Monday, May 27, 2019

Mad is Not Our Only Choice

As I recently described, a certain child of mine is prone to rages. It happened again at school this week on Sports Day, which meant I had to be mom and principal at the same time. It's rough to be the principal's kid, but personally, I think it's even harder on the principal.

Of course, the chaos and exhaustion of Sports Day can bring out the worst in anybody, but this child made some pretty bad choices in the heat of an argument, leading to some extremely unkind things hurled at a good friend.

I led my scowling, glaring child to a picnic bench away from the din of children who were gleefully passing sponges over, under, over, under.

We worked on empathy. "How do you think you made your friend feel when you said those things?" I asked. "How would you feel if someone said those things to you?"

"I would feel mad."

I tried again. "But your friend isn't mad; your friend is hurt. How does that make you feel?"

My child glowered. "I'm just mad!"

Something clicked for me. "Honey," I said, "I just realized something. I think that sometimes you choose feeling mad over feeling bad. You choose mad because that's a more comfortable emotion than feeling sad or guilty. It's really hard to admit when we do something wrong, and it's a lot easier to be mad at someone who is mad back at you."

And I get that, don't I? It's easier to feel anger than regret. It feels much better to point fingers or deflect blame or lie to myself than to deal with the harsh reality of my own failure. 

I looked into my child's belligerent eyes and thought, My child just needs the gospel.

There, at the foot of the cross, we find freedom from shame and guilt. But the first step is kneeling there, acknowledging that we need freedom from shame and guilt. And that kneeling is the hardest part.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Let a Bible story--just think of your favorite from Sunday School--run through your mind. Doesn't every single one tell this story of pride and humility? Those who chose not to be humbled--well, their stories didn't end well. We find them eating grass like an ox, swept away by a flood, aimlessly wandering in a desert. But those who submitted to it--in prison, in the belly of a fish, separated by the veil, flat-faced in the dust before a holy God--those are the ones we see restored, redeemed, made new by grace.

And of course, once you've been made new, nothing ever looks the same again. Mad is no longer the default emotion. It's okay to feel shame and guilt, because you've found mercy. It's okay to feel sadness and regret, because you've found a waterfall of Hope.

I look over the timeline of my life and I see the same recurring theme: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. How many times I have walked through fire--beleaguered, exhausted, depleted of everything in me, my face in the dust, and I've finally said, "Okay, God, you win." Which was most likely the point all along.

Barbara Duguid writes, "You will never be able to find steady joy in this life until you understand, submit to, and even embrace the fact that you are weak and sinful."

I look again into my child's blazing eyes. My sweet child, may you come to embrace that mad is not your only choice. Let it go, and you'll find everlasting grace on the other side.

And then I remind myself (again) of the same thing.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Surprised by Eternity

There's that scene in Elf when Buddy is testing out Jack-in-the-Boxes. Every single time it pops up, and every single time he gets scared. He's got a huge pile of toys, and yet he's surprised every time. We laugh at him, but we're like that too.

Every moment of every day, time passes. Things change. The cells in our bodies, our children's bodies, are aging every second that goes by. Yet a birthday comes, and we are shocked at how old they've become. At how old we've become. That it's Christmas again. That it's summer again. That they are leaving for college. That we are getting gray hair. That our children are getting gray hair.

I'm 42. How can I possibly be 42? How can that much time have gone by? Yet I'll think the same thing when I'm 52, and 62. The passage of time never stops, and yet I'm always shocked.

We have five weeks left until the end of the school year. How can that be possible? Yet what's weirder is that I think that every single year. Just like Buddy the Elf. I never cease to be surprised.

I wonder why? You would think that after all this time, I would be used to it by now. I'm always striving towards something, either for something to be over (let's get those report cards finished; let's get to the day when all my kids can brush their own teeth; let's get the car fixed once and for all) or for something to happen (I'm counting the days until I see my family, I can't wait to go on that trip, I can't wait for Christmas to come).

The tasks always get finished. The things I wait for always come. And then life moves on. But there's always more tasks. And looking back on things that were greatly anticipated can become a let down. The perfect moments come, but then they never last.

It's like we are wired for permanency. In the back of our minds is this notion that if we keep striving towards that or running towards this or focusing really hard on that goal, that we will get there. There is always perfect, or at least better. And then we'll stay there. Forever.

