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People of the Heart

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, and 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 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.

I 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 care-giving. 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.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    WOW! …this post deserves an Award for being one of your best!. That quote!.. the cutting expression of Jean Vanier is amazing. Sadly, I can’t immediately relate it to any “followers of Jesus” that I know and only a handful of Human beings that I’ve met over my lifetime.

    I think it’s worth acknowledging here you and your families generous kindness toward the old Inuit man. Your a great overall example of an authentic child of God.

    May 4, 2015
    • Well, that’s very kind of you, Mike, but I fear your praise is too high… I often recall with shame how impatient I could be with Joe, how often I failed to follow his example of how to be human, how to be simple, honest, free…

      As you say, the people Vanier describes are rare. But they are out there. I am privileged to know a number of them. They are an inspiration.

      May 4, 2015
  2. Kevin K #

    Thanks for your post Ryan. This subject matter is very close to home as I have a three year old son with an intellectual disability. I appreciated that you very quickly moved from a focus on disability to the the human capacity for inspiration in general.

    Given my personal connection to the subject matter, there is much I would like to say, but I’ll try to keep it to one brief comment.

    I think what becomes powerful about our relational experience with individuals with intellectual disabilities, is when we choose to see them as fellow humans first. As peers. As people like us, with their own hopes, dreams, needs, joys, fears, and capacity for love. As equally capable of making a meaningful contribution to our lives as we are of making a contribution to theirs. Of course this truth does not only apply to those with intellectual disabilities, or disabilities in general, but when we bridge any sort of perceived (or actual) inequity, whether social (age, race), economic (wealth), or moral (sinners – in all the ways we label them).

    Of course, this is also a very Christ-like approach to others, for when Jesus calls us ‘friend’ the very God who created us is modelling this way of equitable living and loving.

    So that’s a brief thought from a dad hoping to convince more folks to respond to people like his son in the way you responded to the friend whom you invited into your life. Thanks (on a number of levels)!

    May 5, 2015
    • Thank you for this, Kevin. I appreciate all of what you say here (not least because of the perspective from which it comes), but this sentence particularly struck me:

      Of course, this is also a very Christ-like approach to others, for when Jesus calls us ‘friend’ the very God who created us is modelling this way of equitable living and loving.

      I had never thought of it in just this way before. I am grateful to you for this insight, and I wish you much grace and journey for a parenting journey that will be unique, in many ways, but which will also be like many others in that you will have the opportunity to learn and grow and be formed in Christ’s image in the countless ways in which your lives rub off on one another.

      Again, many thanks for this.

      May 5, 2015
      • Kevin K #

        You are very welcome. Thanks for your kind and encouraging words. I was grateful to have the space to reflect a little bit on my own journey. I appreciate that I was able to offer some insight as a result. Blessings!

        May 5, 2015

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