I’m Dr. Jim Coffield, Director of Adult Ministries and Counseling at Christ Covenant PCA in Knoxville. I’ll be guest preaching at CSPC Sunday, and this is how I am learning to live deeply.
Parenting Skylar has required more capacity than my DNA held within its chromosomes. Skylar is forever 7. He’s capable of giving and receiving love and he is deeply loved, but the challenges are mighty and affect every decision we make. My wife Mona and I adopted him at his birth. His birth mother drank significantly and abused drugs. Mona intuitively knew something was amiss quite early. The doctors eventually diagnosed Skylar with autism and fetal alcohol effects. He struggles with being able to read. He requires someone to help him function. He can be by himself for an hour or so but would not be able to navigate the unexpected. Skylar loves stories, especially told through movies- if he loves you, he’ll call you by the name of some character in a movie. He has the soul of a 34-year-old man, but cognitively he’s 7. He often is aware of the gap and will grieve the disparity. For example, he wants to drive. When we remind him, ‘Skylar, you can’t drive until you can read’, we assume he understands the dilemma. But whenever a Smart car pulls up next to us, he’ll say, ‘That’s a little car, maybe I could drive that car.’ It illustrates he has the soul of a man who wants to be independent and take care of himself. He hates that he has to depend on us, yet he knows at some deep level that he can’t do it without us. He gets angry when he has to ask for help, but he knows he needs to. This is the tension of the already, but not yet. We’re all spiritually autistic, and none of us understands God’s perspective. Skye’s life is a clear illustration of this principle. We have a grandson in our home while our son and daughter-in-law temporarily search for a new home. We love spending time with Cedar, but this has been a terrible situation for Skylar. He hates the changes, inconveniences and noise a 9-month-old creates. When he sees the baby downstairs, he’ll often say, ‘Will you take IT out of here?’ Or he’ll pout and accuse his brother of not loving him like he did before.
It is because Skylar doesn’t understand the story -any more than I ultimately understand God’s story for me- that he sees this as a difficult season. If somehow he could be given the correct perspective -the reality that his very unique role in this baby’s life is an intricate part of the tapestry of God’s creation and that no one else could play his role- he might feel very different. But it doesn’t feel like a great story. I’m not one percent different from Skye, by the way, and I’m a 64-year-old career pastor, seminary professor and counselor! I’m just more sophisticated. God is telling a good story- we just don’t believe it. My wife’s been incredible- Mona has sacrificed adventure, excitement, and all of the plans she had made for her life in order to be tethered to Skylar. If she could’ve written her story, she would have traveled the world. Mona is an adventuresome, wild child who loves Jesus and sees all the colors in His creation. Watching her be tethered to a less exciting life is among the hardest things I’ve witnessed in life. Please don’t misunderstand me: This young man is one of the greatest joys and gifts of our lives. Yet he’s also a reminder that God doesn’t promise us an easy life- He promises us a meaningful life. I’m a much better man because Skylar has been my son. Mona’s a better woman. Struggle, sorrow and honest living opens space for God to go to deeper places in us. Skylar’s paid a pretty high price so that I could learn and grow and be a little bit better. Skylar’s not what he’s going to be or what he wants to be, but someday he will be. As much as he can understand, he probably knows Jesus much better than I do. And as He does with all of us, God even mercifully grants Skylar a small foretaste of eternity at times. My son-in-law has an old pontoon boat that he recently fixed up. With supervision, Skylar’s been able to take the wheel—he experiences a degree of that freedom he longs for. When he’s in that position, he calls himself the captain.
