Dan is special. The Lord took him when he was two and then gave him back. We were vacationing in Florida at the time. The adults were sitting in lawn chairs in the backyard and catching up on old times while the kids were down the grassy slope playing in the sand at the lake's edge. Over my shoulder I heard a voice clearly ask, "Where is Daniel?"
Since we always call him Danny, the question caught my attention. I looked around. No one was there. I looked down to the beach, and Dan was not in sight. I shouted to the other kids, asking where he was. They stopped playing and just looked around as well. My attention was drawn to a place just off shore; and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, just as if someone was standing there pointing, that Dan was there under the water.
I must have looked like a wild man charging down the beach leaping, swimming into the water. When I got to the place, I reached down; and his hair filled my hand. I pulled Dan out of the water and onto the shore. He was not breathing, his eyes were unresponsive, his lips and fingers blue, and there was no heartbeat. CPR did nothing to change his condition.
A passage of Scripture kept repeating itself in my mind: "In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:18). If I had not been so panicked, it would have been annoying. In my mind I screamed at God, "I am NOT thankful!"
Then in tears I confessed that this child was his from the beginning and I was simply a poor steward of this precious life. If this was God's will, he could take him back, and I would be thankful. At that moment, with Dan's bare chest clutched to mine, I felt his heart begin to beat again.
All of the tests showed Dan to be healthy, none the worse for the near drowning. When he began to struggle in grade school just a few years later, we wondered if oxygen deprivation might have caused damage to his brain. He was a happy-go-lucky kid who would float from one thing to the next, never really able to concentrate long on anything. Simple things in school were difficult to grasp.
Dan didn't quite test out as learning disabled or experiencing attention deficit disorder. The results pointed to something, but no one could give us a definitive answer. The professionals pointed back to the accident as a possible cause. We held him back a year in junior high. We provided tutors from time to time. We tested and retested. Some teachers told us he was bright enough, just lazy; but I helped him with his homework and knew he was not lazy.
In fact, I went through the next seven years of school with Dan, fighting the homework battles, school projects, teacher conferences, and lost weekends. It was a long, excruciating haul; but we both graduated from high school. Those with challenged children know the hours it takes, the frustration for everyone involved, the self-recriminations, the endless stream of failures, the lingering questions, and the seemingly fruitless search for answers, or a reason, or relief.
Only God knows what, if anything, really happened to Dan that day. I can tell you now with great joy that Dan is a fine Christian young man, married, a decorated Marine veteran returned from Iraq, and successfully pursuing academic honors in college. When I think of the phrase "love suffers long," those years of helping Dan along the way come to mind. I love my son and do not regret for a moment those long nights invested in him. It wasn't suffering in the sense we understand that word these days. It was a patient, committed, accepting, and serving endurance—just like the apostle Paul talks about.
In 1 Corinthians 13, verses 4 through 8, Paul did a little bridge building, literally. This passage is constructed like a modern-day suspension bridge. The first pillar Paul created is a particular expression he used to name the subject, love—not just any kind of love but a unique and special love that is exclusive. He used a word for love normally attributed to God—something most assume is just not possible for us. Paul ended the passage with the same construction and grammar when he described this exclusive love as something that never fails. Suspended in between like a highway running from the first pillar to the last are examples of love worked out in daily life. "Love suffers long and is kind... love never fails" (vv. 4, 8a). When by faith we love like this, our world changes forever.
Dan's world is different. What would he be like if everyone had just given up on him? What would he be like if no one assumed responsibility and instead pushed it all on him? What would he be like if all he experienced in those years of struggle was criticism? My life is different too.
Now, nearly three decades later, I am beginning to understand that I was learning the discipline of patient kindness. Exclusive love is kind. Paul didn't mean here that we are simply to be nice to one another. This kindness looks out after the best interest of others and may not always be experienced by them as "nice." It is more than putting up with things in order to make things easy or better.
This kindness accepts others, admits weakness and failure, assumes responsibility, hangs in there, gives others the benefit of the doubt, and ultimately not only changes the object of such kindness but the giver of kindness as well. Tucked into Paul's choice of words is the concept that being kind has its own reward and somehow affects a change in me as well, whether or not it affects anyone else.
Many years ago I lived next door to a prostitute. When she began bringing her work home, I was furious. Often, since our apartment doors were next to each other, her clients would bang on my door looking for her. To make matters worse, this middle-aged lady had one leg. More than once she pulled up to the back of the first-floor apartment, and suffering from major intoxication and forgetting where she had left her leg, she crawled to my back door and hollered until I woke up, got her leg out of the car, and helped her to her own back door.
Yes, it was a kind thing to do. However, I was extraordinarily judgmental about the whole thing. Calls to the landlord did no good. Admonishing her clients did no good.
Berating her did no good. Nothing changed until I quit thinking about myself and started thinking about her.
So I apologized. I knocked on her door, and when she answered, I told her I needed to ask her forgiveness. I took the stunned pause as a sign I should hurry up with my confession before embarrassment took over and I chickened out. I asked her forgiveness for judging her, for working behind her back to get her evicted, for pretending to be nice when she needed my help when I really just wanted her to go away.
Eventually I heard her story. I found other ways to be genuinely helpful and patient with her struggling efforts—and failures—to be a different person. One day she asked the "why" question, and I told her about Jesus. Her life changed. She started going to church, found another line of work, and we ended up friends. Kindness has its own reward.
This is the same loving patience we experience in our relationship with Jesus Christ. God has carved out an exclusive place for us in his heart. From that place he constantly seeks our best interest and, in the words of the old King James Version, "is longsuffering to usward." This is tough for me. My image of fatherhood and manhood doesn't easily accommodate putting up with a lot.
