Building Frames

hanging framesI’m really proud of my daughter. Her senior thesis exhibition of her photography is on display this week at the Biola Art Gallery, and she has done an excellent job! (Not that I’m a biased dad or anything.) She has captured so much of the rawness and pain of our family’s adoption journey through her photos and her art.


A month or so ago, as she planned out her exhibit, my daughter asked if I could help her build some huge frames for a few of the images that are in the exhibit. Since I enjoy custom woodworking projects, especially when it’s being made for someone I love, I agreed to build the frames. We worked together on them for one weekend, then I finished them up in the following weekends and helped her install them in the gallery prior to her show. It was a lot of work, but I was really pleased with how they turned out.

As I watched people contemplate my daughter’s artwork on the opening night of the exhibition, the thought struck me that those frames I built are a pretty good metaphor of the life and ministry God has called me to. With the exception of a couple people who knew that I had built the frames, nobody commented on the frames at all. In fact, I would venture to say that hardly anyone even noticed the frames. And that’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

The whole point of picture frames is to frame the pictures within them. So a good frame doesn’t call attention to itself but to the artwork that is displayed between its four corners. That is why the only time a frame is noticed is when there is a defect in it or it is not hung properly. But when the frame is well-made and rightly hung, it directs all the viewer’s attention to the artwork.

God has called me to be a frame builder. Not primarily to construct giant frames out of wood, but to create space for individuals or small groups to enjoy God and grow in Him. If I do my job well, then what people notice and make much of is the beauty and goodness of God. Occasionally, someone might notice and appreciate the structure that has been created and how that structure facilitates deepening relationship with God, but for the most part, the structure remains unseen in the background.

If building frames is the good work that God has prepared in advance for me as His workmanship to carry out (see Ephesians 2:10), then I can work at it with all my heart, trusting that the very One whose beauty is being displayed by my “frames” is the One who sees and rewards all my unseen labor to create that space for others.


Eyes to See

When we read in the Gospels of Jesus’ encounter with a man who had been lame for 38 years and it says that “Jesus saw him lying there” (John 5:6), we might read it as simply stating a fact. But it is actually a very significant statement: Jesus saw him. And when Jesus saw him, it was not merely a quick glance acknowledging that someone was there but it was a penetrating look that discerned much about both the outward and the inward condition of that man.

For that man, and for most people in his condition, being seen in the way Jesus saw him was a very rare occurrence. Far more common was either the staring look of disgust or the looking away of awkward indifference. He was used to being invisible.

But Jesus saw him. Saw him enough to perceive the deeper need of his heart. Saw him not with mere pity, but with compassion. That is how Jesus sees.

In the 5+ years since Anah joined our family, we have experienced something of what the lame man in John 5 experienced–we have received rude and awkward stares, and we have often felt invisible. But at the same time, through those experiences God is opening our eyes to see others who previously were invisible to us–and not just to see them, but to see them with a bit of Jesus’ compassion and mercy.

So I am deeply encouraged when my 9-year-old son comes home from a field-trip and tells me not only about the field-trip itself but also about the people he saw there whom he thought “might have had Down Syndrome too, just like Anah.” What blessed me was the genuine kindness in his voice as he mentioned seeing those people–that it was not something weird or unusual, but was actually meaningful to him. And that was not the first time he has noticed and made mention of people with special needs. God is giving my son eyes to see like Jesus.

For my older kids too, though there may still be some internal discomfort or awkwardness, they are able to interact graciously and comfortably with others they encounter who have special needs. It is not something they avoid or shy away from. God is giving them eyes to see and a heart to respond like Jesus.

For my whole family, we are no longer “weirded out” by strange mannerisms or a lack of social graces–that is our everyday experience with Anah, so we can just smile and shrug our shoulders when we see those behaviors in others too. God is giving all of us eyes to see the person not just the mannerisms–the person created by God who reflects something of His image, no matter how broken or “strange” the exterior appears to be.

What about you? Do you have eyes to see–really see–those around you who are perhaps different than you or awkward to be around? Ask God to give you eyes to see like Jesus…


To Love Is to Lament

Have you ever been shocked by what is written in the Psalms?

