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.

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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.

Thanksgiving Dessert

My favorite part of Thanksgiving this year didn’t actually happen on Thanksgiving Day, but a couple days afterward. It may not seem like a big deal, but for my family, it felt like a significant breakthrough.

Our 11-year-old daughter Anah has Down Syndrome, which brings some cognitive delays, but her bigger issue is that all her formative years were spent in an orphanage and from that she has learned to be helpless even in areas where she has the capacity to understand or to act. So for the past four years, we have been trying to train–actually un-train and then re-train–certain behaviors in her. Mealtimes have been one major training battlefield.

One of the behaviors we are trying to instill in Anah is to ask for more food or for dessert, rather than just looking at us and smiling (which is what she has used to get her way previously, even though she is fully capable of using words to ask). She has learned to mimic what we tell her she must say, but still hasn’t seemed to grasp the significance of what she is saying.

But a couple days ago the lightbulb went on for her! We had several dessert items left from Thanksgiving, so we were eating some pastries but there were some cookies on the table also. Everyone in the family usually models what we want Anah to say (“Mommy, please cake?”) and half the time she still doesn’t get it, but this time she looked at her mom with a big smile and immediately said “Mama, please cake?” We cheered for her, gave her a piece of the pastry, and proceeded to eat ours too. As soon as the pastry was gone, Anah looked up again with another big smile, and without hesitatingimg_1178 said “Mama, please cookie?” We were blown away–she has never done that before! It seemed like something finally clicked in her head and she understood what those words actually meant.

We have been praying for a long time that God would awaken Anah from her mindlessness and learned helplessness, and this was a huge answer to prayer–definitely something to be thankful for!

Today also, Anah was playing with some puppets and my son remarked that it looked like she was actually playing with them, rather than mindlessly repeating motions devoid of meaning (which is her usual mode of “play”).

I am thankful.

 

Hurry Up & Learn Patience!

I’m all for patience–I just wish it wasn’t such a slow process!

In my family growing up, anger was often present but rarely acknowledged. Outwardly we were a very calm family who believed that all anger was ungodly, but that simply meant that our anger was only expressed in a simmering, passive-aggressive manner. So I’ve never thought of myself as an angry person.

My perceptiogood-and-angryn of myself has been changing over the past four years since our adopted, special-needs daughter joined our family. There have been far more visible expressions of anger coming out of me in these four years than ever before. God is graciously allowing me to see that I am not the patient, calm person that I thought I was.

So when David Powlison’s book, Good and Angry, was recently published, it immediately caught my attention. Powlison calls the good form of anger “the constructive displeasure of mercy,” and he says there are four key aspects in that: patience, forgiveness, charity, and constructive conflict. His description of patience was very insightful to me:

You bear with difficult people and events, not out of indifference, resignation, or cowardice. You hang in there because you are driven by a different purpose. You are willing to work slowly to solve things. Patience is not passivity. It is how to be purposeful and constructive in the face of great difficulties. You are even willing to live constructively for a long time within seeming insoluble evils. By definition, patience means that what’s wrong doesn’t change right away. (pg 78)

That’s part of my struggle in loving my daughter: I know my impatient anger toward her is wrong, but if I think that the only other option is to have no anger, then I just end up in resignation or indifference, which also is wrong. So to see true patience as the Godly balance between those two extremes is helpful—I can still agree that her mindlessness and disobedience is wrong, but at the same time be willing to work slowly over a long period of time to solve that. To be patient with her means agreeing that something is wrong without demanding instant change. When I stop to think about it, I know that some things are changing in my daughter, but it’s just extremely slow. So I know I need to continue to persist in training her (even though the easier thing is to slide into resignation), and yet in the training accept the reality that change is far, far slower than I would like (rather than pushing for immediate change).

The ironic thing is that my daughter has been far more patient with me in my stumbling attempts to love than I have with her in her stumbling attempts to learn.

Adopted, yet Waiting for Adoption

Romans 8 has long been a favorite Bible passage of mine, because of the strong undercurrent of HOPE that runs through it. Hope, for me as a Christian, is not merely a nice-sounding wish that maybe things will get better someday, but it is a certainty of glory that will surely come but is not yet. Because that hope is certain but yet future, we as Christians live in a tension between what is already true and what is not yet realized fully.

Spiritual adoption is one aspect of this already-not yet tension. Human adoption–to the extent that it mirrors this same tension–gives us a more tangible picture of this spiritual reality.

Romans 8:15-17 says that we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons,” and therefore “we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ.” We have received adoption–it is past tense, completed…already. Adoption gives us a new status as children of God and heirs with Christ. That is what we are–present tense…already. But then just a few verses later, in Romans 8:23, we see that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” That’s something we’re waiting for and hoping for…it’s not yet. So we are adopted already, yet we’re waiting for adoption. How can that be?

Adoption changes our status. God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). That is the already part. But adoption doesn’t immediately change our situation. Our status has been changed to son/daughter and heir, but we have not yet received the inheritance. Whether a child enters a family biologically or through adoption, they are still a child and do not receive their full inheritance until adulthood. And therefore we groan and wait and hope (Romans 8:23-25).

ice-cream-for-anahI see this same already-not yet tension at play in my family’s adoption of my daughter Anah. This Saturday will mark 4 years since her status changed from a ward of the state in China to the daughter of Daniel & Vera Christian. All the mounds of paperwork have been completed. She is officially ours…already. And yet in many ways it feels as if nothing has changed. We still can’t have a conversation with her–only scripted lines that we tell her to say. We don’t really know her–we don’t have any clue who she really is as a person because she’s lived her whole life letting others think for her. And we’re no longer sure if any of these things are going to change…certainly not yet. Her family naimg_0364me has changed to ours, but inside she seems to still be the same little girl that marched into our room–and into our lives–four years ago. Already…but not yet.

And so we groan, and we wait, and we try to hope. But we are realizing more and more that our hope cannot be in what we will do to train her and help her to grow. No, the only real hope we have is that God also will adopt her into His family. Because then–and only then–will there be the certainty that her broken mind and body will one day be redeemed and made whole (Romans 8:23). And then we will know her for who God has made her to be, in all her sweetness and silliness and creativity, without the dull mindlessness that now remains as a frustrating reminder of her pre-adoption life.