Happy summer everybody! It’s good to be back on the blog once again, and to be back at home with my family over break. It’s difficult to realize how much your college experience becomes like another, almost completely separate life; that is, until you come home and realize how much time you have on your hands! Given that I’ve had a chance to put down the books and lay all the papers to rest for a while, it seemed like high time I should write again. It definitely feels good to have time to write for pleasure!
I’ve been thinking about a paradox that seems very prevalent at this time in my life. On the one hand, these are probably some of my most exciting years. I’m thoroughly enjoying college, expanding my mind and heart in new directions, deepening my relationship with God, and meeting all kinds of new people. This is a time very oriented towards the future, and filled with great promise. In one sense, “the sky’s the limit” as far as where God could call me. It’s also, however, a time of great uncertainty, which is why I’ve been wrestling with the issue of trusting God.
You would think, after having gone through all the surgeries, therapies, the physical as well as the emotional trials of living with cerebral palsy, trusting in God would come pretty naturally to me. After all, He’s brought me through many things most people would never have to deal with. But there are pitfalls and dangers here, too. In my situation, I think it becomes easy to trust God in the midst of extraordinary things like these. I’ve spent my whole life learning that God will enable me to overcome the more obvious obstacles associated with my disability. When it comes to more normal, everyday trials, trusting in God can become just as difficult for me as for anyone else. It is these normal, “common to man” trials and uncertainties that are looming large in my view right now, and sometimes living with a disability can make their temptations all the more insidious.
I don’t know with certainty whether I’ll be able to find a good job after I graduate. I don’t know with certainty what God has planned for my brother and sister, now that their both getting closer and closer to graduating high school and moving on to independent lives of their own. I don’t know whether my Dad’s ministry will take off the way we are praying it will. But I think the clearest illustration of my struggles with trust involve the issue of dating/courtship.
Away at college at the age of 19, friends’ entering into serious relationships is an in-your-face issue. Granted we’re still young, but fewer and fewer have not been in some kind of relationship. Especially at a Christian college, where the courtship ideal has become so influential, many are beginning to think seriously about marriage, even if it’s still several years in the future. Over these last two semesters I even witnessed a few “bobtisms,” our school’s ritual of dunking newly engaged men in the campus lake. Regardless of our own situations, this is an issue we simply have to deal with.
Enter my struggles with uncertainty. The fact is, especially given my disability, I struggle with not knowing God’s plan for me regarding the minefield of romantic relationships. I’m a young man like all other young men, with the same God given hopes and desires. But, like others, I also deal with fear and doubt, too often exacerbated by my CP. As Christian men, we’ve had it impressed upon us that good-hearted, God honoring young ladies want a knight in shining armor. They want a man who will serve as their protector, provider, and leader. I often wonder, given my physical challenges, how I will ever be able to fill these roles. As I once told a friend, I wouldn’t exactly be able to wrestle a bear into submission if my wife and I were attacked in the woods. I will probably need more physical help from my future wife than she will ever need from me. Faced with these realities, I often wonder what God expects “masculinity” to look like from someone in my situation.
Important issues like these often command a lot of my focus. They also leave me struggling with a lot of fear. But it is exactly this narrow perspective that the Enemy wants to trap me in. These situations present challenges, but are they really more terrible than the challenges God has already brought me through. My very survival on this Earth is a miracle. God has preserved my life against the odds from the day I was born two months premature. Is it really even rational to assume he won’t bring me through these challenges as well. I don’t have all the answers, nor do I see all of God’s plan. But if the Bible says “I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me,” doesn’t that include the common, everyday things? God’s ways are not my ways, and His plan may look entirely different from what I expect. He, however, has good plans for me. Whatever they are, they are better than I can imagine. He will give me the strength to finish the race.
It’s something I don’t like to admit. It’s something I’ve tried to overcome for years. It’s something that often presents some very difficult obstacles. No matter how much I try to deny it, there is something woven into the fabric of who I am that will most likely never go away. I am a giant, socially awkward dork. (Probably thought I was going to say something else there didn’t ya?)
