Useful Suffering

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
(Romans 5:3-5)

There is nothing quite like being a parent to highlight certain Scriptures with excruciating clarity.

Since Ash Wednesday, I’ve been reading and re-reading in the book of Romans, going through a couple of chapters over my breakfast and diving into a smaller portion for closer study when the meal has been consumed.

My weekend reading focused on chapters 9 and 10, which a read through a handful of times. I broke today’s fast with eggs scrambled with kale, onion, and red bell pepper along with a side of Romans 11, the previous two chapters still fresh on my mind. Then over coffee, I turned to Romans 5 for examination.

And I saw a horrifying glimpse of the grief our Creator feels over the rebellion of His creation. His children.

I saw it because I recognized a tiny sliver of His grief in Paul’s impassioned words from Romans 9:2-3:

…I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

And I recognized it because now that my own little brood have begun trying their wings, I share a human-sized portion of the same unceasing anguish, not only for my brothers, but for my children.

If I could trade my salvation for the assurance of each of theirs, I would do it without a second thought. Now with our oldest counting down the months until legal adulthood, I am more certain of this than ever before.

There is definitely anguish in my heart as I watch him stumble into a trap lined with acceptance but secular to its purposeless core. Only weeks after I’d bragged on what a delight he has become, he has seemed to turn a darker corner and morphed into the stereotypical rude, withdrawn teenager.

And the people who have his heart are not my brothers and sisters in Christ as before. I do not even know where they come from, but he is more connected with them than with any portion of the Body of Christ at present. This is a source of terrible grief for me.

And yet, I know there will truly be no greater joy for me than if I live to see him and his sisters walk in the Truth.

For now, however, I pray. I watch. I search the Word for wisdom and guidance. And I pray even more.

Through it all, I also rejoice in this season of parental suffering because, while it is intensely frightening and painful to watch my firstborn dancing around a fire which threatens to consume him, I know this form of suffering, too, brings endurance.

Endurance in prayer, greater hope in the faithfulness of my Lord.

But it also because this heartache helps me to understand with greater poignancy the never-failing, never-ceasing capacity for forgiveness and love held by my Father’s many times shattered heart. And also because through this anguish, I begin to better understand His keen joy when even one lost child is found and begins to walk in truth.

Lord, forgive me the hurts I have inflicted on You by my rebellion and untrusting ways. I never knew what pain was until now. Please guide my children to You. May they become Your children more truly than ever they were mine, and we rejoice together to someday see them walk in Your Truth.  

 

Gross But Good

… the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Matthew 20:28)

Last Friday night, I spent some time with my 14-year-old and two adorable little girls wearing a sweatshirt and yoga pants merrily festooned with vomit.

It was glorious.

Well, OK, not the vomit of course…

My Sweet Potata had agreed to babysit for some friends but had neglected to tell me the two previous nights had been sleepless for her. Once my gang arrived home from school, her bleary eyes and slumped shoulders told the tale even before she could confess.

So I decided to tag along and be her wingman. We had a fantastic conversation on the drive over, and the first couple of hours were filled with joyful giggles and silly games. At the appropriate time, my no-longer-little girl tucked the two sweeties into bed we both settled in to do a little reading.

Twenty minutes later, I was bathing the youngest while big sister provided Sweet Potata with a detailed narrative of the differences between her sister’s vomit and the one time she had thrown up.

At this point, I wasn’t sure if excitement or illness had caused the event, but I was thankful God had worked things out so Sweet Potata and I could switch hit. Once the little one was bathed, Sweet Potata sat with the sisters and read books while I cleaned up the crib. Not long after, she had big sister back in bed while I held the little one in another room.

Seconds later, said little one was back in the tub and my clothing had acquired some distinctive new attributes. Even still, it was a wonderful evening.

You see, now that my own children are teens, connection with them does not always come as easily as it did when they were small. They no longer believe I know everything and in fact are often convinced I am not even capable of spelling my name correctly. They definitely doubt my abilities.

But all of it – the pulling away, the incessant questioning of my motives, the disbelief that our family rules are there for the good of each person, the reluctance to believe my insistence on a hygienic household and on the nutritional deficit of Pop Tarts have merit– all of it is a natural and necessary part of growing up.

