries for the long haul, we have to learn how to “breathe” in a balanced way. We must learn how to be devoted yet unhurried.

No Margin

The word “freeway” in the Los Angeles metro area is a misnomer. With the exception of most Sunday mornings, the way is anything but free. Add road construction into the mix and it gets even worse.

The I-10 freeway between where I live in Claremont and where I work in La Puente has been under major construction for the past couple years and is not projected to be completed until spring of 2019. In order to add a carpool lane to that section, the freeway is being widened in both directions. What that means, though, is that for the entire time the construction is taking place, the existing lanes have been reduced in width and the right shoulder is closed completely with concrete barriers.

As I was sitting in heavy traffic in that section the other day, I was thinking about the implications of the construction being done. The end result–a continuous carpool lane from downtown LA all the way into San Bernardino County–may improve driving conditions (at least for a while). But in the 5+ years of construction, driving conditions are definitely much worse for those of us who have to drive that route every day. On any given freeway in LA County–even with no construction going on–traffic is slow and accidents snarl it every day. But the combination of narrowed lanes and no shoulder make for a higher probability of accidents and for a greater backup on the road when they do happen.

The same dynamic is definitely true in my life as well. When my time starts getting squeezed and I have no margin, there is a much higher probability of sin and struggle. And when there is no empty space to account for the unexpected, the “pileup” that results is far worse.

This past week was a prime example. On Wednesday my laptop crashed and brought everything to a standstill for a couple days while I tried to recover data and get it repaired. But there was no space for that, amidst my first week of an online summer intensive at Talbot and multiple meetings to prepare for on Sunday and all the usual busyness of family life. Life was already “constricted” with little allowance for any variation, and there was no extra space to account for an unexpected turn of events, therefore everything crashed, much like a pileup on the I-10 freeway.

But more significant than late nights and unfinished work and high stress (i.e. the circumstantial results) was the relational fallout that inevitably comes with that kind of “pileup.” I was impatient and angry with my family, distant and disconnected from God, exhausted and grumpy with everyone. Sin comes easily and the consequences spread further when there is no margin in my life. I know the truth of that, yet often it feels much like the freeway construction–that the work involved in carving out greater margin and space results temporarily in little or no margin. Hopefully the effort to create space in my life won’t take as long as the work on the I-10!