I have great friends, and I hope most people who know me would consider me a relatively nice guy. But there are times, (somewhat frequent times actually,) when, whether by acts of commission or omission, I do or say, or forget to do or say, something that makes me look just plain stupid. Way too often, it’s in front of people I’d rather not look stupid in front of. This happens whether I’m relating to friends, peers, or authority figures. In a moment of brutal honesty let me tell you that I probably have more of those “Ooooh, that came out wrong,” and “Shoot, why’d I do that?” moments than almost any other human being on the planet. The people I most want to impress and treat right can sometimes turn me into a tongue-tied bull-in-a-china-shop-esque nervous wreck.
One particular incidence of my striking awkwardness comes to mind as a good example. Several years ago, my parents and I had the honor of being invited to a dinner at a local five-star hotel for major Focus on the Family donors. Immediately following dinner with all these wealthy dignitaries, I was feeling pretty puffed up. My fancy dress pants, however, had not been fitting well all night (I suppose you could say I was, ahem, a little too big for my britches.) As we were standing on the curb a few yards from the hotel, in the dark, waiting for Mom to bring the car around, my drawers dropped completely. It is, hands down, one of the most embarrassing, awkward, and darn funny moments of my life. I am, with good reason, simply a self-conscious guy sometimes.
All joking aside, though, an unhealthy self-consciousness can have ramifications far worse than my bouts of interpersonal goofiness in the life of someone with a disability. It really is tough to admit, but at times we’re painfully aware of just how people might see us. To quote a young woman with CP who appeared on a recent Focus on the Family broadcast, it is often all too easy to think about how people see our obvious disabilities and think “Is this repulsive?” We want, so desperately, to be accepted as people, but many of us, (including myself at times) worry that all people see are the outward physical deformities. We worry that this alone can be enough to push people away before they risk digging deeper. To some people, it seems as though we are a walking deformity or disability before we ever have the chance to be a human being. I want to encourage anyone who’s ever felt this way that your value does not rest in other people’s opinion. Scripture says, “How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God.” God, your Creator, has made it an absolutely undeniable reality, something as unchangeable as gravity, that YOU ARE VALUABLE. Don’t you EVER let anyone tell you differently. Recognizing this truth is the first step for anyone to build healthy, happy relationships. It is also one of the best ways you can build up a loved one with disabilities. And hey, if afterwards you’re still a bit of a dork sometimes, just know you’re not alone.
This being the 4th of July season, I, along with many people around the country, have been thinking a lot about the history behind our independence and the men who made it possible. These were truly great individuals, living at a truly great time. They stood up to proclaim the right of all men to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under a government that would respect and promote those rights, leaving its people as free as possible to seek the goodness of God and the comforts of prosperity.
Thinking about their accomplishments, however, I was surprised to realize how many terrifying unknowns these people must have faced. They were, on the basis of deeply felt personal convictions and not much else, going up against the greatest superpower of the age, with the largest, best trained, and best equipped army and navy of the age. Not only were the Founding Fathers strapped for resources, (in contrast to the British, we had no navy, no regular army, and no money), but their political ideas had never before been tested on the scale they imagined, and were in direct opposition to the beliefs of most of the civilized world. Even the British, DANGEROUSLY libertarian and republican by European standards, had never taken the ideals of liberty and self-government under God as far as the Founders envisioned. The Founding Fathers, however, in the face of all the unknowns, turned to Someone they knew they could rely on. Jefferson articulated this faith in the final sentence of the Declaration of Independence. “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Our Founders, even supposed Deists like Jefferson, knew what they were up against. They knew that, in the eyes of the world, sheer firepower made their cause hopeless. But they believed that their fight for liberty had a basis in more than just recent philosophy. They were men of the Scriptures, who believed that they found in God's Word the original, divine proclamation that all men were created in His image, and therefore entitled to freedom and dignity. They were willing to stake everything on those ideals because they relied on the God who is their ultimate source, and who would give them strength to defend the right, no matter what the odds.
