Selflessness School

I used to have this long spiel where I explained how having a kid is basically an immersive learning experience on the subject of putting someone else’s wants and needs before your own. It would take me about five minutes to get my point across until one day my friend Jolene cut me off and said “It’s like selflessness school.” and I said. “Uh, yeah. That.”

So yes, Jolene, having a kid is like selflessness school. You get constant practice at not doing what you want to do, but doing what your child wants to do. You don’t go to the bathroom or get a drink or eat a snack or pick your nose when you want to. You do it when the kid is ok with you doing it. Or when they are napping.

Replace “kid” with “patients” and that is also an accurate summary of what it’s like to work at 12-hour nursing shift.

Which is more or less the point I’m getting at. It’s slowly dawning on me that while becoming a father has been a rather jarring shift into care-for-others-with-the-bulk-of-my-time-and energy-mode, the selflessness training that I’m going through is not unique to the parental role.

I experienced a similar shock when I got married and realized that my wife was there ALL THE TIME and would probably continue to be for quite a while. I couldn’t just do what I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it – and it turned out I was deeply attached to that mode of living. Margie took three days to find a full-time job after we moved into our first apartment; I took nine months. I am convinced this was because God wanted me to spend my time and energy on becoming a better and more loving husband and not on starting a career. Those nine months were also like selflessness school, if not selflessness bootcamp, and while they were very hard and involved a lot of fights and tears, I grew into a much more loving and much less selfish husband through them.

My friend Nick and I should not be friends. We like to do similar things, but we do them in completely opposite ways that tend to aggravate each other. We don’t see eye to eye on a number of important political, social, and aesthetic issues. What we do share is that we love Jesus, and we were both leaders in our college Christian fellowship. (OK, we also both love nerdy board games). After being friends for a little bit in college, we got to the point where we discovered all the things that really pissed us off about each other – the friendship was not fun anymore. But over the course of my junior year we eventually decided that we were not going to stop being friends just because we now found it hard. What we had in common and what we cared about together were more important than what we despised in each other. We were going to work on our friendship and by God’s grace, we were going to make it work.

Today, Nick is my best friend after my wife. Not because I get along with him most naturally or because I’ve known him longer than anyone else or because we have the most in common. We are best friends because we went through selflessness school together and we survived.

In a certain sense, doing selflessness school with a baby is easy. The baby makes you do it – she will literally die if you don’t make radical changes to your life and care for her constantly. There’s also a lot of social support and reinforcement for new parents as well. It’s generally acceptable to take extended time off from work to be a new parent. You will probably go to jail if you neglect your child.

My wife, however, will not starve to death if I don’t feed her. If I don’t keep up my part in caring for her she will be deeply hurt, but she will survive. On a day when I just can’t stand my wife, nothing and no one forces me to do selflessness school with her except the extent to which I feel bound by my marriage oaths. I have good friends and family who support our relationship and will correct me (sternly, if need be) when I am being selfish towards her, but I could theoretically get divorced and no one would die or go to jail.

It takes the most initiative of all to enroll in selflessness school with a friend. They will “do fine” without you even if you completely neglect them. It is more or less socially acceptable to let a friendship that has become difficult wither away. Friends are, after all, supposed to be there for you, right?

If we took notice of all the opportunities that exist around us to go to selflessness school, we would not just call parenting and marriage hard work. We would be willing to call friendship hard work. We would be willing to call living in the city hard work. We would call doing your job rightly hard work. But we would consider it hard work that is worth doing because of the impact it has on our hearts.
So all that to say – I think going to selflessness school is probably the most important thing to do in life, but it is also the very hardest thing to do. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Christians tend to romanticize the image of the cross because of what Christ did with it, but to first-century Jews under Roman domination, this is the same as Jesus saying today “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, strap himself into the electric chair every morning, and follow me.”

To really love my child, my spouse, my friend, or my neighbour, I have to put to death my willful self that wants what I want when I want it. This is extraordinarily hard. It feels like I am dying a little bit inside every time I do it – probably because I am. But I take Jesus at his word that as every bit of my selfish heart is executed, it is replaced by a bit of heart that is like his – loving, wise, kind, and selfless. Ready at all times to care for the needs and wants of those that he puts in my life.

Mr. Rogers used to ask his viewers “won’t you be my neighbour?” And that was a very good question. My question for you – my friends, family, and coworkers who read this – is “won’t you go to selflessness school with me?”

I mean it.

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The Kingdom of God is like…

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.

But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

Usually, when Christians reference the mustard seed metaphor they use it to say this: “Mustard seeds are TINY! Mustard trees are HUGE! The kingdom of God starts out small but it grows and grows from a tiny seed into a HUGE tree!”

