For my first blog entry on the website, I’m re-posting a bit of writing I shared on my Facebook page back in October…
Last March I was on a flight going to Portland, and sat down next to a woman and her adult son, a short, stocky fellow who had Down’s syndrome. No one else wanted to sit with them, but I did. I smiled politely, and didn’t say anything for the first hour and a half. The man kept staring at me, though, without saying a word. At one point, he motioned to his mom that he had to go to the bathroom, and I got up from the aisle seat to let them by. She waited outside the door for several minutes, then escorted him back to their seats. As we sat back down, I took my chance.
“Hi, I’m Clark.” I shook the mom’s hand, and then the son’s, awkwardly.
“Hi, I’m Julie. This is Brian.”
Brian smiled warmly at me, and looked deeply into my eyes. I handed over a photo of Will that I’d been saving for the moment.
“Would you like to see a photo of my son?”
Brian looked to his mom for permission, and then nodded.
The mom said, “Oh, ok, that’s wonderful! It looks like you and I share something in common.” Brian kept on smiling.
For the next twenty minutes or so, Julie and I swapped stories. I learned that Brian is on the spectrum and is nonverbal, but like William loves to swim and be active. They were heading home to Portland after visiting family in Dallas. Brian kept on smiling.
I told Julie about how worried we were the first time we took William up in the air, that he would, I don’t know, knock a hole in a window during the flight, or tackle a flight attendant, or scream for three hours straight. We envisioned Southwest Airlines telling us we could never fly with them ever again. But William, it turns out, does great on airplanes.
Julie said, “How did he do in the bathroom?”
“I don’t think we’ve ever had him go to the bathroom in an airplane.”
“Oh, well that’s just like Brian. I’m actually surprised we had to go a minute ago. We call him ‘The Camel.’ It’s amazing how long he can hold it in.” I laughed, saying that Will also had that ability.
The flight attendant came by with a second round of drinks. Bryan slowly and carefully lowered his tray table, almost like a sloth. I helped the flight attendant set the Sprite on the table. A bit of it spilled as Brian attempted to put a straw through the lid.
Then Julie helped him raise the cup to sip, and as he laid it back down, she said quietly and habitually, “Good job, son.”
To tell you the truth, it bothered me, Julie saying that to Brian. It’s been eight months, and I haven’t been able to figure out why, until now.
Every time Field Day comes around in the spring, you hear the same complaints from parents about how these days, everyone gets a participation trophy. “God forbid someone should lose,” I hear them say.
I suppose I have a different perspective than most. Participation trophies began to be awarded around the same time that children with disabilities were starting to be mainstreamed into classrooms, and the Special Olympics were becoming well-known. I doubt most people would complain about William getting a participation trophy in an event he was competing in, but I also understood their point too.
Praise unearned is praise wasted. If you praise someone all the time, and never allow them to fail, they never grow and learn from their mistakes.
I think that’s what bothered me when Julie praised Brian for drinking out of his cup. I recognized myself in her, how I do the same thing to William. Nice job putting on your underwear by yourself this morning, Bubba. Thanks for eating your supper after we pleaded with you for thirty minutes, before hand-spooning it to you. Nice job flushing the potty when you’re done.
Do these things deserve praise? Will I be praising Will in his 40s for doing things that the rest of us take for granted, that he ought to be doing without expecting praise?
This week I was reading Diana Glyer’s wonderful book on the Inklings, Bandersnatch, and I came across a C.S. Lewis quote from Reflections on the Psalms that somehow I don’t remember reading the first time. But it really convicted me. Here’s what Lewis said:
“The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised MOST, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. […] I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” (80-81, my emphasis)
I began thinking about Jesus, and how he not only praised his Father (Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21), but blessed and praised others, publicly, generously, and for acts which were not apparently all that great. “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury” (Mark 12:43). “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17-18).
That’s not to say Jesus never criticized; immediately after praising Peter’s confession, Peter says something stupid and Jesus turns to him, saying “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew 16:23). Nor is it to say that Jesus praised men apart from God’s work in their lives. But he DID praise people (as well as nature – “not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself” like a lily of the field).
Jesus praised things and people when He saw His Father reflected in them, when He got a glimpse of love, beauty, and good deeds illuminated and transfigured by the Holy Spirit. Just as our Lord was perfect in all He did on earth, He was perfect in His praise, and He did it a lot more than we remember.
Last Sunday Will brought me a project he had made in Sunday school: a piece of scripture glued on to another piece of paper, and candy corn glued all around it. The verse was, “How sweet are your words to my taste; they are sweeter than honey” (Psalms 119:103). Do you think when he gave it to me, I said, “Well, that’s nice buddy, but I could have glued these candy corn on by myself, and I could do it a lot better than you did”? Did I say, “You’re going to have to do better at arts and crafts if you want to keep living in my house”? Did I say, “I’ve got a whole bag of candy corn at home, son, which aren’t covered in Elmer’s, so, no thanks”?
No. I praised him for it, and said thank you.
The Lord doesn’t need our praise. He doesn’t need to praise anyone else. And yet He does accept it, and He does give it. Why?
Because He’s humble. Because he has his eye on the sparrow, and on the widow’s mite, and on Brian’s cup.
As we approached Portland, we flew by Mount Hood, which sits right outside the city. The snow which blanketed the hulking volcano glittered in the bright sunshine.
Julie said, “We’ve only had eight days of sun since October. It’s really a gift that you’re getting to see it today.”
“You mean you’ve had eight sunny days since October?”
“No. We’ve had eight days where the sun came out since October.”
It seemed as if the entire plane was leaning over to one side, gazing at that mystical mountain in awe and wonder. A broad smile grew on Brian’s face. He began to tug at his mom’s sleeve. “He knows we’re close,” Julie said.
And then Brian said to me, in a whisper, the only words I ever heard him say. “Home. Home.”
Someday, I will make my final descent. As I land, I hope to see my Father waiting at the gates. And when I wrap my arms around Him, I hope He will say, in an appointed moment of consummation, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with the little things. Now come work on some big things. Welcome home, son.”
One little thing we’ve been working on with Will is taking turns listening to songs in the car on the way home from school. Last year he would demand to listen to his favorite songs (“Rockin Pneumonia and the Boogie-Woogie Flu,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” in that order). If he didn’t get his way, he would go ballistic! But this year, I worked out a deal with Will: you get to listen to a song, then I get to listen to a song.
Last week, he got in the truck after school and asked for “Rockin Pneumonia,” as usual. But as it ended, something new happened.
Will said, “Daddy’s song. Streets song!”
That’s code for U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” That’s one of Daddy’s songs. I smiled, and turned it on. Then I heard William’s voice from the back. He was smiling, and singing with all his heart.
“I have climbed highest mountains, I have run through the fields, only to be with you.”
Ok, so he didn’t sing it all that well. In fact, you wouldn’t have known what he was saying unless you had heard the song. And he was way off-key. I didn’t care. I sang with him, probably just as poorly. We pulled into the driveway before the song ended, but we stayed inside the truck, belting out the chorus one more time. Then Will climbed up next to me, and said, “Daddy’s song?” I said, “Yep, that’s my song. Good job, buddy. You sang it beautifully.”