People of the heart

May 7, 2015 by

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Every so often, the accumulation of paper and books and coffee cups and unopened correspondence on my desk crosses a threshold of clutter and despair that even I am no longer able to tolerate. I begin take halting, tremulous steps to beat back the beast. This often happens on Fridays on weeks when I am not scheduled to preach. Like today, for example.

Among my discoveries as I tried to wrest order out of chaos this morning was a monthly newsletter from our local L’Arche community. In it, there was a quote that literally stopped me in my tracks. The words belonged to the L’Arche founder, Jean Vanier, and came from a recent speech he gave in acceptance of the 2015 Templeton Prize:

As you know, people with intellectual disabilities are not able to assume important roles of power and of efficacy. They are essentially people of the heart. When they meet others they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success. Their cry, their fundamental cry, is for a relationship, a meeting heart to heart. It is this meeting that awakens them, opens them up to life, and calls them forth to love in great simplicity, freedom and openness. When those ingrained in a culture of winning and of individual success really meet them, and enter into friendship with them, something amazing and wonderful happens. They too are opened up to love and even to God. They are changed at a very deep level. They are transformed and become more fundamentally human.

searchI sat and stared at these words for a few minutes. I read them again. And again. And as these words slowly overtook me, I didn’t think, “What a wonderful gift people with intellectual disabilities are able to give the rest of us,” or “How nice that these people can provide a unique window into character traits or dispositions that we should all be pursuing,” or anything like that. My initial thought was, “I wonder what would happen if we substituted ‘people with intellectual disabilities’ with ‘followers of Jesus?’ ” Or “human beings?”

What would it be like if all of us moved through our days and our interactions with others with “no hidden agenda for power or success?” What would our lives and communities look like if we set aside all of the posturing and preening that hover over so many of our daily interactions? What if we were unburdened of our illusions of self-sufficiency, our worries about being smart enough, strong enough, resourceful enough, our frantic scrambling to keep up, or stay ahead, or prove ourselves? What if we allowed ourselves to be “called forth to love in great simplicity, freedom and openness?” What if, through us, other human beings were drawn to love and to God, like moths to a flame? What if they were changed and we were changed and we were beckoned collectively toward what we were made to be?

Those were my first thoughts. My second thought was shorter and simpler. It was, “Yes. I want that.”

A decade or so my wife and I provided respite care for an elderly Inuit man with intellectual disabilities. He came to our house two weekends a month. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t prepare his own meals or do some of the basic tasks of caregiving. But he would help me mow the lawn or cut the grass or take out the recycling. We would go on long, meandering walks or watch hockey together. He smiled a lot. He talked to the birds. He loved to play with our then very young twins. He was never in a rush and he seemed perpetually curious.

At the time, I suspect my approach to these weekends was quite straightforward, my categories were quite clear. We were the “caregivers,” he was the “client.” With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if one of us was showing the other some important things about what it means to be a human being.

Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge Mennonite Church in Lethbridge, Alta., Canada. He writes at Rumblings.

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