Jack's "L" Plate...
Here's a story that changed my life when I first heard it from Jack Exum nearly twenty years ago. Jack was once a missionary in Northern Ireland and the Irish, like the Brits, drive on the other (aka "proper") side of the road. They also prefer roundabouts to stop signs as it keeps the traffic moving and thins out the tourists. Getting a driver's license is a bit of a struggle in any British territory and the test is a fearsome thing. When Jack's son was ready to try it he drove him to the testing facility. An hour and a bit later, his son came back: he's passed! They rejoiced and slapped "L" plates on the front and rear of the car and drove him home.
What are "L" plates? When a new driver passes his driving test they have to put a notebook paper sized white sign with a big red "L" on the front and rear of their car for the first year. It means "learner" and is a warning to other drivers to give the new guy a bit more room. Kids hate the idea, but parents and other drivers appreciate it. It can be a sticker or a metal plate, but "L" plates are a part of the British and Irish scenery, roadwise.
After dropping off his son, Jack had to run some errands and hit the road again. Unfortunately, he seemed to have had a lapse in his thinking for he entered a busy roundabout the wrong way, scattering cars into ditches before he, himself, went into the ditch. About the time he realized what he had done he saw a large group of angry Irish men headed his direction, led by the biggest, meanest Irishman Jack had ever seen! Things looked dire until they got within thirty feet or so and the big man threw his arms out to his side, holding back the others, saying "Wait a minute, lads. He's nothing but a learner!" The complexion of the crowd changed immediately as they gathered around him asking him if he was all right and reassuring him that driving would get easier; he'd get the hang of it one day.
Jack never got around to mentioning that those weren't, technically, his "L" plates.
I thought about that story a lot and within days had "L" plates up in our house. It was a way to offer every person in the house grace. As my children grew one might spill the milk or struggle with a homework assignment and the conversation would go something like this:
"Kara! You're acting like an eight year old!"
"I am eight."
"Oh. Well, then. Carry on."
It was a way to reframe accidents and struggles as something other than tragedies. Kids are kids. Things happen. It isn't the end of the world, for they are learners. We can use the opportunity to share laughter with them, a bit of wisdom and correction if needed -- in a spirit of grace, or just grab the towel, mop it up and ask them if would like some milk now that the table and carpet have had all they want!
Oh, and grown-ups get the same treatment. Once I told Kara that she could do something, but then forgot I had given her that permission. When she did the thing in question I got all over her about it... and then remembered that she had done it with my blessing. Yikes! I remember going to her room and feeling so terrible, so low, such a failure as a father. I began a profuse apology which she listened to for a few minutes before asking:
"Dad, how old are you?"
"Have you ever been 38 before?
"Have you ever had a twelve year old daughter before?"
"Then don't worry about it. Nobody expects you to get it right the first time!"
Wow. I had just been given grace by a little girl who had the right to make me beg. It all started with those "L" plates. We are all just learners. None of us have ever been where we are before. This is all new to us. I'll close with a few truisms (as opposed to rules, some of which I've shared before). These are those bits of worldview I repeat frequently to my kids and to myself to get us through our first -- and only -- passage through this vale of wonder and terror.
1. Don't panic. It is what it is, but God is still God, and God is still good.
2. Anyone who expects perfection from this world hasn't been in it long, or is the world's worst observer.
3. You can't chose events, but you can control where you are, what you are doing, and how you will react when events comes. Your emotions and reactions are your choice and no one else's.
4. Everybody's greatest desire and greatest fear is: being different, special. Some go the cheap route and staple something to their heads. Others give up and blend into the great gray lump of humankind, never leaving a trace of their passage. Those who live for Christ are different enough to attract good and bad attention. You won't have to work for it -- it will just happen.
5. Anyone who wants to live forever has picked the wrong planet and the wrong species.
6. Only the person who isn't afraid of failure, of embarrassment, and of being thought the fool can accomplish anything of importance. Accept no labels but those given you by Jesus. Any other judgment of you or your value comes from amateur judges who ought to find another line of work.