The counsel of the LORD stands forever,
The plans of His heart from generation to generation.
On the last Wednesday of October, I took Mom for a little drive. The trees, dressed in fabulous fall colors, put on quite a show. Every so often Mom would point and say, “There’s a pretty one,” or “Look at the color on that one.” The day was lovely and our time together was a delight, but the autumn colors were a reminder that winter, my least favorite season, is coming, and I can’t do a thing about it.
The weather isn’t the only thing changing this fall. Our country will soon have a new president and new members of Congress. State and local governments will welcome new faces, too. Our family faces changes, too, as we prepare to move to a new home in a new town. And our church is preparing for the changes that will accompany the arrival of a new associate pastor.
We all respond differently to change. I dread the arrival of winter’s cold and snow. Hiram looks forward to putting in cross country ski trails after each big snow. Voters who vote for this year’s winning candidates will be pleased on November 9, while those whose candidates lose will be disconcerted. And even though God has made it clear that our upcoming move is part of his plan for our family, Hiram and I vacillate daily between the excitement of watching God’s plan unfold and panic about the downsizing, packing, paperwork, and the million little details that are part of our adventure.
As a church body, we are eager to welcome a new associate pastor. We are ready for the guidance of a godly man who will be a support to Pastor Tim by providing vision and leadership as our church grows. But how will we respond when the changes he recommends are different from the way things have always been done? When we are pushed beyond our comfort zones and complacency? When change is welcomed by some and painful for others?
How can we respond to change in ways that honor God and draw onlookers closer to him? That is a question God wants us to ponder. It’s the question he brings to mind each day while I sort through old family treasures and photographs. When I think of leaving the house where my children grew up, where we made 25 years of family history.
“Your memories are enough, and I am enough,” he whispers gently and insistently. “I will not change, and I will never leave you,” he promises. “I am still good. My ways are good, and I will accomplish my good purposes within you wherever I take you.”
His words give me the power to part with material things and a home I hols dear. His words will be our nation’s source of hope the day after the 2016 election. His words can fill us with grace and confidence to welcome the changes God has planned for our church body through the work of a new associate pastor. His words are the unchanging beacon of truth that allow us to respond to changes, good and bad, in ways that honor God and make him irresistible to a watching world.
His words are enough.
He is enough.
But the fruit of the Spirit is
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control;
against such things there is no law.
You is smart. You is kind. You is important. Aibileen Clark says these powerful words over and over to little Mae Mobley in the 2011 movie The Help. The context in which the words are spoken only make them stronger. The year is 1963. Aibileen is an African American maid in Jacksonville, Mississippi. She works for Mae Mobley’s parents. Though the little girl is a privileged white child, her looks fall far short of her socialite mother’s standards. But Aibileen loves the little girl. Every day she affirms Mae Mobley’s worth by holding her and saying the same three sentences. You is smart. You is kind. You is important.
Every child needs an Aibileen. I certainly did, and I the memories of my Aibileens are dear to me–Dad watching TV with me when I was sick, an uncle and aunt who took me camping, a second grade teacher who encouraged my creativity, a neighbor who helped me with 4-H projects. Not only did those precious people affirm my worth, they showed that kindness has a greater impact than being smart or important.
If your childhood was blessed by an Aibileen, you know the value of kindness, too. You know isn’t taught through books or lectures. It can’t be mandated. It is taught and caught by example. One reason Jesus came to earth was to demonstrate the power of kindness. His example was and is crucial. Because when kindness isn’t passed down from the faithful of one generation to the next, it dies. And our world suffers.
Politics and kindness are rarely bedfellows. But this political season has been marked by an appalling lack of kindness. Maybe it’s because technology makes it too easy to pass along crude sound bites and disparaging images. Maybe it’s because our presidential candidates value being important and smart more than being kind. Maybe it’s because cruelty gets better ratings than kindness.
The reason for the lack of kindness doesn’t really matter. What matters is the effect the dearth of kindness is having on the next generation. When we rip into people who venture opinions different from ours, when we pass along Facebook memes and articles that destroy people instead of confronting issues, when we use language we scold our children for using, the world is observing what we say and do. Our example shows the world that feeling important and sounding smart is of greater value than kindness. Our example teaches them how to kill kindness. Worse yet, when we call ourselves Christians while our behaviors and words are devoid of kindness, we crucify Christ and put him to open shame (Hebrews 6:6). Such examples increase the likelihood that those watching us will turn away from a faith so lacking in kindness.
So when we are tempted to wade into the political fray, let’s honor our Aibileens by asking ourselves a few questions before we speak or act. Is what I want to say or do kind? Will my words and actions make me look smart and important by making someone else look stupid and worthless?
