Right Side Up
This week, I have been waking up each day to the Beatitudes. Take Our Moments and Our Days is a specifically Anabaptist prayer-book which means that daily prayer is intentionally structured around the teachings of Jesus, his call to recognize and participate in the in-breaking kingdom of God. During “Ordinary Time,” the book follows a four-week cycle of prayers and readings focused in turn on The Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, Parables, and Signs and Wonders. It’s a very different approach than other prayer books I am familiar with, but it has been a breath of fresh air to be daily called to praise, discipleship, and intercession in this uniquely Anabaptist way.
So this week… the Beatitudes. Every day, this radical call to inversion. Morning and evening—blessed are those who seem most unblessed. Sunday: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” Monday: “Blessed are those who mourn…” Tuesday: “Blessed are the meek…” Wednesday: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” Every day, morning and evening, I am turned upside down by Jesus’ words about who is really in on the secret of the kingdom. And, in the process, I begin—slowly, haltingly, sometimes barely willingly—to be turned right side up.
I spent yesterday evening with the community of L’Arche Lethbridge. For those unfamiliar with this organization, L’Arche is a worldwide organization (founded by Jean Vanier) devoted to bringing together people with various kinds of developmental disabilities to live in intentional Christian community with people whose disabilities are not so obvious (i.e, the “able-bodied”). The good people from L’Arche worship at our church regularly and have been inviting me to come out to their monthly potluck/prayer night for quite a while. For a variety of reasons, it has never worked out for me to attend, but last night I was finally able to make it.
It was a profoundly moving experience. I’m not often at a loss for words, but as I sat there last night, as I later tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to explain the experience to my wife, and as I have been reflecting on it more this morning, I still find that it’s not easy to explain or describe. On one level, it was an utterly ordinary night. A bunch of people got together, shared food, engaged in conversation, cleaned up, stacked chairs, gathered around a fireplace, sang a few songs, laughed together, read some Scripture, prayed for each other, said goodbye, and then went home.
But on another level, of course, there was nothing ordinary about it at all. Nothing ordinary about one of the young members racing up to give me an enthusiastic hug before I could even reach the door. Nothing ordinary about the kindness and gentleness on display as one young woman patiently helped a member messily eat her supper. Nothing ordinary about a tiny little man beaming from ear to ear as we substituted his name for “the whole world” in the song “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Nothing ordinary about hearing people share about how life-giving this community had been for them—how it had sustained and strengthened them, and given them a purpose for living. Nothing ordinary about the uproarious laughter when one of the leaders was dressed up in a funny costume to celebrate his birthday. Nothing ordinary about looking out at these wonderful human treasures—one flipping frantically through a picture book, one being escorted back to her seat for the third time in ten minutes, one with his head buried in his hands, one clapping and yelling at all the “wrong” times—while we sang, “Jesus loves me this I know… little ones to him belong… they are weak, but he is strong.”
They are weak but he is strong.
As we sang “Jesus loves me,” my first instinct was to marvel at the truth that these “little ones”—these often forgotten and ignored and misunderstood people who face such unimaginable daily challenges—do indeed belong to Jesus. But then I remembered my prayer-book. “Blessed are the meek,” it said that morning, “for they shall inherit the earth.” I was reminded again that this same Jesus who loves the little ones, who is strong when they are weak—this Jesus is the one who calls us to reevaluate and recalibrate our very conceptions of weakness and strength, our notions of who will inherit what, according to the values of the coming kingdom of God. This same Jesus is the one who invites us to see things as they really are, who turns us upside down in order to flip us right side up.
We finished singing. We joined hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Yes, on earth as in heaven. I walked out the door last night marvelling at the hows and the wheres and the whys and the whens of Christ’s presence in our world, and profoundly grateful that Jesus loves even little ones like me.
The Prayer of L'Arche O Father, we ask You to bless us, and keep us in Your love. May L’Arche be a true home, where the poor in Spirit may find life; A place where those who are suffering, may find comfort and peace. Lord, give us hearts that are open, hearts that are humble and gentle, so that we may welcome those You send, With tenderness and compassion. Give us hearts full of mercy, that we may love and serve; And where discord is found, may we be able to heal and bring peace; And see in the one who is suffering, the living presence of Your son. Lord, through the hands of Your little ones; we ask you to bless us. Through the eyes of those who are rejected, we ask You to smile on us. Lord, grant freedom and friendship, and unity to all the world; And on the day of Your coming, Welcome all people into Your Kingdom. Amen.
What a blessing for you, not just an intellectual assessment of the “beatitudes” but rather it’s real life experience.
I think it was Fr. Henri Nouwen (a beloved son of L’Arche) who said something to the effect that “we do not think ourselves into new ways of living, rather we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
It was indeed a blessing. Nouwen’s words are wise and true across the broad range of human experience. I remember first hearing about L’Arche through writings by and about Henri Nouwen. My admiration for his thinking and writing as well as for the trajectory he chose for his life has only increased over the years.
It’s good to hear from you again, Paul.
I think that the quote, “While we cannot think ourselves into new ways of living, we can live ourselves into new ways of thinking,” was first said/written by Richard Rohr, a priest who runs the Centre for Action and Contemplation (intentionally in that order) in Alberquerque, New Mexico. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if he and Henri Nouwen had known each other.
L’Arche has sometimes been called the University of the Heart. I find this to be true – through many little interactions and actions throughout the day, it is teaching and forming me in ways all my studying never could.
It also reminds me of Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed or yeast in dough. Both the tending of herbs and the kneeding of bread seem like such mundane activities when you actually think about them – often relegated to the back corners of the home or garden, out of sight and unremarkable. So too the activities of eating and worshiping together in a straightforward, uncomplicated way that can be shared by such a diverse little group of people. No mega-church kind of fanfare here. And yet the spirit was present and we glimpsed the kingdom. L’Arche doesn’t always feel like that. It’s an intentional community – messy and hard work much of the time. Some days we all annoy each other and push each other to our limits. The thing is, because we’ve committed to keep journeying with each other anyway, nights like that come around, and they are a gift to us too! What we glimpsed was the Kingdom of God as the Kingdom of Love – a glorious culmination of all the little acts of tending and caring and singing that same special verse of “He’s Got the Whole World” for the fourth Tuesday in a row! The fruits of our labours, so to speak.
I should also just point out, for those who have never witnessed or been part of a community like this, that the tending and caring does not just go one way. The prayer of L’Arche calls us to welcome those God sends. The people we spend the most time welcoming are actually the assistants who come and go year after year. I’ve heard many testimonies from assistants who experienced comfort and peace through those enthusiatic hugs, or the quiet ministry of presence of someone who, though unable to speak, let the person know they were loved through a look that they only figured out how to interpret after three months of living together!
It was great to have you join us, Ryan. I’m grateful to know that you “got it!” (Not everyone does.) And of course you’re welcome back anytime!
Thank you for this, Marie. I resonate with what you say about the “messiness” of life in community at L’Arche and about how “it doesn’t always feel like that.” For six years, we provided bi-weekly weekend respite care for an elderly man with developmental disabilities. Over time, I found that It was much easier for me to like the idea of doing this than actually doing it. There were things about the experience that were annoying, uncomfortable, inconvenient, etc. Any attempts to romanticize the experience had usually disappeared by Saturday morning. And yet, as you say, in the midst of our flawed efforts, the Kingdom of Love is uniquely present when we open ourselves up to caring and being cared for in this way. I learned things about God and about human beings (and myself!) in those six years that I probably couldn’t have learned in any other way.
Anyway, I every much appreciate both the insight and context provided by your comment here and the warm welcome I received on Tuesday. I will be back.