Rolf here. It’s been awhile since I took a turn with a blog post. Some have noticed less of a presence from me here and on social media. I guess I’m finding it more comfortable to process the current journey a bit more privately. I do appreciate Trish’s process and am especially grateful for the prayer, concern and love that reaches us from around the globe as people walk along with us via the blog. Lots of stuff in my head and heart and someday I might get back to a place where I’m writing about it–but rest assured I have good outlets to process things in the meantime.
If you’re willing to buckle in for a long read, I did want to share my keynote from the Community Prayer Breakfast here in Santa Barbara in late September. Amidst the fog of the past months, I’ve been grateful for moments of clear thought and figured I’d share one of them. Many of the words were spoken through my tears, which the audience rightly read as grief over Rudy–only a handful of people knew about the ALS diagnosis which we had only received a few days before. Thanks for loving us.
I had something pretty different in mind last winter when I was invited to do this. I picked one of my favorite passages of scripture and had some really good ideas about what I wanted to say. As time allowed, I had employed a few of the study tools from back in seminary to mine a few profound theological gems and was keeping my eye out for some good quotes, vivid examples and anecdotes to brilliantly illustrate my points. It was going to be awesome: witty, thought-provoking, funny and inspirational but unfortunately pretty disingenuous.
I thought about getting out of this—and Reed was even kind enough to inquire a few weeks ago as to whether I was still up for this. My answer then was a tentative “let me give it a shot” and, if I’m being completely honest, it’s probably even more tentative than that right now.
- But for the past nine years, our family has lived in a place where babies die, where kids are afflicted with unspeakable suffering, where parents need to make gut-wrenching decisions, where siblings have to watch powerlessly, where doctors and nurses—who have a choice about where they could practice medicine—fight with such dedication and passion to try and help high-risk patients even with death being so frequently an outcome.
- On a daily basis, I work in a place where people have dealt with lifetimes of trauma and heartbreak such that the pain is almost too difficult to put into words—let alone process.
- In watching people in this community and beyond, I have learned that life in our world can be brutally creative in coming up with means to crush us. I have watched others suffer things so unthinkable that it would make me rejoice that I only got the kid with the terminal heart defect.
In all of these situations, I have watched people somehow move forward and I don’t completely know why they did it or how they did it, but at least I know it’s possible. At the Rescue Mission, I watch our team work with people whose lives have been shattered—often so badly that they can’t even picture that wholeness is possible and what that might even look like. All they’re asked to do is take one step; do today—maybe just do the next hour. And somehow they heroically summon the ability to do so. We spent many months in the ICU—enough to watch our share of nurses having rotten shifts where tragic things happened to the kids they were fighting so hard for. I saw them fighting back tears as they gathered their things to go home. And I often wanted to ask them, “Why are you coming back here tomorrow? I’m stuck here—I’m not leaving my kid. But you have a choice.”
So, I know that moving forward is possible and I need to figure out how to do that. I wish I could stand here this morning with more clarity on what that path looks like, but the wound is still too fresh. I’m still in the stage of grief where my head spins, basic tasks are a challenge, cogent thinking is so occasional that I’m grateful when it happens and I certainly don’t have resolution. I think I believe everything I’m supposed to about God: That He is good; that He cares; that He turns mourning into dancing and that joy comes in the morning. I’m pretty sure I believe all of that, but I can’t really say that I know it yet. I can’t talk about how God redeems tragedy because that hasn’t happened yet.
So I thought about just going ahead with the outline I started at the beginning of the summer, but when I tried to finalize that, I found myself in a wrestling match. My heart just wasn’t in it.
What’s on my heart? Doesn’t exactly take a mind-reader to figure that out. My little boy, Rudy. Don’t be nervous about saying his name because I think about him all the time. His smile, the sound of his voice, the squeal, the laughter and his trademark snort. I miss the feel of the back of his neck with the short stubby little hairs at the base his crewcut that would poke me in the face when I nuzzled up against him. I loved the way he laughed himself breathless only to plead for more tickling. I want to talk about my son. He was a light. I miss him greatly and there’s a danger that once I start this event will have to include a second meal.
