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Training to see

By February 25, 2013 No Comments

Today’s guest post comes from Mark Roeda, pastor of South Bend Christian Reformed Church:   

Learning to read resembles learning to ride a bike.  In the beginning it feels impossible.  You can’t imagine how people zip down a page full of words or around a neighborhood.  They never even wobble– not when flying off curbs or encountering silent letters.  It’s as easy as breathing.

As my daughter struggled to read, I would remind her of this.  “Remember how frustrated you became?  How you’d want me to let you go and, as soon as I did, want to grab on again before you’d fall?  When is the last time I’ve had to do that?”  It offered some consolation, I think. 

But reading has not come like pedaling or breathing.  In fact, as she sat with a book, her breathing became like her reading– halting and labored.  Reading with her was like running alongside the bicycle.  You could never just release your grip on the back of the seat and watch her go.  This past summer, the summer before her third grade year, she still wobbled through books for first graders.

So we had some testing done.  As part of the process, we were told to schedule an appointment with a doctor in St. Joseph, Michigan– forty-five minutes north of us.  He would check her visual processing.  This seemed silly.  We had just taken her for an eye exam.  She had perfect eyesight. 

The optometrist attended our church so I gave him a call, hoping he could write a note indicating that such tests were unnecessary.  Instead Dr. Rhodes assured me that they were not prescribing an eye exam.  Visual processing is different than vision.  He then reminded me how complicated a task reading is.  Parallels to Eden aside, we evolved eyesight to detect snakes hidden in high grass and to distinguish ripe fruit from unripe.  Staring intently for sustained periods of time at a close object covered in small, intricate markings– that’s complicated, foreign to most species and relatively new to our own. To read you don’t need to simply see well, you need to be able to process what you see well.  All the neurological cables have to be plugged in properly.

So we saw the doctor in St. Joseph.  In fact, we have made trips back up there twice a week for the last couple of months and will continue to do so into next month.  Between trips there are exercises she must do every day.  In one, for example, we tape to the wall in front of her a sheet with rows of p’s and q’s, b’s and d’s.  Then each hand tosses and catches a scarf while she reads the letters to a metronome’s beat. 

This hasn’t transformed her into the Lance Armstrong of reading– and not just because we have yet to dope her blood.  But her reading has improved.  She picks up books and reads– sometimes just because.  The way some one just decides to go for a bike ride.  That is new.

I have thought about this in terms of Lent. Throughout the year we proclaim the truth of the gospel.  In Lent, however, we confess the fact proclaiming the truth is not enough.  We have truth-processing deficiencies.  To phrase it biblically, we hear but do not understand.  Our efforts to embody the truth are wobbly.  And so in Lent we do therapy, we engage in exercises intended to correct those deficiencies.  Giving up something for Lent, fasting, praying the hours– these are less about hearing the truth than about developing minds more receptive to the truth, being better able to process it.  It’s about getting those truths into our hard wiring.  Brains quick to operate in ways that are self-serving, learn over time things like self-sacrifice.  

In this we follow the example of Jesus.  Jesus begins his ministry with a forty-day fast, each of those forty days an opportunity to process the truth that one does not live by bread alone.  By the end of that stretch of time, the wiring is in place.  As Mark Buchanan writes, “Jesus actually stood at his strongest when his belly was empty. Jesus is in peak condition, a fighter who has been training hard.”  The lies of Satan fall on ears not deaf so much as fine-tuned.  Hard-wired for the truth.

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