Yet it's not Forever. Whatever it is might last two seconds, and then the earth turns on its axis and another day passes. We continue our journey around the sun and the seasons change. Again and again and again.

In None Like Him, Jen Wilkin writes, "Those grasping for the comfort of certainty are blithely reminded that the only certainty is change itself."

I keep thinking about that: The only certainty is change itself. In a world that seems to be falling apart around us, that truth helps me let go of so much frenzied striving for perfection. It also gives me hope that whatever seems unchangeable can always be redeemed.

Yet that inborn sense that we are headed towards something, that there's a purpose that all of us are aspiring for, that there's an overarching story that has a last page with a happily ever after--that feeling is so strong that there's got to be Truth to it. If all of us feel that pull towards permanency, certainty, stability, eternity, then isn't it probable that it does actually exist--behind the veil, through the wardrobe, on the other side?

Could it be that God has put eternity into man's heart? That we are consistently surprised by the passage of time because we were created for eternity?

Jen Wilkin writes, "Every circumstance you encounter will change except the circumstance of your forgiveness. Every possession you own will pass away except the pearl of your salvation. Every relationship you enter into will waver except your adoption by your heavenly father."

There's a strange comfort in the acceptance of change in this wrecked world. It allows me to loosen my hold on things that point me towards regret or despair. It helps me not to idolize those beautiful, perfect moments that always slip through my fingers. Instead, may they be tastes of eternity, reminders of what's coming. May they increase my craving for the God who will never change, and who has created me for Eternity. Encountering it might be a different kind of surprise: Oh, this is what I was made for!

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Dear Moms of Littles, Adoption Has Taught Me Your Labor Is Not In Vain

The other night, there was a lot of screaming in my dining room. A lot of screaming. Like, I'm sure that our neighbors thought someone was being maimed or murdered.

But no. Someone was being asked to share a handful of half-dry markers with a sibling. This was apparently cause for a fight-to-the-death battle that involved wailing and flailing on the floor.

Also, no, this was not a developmentally-appropriate toddler temper tantrum. We are way past the toddler stage in this house.

I put on my calm, firm voice and did my best to stay calm and firm for twenty minutes while rage rampaged through my house. When it was over, the child flipped back to their perky, chipper self, while I felt like I had been run over by a truck.

Several years ago I read an article that told me that a child learns emotion regulation from his or her mother before the age of three. The mother's sense of calm actually, physically, passes onto her babies, and teaches her children how to calm themselves down.

That was a game changer for me. Oh. My child didn't have a mother as a toddler. This is why my child cannot regulate emotions. And I've discovered that at the heart of the anger is a deep insecurity. We have the same conversations, over and over again. You are valued and loved. You can trust Mom and Dad to give you what you need. People are not out to get you. It's not you against the world. We are on your side. 

Even though the number of years that child has been in my care has far surpassed the number of years that child spent in an orphanage, it doesn't matter. Those first three years are so critical that it's taking years and years to try to reverse that early learning.

And honestly, what I'm dealing with is mild. As an adoptive mom of four, I am fully immersed in adoption books, forums, and friendships. The stories I hear or read about make me realize that I've got it easy. Sorry, Beatles, but All you need is love isn't always true. An adoptive family can be full of love, but it takes a long time to fix what was broken. Especially if it was broken during those first few years.

So if you are in those "fixing what was broken" years with your adopted child, then you have my sympathy. Mothers With Screaming Children...Unite!

But my point of writing today is to encourage those moms who are raising little people right now--the Under Three crowd.

Some of my kids came to me as infants. Now that I'm past that stage, it's easy to be nostalgic. Those belly laughs and funny first words, the pieces of songs that come out all wrong, the excitement over shiny shoes, the dancing and prancing....because who wants to walk???

But then I remember the sleeplessness. The messes, over and over again. And it wasn't so much the exhaustion that got to me, but the monotony. The tasks are repetitive and feel endless. Changing. Feeding. Throwing blocks in the air. Reading inanely ridiculous books. Talking about yourself in the third person. Listening to Dora one more time. And praying they go to sleep. Dear God, please just make them go to sleep.

The hardest part about all of this was that it often felt so pointless. So small. So insignificant.

