A Necessary Lesson
It’s funny the kinds of situations that produce “teachable moments.” I spent a good chunk of today fruitlessly banging my head against the wall, trying to come up with a workable structure for the class that I will be co-teaching this fall at Columbia Bible College. It was a very frustrating day, and on the trip home my mind was filled with misgivings and anxiety about my ability to do the things that are required of me over the next couple of months.
When I got home, I had to run to the store to pick up a few things and the kids asked if they could come along (they wanted to do this instead of watching a movie, and in spite of having spent most of the afternoon broiling outside at a local pool—I was surprised, to say the least!). So off we went. At the entrance to the store, there was a man in a wheelchair sitting with a hat full of change in his lap talking to those who passed by. Being in a hurry, I was grateful that he was preoccupied with someone else and the kids and I hurriedly scooted by. I’m embarrassed to say that these kinds of situations make me extraordinarily uncomfortable. Maybe I feel guilty for something. Maybe I ought to.
Well, on the way out I was not to be so “fortunate” as to slide by unnoticed. The main reason for this was that my kids were twenty paces ahead of me and had already walked up to this man and started asking him questions before I had even left the front till! I sighed, realizing that there was going to be no avoiding the uncomfortable situation now.
The man proceeded to tell me his story—about how he used to race motorbikes, and how he used to be a rough and tumble construction worker; about his accident at the job site which nearly severed his arm and left him crushed underneath a bunch of steel beams, hanging on to life by a thread; about how he prayed to “God, the higher power, Jesus Christ or whoever is up there” while lying in his hospital bed hooked up to every kind of tube imaginable: “I told him, just give me my arms back, that’s all I ask. Just my arms, and I’ll be the happiest guy alive.”
Well, this discussion went on for about 15 minutes or so, some of it what you might expect from this kind of a discourse, and some what you might not. There were a few expletive-laced comments within earshot of the kids about people who wouldn’t stop to talk to him or insulted him in various ways, and there was a lengthy discourse for the benefit of a couple of six year-olds about job site safety. There was also a very moving and mature view of suffering and of acceptance of one’s lot in life. “You know, I read the paper everyday and I hear about kids who don’t have enough to eat, who can’t go to school—they got nothing! When I read that, I think I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’m rich man! I got my arms, I got my own room with a TV at my care facility! I’m rich!”
Throughout the course of this conversation, several people leaned over to drop some money into this man’s hat. As the kids and I were getting ready to leave, I said “You know I don’t have any money to give you, but I want to thank you for sharing your story with me. I really admire you for the way that you have dealt with your accident. You have a perspective on life that a lot of people will never have” (I didn’t say “including me!” out loud, but I can assure you that I was thinking it!).
He looked at me and said, “I don’t want your money, I just want your respect. People think that all I want is their money, but I never ask for money. I just try to talk to them. If a couple of kids like yours can avoid an accident like mine because of something I said, then I’m happy.” After I assured him that he indeed had my respect, he thanked me, wheeled around, and headed off down the street, back to his room with his own TV.
As we drove home my “problems” and anxieties about the course I’m supposed to teach, my thesis, and whatever else I manage to worry about on your average day didn’t seem quite so exceptional. And if it hadn’t been for my kids, I probably would have slunk sheepishly right past this guy, not bothering to take the time to simply listen to another person’s story. All he really wanted was for someone to express an interest in his life, not as distributor to recipient of charity, but as human being to human being. In the process of attempting to do so, I was reminded of the importance of simple gratitude, perseverance, faith, and a graceful acceptance of misfortune.
In Luke 10:21, Jesus praises and thanks his Father in heaven, because he has “hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” I suppose that by some standards I might be considered somewhat “wise and learned,” but I was taught a lesson today, and it didn’t come from a riveting lecture from a world-renowned speaker, or the latest book from a brilliantly insightful author. It came courtesy of a couple of curious six year-olds and an institutionalized paraplegic.
It’s one thing to affirm the theological doctrine that God does not work in the ways that we might think he should—that he has chosen the “weak” and the powerless of the world to shame the wise, the proud, and the strong. It’s another thing entirely to be taught the lesson in such a way that its truth shines through.