My dad was a good man but stern, somewhat distant, a product of the depression. I knew he loved me because Mom told me so, and he acted that way. I am not sure I ever heard it from his lips, though. He died when I was eighteen so I never had the privilege of getting to know him as a person. He remains in my memory as a distant, busy, and not-too-involved figure. Unfortunately, that was my impression of what God was like and what my role as a father should be like as well.
When I act out of some sort of distant benevolence, it is impossible for others to feel that I love them exclusively, that the relationship is important to me, or because of that relationship and their contribution that I am different and better. That's what "suffers long and is kind" does to us. It makes us different and better.
Distance is safe for me as a man. God had to take me through some experiences to break down those stereotypes and change my world. If you believe God is not interested in you and does not want to be all that involved with you, you are dead wrong. There is an easy way to measure to what degree you may believe this. How distant are you from others who are really close to you? Would your parents, your spouse, your children, or your closest friends say there is an exclusive place carved out in your heart for them?
As we travel this imaginary highway across the suspension bridge the apostle Paul has laid out for us, we will discover more about how we can know God loves us and how others can experience our love without sacrificing one iota of our masculinity. Men talking about love is not an oxymoron. After all, God made us male, and it is good.
The metaphor of a suspension bridge focuses our attention on the journey. What happens to us along the way ends up being more important than getting to the other side. It is in struggling well—the working out of life solutions, the chance to see ourselves anew and to love ourselves well in the process—that profound change takes place. It means we have to redefine winning in terms of the experience and not the event.
Rock climbing has been a sport of choice in our family for more than two decades. Not the spandex-clad, monkey-like gymnastic nonsense you see in advertisements, where guys with zero body fat are hanging by two fingers without so much as a piton let alone a rope, grinning at the camera like there was nothing between their ears. No, we use harnesses, ropes, helmets, and some pretty mundane stuff to keep things safe while we climb. The grin on our dirty faces at the end of the day is from doing things well, not from doing them in spectacular fashion—and that is what I like about rock climbing.
It is not about getting to the top, or posing for some dramatic, death-defying camera shot to stick in your album, or conquering routes in record time, or putting up routes where no one has gone before, or looking manly while you strut around in the outdoors with all this gear hanging off you and clanking every step you take.
It is about learning to persevere and about learning to do things well. You see, climbing is about thinking through the challenge and coming up with a solution. It is about failure because not every solution is a success. It is about struggling well through fear, pain, and deprivation. It is about evaluating strategies, using techniques, understanding yourself and others, and putting it all together so that it works.
You may get to the top. You may do something unique, unusual, or noteworthy. But that is never the goal. The goal is to learn to do things well. It is all about the journey.
When I was still teaching rock climbing, this was the first and most difficult lesson to learn. Guys just like to win; and for most of the young men I was teaching, this meant zipping up the rock face like Tarzan and rappelling back down like Rambo. When this was not their experience, they felt like losers.
My first experience taught me to redefine winning. Some friends took me out, gave me some good basic instruction and a day of clambering over boulders to practice technique, and then tied me on the end of a rope and turned me loose. I was wearing a harness, and they were belaying me from above, so I felt pretty cocky. I watched two of them climb the face before it was my turn, and I was sure I could impress them with my skill.
After several embarrassing attempts to get started, scraping my chin and elbows, I finally flailed myself up the rock about twenty feet, found a big crack opening up in front of me, and threw my body in as far as it would go. This consisted of just my arm and shoulder and one foot. The rest of me was out there swinging in the wind. It wasn't pretty. What is worse, from my perch I could look out and down. The exposure panicked me. Twenty feet does not sound like much, but when you are exhausted, bleeding, and your heart is in the back of your throat beating your brains to death, everything takes on a different perspective.
They had to physically haul me up the rest of the way. I was in no shape emotionally to rappel down, so we walked down the back way. I was mortified. I felt like a total failure until, around the campfire that night, we talked about the day's activities and some of their first climbing stories. There was much I had to learn about the sport and myself before I would understand what winning in this endeavor—and life—really means. Until then, winning always meant coming out on top, winning the argument, doing better than the other guy, or just getting my way. I was always focused on the result or outcome I wanted and never paid much attention to the process.
Love that suffers long and is kind speaks of a patient endurance built over time and a kindness that results from a process, not just an act of kindness. It speaks of multiple attempts to learn and grow, to fail and succeed, and to redefine winning as more than just getting your way. As a man I am impatient with process. I want to master the skill now, accomplish the goal now, and achieve now!
Love is like rock climbing. It is learned best in the context of struggling well with what confronts you at this moment and then the next, and then the next, and so on.
I eventually got into good physical and emotional shape, mastered new skills (climbing is about technique, not strength), learned to manage fear and weakness, and became a halfway decent climber.
Not every climb in my career has topped out. Sometimes I wasn't up to the challenge, and sometimes I had to live with others in the party not being up to the challenge. However, I also have been privileged to climb in some of the most spectacular geography around the world with some fine people and enjoy every minute of it!
Paul laid out some challenges for us down the road. He asked us to consider things differently, do things differently than we ever have before. He asked us to engage in the journey, knowing that some days we will want to shout at the mountain and other days find a crack to crawl into. Know it is part of the process. Know that struggling well, not avoiding struggle, is the key to finishing well, to winning.
As a man I need to win now and then. It's in my genes and is part of what God made me. I don't ever want to lose sight of the goal but know now that winning—the outcome—will take care of itself if I pay attention to the journey. Like you, I just want a few good friends to accompany me along the way. I trust you will find them in this book.
—Power of a Loving Man, The