Arise, O God, defend your cause;
    remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!  (Psalm 74:22)

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
    you have been angry; oh, restore us.  (Psalm 60:1)

Have you ever wondered how the psalmists dared to speak like that to God? In fact, why in the world are prayers like that included in God’s holy word as examples of how we should pray?! They seem rather presumptuous, or at least a bit disrespectful.

I certainly have wondered those things before, and just as certainly have struggled to pray in that way. So Paul Miller’s explanation of Hebrew laments in his new edition of A Praying Life is very helpful for me:

Laments might seem disrespectful, but in fact they are filled with faith–a raw, pure form of faith that simply takes God at his word.

There is no such thing as a lament-free life. In fact, if your life is lament-free, you aren’t loving well. To love is to lament, to let your heart be broken by something.

If you don’t lament over the broken things in your world, then your heart shuts down. Your living, vital relationship with God dies a slow death because you open the door to unseen doubt and become quietly cynical. Cynicism moves you away from God; laments push you into his presence. So, oddly enough, not lamenting leads to unbelief. Reality wins, and hope dies. Put another way, the reality of a broken world triumphs over the new reality of a redeemed world. You miss resurrection and get stuck in death. 

God rebukes his people and his priests because “they did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?'” (Jeremiah 2:5-8) A sure sign of their wandering hearts is that no one is in God’s face. No one takes hold of God and pulls. This idea is so strange to our ears that I must repeat it: God is upset with Israel because they are not lamenting. We think laments are disrespectful. God says the opposite. Lamenting shows you are engaged with God in a vibrant, living faith.         [pages 173-175]

I need to lament. Life in this broken, sinful world is not as it is meant to be…and not as it one day will be. I need to lament over the childlike creativity and initiative that died in my daughter during her years in an orphanage. I need to lament over the inabilities to love that I find in myself and see in others. I need to lament the senseless devastation taking place in our own country and around the world.

“Where are you God? When will you answer these cries of my heart? Let me not give way to hopeless cynicism. Come and help me!”


Becoming the Gospel

As a pastor, a part of my role is to teach our church to increasingly become a welcoming and hospitable community for whomever God brings through our doors. That role became deeply personal when God called my family to adopt a little girl with special needs. Thus when I read what author and speaker Paul Miller wrote in his seeJesus ministry newsletter recently, I was both encouraged as a special-needs dad and challenged as a hospitality pastor.

So whether you are as directly connected with special needs as I am–and as Paul Miller and his wife Jill are through their adult daughter with special needs, Kim–or whether you are simply a churchgoer who might occasionally encounter someone with special needs, I hope you will take the time to read the snippets of Paul’s newsletter that I have reproduced below. What he wrote here was part of an email conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada, who asked for his opinion on “why the church and its seminaries have a systemic problem when it comes to embracing special-needs families.”

The problem of the church not enjoying and welcoming people affected by disabilities but actually distancing itself is strikingly pervasive. Several years ago, Jill asked me to video Kim walking from the close of church service downstairs to her Sunday school room. It is a moving 12-minute almost silent video. Only two out of 50 people greet her. And this is a very caring church that we had attended for 12 years.

I believe the problem is not bad theology but missing theology. There are four misses, each a function of the other: Missing the person of Jesus, missing community, missing gospel, and missing holiness.

Once you marginalize Jesus as a person, his teaching and life lose their punch. You no longer feel the weight of the kind of community he is creating, as in Luke 14 when he tells his host that he invited all the wrong people to his party, that it may look like generosity on the host’s part, but really it is just an exchange because they are going to invite him back. Next time he has a feast, he is to go out and invite the disabled, the blind and the poor. This isn’t about something else–it is about who I invite to my next party. Jesus is dead serious.

He wants the community that bears his name to love the least, the lost and the lonely. This completely transforms even as simple an act as entering a room of friends and strangers. My first question is not, “Who do I know? Who would I be comfortable with?” but “Who is lost, who is weak, who can I include?” So instead of searching for community, I’m creating community wherever I go.

[In Philippians 3:7-11] Paul is talking about two complementary ways of knowing Christ. The first, v. 7-9, I call “believing the gospel” and the second, v. 10-11, I call “becoming the gospel.” That is, once a foundation of justification is laid, we enter into the shape of Jesus’ life, what I like to call the J-Curve.

