I sat with my back against the door to keep him from bolting, and to wait out the tempest. He screamed inches from my face, his breath hot, the curves of the cheeks that I adored contorting as he howled. My joints ached as he writhed and flailed like a cornered animal in my embrace. Then came another scream, his pudgy fingers balled into fists, his glazed eyes flashing wildly. “Let me go!” he shrieked. “Don’t touch me! I hate you!”
I wanted to let go, walk out, and slam the door. I wanted to give up, to forget the piles of books I’d lovingly accrued for him, to return to a world where people listened to what I said, and respected my words. To retreat to a place where I felt competent. Where what I did seemed to matter.
In that moment of brokenness, and in His mercy, God stayed my hand from the doorknob, and showed me the cross. I saw it’s terrible limbs silhouetted against a gathering storm, and remembered Jesus hanging upon it for us. For Pip, and for me. I drew a breath.
“I love you,” I whispered through tears.
Pip paused, and for a moment his weary eyes met mine. He seemed to emerge from the dark waters and break into light. “I love you too,” he said, his voice cracking. Then the overwhelm seized him again, and he returned to thrashing in the agony of his own senses.
The inciting event had been a piece of bacon stuck in his teeth.
As it so profoundly colors our days, I’ve written frequently about our challenges with our son Pip. Recently, testing confirmed that Pip is twice exceptional. He is gifted, but also has severe sensory processing disorder. Everyday sights, sounds, and textures flood him with panic. He cannot discern his own position in space, and he tries to soothe himself by crashing into furniture, only to become overstimulated. The most mundane details of life confuse and threaten him. The world seems too much, even while he craves it desperately.
We are grateful to have insight and help for him this early in his life. I would be lying, however, if I claimed his special needs didn’t weigh upon us heavily. What we thought were quirks, actually impair Pip’s ability to function moment to moment. What we hoped was a phase, is something he won’t outgrow. The anxieties he faces and the therapy required reshape our own interactions with the world, complicating activities and fellowship we once found life-giving. It’s hard to offer hospitality, when guests and noise provoke meltdowns. It’s difficult to seek out opportunities for service and ministry, when Pip needs our vigilant support 24-7. We feel conflicted as we set aside dreams of the mission field and adopting more children. We buck against our instincts as parents when, knowing the motion will push him over the edge, we squash his delight in tire swings, and steer him toward less stimulating diversions.
Through the daily exhaustion, we have asked, Why, Lord? Our hearts swell with devotion to you. . . we long to serve you. . . why? I did not foresee this life sixteen years ago, when I received my medical student’s coat, ridiculous with its shortened hem, and recited the Hippocratic oath. In my vanity, I considered service to God to be something I decided, rather than something to which God called me. Doctoring and godly service, I thought, were synonymous by default. I reveled in the long nights standing vigil at a sick patient’s bedside, returning home bedraggled, with my limbs groaning, my entire body heavy with the satisfying ache of having sacrificed and served well. I relished the finality of a suture firmly placed around a bleeding vessel, its clarity, its tangibility, the physical evidence of faithful service. Even when I left practice, we dreamed of a house filled with children, both biological and adopted, teeming with laughter and love for the Lord. We envisioned embarking upon the mission field with a growing family in tow, discipling them and others in Jesus’ name.
But parenthood, it seems, is a refining fire. It shapes; it molds; it tears down; it reduces falsehoods and artifice to ashes. Through its flames, God has flayed my idolatry wide open. He has revealed that faithful service does not mean good actions on my own terms, but according to his will. I can do nothing good, that he has not planned for me. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)
Psalm 127:3 teaches us that “children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.” These words follow a declaration of God’s hand in every good work; no house can be built, no city protected, unless God’s sovereign grace permits it. The children we bear also reflect God’s handiwork. There is a reason God pairs us with specific children to shepherd. That Sarah bore Isaac was no accident. Nor were the parental relationships between Jacob and Joseph, David and Absalom, or Elizabeth and John a twist of fate. As the Bible marches out lineages toward Christ, with each individual playing a unique role in the narrative, so also our own children are carefully determined, their idiosyncrasies and challenges written into the blueprints of our lives.
We cannot discern the whole of God’s intent for the children with whom he chooses to bless us . . . but we can ascertain glimmers. Through the gift of Pip, the Lord has taught me that the traits about myself that I highly prized, are like filthy rags to Him. (Isa 64:6) A lust for efficiency, while praiseworthy in the emergency room when the heart careens into a dangerous rhythm, leads to bitterness and anger when it confronts kids who can’t focus to put on a coat. My thirst for solitude, easy to attain in the predictable environment of the operating room, is never quenched when children need you every single moment. The gratification of a perfectly placed suture appears no where in a household where a haircut involves 90 minutes of wrangling and tears. If God had given us a child who dozed contentedly in our arms as an infant, loved birthday parties, and tolerated hair combing, I would still be content to live a life for myself, rather than for the Lord. I would be lulled into the lie that I don’t need a savior. I would be deceived that I could achieve my salvation according to my own will, my own effort and merit.
Instead, God has said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) He has blessed us with an incredible, wonderfully-made, unique, brilliant, sensitive, challenging little boy, whose needs daily bring me to my knees. The Lord has made clear that I serve Him not through my own design, but through obedience to His call. Not through any will of my own, but according to His will, in works He has prepared ahead of time. He has halted me from lofty ideas of service that fit my own construct of faithfulness, and has said, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps 46:10)
And so when the heat rises, and when in the grips of another meltdown Pip’s eyes burn like flames, I cling to the cross. I say, “Lord, your grace is sufficient.” I meet my child in his rage, and pour into his gaze all the love he deserves as a cherished image-bearer of God, beautifully and wonderfully made, new in Christ. “I love you,” I say. And for a moment, Pip breaks free. For a moment, I feel God spurring me on, calling me to guide our little Pip to become the person God intended him to be. To serve in love. To relax my grip on my own worldly strivings, cradle the blessings with which He has entrusted me. To pray, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)