But as a parent, it is a painful part.

And crazily, as I sat in the floor with the towel-wrapped toddler by my side (because my lap was, shall we say, no longer a pleasing place to snuggle), I had a powerful glimpse of the enormity of God’s love for me.

Like my teenage daughter, I spent much of my life pulling away from my Father. In truth, I rejected Him entirely.

All of humanity did. We all wanted to go our own way, test our boundaries without the pesky interference of thoughts for the future. We all disbelieved His laws were given out of love and concern for us. We all sinned and fell short of His glory.

Yet so great is His love that He did not give up on us.

Instead, He sent His Son away from Glory to immerse Himself in humanity. The Creator subjecting Himself to all the vile things which occur in a human body since the day sin entered and brought decay and death into His creation.

While here, Yeshua reached past the festering reek of leprosy and touched those who were infected by it – despite the social stigma of being unclean.

He raised the dead. He endured being spat upon, mocked, and brutally tortured. It is likely there were times when He was covered in worse things than vomit.

Suddenly, as I sat with one arm wrapped around a sick little sweetie, listening to my daughter’s voice mingled with big sister’s and ignoring the clammy funk of my own clothing, I realized something.

Yeshua came and suffered the nastiness of being human because it was worth it.

To me, all the cleaning up – and yes, even the light coating of vomit – was worth it. That night, I was able offer friends who are dealing with so much a chance to have some time alone together. I had the privilege of offering comfort to one I claim as a part-time daughter.

But most of all, it was worth it to reach through the wall of adolescent stubbornness and bring a little restoration into my relationship with my daughter. To talk with her and enjoy each other as we did when she was small. To know I was there by her side in a difficult situation.

And that is precisely why my Lord came. To restore the connection He once had with His beloved creation. To walk through the yuck with us.

For Him, I believe, it was worth wearing a bit of foulness to walk and talk with His beloved children once more as He used to before sin entered the world.

Which just makes me love Him even more.

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
(2 Corinthians 1:5)

Innocent as Doves

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. ”
(Matthew 10:16, NASB)

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a couple of friends when these words, spoken by Yeshua to His disciples, suddenly resonated with me.

…wise as serpents and innocent as doves…  Other008

Almost six weeks ago in a neighboring community, a 50-year-old teacher – a married man, a father, and a grandfather – disappeared along with a 15-year-old female student. While stories like this happen, this one really grabbed my attention for several reasons.

Besides the fact that I have a story of my own from when I was an emotionally crippled 19-year-old, I also have a daughter who will soon be 14 – a mere year younger than the girl who went missing (and who has, as of yesterday, been found, thank the Lord).

Thus it was that my friends and I were discussing the fact that now that our kids are mostly teens or tweens, we almost fear for their safety from sexual predators now more than when they were small.  For one thing, kids at this age feel grown up, and so a little attention applied in the right way only enhances that sense; a fact which can be easily exploited (and please note that I am not saying this teacher manipulated his student – I do not know the full story; simply that it reminded me of mine and of others).

Yet despite adult-sized bodies and interests, the adolescent of today’s world is in a weird limbo between childhood and adulthood. Their decision-making rational is not often as complete as that of an older adult, and many older teens and young adults are partially drunk with newfound freedoms while lacking the experience (and possibly the neural network) that lends caution and prudence in later years. This makes our young people especially susceptible to suggestion or coercion from those with more practical knowledge of the ways of the world.

But what I realized most profoundly in that moment as my friends and I discussed the falls and close-calls of our own youth and how we can best educate our kids without instilling agoraphobia or anthropophobia, was that what we really want to do is teach our kids to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.

According to Thayer’s Greek Definitions, the Greek word translated, “shrewd” can also be translated as “wise” or “prudent, i.e. mindful of one’s interests.”

Apparently at the time, the serpent was seen as a symbol of cunning and craftiness- perhaps somewhat like our modern-day sly fox. Certainly in the picture of the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden, we see a creature who was sly and mindful of his own interests – which in that case, unfortunately, happened to be the corruption of God’s creative capstone: Man who was made in His own image.