In many ways, albeit on a smaller scale, we all experience this kind of uncertainty. For the disabled, it can be particularly intense. As I'm preparing to head off to college, I know and my parents know how tough this anxiety can be. Will I be able to overcome basic physical challenges? Will I make friends? Will I be able to function in the classroom? People with unique challenges face unique unknowns every day. But, in facing the unknown, we can take a cue from Paul, who reminds us that “neither height nor depth...nor angels nor demons...nor anything else in all Creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” If we rely on this promise as much as the Founding Fathers did, we have nothing to fear.
In the next couple of days, (Wednesday and Thursday of this week), Dad and I will be listening excitedly as we appear on Dr. James Dobson’s new national radio show Family Talk. The broadcast will partially recap a moment eleven years ago when I was blessed to see God work in my life in amazing ways. He took a conversation between Dr. Dobson and a star-struck, disabled seven- year-old boy, and decided to touch many people’s lives in a way I am still amazed and humbled at. Hopefully, seeing God work through my weakness will encourage those living with a disability that God can and will use them in unbelievable ways. We will also be adding to the original broadcast, talking about the struggles and victories of the disabled and their parents and how God’s people can help support this too-often-neglected segment of the Church.
It has been such a huge blessing, (and, let me tell you, it has very little if anything to do with me), to be allowed to encourage people in such a unique and unexpected way. God’s grace and plan for my life have taken me to incredible places, and had me doing incredible things. Along the way, though, it’s often been interesting dealing with the unique situation these experiences have created for me. Anyone who knows me well will tell you I can be a little too interested in being the center of attention, and there have been times when God’s gift of a little bit more than my allotted fifteen minutes of fame hasn’t exactly done wonders for my humility. Fortunately, our Heavenly Father has plenty of (sometimes, in retrospect, really funny) ways of setting us straight when we start thinking too much of ourselves. All the same, it can get uncomfortable when people identify you as “Kyle West from the radio” and then launch into a 20 minute discourse about how wonderful and spiritual you are. More than once, when something like this has happened, I’ve found myself smiling and nodding politely at the person, all the while thinking, “My dear sir or madam, if you knew about half of the things I struggle with BEHIND the scenes, you’d realize I’m not all that great of a role model! At best, I’m just a human being.”
Thinking about the way this makes me feel, I’ve come to the realization that this carries over into the way a lot of people treat those with disabilities. Basically, there are two extremes, what I’ll call the “Dali Lama” complex and the “Tiny Tim” complex. The “Dali Lama” complex consists of people who seem to think the disabled exist on some sort of higher plane than the rest of humanity. Don’t get me wrong; everyone, including the disabled, enjoys an encouraging “attaboy” every now and again. It’s when people take this too far, when all someone can talk about is how much we’ve “overcome,” how “courageous” we are, and looks to us as some sort of mountaintop example of Godliness and perseverance ALL THE TIME, that it becomes unhealthy. There’s no radiant glow coming off our faces. Have the disabled been given some unique opportunities and challenges by God? Yes, but we struggle with the same highs and lows, the same questions and answers, and the same shortfalls as everyone; we are imperfect, works in progress of God, and we want to be able to relate honestly with people who recognize that, and love us for who we are.
At the other end of the scale, the “Tiny Tim” crowd looks at the disabled from the opposite extreme. These people mean well, but they always assume the absolute minimum from us, looking at us as something to be pitied and condescended to instead of as human beings. But, as children of God, we all have special talents, unique personalities, hopes, and dreams. When it comes down to it, the best thing you can do for a loved one with a disability is to treat them as a human being. Don’t expect from them what only God can provide, but don’t be afraid to expect God to make them into something wonderful. They’ll appreciate it, more than you know.