But that's where adoption has taught me that it's not. During those early years of sleepless nights and endless messes, you are giving your child a whole lot more than love. Without realizing it, you are teaching her to trust adults to get her needs met. You are giving him a sense of personhood and value. You are teaching her how to regulate her emotions. You are giving him safe boundaries and showing her how to reign in her desires.

Of course, this is not to say that every child who was adopted at an older age is going to struggle with these things. It also doesn't mean that every biological, home-raised child is not going to struggle. Personality and life circumstances are huge factors. But in general, adoption has shown me that those early years really matter. Centrally matter.

So be encouraged, Mom of Littles. These years will pass, and you will never regret the investment you made in your children in those mind-numbingly long years. Keep at it.

One of my all-time favorite pictures (2007)

Thursday, May 9, 2019

What to Know Before You Go

Let’s say you are boarding a transatlantic flight and hear, “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen; this is your pilot speaking. I’m 21 years old, and I’m excited to tell you that this is my first commercial flight! But don’t you worry; I’ve flown my Daddy’s crop duster at least a half dozen times. What I don’t have in experience or education, I make up with passion. I’m just about as willing as they come; my heart is practically bursting with willingness! Now buckle up your seatbelts; we’ll be off as soon as I find that user’s manual."
I don’t know about you, but I’d be out of that plane faster than a fried egg off a Teflon pan.
Yet sometimes we approach missions in the same way. Willing hearts filled with passion are awesome, but they are not enough. So here’s where things get awkward: I’ve titled this “What to Know Before You Go,” when actually it should be more like, “What I Wish I Had Known Before I Went.” Because when I got on a plane to Tanzania almost twenty years ago, I was just about as bad as that pilot. Thankfully I didn’t completely crash and burn, but I learned the hard way, over and over again. Had I taken the time early on to do a little more study and a lot more wrestling, I could have spared myself a lot of grief, and certainly increased my effectiveness in those early years. Learn from my mistakes.
1. You need to have a basic understanding of worldviews.
This goes much deeper than a knowledge of world religions. For example, a person can call himself a Christian, but that doesn’t mean that his thinking, choices, and actions line up with the Bible. The same is true for those who follow other faiths. The religious labels people give themselves just scratch the surface of what they really believe. This is where a study of worldview comes in. If you are hoping to live, work, and have a gospel-impact on people of a different culture, that’s got to start with understanding their worldview–and your own.
Darrow Miller’s Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Cultures should be required reading for any new missionary.
2. You need to know how to interpret the Bible on your own.
Most new missionaries have been nurtured in spiritually rich environments–strong Christian colleges and solid churches that often include discipleship, biblical teaching, and small groups. This is wonderful–but what happens when you end up in a city where there are no strong churches? Or those that do exist are in another language? What happens when you find yourself in a spiritually harsh environment with only a small team of other believers who can help you stay afloat?
Online sermons can help. Rich Christian literature can help. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be you and your Bible. Do you have the skills you need to interpret it without a pastor or small group leader’s help? Do you know enough about the various genres of Scripture, the historical context, and sound interpretation practices so that you can be confident of what it’s really saying?
The technical word for this is “hermeneutics,” or Bible study methods. Our family favorite is Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible by Howard Hendricks, but there are many other great resources out there.
3. You need to have worked out a biblical theology of suffering–or at least started to.
Of course, suffering can be found on every corner of the globe, in every social sphere. But any ministry that takes you up close and personal with the messiness of people’s lives, especially amongst the poor and disadvantaged, has the possibility of knocking you breathless with the depth of the suffering you will witness.
What will it do to your soul to see the blind child begging on the street corner? To be friends with the woman who lost her twins due to an unconscionable doctor’s error? To see the little albino boy whose arm was chopped off for witchcraft purposes….by his own uncle? If you haven’t already wrestled with God over the reality of suffering and the problem of evil, you may risk disillusionment, burn-out, or even losing your faith.
Jerry Bridges’ Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts has had a profound influence on my life on this topic.
4. You need to know the theology of poverty alleviation.
What do you do about the beggars on the street corner? Or the constant requests by your neighbors for loans or favors? How do you assuage your guilty conscience when you go out to dinner or spend money on a vacation, knowing that people around you are hungry? Guilt will slowly strangle you unless you have already thought through how you will respond.
A theology of suffering answers, “How can God allow this?” A theology of poverty alleviation answers, “How should I respond?”
If you haven’t yet read When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor….and Yourself, now is the time. It’s an absolute must-read for any missionary (or any Christian, for that matter).
5. You need to know the history of your host country.
Are you able to identify the five most important events in your host country’s history? Do you know how the government is structured? Are you familiar with the nation’s holidays and why they are celebrated? What is every child taught? If you want to get to the soul of a people, then you must understand where they came from. Take the time find out.
All of these areas can be learned by dedicated study on your own. I learn best by reading, so I’ve given my recommendations for my favorite books. But I’m sure there are audiobooks, podcasts, or videos on all of these subjects. If you’ve got other suggestions, please share! Utilize the massive amount of internet resources at our fingertips, and educate yourself on these important issues–ideally, before you go.