If your answer isn’t worthy of your Aibileens or the Lord Jesus Christ, abandon your plan. Pause and ask the Lord to plant the seeds of kindness in your heart. Ask Him to make you into an Aibileen who passes the precious harvest of kindness along to a new generation.
After you have suffered for a little while,
the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ,
will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.
1 Peter 5:10–11
At her last visit to the dentist my 87-year-old mother learned that the aging process is doing a number on her teeth. After her hygienist suggested a deep cleaning was in order, Mom’s response was less than enthusiastic. “It was a terrible appointment,” Mom said when we met in the waiting room. “I could have gone my whole life without news like that.”
I made suitable, empathetic noises while we scheduled the extra cleaning. I practiced active listening techniques during lunch and tried to cheer her up. “Look at the bright side, Mom. You’re almost 88. You have all your teeth. You have dental insurance that makes the procedure affordable.”
She was inconsolable. “I just wasn’t expecting this kind of news,” she said. “It’s awful.”
“Mom,” I said as my supportive, loving daughter veneer peeled away, “you’re acting as if you’ve got cancer instead of early stage periodontal disease. Try to put this in perspective.” But she couldn’t. At least not until her son visited her and managed to coax her out of her funk by mentioning that he’d had the same procedure done a few years back.
Reflecting on Mom’s situation, I see some similarities between how she responded and how many followers of Christ respond when national and international current events do a number on our faith. First, our reaction focuses on what’s wrong and views past and present blessings as our right. We rarely express gratitude for God’s blessings while we have them, but complain loudly when they cease. Can you think of an election year when Christians expressed gratitude for two qualified presidential candidates with the fervor that this year’s lack of the same is continually bemoaned?
Second, Christians often respond to current events from a purely temporal and earthly perspective. Instead of standing firm on the rock of God’s sovereignty over human history, we grow despondent and fearful when events unfold differently than expected. When the candidate we support isn’t elected, when our cultural shifts away from a Christian worldview, or when terrorism and gun violence rear their ugly heads, we act as though the world is ending–we who claim to stand on the promise of eternal life with Christ when this world ends.
Christians have little to offer the lost when we respond to earthly events with ingratitude, hopelessness, and fear. But how can we avoid those faithless responses in an increasingly dark and painful world? A clue to that question’s answer can be found in Mom’s recovery from her funk. It ended when a visit with her son changed her perspective.
Similarly our perspective and our future responses change when we spend time with God’s Son in His Word. When we consider how Christ’s absolute confidence in God’s sovereignty and an eternal perspective influenced His responses to ungodly rulers in a non-Christian culture where He suffered violence beyond imagining. When we cling to the promise of Jesus to never leave or forsake us. When we gaze upon the risen Christ and anticipate His future resurrection. When our feet are firmly planted on those realities, we can trust Jesus and respond with hope and confidence. Because we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what He promises is absolutely certain. God’s eternal and unchanging best is yet to come.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I commanded you;
and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Before leaving for special needs family camp in Latvia, a number of concerns occupied my thoughts. Here are just a few: Will my suitcases be big enough to hold clothes and 30 books to give away? Will the 24 hour layovers in Istanbul, Turkey–both coming and going–be uneventful? Will conversing with moms through a translator keep us from bonding? (The answers: yes, no, and no.)
Two questions that never came to mind were the ones that dominated discussions during camp week: What does it mean to be baptized? Can people with special needs be baptized?
The topic first arose when Pastor Ugis Pallo explained the meaning of baptism during morning assembly and announced that a baptismal service would be held on the last day of camp. A young woman who is non-verbal and has mild developmental delays made clear her understanding of the sacrament and her desire to be baptized. Ugis called her home pastor and invited him to participate in the ceremony, but the man declined.
Because, he explained, her special needs were punishment for generational sin which made her unworthy of baptism.
Though the response did not sit well with Ugis, he and the other pastor talked several more times. Somehow, by the grace of God, the issue was resolved by baptism day, and the young woman’s pastor came to the service.
But the story doesn’t end there. Several young adults with special needs and moms of younger children started asking questions. A young woman named Diana found Ugis after supper. “What does it mean to be baptized?” she asked, and he answered her questions far into the night. Katie, a young mom nabbed Naomi, my travel partner, one afternoon. “I was baptized into the Lutheran faith,” she explained. “How is that different from what Ugis talked about?” During our last mom’s support group, which I always opened by asking if they had questions, the first one posed was, “Would you explain the purpose of baptism?”
I began to speak, sure that God had gone ahead and prepared for every detail of the answer. From the thorough grounding about the meaning of baptism presented in Discovery Discipleship classes taken long ago. Through the teaching Pastor Tim has provided about this sacrament throughout the years. And through the presence of my translator, who happened to be Katie, the young mom who had talked with Naomi.
The baptismal service on that last afternoon of camp was a blessed event:
Diana, who accepted Christ during the week, was baptized.
