Today I had coffee with a former student who is still home on break from college. She and I have always talked about family: the stresses and struggles, the small victories and occasional surprises. At one point she asked me for some advice on how to stay engaged with her family when it's obvious that things just go better all the way around when she's not back in the house! The old adage, "Out of sight, out of mind," applies here. The longer she's away, the more she settles in with new friends from school, and finds it so easy to get attached to them -- and thus a bit more detached from her immediate family. Then it becomes that much more challenging to re-enter her dysfunctional and deeply painful situation when she's home on break.
I did not pretend to have any easy answers. Most of all, I tried to listen well, and at one point, just sighed, looked at her and said simply, "I'm just so sorry." More than anything, I said, we have to remember that we cannot "fix" our families. First of all, they are not usually are seeking out our advice on how to improve, right? Counseling 101 teaches us that we cannot control the actions and decisions of others; we can only control ourselves, and how we respond to what our family members do.
Especially during the holiday it's tempting to look at other families and think they are all having way more fun that yours is. But regardless of what is really going on with everyone else, I have learned that it is useless to compare. We were born into our families for a reason. But at the same time, I always encourage students to not try to figure out exactly what that reason is!
As we continued talking, I told her that one benefit of this tension of growing up is that we are reminded that, no matter how things are going here on earth, that heaven is our true home. Two passages have given me great comfort over the years in this regard:
Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. For I have told you often before, and I say it again with tears in my eyes, that there are many whose conduct shows they are really enemies of the cross of Christ. They are headed for destruction. Their god is their appetite, they brag about shameful things, and they think only about this life here on earth. But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. (Philippians 3:17-21)
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4 The one thing I ask of the Lord—
the thing I seek most—
is to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
delighting in the Lord’s perfections
and meditating in his Temple.
5 For he will conceal me there when troubles come;
he will hide me in his sanctuary.
He will place me out of reach on a high rock.
6 Then I will hold my head high
above my enemies who surround me.
At his sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
singing and praising the Lord with music.
7 Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
Be merciful and answer me!
8 My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”
9 Do not turn your back on me.
Do not reject your servant in anger.
You have always been my helper.
Don’t leave me now; don’t abandon me,
O God of my salvation!
10 Even if my father and mother abandon me,
the Lord will hold me close.
11 Teach me how to live, O Lord.
Lead me along the right path,
for my enemies are waiting for me.
12 Do not let me fall into their hands.
For they accuse me of things I’ve never done;
with every breath they threaten me with violence.
13 Yet I am confident I will see the Lord’s goodness
while I am here in the land of the living.
14 Wait patiently for the Lord.
Be brave and courageous.
Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.
The passage from Philippians 3 helps me to remember that my story here on earth is very, very brief in light of eternity, so I cannot focus too much on the circumstances in front of me. They come, they go, faster than I realize. Instead, I will "fix my eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of my faith" (Hebrews 12) and do my best to run the race with endurance, seeking to finish well.
However, I am locked in time and space while I am here, and in my weakness, I often am desperate for the strength to persevere at that very moment. That is where the words of Psalm 27 keep my lips above the water as I gasp for air. Right when I am at the brink of despair, I end up getting a peek of the Lord's goodness to remind me of my eternal hope. It is like we are waiting for a big production to begin, and unexpectedly, we are allowed a quick look behind the curtain. That short glimpse only creates that much anticipation for us as we wait to enjoy the show.
I'm reading the Book of Genesis for my daily Bible reading these days. What a mess. By Genesis 4, brothers Cain and Abel are vying for attention; then Cain murders Abel. By Genesis 6, human wickedness has blanketed the planet, and God "was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth." By Genesis 11, human pride aspires to build its own tower to heaven. No one can say that the Bible is full of shiny, happy people with perfect lives. In spite of all our sickness and screwing up for thousands of years, the Bible is one long story of God choosing to remain in our midst, and better still, working in and through us in spite of our glaring shortcomings.
My prayer for this student I hung out with today, for myself, and for all of us, is that we could hear these words that God said to Abram in Genesis 12:
I will bless you... and you will be a blessing to others.
May we redeem our time here, whether it be long or short, waiting patiently and by His grace, learning to be brave and courageous. Jesus, come quickly.