I’m not complete and I’m not sure I’m particularly well so I can’t make very many conclusive statements, but even at this point, I can hopefully make some observations amidst the grief I’m feeling over a life cut far too short:
- My journey with Rudy taught me that my purpose in life may be very different than what I pictured it might be.
It was probably back in my college years that I started pondering what my purpose was in life. Understandably, it had a lot to do with career. If I could figure out what I was supposed to “do” then I could take steps to get there academically and, as I entered into the workplace, proceed on a track to get me there. Around that time, my faith took me in perhaps a bit of a different direction as far as ministry and service, but the mindset wasn’t all that different. I was still operating in a framework of achievement—maybe I wasn’t going to build a business empire or innovate something cool, but it was still about accomplishing something “in the kingdom of God”.
That thinking probably led me across decades, until we started on an unexpected journey about nine years ago. It started with 8 months in the ICU and then contained realizations that our son wasn’t likely to live a full life and being his parents wouldn’t include many of the milestones and achievements that often become what we confuse as purposeful parenting. I realized that God would judge me as a father not in how well I prepared and launched a human into the world, but in how completely I loved this little boy. And from there I realize that this is the same standard for my other kids–exceptional, bright and high-achieving as they might be.
While I don’t think I’m supposed to not be thoughtful about what I do from nine to five, if it’s not primary to God then I probably shouldn’t make it more of a focus than he does. My being faithful to my purpose has much more to do with whether I love and am faithful within whatever roles I’m placed in. When we quote “well done, good and faithful servant” at funerals I think our achievement orientation gives us a sense that God would be saying “Good job, I couldn’t have done it without you” and I just don’t think that’s true. I long to hear these words, but I don’t think it’s going to have much to do with whether I was a good Rescue Mission president, but everything to do with the husband, father, son, brother and friend I was.
- My journey with Rudy taught me that focusing more on yourself doesn’t solve more of your problems.
In the book I’m never going to write, there may well be a chapter on what I call the “goldfish principle”. We’ve had a number of goldfish in our house over the years and one of the things we’ve learned is that, provided you clean the water, goldfish will grow to the size of the tank they’re in. Leave them in a small tank, they stay small. Give them a bigger tank and they’ll grow much bigger.
I’ve found that problems can be the same way. While you can’t just deny them, sometimes you can limit them by how many resources you can give to them. Rudy’s life required round-the-clock logistics—daily management of at least a dozen medications given 3 different times a day. He never ate by mouth and we had to schedule and give 5-6 feedings a day. There were appointments to schedule, pharmacy orders to fill, insurance approvals to work out—a huge mess of things added to the overriding heartbreak of his condition.
And part of the way we managed it was by realizing that other people have problems too. They may not be our particular heartbreak but they are heartbreaks nonetheless. And we don’t simply need to recognize them, but we also can help them. We can get tricked into thinking that we have a limited reservoir of love and concern we need to conserve it lest we run out—so a crisis like the one we’ve lived in becomes the only thing we can focus on. And unfortunately we’ve discovered that it doesn’t really aid in solving things. Love doesn’t need to be preserved and protected. We likely have way more capacity to love than we ever imagined, and the way to tap that is, not to disregard our own problems, but to make sure we’re looking past them to the things other people are struggling with.
- My journey with Rudy made me appreciate our calling to be gentle people.
In Philippians 4, Paul gives what might be a very unique final instruction:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
There are a lot of things Paul could have chosen to assert here, yet here he sums it up with gentleness. Based on my perception of Paul as a straight-shooter and unafraid of confrontation, I might have expected him to say something a lot more assertive; calling people to strength and courage. He is completing a letter that was written into conflict. He is in crisis—sitting in a jail cell with severe consequences hanging over his head. He’s been emphatic in clarifying some points of doctrine and spoken clearly of opposition and enemies and while he is preparing the audience for a kind of battle.
