International Ministries

First day of school...

August 22, 2011 Journal
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"I love you, Mom!"   
Uh oh.  That's when Paula knew things were serious.                                                  

Of course, any mother is delighted to hear those words (any father, too!).  I suspect most kids and parents don't say those words to each other nearly as much as we should.  So, it was a good thing.  Except...

Except Paula didn't just fall off the turnip truck.  These words were coming to her from her 18 year old.  Her 18 year old son.  Her 18 year old son who had just called her on the phone!!

If you have ever had an 18 year old male child... on this planet... you know that spontaneous calls to Mom are not in their behavioral repertoire.  Daughters, maybe.  Sons?  Not gonna happen.

So why did Paula get the call?  And why did he slip that extraordinary expression of affection into the end of the call?

Because son Jimmy is in the first days of his new life as a college freshman.  On a planetary scale, that puts Jimmy in a position of great privilege.  On the scale of Jimmy's personal development, it puts him in a position of great terror.

Jimmy is disoriented and afraid.  But his whole life to this point has made him sure of one thing:  if he says, "I love you, Mom," he will hear, "I love you too, Jimmy!"

This isn't the same as taking those first steps, or balancing on the curb, or mounting the little bike with training wheels.  He cannot reach out a wobbly little hand, to have it firmly and lovingly surrounded by Mom's steady and much larger hand. 

A phone call isn't as good as really touching.  But it is what is possible.  "I love you, Mom!"  The little hand reaches out.

Maybe it is because growing mastery in so many areas of life has made asking for help less necessary.  Maybe it is because the need for ego definition requires a bit of separation and at least attempted autonomy.  For whatever complex of reasons, the little hand has come reaching out less often in recent years.  It has also grown... to the point where it is actually larger and stronger than Mom's hand.

But it is less sure.  So, as the world seems suddenly much scarier, out it comes:  "I love you, Mom!"

I learned about Paula and Jimmy's story from Cathy last night as we talked over the experiences of the day.  Her close colleague and friend, Paula, had shared with Cathy the trials and travails of launching her son into his college career.  He's a good kid and will undoubtedly do just fine.  But the actual "launch" included some real Mama-bird-pushes-baby-bird-out-of-the-nest moments.

As I listened, my first reaction was to wonder why Jimmy was so scared.  Silly me.  Cathy quickly reminded me that she had had her own Mama bird experiences.  And then came the real surprise:  suddenly I was picturing the two of us on a walk.  It was a beautiful fall evening in Palo Alto.  It was the fall of 1969 and Cathy and I were walking around the campus of Stanford University during the first week of our freshman year.  It had been a long time since I had thought about that night, and my memory is pretty fuzzy on the details.  But the main point--and the emotional texture--came back very, very clearly.

We were the best and the brightest.  Everyone said so.  We could hardly stagger away from high school under the weight of all the acclaim.  Stanford had chosen us over so many, many others.  Us.  They wanted us to be there!  What a great opportunity!  But that first week, and especially on that night, as we walked among all the impressive buildings, packed with knowledge and simply radiating prestige... as we passed by the dorms full of Truly Exceptional People, we certainly did not feel like the best and the brightest.  We were scared to death!  We just knew we had gotten in through some clerical error and were headed toward total, abject failure.  What should we do?  Should we slip away before the error was discovered or, worse yet, before our performance in our Freshman Seminars revealed to everyone else the all-encompassing inadequacy we felt so powerfully in our stomachs that night?  What had possessed us even to try this?

So, there's no need to ask why Jimmy is so scared.  I have not only had baby birds, I have been the baby bird!  And, of course, that did not end forty years ago.  In spite of everything that has changed, I have never fully ceased to be the baby bird in need of a nudge, or the toddler, reaching out a hand for help.

The world is a scary place.  (It is also a wonderful, glorious place, but that does not make it less scary.)  To be alive is to risk pain, loss and death.  So, there is always something to be afraid of, even if the face it presents changes over time. 

That is at least part of the reason why "Fear not!" is one of the most common things Heaven communicates to humans throughout Scripture.  From the call of Abraham in Genesis to the visionary invitation to John in Revelation, over and over we find God (or God's messengers) calling out to people (even "heroes of faith") with the words, "Fear not!"

But there's more.  The call to move beyond our fears comes so frequently in the Biblical story not just because the world is a scary place, but because casting our lot with God's agenda does not eliminate sources of fear.  It adds to them.

The call to Abraham was not a call to a secure, walled compound, protected from the ordinary threats and challenges of life.  It was a call to a journey.  It was a call to face additional threats and challenges, for the sake of all humanity.  Abraham was invited to find his own blessing or salvation in serving as a channel of blessing for all peoples.

The call to John of Patmos was not a promise of better treatment on--or speedy release from--that prison island.  It was a call to write a message that would encourage his fellow believers in their faithfulness to Kyrios Iesous, instead of Kyrios Kaisar (that is, to strengthen their resolve in the resistance to Rome for which they--and he--were already suffering).  John was called to find his own freedom in serving as a channel to free his friends from their fears.

Jesus calls his followers to find our real and best lives through devoting them to the service of others.  To "take up one's cross" ("daily," as Luke adds) can mean many things, but at least part of the meaning must be to embrace the additional challenges (and, indeed, suffering) that come our way as we put our lives at the service of others.  It is a call to do things we would not otherwise do, for people we would not otherwise care about--and thus expose ourselves to risks we would not otherwise take.

Jesus' call to us has much more to it than that, of course.  But as I listened to the story of Paula and Jimmy... and remembered the story of Cathy and Stan... it got me to thinking about fear in our lives, and God's invitation to give ourselves to faith, not surrender ourselves to fear.

I hope Jimmy's week is going better.  I hope college turns out to be for him the incredible growth experience is has been for so many of us.  And I pray that we might all respond in faith when we hear God call, "Fear not!"


p.s. Thank you for the prayers and gifts that help me to put feet (and wings!) under the decision to act in faith and to serve people around the world!

p.p.s. World Mission Offering time is coming among American Baptist churches.  Even with International Ministries' new approach to missionary support, WMO continues to be crucial for our mission service around the globe.  (If you need more information about why that is so, please contact me, or [800-222-3872, ext. 2311.]  Please give generously to WMO!