Imperfections…the soil for intimacy

When I was in high school, I went to a conference where I received a red notebook which contained important and life-changing information about self-image.  It was there I learned the powerful truth of Psalm 139, that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that I could wake up and look at in the mirror every morning believing that God had made me “just the way I am.”  I tried, but could never quite get there because in my most honest moments, I knew that there were things about me that I’d want to change.  Still, it was helpful teaching, then and now, in our body image obsessed culture.

As a pastor, though, my understanding of this verse has been profoundly challenged over the years because we live in a world where people are born, not just with a large nose, or ears that stick out, but with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, missing limbs, and other life-altering conditions.  I teach theology to the staff at our church each Thursday morning, and last spring we had a doctor who specializes in gender ambiguity come and present to us.  A small minority of children are born with this imperfection, leaving them in a land between male and female.

She gave us a technical report on why gender ambiguity happens, then spoke of some of the challenges faced by both parent and child.  The conclusion of our discussion was about the role of God in all this.  How do we square the “fearfully and wonderfully made” promise of Psalm 139 with the reality of our imperfections?

It’s tempting to go down the rabbit hole and try to unearth God’s role in the imperfections that come, uninvited into our lives.  Is God the active agent – willing that some are born with pieces that don’t work?  Maybe God is passive – not intervening with a “healing,” but allowing imperfections for some higher purpose.  Of course, as anyone who’s suffered this kind of brokenness knows, there are also people who believe that sickness is there precisely so that you can pray for a miracle and, by the way, if a miracle doesn’t happen then don’t blame God, blame you’re puny faith.  The “miracle healing” view has caused more damage in this world than I have time to articulate, so let’s not go there.  But what about the other two views?

In The Day Metallica came to Church my friend John Van Sloten shares the beautiful story of his son’s birth and the initially difficult discovery that he has Down syndrome.  Because I’ll review the book later, I don’t want to give every part of John’s struggle away, but listen to what he writes, years after his son was born:  “One morning I was praying for my son Edward.  It had been fifteen years since the day of his birth, and that morning I prayer a a prayer I never could have imagined praying.  In all truth and with genuine earnestness, I thanked God the day of Edward’s birth, the actual moment of his entry into our lives.  In particular I thanked God for the gift of that day, for how it really was the best thing God could have ever done in our lives.”

The best thing!  I think the book of Job is written, in part, to help us discover that there are some things we’ll never know.  Those who pontificate in the book of Job are silenced by God, as He shows them what they don’t know.  He humbles them, silences them, and never answers the “why” question.  But in the end we know that Job says this:  “I had heard of you by the hearing of the hear, but now my eye sees you…”

Over, and over, and over again, I’ve learned this about suffering:  Those who turn to God, who cry out, wrestle, pray, mourn, struggle – come through the fires of suffering knowing a profound intimacy with their creator, an intimacy which, it appears, isn’t possible if everything always turns out perfectly.  This isn’t a syrupy invitation to “just be thankful.”  Far from it, it’s only honest wrestling that ultimately takes us where we need to go.  But when that wrestling takes us there, it’s beautiful.  I’ve seen it in families with special needs children.  I’ve seen it in adults with MS, or those who are battling cancer.  I’ve known a measure of this in my own life, as my non-smoker dad’s untimely death from a disease usually reserved for smokers pushed me into an ocean of grief and depression at the end of high school, spawning my own health issues.  In each case, there’s a special beauty, the kind that, apparently, can only be forged in the fire.

And so we’re left still wondering: A) results of the fall?  B)  God’s perfect plan?  C) both A and B?

But we can know this:  The broken nature of our bodies, our families, our world, is never a threat to that which is our source of joy and hope, namely intimacy with Jesus.  To the contrary, it seems that this “imperfections” seem to be the very soil in which intimacy grows best.  What a world: broken and beautiful.  And though we long for one, and recoil at the other, God is able to use both in very good ways.

Do you have a story of wrestling with God over imperfections, or how God has used brokenness.  Please comment, for the good of us all!!  Thanks.