However, not all snakes are in league with the enemy of our souls, of course. Even in today’s vernacular, we can see that snakes are cautious to preserve their own lives, some employing poison and others mimicking rattlesnakes, feigning death, or simply beating a rapid retreat into a nearby crevice.

Our Lord certainly was not advocating deceit or malicious intent, but He was indicating that we should be thoughtful and vigilant – mindful of our interests. In our case, our interests ought to be seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and so when faced with dangerous situations, we must be carefully intent on the Lord’s leading in order to make the wisest choice.

For our children, this might include an awareness of their surroundings, a knowledge of the potential for wickedness in all mankind (themselves included), and an understanding of cause and effect.

On the other hand, a dove is the portrait of innocence and gentleness even to this day. There is little on earth less threatening than a dove, save perhaps for baby bunnies or newly-hatched ducklings. I have never seen an image portraying a vengeful or angry dove.

This, too, is a characteristic I would like to pass on to the young gentlemen and ladies under my care. Somehow, contemplating the case of this teacher and student, I had a burst of insight as to what the Lord meant when He spoke those words.

Just as I would like my own children to walk wisely in this world; to be both discerning and prudent yet to remain harmless and innocent when confronted with the presence of evil or persecution.

I would like them to understand the ramifications of wickedness without becoming jaded and to comprehend the dangers that stalk the world without becoming paralyzed by fear.

In short, I would like them to be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves. Unsurprisingly, this is just what my Father wants from me, too.

But there are other lessons to this story…

Lessons from Parenthood

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Ephesians 6:4

My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
Proverbs 3:11-12

My home is awash in hormones. I pity my husband, really, as he seems to be the only member of our family who is not going through some physio-chemical change right now. All three of our children are in various stages of puberty, and I… well, I am a woman in my 40s. Enough said.

Last week, one of the inevitable explosions occurred smack in the middle of our school day. My middle daughter and I clashed over a particular point of continuing disrespectful behavior. Warnings and verbal rebukes had been given in plenty, yet the problem persisted. Rather than accepting correction with humility, she responded sullenly, certain she had been wronged and blaming me entirely rather than accepting any responsibility for her own actions.

Try as I do not to take these things personally, there was a bit of me that was hurt by her petulant response to discipline. I was overcome by a sense of my own inadequacy and felt like a failure as a mom. A more selfish part of me was frustrated that, after all I have sacrificed in order to home school, the results were not meeting my expectations.

In that moment, I desperately wished that my children could see the grace they are given when my husband and I warn them not to continue in wrong behaviors.  I wished that they would accept accountability for their actions rather than assigning blame elsewhere.  I wanted them all to know the sacrifices that have been made so they can have the life they do.

I also longed for them to stop receiving gentle rebukes as if they were merely a reprieve from punishment, but instead to heed them as sincere warnings that unpleasant consequences lie ahead if the behavior continues. I wished the kids would just listen and understand that all the discipline my husband and I administer is done out of love and for their own good.

Oh…

Realization punched through my agitation: I am often exactly like my child. In all the incorrect responses of my child, I see a reflection of my own incorrect responses to my Father’s discipline.

I love that my Father keeps me humble. I love that He uses the painful incidents — and even failures — of my own parenting to remind me of His own sacrificial, nurturing nature; to bring my focus off my problems or my hurt and back to Him where it belongs.

Perhaps next time there is a parent/child conflict, I will remember that parenting is a part of my own spiritual training.  Perhaps my children’s responses will serve to remind me to respond with humility and openness when I am chastened.  Perhaps I can keep my eyes on the enormous sacrifice of my Father, losing myself entirely in the depths of His overwhelming love.

Perhaps, too, the next time simmering emotions boil over into full-scale battle, I will not cave to feelings of parental failure but rely on the only perfect Father to be my wisdom and my strength.

When I am grieved by my children, let it be a reminder to me how my Father grieves when I ignore His still, small voice.  May it be that both my children and I will always turn to Him no matter what external or internal forces may be at work. And I pray that I may always, always be faithful to discipline my children in love, forgiving them as I have been forgiven, and at all times pointing them to God both in my words and my deeds.

