I was talking with my parents about church life. My parents noted that there are many people they see who are very active at church but have terrible problems with their spouses and children. There is a temptation to believe that religious activity will lead to a better life. Yet the message of the gospel of Jesus is that none of these things can save you. Your Bible studies cannot save you. Your hymns cannot save you. Your prayers cannot save you. These are all good things, but it is because they are good things that they are dangerous. We can be fooled into believing that just by doing them we can fix ourselves. Yet the message of Jesus is that what we most desperately need, the healing of our broken lives, is the one thing that we cannot get by our own efforts. Salvation is a gift, not a reward.
And parents! No matter how much you pray, unless you actually take the time to be present with your children and try to understand them, your prayers will not help your relationship. Talking to God is no substitute to listening to your children.
When I was teaching at the special education center, I got to help students maintain perspective on obstacles. Many of our students were very routine-driven and would become quite upset when things went awry. For example, a student may be unable to find a pencil and would start freaking out. I learned to talk with them and ask “Now is this a big problem or a small problem?” This helped the student to calm down and realize that missing a pencil is a small problem, since finding another pencil is pretty simple.
Now I’ve taken to saying this phrase in my own life. For example, when my closet rod broke and all my clothes ended up on the floor, I said “small problem” and started cleaning up. Even when I cut myself while cooking and started bleeding on the table, I said “Small problem!” and washed it off. It is a bit silly, but I find it helpful.
The summer before my freshman year of college, I signed up for my school’s orientation (CalSO). As my mother drove me to the airport, I felt excited and nervous. This was my first foray into the adult world (before I figured out that college is very much removed from adulthood). I had booked the plane ticket myself and everything.
I arrived and went up to the counter to check-in. The woman at the desk looked at my ticket, puzzled. “Excuse me, but this is the wrong day. This ticket is for a flight on the 6th. That was yesterday. Today is the 7th.”
I immediately froze, uncertain what to do. I ran over to a corner near the ticketing desk. I started thinking of what a terrible mistake this was and how it would affect my career. “If I couldn’t even get something as simple as a plane ticket right, how will I ever get anything else right? If my first step into adulthood failed so terribly, I will fail as an adult.” I started crying. Overwhelmed, I took a taxi home. I never did end up going to orientation.
I’m reminded of this because just yesterday I made a mistake with another plane reservation, thus costing me about $200. However, instead of becoming overwhelmed with anxiety, I can take a more measured perspective. My mistakes and errors and oversights don’t determine my future. I can move on and learn from them without becoming overwhelmed by them. I guess this perspective is part of what it really means to be an adult.
Job Interviewer: “Tell me about a time you had to manage a crisis at work.”
Me: “I was one month into my job at the special education center. I was assigned to work with one of our neediest students. He is 16, nonverbal, completely deaf, with severe cognitive limitations and moderate motor control issues. His wrists were raw from self-injurious biting and he wore a padded helmet to lessen the impact of smashing his head against walls, which he did regularly.
I was helping him in the bathroom, since he lacked the motor skills to manage independently. His diaper was soiled, so I was trying to help him throw it away and get a new one. Suddenly, he started screaming and biting his wrist. As I tried to stop him, he jumped onto the countertop and started banging his head against the wall. I was trying to stop him from biting himself, prevent him from hitting his head, and try not to get poop on him or me. I yelled for the Teacher’s Assistant to come help, at which point the student jumped down and bit me on the chest. I disengaged with mouth as the TA came, went to take a breather and tend to the bruise on my chest, then came right back after 5 minutes to continue working.”
Interviewer: “Wow. No one’s ever said anything like that before.”
Note: I didn’t get that job.
Note 2: I miss that student. He was hard to work with, but incredibly sweet.
In giving blood today, I started reflecting on the nature of our physical bodies. I could feel the pulse of my blood leaving my body, filling the collection bag. I remembered how sometimes I would lay my head down to sleep on my pillow, only to hear the steady rhythm of the blood in my ears.
Asking a person to sit still is physical impossible. We are constantly pulsing, squirming, squishy beings. Sentient sacks of water, declared some wit in a book that probably was about a more important point but is lost to my memory save that one irreverent phrase.
Cover your ears with your hands. You can hear the thunderous drone of your internal ocean.
Gospel of John, Chapter 8: The Jewish religious leaders brought to Jesus a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. The religious leaders said to Jesus “the law of Moses commands us to stone this woman. What do you say?” Jesus stooped down to write in the sand. When they persisted questioning him, he stood up and said “let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.” He then stooped down and continued writing.
One by one, the religious leaders left, until only the woman was standing before Jesus. He stood up and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Note that Jesus did not say “Go and leave your life of sin and then I will not condemn you. Go and change the way you live, change your behavior, change your lifestyle and then I will not condemn you.” Yet I have seen Christians do this so often; I have been guilty of this myself. We make our acceptance of other people conditional on their changing themselves.
Now it’s true that sometimes it is necessary to establish boundaries and maintain consequences for behavior. For example, someone in an abusive relationship may need the other person to change before accepting them. However, these are special cases, it is acceptance that makes transformation possible, not transformation made to earn acceptance. It is because Jesus did not condemn this woman that she could leave her empty way of life.
A university professor was preparing his final exam. He had taught this course for many years and always prepared an exam of multiple short essays to test students on their knowledge of the material. This year, he tried something different. When his students sat at their desks to take the exam, they found a blank sheet of paper and a notepad. When the test started, they found only these words: Evaluate Yourself.
When the professor received the exams back, he was amused by what he saw. One student had regurgitated the entire semester’s coursework in haphazard fashion on the notepad. Another student had several false starts, with “I am good,” “I am smart,” “I am competent” all scribbled out, leaving only scratches but no words. Several students had simply turned in their notepads blank. One wrote “A+! I am a winner!” in big block letters.
Yet one student’s response made the professor smile. “Professor, thank you for the class. I learned much from it. By the time you read this, I will most likely be at home, reading a book or spending time with my family. This test doesn’t evaluate me. I evaluate myself, and I say that I am not my successes or my failures. I am fine, I am worthy, I am loved.”
A number of people have told me online and in person how much they enjoy reading what I write here. I started writing as a way to share some of the things that I have learned in life. I know I am still young in many ways, but I do know that I have some share of wisdom to offer, and I am glad that people have found it helpful.
One danger however is in entwining my sense of well-being with the popularity of what I write. Although this is always the danger of any writer (“Acknowledge my writing! Acknowledge me!”), it is especially perilous on a social media platform.
This webcomic and the accompanying quote reminds me that Facebook is a platform. It is a tool. It is not my salvation. My hope is not built upon it.