 

 

 

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Mark

    From the story about John and his son Edward, he writes the birth was the best thing god could have done in their lives. But what about Edward, was god using him simply as a tool to enrichen his parents lives?

    • Megan

      Mark, I hear you. And I would say no, Edward’s condition is not simply a tool to benefit his parents — spiritually or otherwise. I’m glad that Edward’s father has grown to see the “blessing” in what was certainly a heart wrenching disappointment — the diagnosis of down’s syndrome.
      A Muslim aquaintance of mine told me, 20 or so years ago, that Islam teaches that her son, born prematurely and with cerebral palsey, will be sinless throughout his life (and guaranteed a place in heaven) and that the opportunity to care for him and to look in his eyes and see and feel truly innocent and happy love, gives her a glimpse of divine purity every day — like caring for an angel. Now I’m sure, on hard days, she may not feel that way. And I’m sure, given the choice, almost all people with a disability and those who care for them would choose “wholeness.” But who defines “wholeness”? Maybe, in God’s eyes, wholeness has way more to do with the soul than with the body. I believe that Edward’s soul is perfectly created no matter his physical or mental limitations.

      A very hard lesson for me personally, is that bad things can and do happen to good people. It just doesn’t seem “fair.” A a promise of a heavenly afterlife to make up for a miserable earthly existence sounds somehow shallow.

      Sometimes I wonder how the story of Job would be different if his neighbors, instead of condemning him and speculating about what horrible thing he did to deserve God’s wrath, had consoled him, comforted him, aided him, given him medical treatment, etc. What if they empathized with him? Would they, and Job, have developed a stronger relationship with God/grown spiritually?

      To paraphrase the Koran (and I apologize but I think it is completely compatible with the teachings of Christ): “In adversity comes (divine) relief” — a calmness and comforting sense that we have no English word for. And I believe in that “relief”, that comforting knowingness that no matter what, no matter how horrible a situation, God is there and God’s comfort is there. And everything will, by definition, turn out right even if we have no clue what that looks like.

      • Lamont

        Ps 51:5 “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

        Therefore the Koran is wrong on teaching the sinlessness of a human child of any stipe (Fallen in Adam). Also, there are no “Good people” no, not one! For “all have sinned…”(Romans 1.)

        Even babies need the blood and righteousness of Christ applied to them.
        It is heart wrenching to watch our babies, and fellow humans suffer. But, make no mistake, all who would stand in the presence of the ‘Thrice Holy God,’ must be purified by Christs atoning blood and the imputation of His righteousness!
        Christians though can take heart, and comfort, because “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Rom 8:28.
        I believe Mark has it correct.
        God is in the business of making a people for Himself for all eternity, and uses these types of trials and tribulations to build charactor, and steadfastness, peace, patience, kindness… For it is God who works in us both to will and to do according to His own good pleasure.

        Soli Dei Gloria!

        • Jim Abbott

          We have a child born with epilepsy. I am positive my wife and I have felt blessed with her all our lives and would not change a thing (except to take on the condition ourselves if we could). We went through the “why me” phase, the search for the correct medication, the physical issues, the restrictions on activities (no alcohol or drugs – thank you God), and her frustrations with life style, medications, needing rest, etc. etc. She wanted to “fit in” and we tried as best we could to make that happen.

          Our daughter was a standout fastpitch player in high school and played 4 years of competitive fastpitch at Claremont McKenna. She graduated from college, attended law school, graduated, and passed the Washington State Bar exam. She has practiced law for 5 years. She married 3 years ago and is spending 2 years in London. She and her husband attend Bethany (when not in England).

          Through it all I have been able to observe the enormous love a mother has for her child; a willingness to drive to Oregon in the middle of the night to assist with preparation for law exams. I could go on and on.

          The next challenge will be whether children are possible. But she has a very loving and supportive husband. And of course she has a mother who will go anywhere, do anything to assist. Do we think her “imperfection” is the soil in which our intimacy with God grows? Absolutely. It has been the key reason I have returned to intimacy with God after years in the wilderness. Mom never left that intimacy, but Dad needed (and still needs) lots of work. God certainly used, and continues to use, this “imperfection” to bless our family and our lives.