This was originally posted at A Life Overseas.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Those Who Suffer Are My Teachers

I've always been ambivalent about Santa and the Easter Bunny. 

I probably would feel that way anywhere we lived, but I especially would never be able to pull off those stories in Tanzania. I can't bring myself tell my children that a magical old man or giant bunny is leaving them gifts when they see children every day who are living in poverty. How could I ever explain to them that Santa only leaves gifts for them, but not for their neighbors? How would I excuse the Easter bunny's negligence of the little girl begging at our car window on the way to church?

I must hold my theology of God to the same standard. 

Living as an American in a developing country has forced me to wrestle hard with what I believe. Am I believing an American gospel? Or the actual gospel?

Even though it's easy for me to disdain the misuse of Jeremiah 29:11, how many times have I caught myself thinking, God would never let that terrible thing happen to me? How often have I needed to remind myself, God doesn't owe me the American dream?

I'm embarrassed to admit the number of times I have wallowed in self-pity, asking God, Why me? Or how often have I realized that lurking around in the back of my mind is the notion that God just wants me to be happy?

Theology that can't transcend culture, time, and experience isn't Truth at all.

If what I believe is true, then it must be true for the Christians of Mozambique who lost everything in one cyclone--home, business, community--only to be hit by another a few weeks later. It's got to be true for the Christian in Sri Lanka who simultaneously lost his wife and three children in a terrorist attack.

How dare I think that God owes me anything? I shouldn't be asking Why me? but rather Why not me? 

Of course, it's not just those in developing countries who suffer. I think of Scott and Johanna Watkins, who discovered shortly after their marriage that Johanna had developed life-threatening allergies to just about everything, including Scott. Or Grace Utomo, who was an extraordinarily talented violinist when she was hit by a car at 23 years old. She now suffers from multiple seizures a day and can hardly ever leave the house.

Can I think about the lives of these suffering souls and believe that God just wants me to be happy? When I worry about the future, should I assure myself that God would never let that happen to me when he has already allowed much worse to happen to others who bear his name?

Ironically, the Bible speaks far more about oppression, injustice, and suffering than it does about happiness. Persecution is an expectation. We tend to forget that Paul wrote Rejoice in the Lord always while he was languishing in prison. There is no fear of contradiction between the gospel of Jesus and the reality of suffering. Which means that the problem lies in my own assumptions, not in the Bible.

I have learned to pay attention to those who suffer and yet remain steadfast in their faith. When my friend Lucy's house was marked for demolition, she told me, "God gives and takes away. We will bless the name of the Lord, no matter what happens."

Grace Utomo asks, Can I really call God 'kind?' and answers, "We would have no idea of how faithful and valuable God really is if we never knew loss in some capacity.  We have souls that live forever, but our physical conditions are only temporary. Our job is to cling to eternity, and to the hope that we will enjoy God most fully at the end of our earthly life. Until then, we have the beautiful (albeit sometimes painful) opportunity to know God as a faithful refuge. If we look beyond the temporary, God is indeed kind."
Scott Waktins writes, "Seeing upheavals so commonly in the scriptures reminds me that not only are Johanna and I in good company, but that it is serving a greater purpose. These difficult circumstances we are going through are not a cosmic accident. They are serving a purpose I don’t fully see, but one that I believe will lead to good. The upheaval of the past years has not upheaved my relationship with God. Instead, it has helped me deeply appreciate the upheaval of Jesus’ life and its lasting impact on the world."

I am not worthy to stand in the presence of these suffering saints. They are my teachers. Theirs is the theology I seek.