Beware the expert who has stopped asking questions.
Beware the expert who has stopped asking questions.
Have you heard this one? How many counsellors does it take to change a lightbulb?
But the lightbulb must really want to be changed.
One of the words suggested for a photographic meditation in the season of Lent is “broken.” Contrary to my usual practice of looking for beauty in the midst of the ordinary, I looked for the less-than-lovely. For the sake of this exercise I gave myself one hour to photograph only the broken.
I love photography because it has trained me to pay attention to the goodness of God, particularly his creativity and generosity in nature. I have changed. I used to be overly aware of disorder. Seeing only the broken took no effort, and the loss and heartache it symbolized began to feel overwhelming.
This is not the way it was meant to be.
Yesterday we gathered with friends to study the book of Matthew. The more time I spend reading about Jesus’ words and actions the more ideas and practices I realize I need to unlearn in the quest to know him. I’m trying to imagine what it was like for him to live in a broken world among broken people when he was the only one who understood the way it was meant to be. He knew what was in people’s hearts, and yet he loved them. He did what he did for the joy set before him – for the hope of establishing a new normal.
This passage touched my heart:
Jesus walked throughout the region with the joyful message of God’s kingdom realm. He taught in their meeting houses, and wherever he went he demonstrated God’s power by healing every kind of disease and illness.
When he saw the vast crowds of people, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved with compassion, because they seemed weary and helpless, like wandering sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:35, 36 TPT)
I thought about the type of compassionate responses offered to broken, weary, helpless, people falling through the cracks in my own country. We offer borrowed money to feed, drugs to numb, unrestrained sexual pleasure to distract, adversarial court procedures that throw gas on broken relationships to pacify, and physician-assisted death for those who have lost hope for themselves or their offspring still in the womb.
Compassion without hope can be a cruel kindness.
Many religious folk have lost hope as well. They may raise funds to offer material relief, or pray that a person will be comforted in their incurable condition, but they seldom act with the type of merciful power Jesus demonstrated. They would never admit it, but their responses to broken people are not much more effective than the Pharisees who saw doubling down on the rules as the way to prevent hopeless suffering. They take a stance at the other pole on the cruel kindness playing field. They see the world in terms of “us and them.”
“Later, Jesus went to Matthew’s home to share a meal with him. Many other tax collectors and outcasts of society were invited to eat with Jesus and his disciples.
When those known as the Pharisees saw what was happening, they were indignant, and they kept asking Jesus’ disciples, “Why would your Master dine with such lowlifes?” (Matthew 9: 10, 11)
Jesus told them, essentially, that if they thought they held the copyright on normal, they wouldn’t value what he had to offer.
“…Healthy people don’t need to see a doctor, but the sick will go for treatment.” Then he added, “Now you should go and study the meaning of the verse:
I want you to show mercy, not just offer me a sacrifice.
For I have come to invite the outcasts of society and sinners, not those who think they are already on the right path.” (verses 12 and 13)
Earlier in Matthew we read about the narrow road to knowing who Jesus is and the significance of what he has done for us. It starts with step one, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Being poor in spirit means admitting that our methods of coping with brokenness are not working. It means we recognize our powerlessness. It means looking at the mess we think “is what it is” and recognizing our inability to conceive of how effective God intended us to be. My own heart is convicted.
It means admitting, like the old Gaither song says, “All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife.”
It means turning to The Great Physician and asking him to heal us, body, soul, and spirit.
It means that we who make excuses about living in a way that does not demonstrate the way Jesus said the Holy Spirit would empower us to act, also need to admit our poverty, and turn to follow him more closely. Sharing his heart means not only feeling the deep compassion he feels for the broken, but also aligning with him to do something about it.
If we really want to be changed The Great Counsellor is willing.
Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.
I don’t think I have ever spent as much time in the waiting room of life as I have this past year. I can’t do this until that is done and that can’t be done until this, that, and those show up, but are they dependent on the receipt of a report, which appears to be lost.
In the old days I used to wail loud and long about circumstances like this. Now I wail soft and short. I’m not good at waiting in total joyful trust yet, but at least it’s an improvement. The only reason transformation, such as it is, has been able to gradually take place in my life is because I am learning to quit appealing for rescue from people who have no better clue about how to fix things than I do, and because I’m finally figuring out there are better questions to ask than “why.”
I’m learning to ask “what?” and “how?”
What do you want me to see about who you are, Lord?
How will this circumstance allow me to practise a new skill or a character quality that needs strengthening?
What resources have you already provided that I haven’t picked up yet?
And (please) where are they?
I’m not sure that this season of camping out in waiting rooms is as much about developing patience or endurance as it about addressing my trust issues. Some of these waiting experiences have been preceded by phone calls like, “This is Dr. McUnknown’s office at the Cancer Center in Calgary. He needs to talk to you right away about your test results. We suggest you bring a family member or close friend with you.”
“Cancer Center? Why do I need to see a doctor at the Cancer Center?” I ask. “What was wrong with my test?”