I like the letter “J” because it traces the downward path of Jesus’ life into death then upward into resurrection. Paul wants that. He doesn’t just want free justification, he also wants the experience of re-enacting in all his life, all his relationships, the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Paul embodies Jesus. So the entire Christian life is a life of suffering-love followed by repeated resurrections. …We aren’t Stoics, we don’t embrace suffering. Instead, like good Jews, we recoil from suffering, we pray against it. What we do, though, is embrace Christ in the suffering. “Becoming the gospel” is not application. For Paul, it is how he gets to know Jesus even more deeply.

So then, very practically, my whole life is love. Love constantly leads me into suffering. When the typical Christian sees a disabled person in church he sees “the other.” He doesn’t see or hear Jesus loving the disabled, forming a new community out of the broken and despised pieces of this world. He doesn’t look, feel compassion, and then act. Neither does he understand the call to enter the J-Curve. Instead he is frozen, fearful of the unusual. He has no category or model to understand Paul’s desire to inhabit the pattern of Jesus’ life. So he pulls away, fearful that disability might be catching.

If you are the host in Luke 14 and you follow Jesus’ command to fill your table with those affected by disability, you are going to be loving all the time. The person in church who sees Kim walking to Sunday school instinctively realizes that to make friends with her will be work. It will disrupt his Stoic calm. It will be messy. He will make mistakes. He has no paradigm for accepting the fact that he might have to love every second for the rest of his life. That seems overwhelming, unusual, in fact, impossible. He has no theological frame to enter into God’s life of grace, the J-Curve, so he quietly recoils from real relationship.

The result? Kim walks in silence.

May God grant each of us the grace to “become the Gospel” by entering in to the daily mini-deaths and resurrections of loving the Kims–and Anahs–around us, despite the messiness and disruption that entails.

Go-Aheadism Is Lacking

Significant milestones are usually marked by celebration, but I’m not feeling very celebratory with this one. September 17 is Gotcha Day (or Chosen Day, as others prefer to call it) for our adopted daughter, Anah, and this one marks 5 years. It’s significant because the 5-year post-placement report is the final paperwork that China requires, so there was a little bit of celebration when I read the email from the adoption agency stating “I received your Final report and photos for Anah. You have completed your requirements for China.” Yay!

But apart from the relief of finally being done with that huge load of paperwork, it is hard to celebrate. One year in it was still all adrenaline and high hopes. Two years in was the painful crash with reality–this is far harder than we imagined. Year three was a fog of desperation–maybe we can figure something out. Year four started to move toward resignation and despair. And now five years in there is burnout and grief–this is not what I had planned or hoped for.

So when my wife was looking through the progress reports that the orphanage had filled out periodically in the seven years our daughter spent there, she discovered something that I’m sure we had seen prior to the adoption but hadn’t given it much thought. The report was written when Anah was a little over 2 years old, and the phrase that caught my wife’s eye was this: “She is a little lack of go-aheadism…” And in the report a couple months prior: “She usually does the things she likes to do, and refuse the things she dislikes. Foster mom also said she is lazy; never does things that she dislikes even forcing her.”

Obviously something might be lost in the translation there, and I don’t know what Chinese word corresponds to “go-aheadism.” But it is a pretty apt description of what we are experiencing with our daughter: she is greatly lacking in go-aheadism. A willful child can be trained and shepherded; a rambunctious child can learn to funnel his energy in positive directions; a timid child can gain confidence to come out of her shell. But a will-less child…what do you do with that? If all internal motivation is gone, can that ever come back?blank Anah

What didn’t seem like a big deal in a 2-year-old orphan has become a much bigger deal in a 12-year-old daughter. We were as prepared as we could be to deal with the slowness and intellectual delays of Down Syndrome; we were not at all prepared to deal with the blankness and learned helplessness of institutionalized behavior. And the longer we go, the more we begin to wonder if this is how it is going to remain.

So it’s hard to celebrate this 5-year milestone. Perhaps my own go-aheadism is lacking also.


Thanks for Noticing!

Melancholy, gloomy Eeyore (of the Winnie the Pooh stories) has a line I use quite often, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes with a bit of my own pessimism and cynicism: “Thanks for noticing!” Throughout my life, I have often felt unnoticed and unappreciated (perhaps largely due to my ISFJ personality, which is described as “the hard-working unsung hero who gets the background jobs done”), but now that I am the parent of a child with special needs, I feel that “invisibleness” and “aloneness” even more keenly.

