In the early 1990s, the South African Broadcasting Corporation concluded its official programming at midnight and then played music through the night. Upon hearing songs with a Christian message being played, a man discovered that a young woman was selecting the overnight music, so he and his church provided her with a vast collection of spiritually-themed songs. Thus, Christ-centered music was played overnight on the three national television stations for years. By her actions, one seemingly insignificant woman made a big difference in the lives of many listeners.
In Mumbai, India, a boy named Lakhan lives with his elderly grandmother, Sakubai. Lakhan has cerebral palsy and is deaf. With no home or family to help care for him and Sakubai, they slept on the pavement behind a small bus stop. A published photo shows 9-year-old Lakhan tied to a pole—the only way his grandmother could ensure his safety when she went out to search for work. Sakubai explained her drastic action: “[Lakhan] is deaf, so he would not be able to hear the traffic coming. If he ran onto the road, he’d get killed.” Thankfully, a group that works with special-needs children heard the story, secured a room where both grandson and grandmother could live, and helped the grandmother obtain a job.
As I stood deep in the bush of rural Uganda watching a rig I’d contracted to drill a well for 700 impoverished villagers, an elderly man approached me. He grasped my hands and in broken English said, “If you could open my heart and view inside, you would see happiness on top of happiness on top of happiness for this water God has provided.”
Commotio cordis, which normally leads to cardiac arrest, is caused by an abrupt and blunt hit to the chest. Often it occurs as an object strikes an individual near the heart during the “window of vulnerability”—a 10- to 30-millisecond moment between heartbeats. The medical condition, usually experienced by boys and young men as they play sports, often results in death.
In discussing the premise of the movie The Amazing Spider-Man, director Marc Webb writes, “This is the stuff of classic tragedy. It’s about trying to do good, and by virtue of trying to do good, bad things happen. It’s what [the mythical Greek king] Oedipus does—he goes out and tries to save the city, and he ends up sleeping with his mother.” Webb laughs. “His efforts are noble! But the irony of it is that he causes damage by trying to do good. That is, to me, the most resonant thing of tragedy. Spider-Man is saving people and the world, but it’s at his own expense.”
In his book Simply Jesus, theologian N. T. Wright writes, “When God does big things, the little people get drawn in too.” One of my favorite examples of this is found in the book of Matthew.
In 2014, a pod of pilot whales was found floundering in perilously shallow water off the shore of Florida in the US. Forty or fifty short-finned whales remained close to a narrow shoreline—choosing not to swim out to the deeper waters, where they would be safe. Several of the blackfish were ill, which caused conservationists to worry. Pilot whales are intensely loyal creatures, and when one in their group is sick or in jeopardy, the rest of the pod simply will not leave. They form a circle and stay close together.
An episode of the BBC show Call the Midwife, set years ago in London, tells the story of a mother who reluctantly prepared to have her unborn baby adopted as soon as she was born. She did so because the child hadn’t been fathered by her husband. And it was likely to be obvious, for the skin color of the baby’s biological father was black while the woman and her husband were white.
Jean Vanier was an accomplished naval officer who had recently completed a PhD, and whose family oozed with prestige (his father had been the Governor General of Canada). Yet, living in the small French village of Trosly-Breuil, Vanier was alone and downhearted. His pastor encouraged him to invite two disabled men to live with him, and L’Arche (communities where disabled and those who Vanier calls “temporarily-abled” share friendship and life together) was born. Fifty years later, L’Arche communities exist around the world.
One day during class, Adrionna Harris noticed something disturbing—one of her young classmates cutting himself with a small razor. As she perceived it to be a grave situation, she did what she thought was the right thing to do—stepped in, took the razor from him, and threw it away. But instead of receiving praise, her compassionate act earned her a 10-day suspension. Asked if she would do it again, Adrionna replied: “Even if I got in trouble, it didn’t matter because I was helping him . . . I would do it again even if I got suspended.”
Ihave a friend who has wounds so deep that she resists the compassionate love of others. Caring people have reached out to my friend. They would give their lives for her (in fact, in many ways they’ve done precisely that). Yet she runs from their love. She fears being loved. The love offered to her is so strong, and her heart so weak, that it terrifies her. It seems safer just to stay in her cocoon.
In 2011, marine biologists around the globe were fixated on a pod of sperm whales in the North Atlantic Ocean; they had adopted a bottlenose dolphin calf. Jens Krause, a German behavioral ecologist, told one news source that sperm whales have “never been known to mingle this closely with another species.” Apparently the young dolphin had a spinal defect and couldn’t swim fast enough to keep up with other dolphins. But surprisingly, the sperm whales gathered the struggling dolphin into their fold.
After Nelson Mandela’s death at the end of 2013, many stories surfaced of his genuine concern for others. In 1950s Apartheid South Africa, Mandela once saw a white woman standing beside her broken car in Johannesburg. Approaching her, he offered help and was able to fix the car.
I recently attended a meeting of leaders that could have become contentious and disastrous. It could have resulted in more fireworks than Chinese New Year! Thankfully, however, difficult issues were addressed with honesty and transparency. The big “I”—integrity—led individuals to speak words of truth, love, and forgiveness.
For the past 2 years, I’ve served in a church in the urban heart of a large city. It’s a difficult ministry that calls one to have deep compassion and an open heart for others—things that don’t come naturally to me. I often feel woefully unqualified and wonder how I can be the person of grace and compassion that I need to be.