True. But I don’t believe this is the point that Jesus is making. First, because mustard plants are not. that. big. From what I can tell, they’ve got a similar size range to sunflowers. They aren’t trees, and they aren’t nearly the biggest plant around in Palestine (which would probably be the olive tree).

“He said therefore…” The parable of the mustard seed is a direct response to the events surrounding his healing of the crippled woman. The reason Jesus stops to explain what the Kingdom of God is like is that he just witnessed a perfect example of what the Kingdom of God is NOT like.

Let’s call the ruler of the synagogue “Steve.” Steve’s job is to teach, guide, comfort, and heal the people of his synagogue. Jesus shows up at Steve’s church and heals a woman who has been crippled for years and now Steve is upset. Why? Because Jesus is making Steve look bad. “The sabbath isn’t for healing!” Steve cries. “It’s for praying and reading your Bible!” What Steve would like to say is “Get out of here, Jesus. You’re actually doing my job right, with the heart that I should have, and you’re showing me up for a fraud and a hypocrite.” Unable to criticize the obviously good thing that Jesus has done, he instead turns his abuse on the people he is supposed to shepherd: “You’re doing it wrong! Come on the other days of the week for healing, not during my church service.”

“No, Steve.” Jesus says. “You’re doing it wrong.”

Jesus wants to explain what the Kingdom of God should look like, and as he racks his mind for a suitable metaphor, he comes up with two pictures: one in which a small seed grows into a home for birds, and one in which a bit of yeast makes a meal of bread. What is the kingdom of God like? It is like food for the hungry and a home for the wanderer. It grows from tiny beginnings into ordinary but life-giving means of love.

Literally, yes – there are homeless and hungry people on the streets of my city. And there are also other kinds of hunger, other ways to be without a place to rest and belong. Jesus’ call, before anything else, is a call for his people to meet those needs in love. I think it is not out of line to say that if, like Steve, our vision for the Kingdom of God doesn’t place this first and foremost, we’re doing it wrong. We have missed the point of the Kingdom, and we are just as deserving of Jesus’ criticism as Steve the Synagogue Leader.

Christians today feel beset by troubles. Diminishing influence in society. Hypocrisy on one side and fanatacism on the other. The gay marriage debate (and which side of it we’re supposed to be on). We’re losing the young people – no wait, we’re losing the old people! It is genuinely hard to know what the way forward looks like, where there is solid ground to stand.

But I encourage you to stand on Christ the solid rock. And to agree with him that before all these things, we are a church that is a home and a meal to those who need them. Our first and highest calling is to give life and love to the people God puts in our lives each day. The other questions are not unimportant, but they are secondary and count for nothing if we do not first love like Jesus did.

we are here to be Ourselves

There’s an exercise I created for my senior thesis in nursing school. I put up a picture of a hospital patient in an intensive care unit. Clustered around the bed are the legions of medical equipment and devices used to sustain life at its most fragile moments: ventilator, cardiac monitor, IV pump, oxygen, defibrillator. A nurse is hanging an IV medication – stethoscope around her neck and a plethora of medical supplies in her many pocketed scrubs.
“What is the most important tool in this picture?” I ask. The audience’s answers vary, but eventually someone gets the one I’m shooting for, which is “the nurse.”

My mother has a little trouble with the fact that I get into cage-matches every once in a while. I’ve been training in Muay Thai for a couple years now and last night I wrote her a long email after a tough sparring session trying to capture why I love it so much. What it comes down to is this: You bring nothing into the cage but yourself – what you have made yourself capable of, what you can force your body do, the depths of fatigue, pain, and fear that your mind and your spirit have the power to overcome. The other man in the cage is not your opponent. He is your teacher and he is testing you to see, quite literally, what you are made of.

Ten months ago I became a father. It’s a wonderful adventure and it also brings up a mess of previously unknown anxieties and responsibilities. Am I making healthy choices for my daughter? Am I raising her right? Am I providing enough for my family – now and for the future? How do I balance time with her against other responsibilities? Am I pulling my weight alongside my wife in terms of child care.
At the end of the day, however, I know that none of these questions are Jubilee’s questions. My daughter wants just one thing from me. She wants me to be her Daddy; one simple thing that I will spend the rest of my life being and becoming. The world is full of fully grown adults who still mourn their fathers’ relational absence, regardless of what their father may have achieved or done for them. But a father who loves and thoughtfully cares for his children can and will be forgiven many failings and shortcomings.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. I’m still trying to figure that out, and much of it seems to be discovering all the things that I have backwards. I wasted a lot of time thinking that God wanted me to become someone else before I found out that he wants me to become myself. And lately I’m learning that even this is only part of it. We are indeed meant to become ourselves, but it is not for ourselves. We are here to be ourselves for our neighbours and for our maker.

Not to do, to act, or even to dream, but to be.