My wife and I just returned from a week at Mt Hermon Family Camp, together with our younger two children (one of whom is our daughter with special needs). Though the staff of the conference center do a wonderful job of accommodating and caring for children with special needs, the reality is that our child’s limitations become our limitations that keep us from experiencing camp in the same way as families without special needs. And though we were surrounded by wonderful friends and families who love God and love us, we can still feel terribly alone because everyone is so busy doing all the things they can do that they don’t notice the few on the sidelines who would love to enter in but can’t.

Thus I was deeply touched and tremendously grateful for a little girl named Sophia, who throughout the week of camp, showed genuine interest in getting to know our Anah. Sophia’s kindness to my daughter was an even greater kindness to me, though I’m sure she had no idea how much it ministered to me. At mealtimes Sophia’s smiling face would appear, just to say hi to Anah, and she would linger long enough for Anah to get a slow, stilted reply out. One mealtime, as we sat at the table alone, Sophia even asked if she could join us, and we got to know her a bit over lunch. Another afternoon, after all the kids who competed in the 3-on-3 basketball tournament had cleared out and Anah was granny-shooting a beat-up volleyball on the hoop that the gracious staff person had lowered for her, guess who showed up? The few other people in the gym hadn’t bothered to say hi at all, but when Sophia arrived she came right over and cheered for Anah’s uncoordinated attempts to get the ball in the hoop.

On our last full day of camp, my son wanted to go on the canoes and then swim in the pool with his new friend, and at the last minute I decided to bring Anah along, knowing that she loves the water, but also knowing that she would hate the hike down to the pool and back. Well, it just so happened that my son’s new friend (and his dad) go to the same church as Sophia and her family, and they decided to come along too, so it ended up to be three dads and five kids. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a girl like Sophia would have a dad who is also patient and kind, but no one complained or even commented about Anah’s painstaking slowness down the steep trail, and for one time during the week, I didn’t feel so alone.

So thank you, Sophia–thanks for noticing a little girl (and her dad) who would have otherwise been very alone in a place that is meant for relationships and fun. I know you weren’t trying to do anything heroic or special, but that is what made your genuine kindness so wonderful. May God bear much more fruit from your compassionate heart as you love others like Jesus does!

“Muscle Memory” for the Soul

Because my daughter Anah does not have the cognitive ability (yet) to figure things out by reason or logic, then the only way to teach her a new skill is to repeat it so often that she eventually memorizes it. And if it’s a physical skill like taking a bath or brushing her teeth, we have to put our hands over hers and make her actually do the movement that is required until her body just knows what to do. When a set of physical movements is so ingrained that she can do it almost automatically (without thinking about each step), we say it is in her “muscle memory.”

I ran across this quote in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook the other day that used the term “soul memory” to speak of something similar to muscle memory:

Spiritual discipline, then, is developing soul reflexes so that we know how to live. We discipline ourselves to develop soul memory in normal times so that we’ll be equipped for the times of high demand or deep crisis.                 [pg 135]

Muscle memory is when my daughter’s hands are so trained in the steps of washing herself in a bath that she can do it on her own even if she doesn’t logically understand what she is doing or why she is doing it. In the same way, soul memory is when my heart is so trained in the ways of loving God and loving others that they just come out of my character without me thinking about it or trying really hard. To love God and love others in the ways that He commands me to in His Word is not just difficult–it’s impossible. But as I train my soul incrementally and repetitively over a long time, God’s Spirit transforms my character in such a way that obedience to those commands becomes almost automatic and easy because it is ingrained in soul memory through all that practice.

So reading my Bible and memorizing portions of it is not just something I’m supposed to do to be a good Christian. Rather, it is one way that I train my soul to know and trust in the God who has created me. Going on solitude retreats is not just getting away from it all so that I can rest, but it is another way of training my soul to be open to whatever God may be directing my attention toward. Eliminating TV is not just to free up more time for myself, but it is a way of training my soul to be more fully present to the people around me. As I practice these disciplines (and many others) over and over, I am gradually developing soul memory–habits of the heart that are bent toward loving and trusting God, and toward loving others the way Christ has loved me.