    • Clare

      i have asked the same question mark. i have asked it to the face of God. i have asked it to Him in the empty space of my daughters hospital room as she was having her 8th brain surgery in a year. i looked around the room, so barren and cold, empty, i was all alone. again. (i was not in a warm living room with coffee during a bible study or over dinner or may i say even on a blog discussing how God works) and i asked my God, in this dark cold place, who i thought i loved and understood and knew my whole life, is this how you will bring me closer to You? is this how you get glory? is this how i become a stronger christian? is this my path to loving you more? my anger bubbled up and i dared Him in a way to say yes to my questions ( can you imagine that? me daring God?? my anger was intense). may it not be so. a precious little baby brought here to suffer, so that her mom might understand God better. please God, No.

      i believe his answer to my questions, and yours, is clear and simple. i love you. i love you in a way that you will never understand. i love you deeply and purely. i love completely. my love is enough. you do not need to understand why.

      he loves Edward, period. he loves Edwards dad.

      he loves me and he loves my daughter. he does not love how we do. he does not “use” people how we do ( He is sinless). his love is not conditional. he see’s the whole picture. we don’t. i choose to believe in this love each day. i truly mean, i choose. it is not easy for me. each year my daughter becomes harder for our family. i want ease. but i do not get ease when it comes to her and her care. so i choose to believe that my God loves me. he loves my daughter. He is with us. i do not understand the why’s, but i will someday.

  • http://forgottenvoices.org Brian

    Enjoyed the post!

  • Katie

    Thank you Richard for articulating so well the struggle my mind has been going through trying to understand why my 13 month old son has Down Syndrome and what role God has in these type of uninvited imperfections. I find myself going deep down the “rabbit hole”.

    God has intimate involvement in every aspect of my life… except for physical imperfections because of sin and the fall of man? Doesn’t make sense to me.

    God created our son with Down Syndrome to fulfill his plan and work in our lives? Seems cruel.

    And in circles and circles I go, thinking of death, cancer and more severe conditions than Down Syndrome.

    So I continue “wrestling” and wishing for the answers to be in black and white for my simple mind to understand.

    • David

      Hello. I read your comment and I felt for you. I thought maybe I could try my best to share how this kind of “brokenness” can be a wonderful thing. The summer after my junior year in high school, I went to volunteer at Warm Beach Christian Camp. My motivation for this was to find a place to “get away”. I had no desire to grow closer to God, to become a stronger person, or to serve. When the time came for “Special Friends” week I was scared and didn’t know what to expect. Each staff member was assigned a “Buddy”. The staff member would lead them through camp activities. My first buddy was Jim, a 65 year old man with the mental capacity of a 6 year old. Jim brought such Joy to my life during that week, I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful of a person he was. However, Jim wasn’t the one who brought be closer to God. It was a 21 year old man with Downs named Jesse. Jesse was quite the character, he would frequently shout obscenities and cat call the camp staff (male or female). He had a hard time sitting still and proved to be a tremendous test of patience. I was feeling particularly annoyed one day because he had spelt my food on the ground (for the third time) and I had to get another plate. While I was getting another plate he began behaving inappropriately toward a staff member. When I finally got over and convinced him to stop , I made an attempt to eat my food and he grabbed my hand and looked at me sternly. “Mozart (my camp name) you forgot to pray for the food” he said. He held my hand and we prayed for the food. Jesse was one of the most influential people I’ve met. That simple gesture was a huge turning point in my life, this lead to a chain of events that helped me become a Christian. God does work in ways that hard sometimes hard to understand but I know firsthand what an amazing plan he has for every person he has created. People with special needs are some of the most honest, happy, and good hearted people I have ever met and they are truly a blessing to have in one’s life.
      God bless.
      David

  • Jeff

    There is obviously no clear explanation but the scenarios are tough when thought all the way out.