Truth be told, I’ve never really liked the expression “leap of faith.” It implies that, when we take some risk in order to follow God, we leap without any idea what or Whom we’re leaping to. We think we have some idea of where God is calling us, but we’re incredibly afraid to go there. So we shut our eyes and jump feet first down a deep dark hole of uncertainty. We know we’re supposed to expect God to catch us, but for some reason we have no rational confidence in that expectation. Somehow, this reasoned, certain confidence in God’s strength is thought to be opposed to true “faith.” Our culture, even our Christian subculture, believes that faith is fundamentally irrational. Only if we have no real assurance of God’s provision can a bold step to follow Him be considered a leap of true “faith.” We’re almost expected to be surprised by God’s support when He finally meets our needs.The sad thing is, this understanding of faith has the potential to paralyze a lot of people. We just don’t think we have the strength to let go with that kind of trust. We ask ourselves things like, “With all the sin I struggle with, how can I expect God to use me here?” or “I’ve already got so many responsibilities, how can I manage to take on something new?” I think we find ourselves in these mindsets because we forget that a “leap of faith” is not something we do for its own sake. Instead, we place our faith in Someone who has already proven Himself faithful. In my last few posts, I’ve talked a lot about learning to rely on God. I’ve had to wrestle with a lot of new challenges lately, and some of my own weaknesses have become a lot more apparent. The more I recognize my weaknesses, though, the more I simply have to rely on God’s strength. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus said. The more I’ve become aware of my own inadequacy, the more true this has rung for me. The “name of the game” isn’t so much cultivating my own ability as learning to rely on God. The problem, though, is that this can sound exactly like the abstract “leap of faith” mentioned earlier. What does reliance on God’s proven faithfulness look like? Often, I think it looks like willingness to take risks. This isn’t for the sake of demonstrating our “blind faith” to God; rather, it’s a genuine belief that, since God has always cared for us in the past, he will continue to care for us, even when we take what the world considers “big risks” for Him. I know for a fact this can be especially challenging for people with disabilities and their families. Growing up, I was not a big risk-taker, especially when it came to pushing the boundaries of my physical condition. I knew what was too risky, what I shouldn’t dare to attempt for fear of getting hurt. To the ire of Jon, my physical therapist of ten years, this often included things as silly as walking across grass or opening doors for myself (Only in the early days though, I swear. J) As I’ve gotten older, though, I still struggle with fear in many ways, over things that are a little bit more serious than making it across the lawn. For a lot of families, though, the fear of letting go to some degree, of pushing the boundaries, is much greater. Whatever that next step is for your loved one with a disability, letting go long enough to let them take it can be terrifying. “What degree of success can we expect? Will someone get hurt? How do we know we’re ready for this?” The next step might range from greater independence in new activities of daily living to going off to college. Regardless, these same questions can run through our minds. It’s at these moments that we need to remember the God we’re called to have faith in. In the Old Testament, God’s people were never expected to operate on the basis of “blind faith.” Over and over again, we see Israel setting up remembrances, memorial stones, and reminders of God’s mighty acts. These mighty acts gave Israel evidence that called for faith; that is, for unwavering confidence in the trustworthiness of God’s promises. This was the God who parted the Red Sea; this was the God who toppled the walls of Jericho; this was the God who saved the nation every time the people were forced to run to the hills. Therefore, God could be trusted to care for His children in the day to day challenges they faced. Israel’s faith wasn’t a blind leap; it was confidence in something they should have known to be a fact. My question then is, hasn’t God done the same thing for us? Yes, the challenges we face are difficult. Yes, letting go and taking risks is scary. No, God hasn’t promised us that His plan doesn’t include a process where we fall on our face a few times. But, in all the little things we have come through, in all the impossible situations we’ve survived, all the mountains we’ve climbed, hasn’t God been with us? The fascinating thing is, ultimately those with disabilities are really no weaker than any other human being. All human strength is inadequate even for getting through this life. But God’s strength dwarfs all human strength by comparison, and everyone needs it. A leap of faith is not a leap into the dark; it’s a leap into the net of God’s grace, which we have every evidence will be waiting to catch us.