Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arch communities, has spent his life loving those often ostracized by society. L’Arch creates living communities for those with disabilities or those who, because of their need for intense care, would be institutionalized if they didn’t have such a home. Vanier talks about how the communities are centered around the most basic acts of caring for the physical body—bathing, dressing, and feeding residents who can’t do those things on their own.
When I was a kid, my dad encouraged me to be courageous and not play it safe. He could see how tempted I was to overthink a situation or to hedge my bets. “Do something!” he would say. Then in jest, he would add: “Even if it’s wrong, do something!”
Every so often my wife and I will flip through family pictures and note how much our two boys have changed. I’m amazed at how small and childlike they were not so long ago. We’ve lived through these years with them and have witnessed their development. Yet their transformation has been so woven into the rhythm of our lives, we don’t notice the changes until we look back.
Recently, while I was out jogging, I listened to a recorded conversation between a 9-year-old son and his father. Rain poured down on me, but my eyes were even wetter from tears. The father told his son of the immense joy he felt on the day of the boy’s birth when the doctor had handed him his son for the first time. He also shared the concern he harbored that day: “You know, [I felt] fear . . . I gotta bring up a black boy in Mississippi, which is a tough place to bring up kids . . . there are statistics that say black boys born after the year 2002 have a 1-in-3 chance of going to prison.” Then he added these sobering words: “All three of my sons were born after the year 2002.”
I once had a difficult interaction with one of my sons. He had made several poor choices requiring a serious conversation. My son had a tender heart, however (as he often does), and he took responsibility for his behavior. Though I was frustrated with him, I told him that I forgave him. Later, aware that something was still bothering my son, I asked what was going on. “Well,” he replied, “you said you forgave me, but you didn’t exactly say it in a lovely tone.” My son picked up how I offered the right words, but the way I spoke told a different story. I said I forgave him, but I didn’t interact with a tone of grace.
Recently as I sat in a circle of leaders from our church, a woman asked a simple question, provoking rich discussion. “What are your hopes for our church?” There were several responses, for our little community has many hopes. But on that night this spilled out of me: “I hope we become more and more the kind of people who learn to resist the anxieties of this world because we believe Jesus is with us and that Jesus is doing something with us.”
Years ago, when our youngest son was 5, Seth asked during breakfast, “What day is it? Am I going to school today?” “Yes, it’s Tuesday,” my wife answered. An excited smile broke across Seth’s face. “Tuesday?! Today is sharing day!” I asked Seth what he was supposed to share. “Something that begins with the letter D,” he said. I grinned. “Well . . . you could bring . . . Daddy.” “No,” Seth replied matter-of-factly, “you wouldn’t fit in my cubby.”
During a conversation with friends, several in the circle took turns recounting their early experiences with certain words in the Christian vocabulary. One person said, “Whenever I heard the word life mentioned by a Christian or in the Bible, I always thought it was only talking about heaven. I never thought it had much to do with me right now.” Most everyone nodded in agreement. “Yeah, it was difficult to know what there really was to be excited about,” another confessed. “I imagined playing harps somewhere in the clouds, and I felt guilty when the whole idea just didn’t excite me too much.”
Last Christmas I read an article from a religious thinker I admire. She attempted to make the case that we should avoid the exuberant celebration of Christmas—particularly gift-giving. Her familiar complaints? The consumerism and hustle and bustle of the holidays. As we take an axe to consumerism or greed, however, we must not unwittingly also take the axe to joy. In the next few days, you’ll likely give someone a Christmas gift that feels at least a little lavish or unnecessary. You may receive one as well. I believe this mirrors the generosity of God. Certainly, joy doesn’t require expensive gifts. But joy does provide for a gregarious and generous posture toward others.
When my wife, Miska, and I were dating and our relationship grew serious, marriage became the obvious next step. For more than a year, however, I hesitated and pushed the conversation aside. We even broke up twice as our communication faltered and expectations diverged. Through several difficult conversations, I had to face how afraid I was of commitment. I loved Miska, but I wanted to keep my options open. And I found myself haunted by all the “what ifs” and all the unknown future possibilities. My fear of commitment wasn’t unusual, but it was immature. Love requires a risk. To say yes to one person, we must say no to others.
My wife and I have arrived at that poignant age when we can’t believe how quickly time has passed—especially while looking at one of my favorite videos of our oldest son, taken when he was just 2 years old. Miska and I had gone out for a date, and the kid-sitter shot a short video of our boy clinging to the bottom ledge of the living room window. He was just tall enough to peek over the edge. As he watched us get in our car and drive away, he said, “Momma. Dadda.” There was an anxious longing in his voice. Our son was sad to see us go and eager for us to return.
In January 2015, a terrorist stormed Hyper Cacher (a Kosher supermarket) in Paris and murdered four hostages. One of the store’s clerks, Lassana Bathily, heard the gunfire and hid shoppers in a freezer. Bathily, a Muslim whose courageous actions saved several Jews (including a child), was an immigrant who had been seeking French citizenship. As a thank-you for his bravery, authorities fast-tracked his papers and handed him a French passport during a public ceremony.
In November 2014, police found a 13-year-old boy who had been missing for 4 years. The heart- wrenching story grew even more shocking when police revealed that the boy’s father and stepmother had the boy all the time—hidden behind a fake wall in their house during most hours of each day. For 4 long years the boy waited to be found, waited to be reunited with his mother.
In October of 2014, Italian authorities arrested a woman for the murder of as many as 38 victims. Most shocking was the revelation that she was the victims’ nurse. Police first charged the woman with the murder of a 78-year-old hospital patient. Later, however, they suspected her involvement in a string of suspicious deaths. News outlets posted a disturbing pic seized by police: a selfie the nurse took of herself (in her hospital scrubs) standing near the body of a recently deceased patient while smiling and making a thumbs-up gesture.
Recently a highly respected journalist from the Middle East reflected on the many complicating issues and unjust events that have led to distrust among political factions in the region. The difficulty that truly captivated me was how belligerent rhetoric and vicious violence will escalate whenever issues become explicitly religious. “We can deal with cultural and even ethnic divides, but whenever God comes into the picture, there’s no way to control the conflict,” the journalist stated. As a result, leaders exert much energy attempting to keep references to God out of political disputes.