Given the environment, we might expect such a letter to send the Philippians off locked, loaded and ready to take no prisoners. But one of the last thing he says is—let everyone see how gentle you can be. Paul didn’t write this letter intending that it make for eloquent reading—he’s clearly instructing people to take a course of action—but within that, he’s saying “If people don’t see gentleness, then you’re doing it wrong.”
I think it would be a mistake to minimize gentleness to mean we should just be timid or sheepish. I don’t think it’s consistent with the rest of the letter for Paul to tell us in the end, “just be meek.” In a sense, one could limit the definition of gentleness to simply something to the effect of tenderness, or mildness which are not bad things. These are certainly part of it, but I think it serves us to build a more detailed description of gentleness. I believe the definition has a connotation of yielding in the sense that one does not need to insist on justice, rights, winning or having our way in every instance.
Gentle people have an air of reason about them such that they are able to let a lot of things go without much hassle. They reserve their energy and especially their anger for things that merit it. Yet there are so many things we have a tendency to get worked up about. We are so attuned to notions of right and wrong that we react so quickly and feel justified in doing so when we are slighted. Whether we’re not getting the respect we deserve, or feel we’re not being treated fairly, or certain of how right and moral we are on a certain point…we can quickly feel that gives us license to tear into someone. I’m amazed at how the internet has created a place where even the slightest everyday annoyance or discourtesy gives us a venue to unleash our umbrage—but is that the mark of a person striving to be gentle?
The issues Paul is writing about are not trivial everyday matters, but of far more importance. These are very important issues and very critical arguments, but even in these there is no point where Paul gives license to tear into the opposition. Being in despair can cause you to lose civility and I have certainly felt the impulse to tear into people, but there’s no footnote saying “those of you who’ve lost a kid get a pass on this one.”
My ability to be gentle isn’t something that needs to be fabricated or some facade I need to somehow will myself to maintain. It’s actually rooted something very tangible. Immediately after he gives the command to be gentle, Paul assures us that the Lord is near. If we were bobbing in the water after a shipwreck and you told me not to be afraid of drowning, it would sure help if your next words were “I’ve got a raft”. If we found ourselves in complete darkness and you told me to not be afraid of the dark, I would be very comforted if the next thing you said was “I’ve got a light.”
So there’s the same kind of comfort when Paul says “you can be gentle. God is near.” My impulse to not be gentle; to lash out and fight for myself comes from a fear of scarcity. I may say, if I don’t stick up for myself, who will? I may be overlooked. I may not be taken care of. I may get trampled. Paul is telling me that I don’t need to panic or fight. God is right here watching over me. And will fight on our behalf. If we believe that the peace of God can guard us, then we don’t need to go through life with our hand on the trigger.
While everyday slights often are a pretty good indicator of how well I’m living out profound truths, the exhortation to be gentle needs to extend to places where the stakes are so much higher. Because if you haven’t noticed, our world is unfortunately not a gentle place. I know that firsthand, but I’m sure there are people in this room who can come alongside me with their own stories of anguish and sorrow. We don’t need to pull the lens back all that far before we start to see incredible atrocities and unimaginable depths of human suffering.
In the midst this world, we need to take notice that, despite being a theologian and a reformer, Paul didn’t say “Make sure people clearly see your doctrinal position” or “Let everyone know where you stand on the issues”. What he did say is “Let your gentleness be known to everyone”.
As I’ve stumbled and limped through the past few weeks, I’ve quickly found that I’m not all that different than the men and women on the patio at the Rescue Mission. The packages may look different and the circumstances may be varied but the yearning for gentleness when the world has crushed you is very much the same. We can be as convicted and right as we need to be, but I’m not sure there’s any way to truly fulfill our calling and take on the burden for people in need if gentleness is not clearly evident. My prayer that such gentleness would be what marks me and the church we belong to.