“I can’t tell you, but we received a referral from Dr. Unreachable this morning. Dr. McUnknown needs to see you as soon as possible and his next available appointment is…oh dear… he doesn’t have anything open for four weeks.”
I hate not knowing. Hate it. But that is where the Lord has been sticking his diagnostic finger. He presses on the spot that shrieks when it’s not in control and asks, “Does that hurt?”
“Are you kidding me? You know it hurts!” I gasp.
“Just pointing out the area of your next healing,” he says.
Then the clean-up starts. “You’re hanging on to some ideas that aren’t working for you. Let’s just toss them, shall we?”
This has also been a year of living in temporary dwellings like hotels, relatives’ homes, and hospitals because I’ve had to travel for tests and treatment. A flood that rose up in our town in February resulted in movers, hired by the insurance company, invading our house to pack and stash our belongings in boxes. They hauled them away to a storage facility somewhere while we waited – and waited — for contractors and trades people to have time to repair our house. We have lived, temporarily, in half our house while we waited for restoration crews to arrive — along with over a thousand neighbours who also waited for repairs. Some still wait as we head into winter again.
The tradesmen finished their work last week. The movers returned our boxes and furniture on Monday. But I am still recovering from surgery and can’t lift anything. Friends volunteer to help, and they are wonderful, but it’s a massive confused muddle in my house right now. So many things are “just placed here for now.”
I look around and see many people in the same waiting room of life. They are in transition watching plans unravel. We need to be reminded that although it may not feel like it, the waiting room is always a temporary experience.
Some of our friends have given up their own places and independent ways of life to live with and care for a needy family member. They know the situation is temporary, and yet they have mixed feelings: fears about it ending soon and fears about it not ending soon. I hear from former students who have finished highly prized university degrees. They have career aspirations but in the meantime, they have needed to take temporary jobs in temporary cities to start paying back student loans. To them it feels as if life is on hold.
Some friends wait for court dates, for vindications to be published, for settlements to be paid, for zoning bylaws to be changed, for permits to be issued, for grants to be granted. Others face the giant upheaval of divorce or death of a spouse, unable to move on emotionally, or even physically, until a barrage of financial and other legal details have been settled.
Some long for their soulmate to hurry and show up. Some wait eagerly for babies to arrive and some, just as eagerly, wait for grown kids to leave. Many people are waiting for promises to be fulfilled, looking for hope in the midst of reversals, living in the frustrating now-what zone in the middle of the land of not-yet .
Friends who are also in the process of getting a diagnoses and treatment plan or praying in all faith for healing tell me they also know the waiting room and that feeling of staring out the window muttering, “You’ve got to be kidding,” when hours stretch into months or years. I meet many people who, like myself, are in a season of waiting for recovery – from surgery, from trauma, from accidents, from illness, from burnout, from bankruptcy, from bereavement.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Who knew we would spend so many hours in the waiting room of life?
I’m beginning to understand that life doesn’t stop in this place. “Temporary” may actually be where most of life is lived. It’s not a nothing time. This is a refining time. We need more training to cope with good times than we do for difficult times.
In hard times, when it finally dawns on us that we can’t control everything, we turn to a higher power and learn that when we are weak He is strong. In good times the temptation is to think that our own efforts achieved the goal and we tend to forget to rely on God. The waiting room can purge us from a sense of immature entitlement and replace it with a sense of gratitude that connects us to the heart of our heavenly Father, if we let it. This is where deep relationship is formed.
He’s in the waiting.
He lets me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still and quiet waters.
(Psalm 23:2 Amplified)
I once considered joining a volunteer online group. They seemed to eager to accept me, then told me that attendance in person was required at monthly meetings at various locations. The closest meeting was in Vancouver. I said I couldn’t afford to fly and driving, especially in the winter, was not practical. The leader of the group responded that she looked at a map and Vancouver was not that far from where I live in the Kootenays in south east British Columbia. It shouldn’t take more than 3 hours.
Well, maybe — if you had a straight road with no speed limit like the Autobahn. It’s actually a ten hour drive in perfect weather with no construction, and more like a two day drive for me, considering the way I stop for photos and restrooms. I tried to explain mountain topology to her. We have really big hills and really deep valleys and a lot of going-around-the-mountain curves, but she had already decided I was exaggerating the amount of time it took and that I would not be a good candidate.
Whew. That rejection was a relief. I agreed that I was not a good fit and wished her well.
I thought of that incident when I drove that route recently. Ice and snow were not problems this time, but wildfire smoke was. I was tired and my eyes and throat burned. As we dropped into the valley where Castlegar is situated at the convergence of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers, I decided I needed a break and some place to walk around. This town needed exploring beyond the usual pit stop gas stations and fast food restaurants just off the highway. I headed in a direction down a street that was new to me. When I saw a sign that said “To the Ponds” I followed it.
Wow! I never knew this place existed. I’ve been driving past it for years! In a park on the edge of the wide fast flowing river the land has been sculpted into three current-less pools surrounded by sandy beaches, green lawns, and flower beds. I wandered around and read a sign that told the story of the town and the large number of people who drowned trying to cross the river at this point as they rushed to the Wildhorse Creek goldrush very close to where I live. If I remember correctly (and I admit my memory for numbers is poor) 86 people died in that season.