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.
Ephesians 4:31-5:1

Not Alone, Really

*Note: I wrote this some time ago but have hesitated to publish it in part because it is so raw. There is a lot of emotion wrapped up in the following words (and there are not a few), but perhaps there is also hope, and maybe someone out there may benefit from the knowledge that there are greater goals than fitting in. 

He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.   Isaiah 53:3

I have a fourteen-year-old son who is not like other boys his age. His room is nearly immaculate (though I confess a wish that he would apply the same cleanliness standard to parts of the house or van that are not properly “his”). He loves routine and order and does not handle surprises well. He is not into sports.

He struggles socially, sometimes uses an inappropriately loud voice, and seems to find it much easier to befriend boys younger than him than kids his own age. My son has developed a tic or two in recent years that becomes worse when he is tired or stressed. He is very particular about textures and noise levels.

Thus far, I have refrained from labeling him; instead, my husband and I have embraced him exactly how he is, differences and all. We have an experiential understanding of such differences and so aim for training him to cope with life, teaching him the hard lessons we have learned and coaching him in what few social skills we have managed to pick up through the years of our own social awkwardness.

As he has grown, many of his guy friends have moved away he is now in a somewhat lonely season of life; a time when the friends within a couple of years of his age can be counted on one hand with fingers left over and friends he sees more often than once a month are even fewer.  I hurt for him with each buddy that moves, but I prod him to keep on reaching out, to keep trying.

Complicating matters are past instances when adults have invited him to various events, causing him great excitement. Unfortunately, I have also had to watch his crushing disappointment when he found out later that the event happened without him.  Again, I would share his pain, assure him it was an oversight and not actual rejection, and encourage him to keep trying.

I have pressed him to reach out to kids whose company he enjoys, watched him steel himself against his native nervousness and make the calls, watched him try and try until the lack of reciprocity finally made him quit. Again, I have plastered on a smile and told him that people are busy, that it is no reflection on him, that he should not quit trying.

To his enormous credit, I have watched him eagerly and faithfully attend his youth group every week despite the fact that I have seen the photos and videos of him hanging out on the outskirts, have heard his own declaration that he just doesn’t fit in though he still likes being there. And again, his hurt has become my own.

I remember being his age, and I remember being alone. I carried labels like “freak” and “loser,” and I can see him turning those labels over in his mind, wondering if they apply to him.

I try to encourage my son to expand his interests (they are very narrow), to try to take an interest in what other kids do even if it is not his area of expertise. I try to impart to him such lessons as I have learned in my own social struggles,  but I think he feels inept and clumsy, and he certainly prefers to retreat into video games or technology.

In the times I weep for my son, for the pain of growing up and of not fitting in, my Lord reminds me that He, too, was rejected. He was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He reminds me that I, too, was a misfit and yet He has used me.  And He never called any of us to fit in but only to follow Him.

I think that Jesus must have experienced lonesomeness, for who could be more unlike other men than the Son of God on earth?

We are definitely not sinless, but we are not like others, my son and I. It is one tiny way we can share in His suffering, one small thing we can know He understands.

And so I pray that in the midst of his loneliness and social awkwardness, my son will draw near to the Lord. I pray that he will not shut out the only One who can fully understand and actually help. I pray that he will find the peace that can only be found in the mind fixed steadfastly on the Lord.

I pray that video games will no longer be his hiding place, but that he will turn to Jesus alone to find refuge from the pain of life; that he will look to the Lord for the comfort and strength that no game can offer. I pray that the Holy Spirit will navigate him through the confusing teen years complicated by the social awkwardness he apparently inherited from his parents.

Most of all, I pray that in my son’s tight little cocoon of pain, God is working on him even though I cannot see it; changing his faith into something that will someday take flight, exquisite and wonderful to behold. I pray that he will emerge from these trying years and rise up on wings like eagles’, soaring with full confidence in his God.

And I pray that at the end of this invisible, inner struggle, God will use my son to reach those who are bound by the painful and invisible cords of the social misfit, the outcast, the uncool. I pray that he will powerfully share the truth of acceptance into a Kingdom that is so much more glorious than any peer group on earth.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28