Being Skylar’s dad has unquestionably made me a better counselor. I’ve really come to understand that everyone has a story to tell that is worth hearing, because ultimately God is the author. Ultimately, He’s telling His story through our lives, so it’s important that we unpack those stories. I think Skylar has forced me to become much more compassionate to the inevitability of disappointment and conflict that exists this side of Heaven. God never intended for another human being to meet your needs. Ultimately, He wants the curse of sin to draw us to Him. Sometimes it’s the disappointments and surprises in life that take us there- maybe with one hand clenched in anger at God, the other grabbing on to Him because He’s all you have. Being Skylar’s parent has made me more compassionate and patient with clients experiencing that tension. As the late, prominent counselor Larry Crabb would say, “We are not mechanical beings who need to be fixed, but relational beings with issues to be faced.” I was once a really good mechanic- trying to fix people where they needed to be fixed, figuring out what program they needed to complete, what biblical formula they needed to follow. I no longer believe that’s true. I think we’re relational beings with problems that need to be faced, not mechanical beings with issues that have to be fixed. God is more interested in me being a good gardener than a mechanic. I think I started out as a mechanic with an incredible need to be liked. Over the years, that’s been tamped down by reality. I don’t think every problem is solvable on this side of Heaven, but I do think everything’s faceable this side of Heaven. I think God’s wanting to create gardeners and poets, and most of us want to be mechanics and fixers.
Accepting the hard aspects of this journey has also shaped me in another key way. I was preaching recently on Hebrews 12:1-2, where the author refers to running the race that is before you. You have to get to a place in your life where you quit trying to negotiate for a different race, and you begin to appreciate the race that God has placed before you. That’s not an easy or quick process. There is a time when you acknowledge that, ’I would have written this story differently. I had some great ideas, but I am now playing a role in the greatest story, the only true story, the one our God has written.’ One of the killers of our walk with Christ is the way we compare ourselves to others- comparing our journeys and our stories to those of other people. To the level that you think you’re sacrificing in a given situation if Christ doesn’t intervene, you can feel entitled. God will eventually bring you back to reality and say, ‘No, no. This is a story that I’m telling with your life and you need to trust the author that this is the story you’re supposed to live.’ There’s power in that idea of running and loving the race that’s before you. But the culture presents so many barriers to thinking that way. I can be on Facebook and find a thousand families that look perfect. On July 4th, you’ll see a thousand posts of beautiful families having wonderful times where their kids aren’t arguing- everybody’s skinny and rich and it’s all going well. So there it is: that comparison of the race before me vs. the race before you. There’s something about maturity, which I’m still needing to stumble toward better, that begins to love the story God’s telling with your life; to say He’s a better author than I am, and this is the story. Eventually you’re able to recalibrate dreams- you say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to be Skylar’s high school basketball coach or see him marry, but I trust that God is writing something better.’ There is a lot of recalibration that’s required along the way. That’s called perspective, and it’s one of the keys to contentment.
God can surprise you with His plot twists, too, as He has with us. It’s actually all because of Skylar that we have our daughter; just an amazing story. Skylar was in the ninth grade and was placed in a program called Best Buddies, which places a non-typical child with a typical child. That year, through that program, we started hearing about a girl he was talking to named Kim. My other son Pearce would come home from school and say, ‘You know, I can’t get girls to talk to me, and there’s Skylar having lunch with these beautiful girls. I don’t understand it.’ We invited Kim to our house to eat dinner with us. When she found out what I did for a living, she said, ‘I’d like to be a missionary. I just don’t believe in God.’ She explained she’d love to give people hope, even if there’s nothing to have hope in. That got our attention; there was something going on there. And since we really do believe in a sovereign God -that every moment is pregnant with the possibility of eternity- we got curious. We found out she was basically homeless, living with an older brother. Lots of twists and turns from that starting point, but the bottom line is we adopted her and she’s now our daughter. And it was through Skylar that happened. What a gift! It just shows that you can’t predict the glorious outcomes of difficult situations. Even through some of his frustrations and our moments of exhaustion, Mona and I can say we’re truly blessed and Skylar is also blessed. Skylar is an image-bearer of God who knows Him and is capable of giving and receiving love. And by God’s economy, that’s a life lived well.”