So was Laura, the daughter of the mom who asked about it during our support group.
But not Katie.
Katie scheduled her baptism for early August, so her family could witness her profession of faith.
No translator was available during the service, but it didn’t matter. The Spirit of Christ made his presence and his good pleasure known by uniting us as one and speaking to my heart as his command to make, baptize, and teach disciples in all the nations was obeyed.
Feeling thankful and blessed,
And they were bringing children to Him…but the disciples rebuked them.
But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them,
“Permit the children to come to Me;
do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them.
Mark 10:13–14, 16
In the 1960s, getting to church was no easy feat for our family. Mom not only had to corral and spit shine three young children, she also had to wheel Dad to the car, lift him into the passenger seat, and stow his wheelchair in the trunk. After we arrived at church, she completed the process in reverse order before negotiating the parking lot curb and the steps leading to the front door of the building. Once inside, the only place for Dad and his wheelchair fit was behind the last pew, under which he discreetly hid his urinal. When he needed to use it, Mom wheeled him to a dark, rarely frequented corner of Fellowship Hall because his chair was too wide to enter the men’s bathroom.
Looking back, I wonder why my parents bothered to go to church with so many hindrances stacked against them. But I’m glad they persevered. Because of their determination, I came to know Jesus, and my life was changed. And because my life was changed by Him, I spent the hot and windy weekend of June 10–12 at Hidden Acres for the first annual Wonderfully Made Family Camp for kids with special needs, their siblings, and their parents.
Our goal for the weekend was to remove obstacles so kids with special needs and their families could enjoy camp. To that end, sidewalks were poured so wheelchairs could get from here to there easily. A special dock was constructed so every child could give fishing a try. A pool lift was installed. In the barn, ramps and stairs were built so all kids could ride a horse. A personal buddy accompanied each child do outdoor activities: to the pond for boat rides–the first ever for many families–to the climbing wall, the zip line, and the giant swing. Buddies helped kids complete crafts, learn Bible verses, sing songs, and play games during program time. While their kids were in being cared for, parents enjoyed a program with Gary and Barb Rosberg Friday evening, attended support groups on Saturday morning, enjoyed massages in afternoon, and had a date night on Saturday.
On Sunday morning, every elementary-age child–and I mean every, single one–went on the stage to sing Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, the song they learned over the weekend. Proud parents stood to record the moment on video in photos. For many dads and moms, it was the first time their kids had participated in such an event.
I stood in the back, watching the door in case one of the kids who tended to run made a mad dash for the exit. I failed miserably at the job because my eyes were filled with tears as I watched the children on stage. I thought of how delighted Dad would have been to see every child included and of how he would have reveled in the luxury of bathroom privacy.
I also thought of how delighted our Father was in His children–those who donated funds and materials, as well as the 104 volunteers who served throughout the weekend alongside the Hidden Acres staff members–who obeyed His Son’s command by removing every hindrance so little ones such as these could come to Jesus and be blessed by Him.
But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.
Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God,
for he has prepared for them a city.
Last week I visited the town where I grew up and stopped by many of my childhood haunts. The street where our family lived. The empty lot where neighborhood kids played croquet. The elementary and high school. My aunt and uncle’s home. Our church. Each place in its place, yet changed in ways that created a yearning in my heart for what is no more.
The same yearning appears each time I work on my mystery novel set in a fictional South Dakota town much like the one where my husband and I lived in the late 70s and early 80s. My heart rejoices while recreating the place and the people. I revel in the sense of being with the old friends, some still living and some dead, made during the years we lived there. But eventually, the phone rings or the clock says it’s time to fix supper, and I must inhabit the present. Each returning is accompanied by a yearning for what is past.
Even in the town where we have lived for 30 years, the longing pulls at my heart. When I pass the block where the school I taught once stood. When I hear of friends, students, or teaching colleagues who have died. When fellow believers who are part of my life and support system move on or move away. When what I hoped would come to pass doesn’t and a lesser thing takes its place.
In The Weight of Glory, C. L. Lewis puts this yearning in its proper context. “In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency….These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
This God-given longing, Lewis says, either points us to our eternal home or becomes an idol that eventually breaks our hearts when the idols betray them or lose their allure. Only God offers the eternity we desire because he is the one who placed the longing for it in our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
With each loss experienced and each idol discarded, the yearning grow inside us and our sense of displacement swells. We feel increasingly fractured. But we also feel increasingly hopeful. Because we begin to realize that our internal longing points to our eternal home. As the bonds to this world loosen and eternity beckons, we pray ever more fervently and ever more frequently. How long, O God, until you make me whole? How long until you call me home?
Once this prayer of the heart is uttered, in the power of the risen Christ, we return to the kingdom work he has for us on this earth until he answers our prayers and takes us home.