Now here, beside the place where so many had died in the rapids, was a place of rest. Here in this deep valley where I would soon be on that steep road climbing out the other side, three pools of still water beckoned me to come aside and be refreshed.
I memorized the twenty-third Psalm for a choral speech arts competition when I was in elementary school, when the Bible could still be taught as literature important to our understanding of cultural references. I remember Miss Brown directing our classroom group, mouthing the words and alternately speeding up and stretching out the words with hand gestures.
He leadeth me beside the stiiill waaaters…
I thought about Miss Brown and the rich heritage she gave us. I was thankful, all these years later as I rested beside the still waters in the valley that had seen so much death. I thought about my life and the faith journey that is taking me through another scary valley involving doctor’s appointments and scans and procedures and trying different medications that only seem make life more complicated.
In the midst of the rush to get home I felt the Lord showing me that he has prepared a place of refreshment right here in the middle of my valley. Yes, the rapids still roar, but the water diverted from that river fills the first pool and it’s overflow fills the second, and the third. In the middle of stressful days I can come to Him, my shepherd, my pastor, and let him lead me to a place of peace he has prepared in advance. I can stop rushing and striving and be still in my soul.
Psalm 23 is a warring psalm that teaches us that rest and trust is a mighty weapon against the enemy that comes to steal, kill, and destroy. There is gold on the other side of this valley.
Even though I walk through the [sunless] valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me.
Sometimes you are out in the backyard taking photos of sweet peas and sheets on the clothesline just because the flowers smell wonderful and the warm sunlight and shifting shadows are interesting.
And then a hummingbird hovers in front of your lens just long enough to snap a shot.
Thank you, Lord. What a lovely gift.
Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
(James 1:17 NIV)
My granddaughter and I were talking about the challenges she faces going to a new school in a new town in September. She’s an excellent student but worries about keeping up her grades. I told her that once when I was her age in a new school, I got 4% on an algebra test.
I felt so devastated when I received my paper back with that incredibly horrible verdict not only including an exclamation mark, but circled in red, that I slipped out the side door at the next break and ran home, tears streaming behind me. I thought I was the biggest idiot on earth. Who gets 4%? Not even the goofy guys at the back of the remedial math class got 4%! I wanted to quit school.
One – or maybe two – “fluish” days later, when I finally dragged myself back into the classroom and had the nerve to ask the teacher why I had done so poorly, he explained I actually only made one mistake, but I made it 24 times. (I did receive credit for the first non-computation question.) He showed me that I needed to invert something in a different place and on my next test I had a much better mark.
I still remember how difficult it was to walk back into that room and ask for help. My report cards always said “conscientious worker.” I had never failed a test before. I didn’t know how to handle failure.
A few years ago I met a brilliant science teacher who inspired many students to go on into even more brilliant careers in science.
“What’s you secret?” I asked.
“I make sure they fail,” he said.
“But you teach the brightest and best students in the district!”
“And that’s why I give them a test early in the year that they are guaranteed to fail.”
“That doesn’t sound fair,” I protested with a little sympathetic whine wheedling into my voice.
“Oh, it’s not fair. I intentionally give them a test on a chapter they haven’t covered. I base questions on misleading or incomplete information. I load it with trick questions and unclear directions and then I arrange for dramatic distractions to invade the classroom and tell them to put down their pens and hand in their work before they have had time to finish. It’s definitely not fair.”
He smiled, looking proud of himself.
“At the end of the day I place folded sheets of plain paper in front of each student,” he said. Their test grade is written inside — a failing grade. I then dismiss the class and rush to an “important meeting” which involves a location where I cannot be reached until after the weekend.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked.
“To give them time to let that failing grade do its work. Because this test is not about the material. This test is about tests. This test is about learning how to fail the way a martial arts student first learns how to fall. This test is about teaching high achieving students who have probably never failed an exam in their lives that resilience is more important than a perfect academic record.”
“How do they react to that?”
“Usually poorly. On Monday morning the helicopter parents are circling the principal’s office, the budding law students are lining up with prepared arguments, and the discouraged students, at least the ones that show up, drag themselves into the classroom to the tempo of a death march.”
“Not at all. I hand out their written tests, and lecture them on failure and recovery as a necessary part of success.”
“You don’t let them re-write for a better grade?”
“No, of course not. It’s a stupid test. I invite them to re-write the test – but not the answers. I tell them to re-write the questions. Learning is about asking better questions. The test I gave them had unanswerable questions. I tell them to ask better questions – then I show them how to look for the answers to the test they designed.”
I realized that what this master teacher gave his students was an opportunity to develop perseverance and endurance in a new atmosphere of confidence free from the fear of failure. I also realized he was not the first person to teach this. James wrote about it in the Bible.
Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open…
Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.
(James 1:2-8, 12 The Message)
Are you facing a test in which there seems to be no perfect solution? Maybe the test is about more than filling in the blank with an approved answer. Maybe it’s about developing enduring faith and the confidence to follow the trail of better questions.