    What if someone is born with a severe mental illness that leaves them incapable of perceiving the idea of a god? Incapable of having any sort of spiritual connection? How can this be justified in the “every person is made with a plan” stance? Or, from Megan, God just thought those individuals could not handle free will and were to be angels…?

    Or do you say these congenital issues, whether by mothers addicted to drugs during pregnancy or random genetic mistakes etc, occur without the influence of a God? What about the children that do not make it out of the NICU? Or the children who do not make to to week 20? The idea of god being hands off in this area is difficult to understand, as Katie mentioned.

    These severe situations can be observed from different perspectives, tragedies would enrich the lives of the parents possibly, destroy the lives of grandparents possibly, keep the parents from even considering conceiving again, etc, many of these perspectives can be rationalized and twisted to be a positive in the end, but what about the afflicted individual that is the “soil”?

    Sort of random unorganized thoughts I know, I apologize

  • KS

    Though the blog entry itself was about much more, I so appreciate the issue of gender ambiguity being brought up from a pastor, especially regarding how that can affect someone’s relationship with God.

    I’m in a graduate program where several of my colleagues identify as transgendered (whether due to gender ambiguity or not, I’m unsure, but would gather that this is the case with some of them.)

    I’ve heard first hand the hurt and marginalization that they’ve experienced and have often wondered what I can say to alleviate some of their pain and help them find their “place”. And though there isn’t really an answer to that, I think they would be shocked, and encouraged, to know that a pastor would even mention their community in an empathic rather than disparaging way.

    I appreciate your thoughts, Richard. Thank you.

  • Eric Peterson

    Being a disabled Christan is a very challaging experience. Instead of acceptaning God’s gift of life and the the gifts he has bestowed it is easy to go down the path of denial,escape and trying to fit in with others and miss what God has for me. I did that with bad results. In three areas I will discuss relationships, Vocation and church life.

    In relationships I was trying to fit in and be accepted by others. The results were me being awkward and making myself and others around me feel uncomfortable. Walking around saying the Bible says does not make that many friends.

    Vocationally- I disabled, but my denial of it make me choose paths that were not my God given talents and strengths. I was like a bowler going on a golf course bragging about my high score. A college degree did not get me a fulfilling job and professional relationships.

    Church Life- Disablity is a issue but not an excuse to be involved in the body of Christ. But alas the as “the escape artist” trying to create Jesus in my own image as the mystical magical Jesus that hears my prayers and makes even thing all right. Bar tender may I have another beer is about the thought process and same results. A broken person needing the love, forgivenss and healing that Christ brings.

    I was busy with church life: bible studies, outreach and prayer. Those things are allright and I should do them as part of my life. When I shut out God’s voice and word I am doing wrong. It is sad to be too busy for God without listening to his voice.

    The changes from that lifestyle came when I accepted myself as I am and become willing to here his voice and word. Accepting Christ love is both wonderful and can be scary because I am not in control. I am no longer making myself in my I “Ideal” image that will get me acceptance and respect. Christ in ME will lead to many good things.

    In relationships I am more relaxed and I do not to force myself fit in were I do not belong. I learned to do these things: Respect other people and my self. Respect diffences in other people interest and life and don’t waste their time trying to impress them. I relate to people who are positive who have like intrest and passions.

    In Church life I desire healthy relationships that move beyond “God talk” into real conversations that mean something. I realize that takes prayer, time, risk of failure along with success. But it is worth it if I want to know Christ.

    Where does this lead me? As a accepting person of God’s love and Grace I find my self in healthy relationships with God and others. A friend of my who was a disabled eldery man I helped him shop and went on trips and hanged out with him . He was the “saint of complaint and it took the patience of a saint to deal with him at times. He recently Past away. But Friend like Warren is exactly the type of person I should hang around. It is people like Warren who will bring out the gifts and talents I am blessed with. I need to meet other Warrens.

  • Raquel

    Thank you for the thoughtful, biblical response, Lamont. Those are not popular concepts, but they are true, and make God’s saving blood and grace all the more precious.


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