Mark 10:31; Luke 18:10-17
The Rev. Tom Herbek
July 9, 2017
Jesus was continually calling people to accept the fact that the most reliable guides to what is most important in life are generally the most unexpected. It is not the rich or famous people who he points to. And it is not the most religious people. The unexpected guides are tax collectors, collaborators with the Romans. In fact, wise adults can even learn from – of all people – children. Women caught in adultery can be poignant reminders that we all have fallen short in our lives. The penny of a poor widow given to charity is more significant than the $100,000 of a wealthy man. The people that know how to be compassionate- who know how to care- are not the religious leaders often times, but may be religious heretics and racially-mixed-Samaritan men who, rather than walking on the other side of the road, put an injured traveler on their donkey and care for him.
Sometimes children can become clear guides to us of what life is all about. A boy named Josh Stein, when he was 15, described what happened to him when he was seven years old and playing Little League baseball:
I believe that when people come together, it’s a beautiful thing. And when someone who can’t do something tries to do it and everyone else helps, that is a great moment.
One beautiful sunny day, I had a Little League baseball game. At the time it was very important to me, and I was really focused on doing well, as were the other seven-year-olds. It was our last game of the season, and we were all trying to have fun and to end it with a bang the best we could.
As the game progressed the score got close. When we had our final chance to win at the end of the last inning, it was my turn to bat. I looked over at my coach, who was
talking to my dad about something – probably the stock market or something like that. As I stepped into the batter’s box, my coach called me back to the dugout. He asked me a strange yet interesting question. He asked if it would be all right if my brother hit for me.
My brother wasn’t on the team. He had never even played baseball due to his disability. He couldn’t stand, and he certainly couldn’t hit. But I responded very maturely for a kid my age. “Of course he can hit for me,” I said. I was still puzzled as to how, though. Thoughts ran through my mind, such as: Would the kids make fun of him? Would he hit the ball?
As my dad carried him to the plate, I realized that without his wheelchair he would have to be held up. The joy on his face couldn’t be traded for anything in the world. Just being on the field gave him all the happiness he needed. What will the other kids think? I wondered.
I heard someone call out, “C’mon, hit it outta here.” Then came another, “You can do it!” These words of acceptance showed me how great the moment really was. On the first swing, which was pretty much my dad holding Sam’s hands around the bat and my dad swinging, he -or they – hit the ball. The kids on the other team did something amazing then, something seven-year-olds should never know how or why to do. But in the spur of the moment, these seven-year-olds did. They purposely overthrew the ball. Three times.
Sam had hit his first and only home run. And as my dad carried him around the bases, I knew this memory would stick with me and everyone else there forever.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes. When people come together, it’s a beautiful thing.
- This I Believe II (Josh wrote this when he was a 9th grader in Hewlett, NY)
How lucky we are that we have parents and coaches and players who understand that we can win in life in moments when we realize what is important in life.
One of my favorite stories is told by Rachel Remen about a young boy who taught her something crucial about love:
Long ago, the little son of my friends and I became quite good friends ourselves. A lot of the time we played with his two tiny cars, running them from windowsill to windowsill, parking them and racing them and telling each other all the while what we imagined we passed “on the road”. Sometimes I would have the one with the chipped wheel. Sometimes he would have it. It was great fun, and I loved this little boy dearly.
At that time these little Hot Wheels cars were avidly collected by most six-year-old boys. Kenny dreamed of them and I yearned to buy him more, but I could not think of a way to do this without embarrassing my friends. They lived very richly indeed but they had little money.
Then one of the major gas companies began a Hot Wheels giveaway: a car with every fill-up. I was delighted. Quickly I persuaded the entire clinic staff to buy this brand of gas for a month, and organized all twenty of us with checklists, so that we would not get two fire engines or Porsches or Volkswagens. In a month we accumulated all the Hot Wheels cars then made, and I gave them to Kenny in a big box. They filled every windowsill in the living room, and then he stopped playing with them. Puzzled, I asked him why he did not like his cars anymore.
He looked away and in a quivery voice he said, “I don’t know how to love this many cars, Rachel.” I was stunned. Ever since, I have been careful to be sure not to have more Hot Wheels than I can love.
-Kitchen Table Wisdom
Children sometimes understand life in ways that open our eyes to see life in brand new ways, with new eyes, a new view of something crucial. There are only so many Hot Wheels we can love.
And sometimes our teachers are found among those we have decided to help, people who we believe certainly can’t understand life as well as we can. James Ryan describes such an experience when he decided to volunteer to help the people of Appalachia in Kentucky one summer:
I worked as a volunteer for a few months in rural Kentucky, just before I started law school. I worked with a Catholic volunteer organization, and I thought I would be going door-to-door in Appalachia, offering whatever assistance I could. I can’t completely remember what compelled me to volunteer, but I’m sure a touch of the savior complex motivated me. It’s embarrassing to recollect, but I expect I believed that at age nineteen, with no relevant experience, I could somehow help the rural poor of Appalachia.
To my surprise, I was not sent door to door but was instead assigned to a small group home for kids with disabilities. Most of them were very young and had life-limiting ailments. None were likely to live into their teens. One of the residents, however, was a vibrant teenage girl with Down syndrome, whom I will call Cindy.
As soon as I stepped into the home, which was a neat, bright, and cozy one-story ranch house, Cindy came and grabbed my hand. “You’re pretty,” she told me. After I made some lame attempt to say something funny in response, she said, “Jim, you’re so funny.” From that point on, every morning when I arrived, Cindy would grab my hand and say some version of “Jim, you’re pretty. And you’re so funny.”
I spent most of the day dealing with the basic necessities of bathing, dressing, feeding, and entertaining the kids. The small staff who worked there graciously welcomed my help and patiently taught me what I needed to know. Most of it was fairly straightforward, but there was one boy who had a feeding tube, which needed to be cleaned regularly. A colleague showed me how to do it, but I was still nervous the first time I tried to clean it, worrying that I might hurt the boy. Cindy saw me struggling, came over, and took charge. I looked at my colleague with an expression that asked if this was okay, and she smiled and nodded. Cindy expertly cleaned the feeding tube while telling me it was easy.
From that point on, I noticed that Cindy knew, as much as anyone else, how to help the other kids. She knew the food they liked, how they liked to be lifted from their wheelchairs for a bath or change of clothes, how to comb their hair, what songs they liked to hear. She became my teacher and guide. Because the kids couldn’t speak, I couldn’t ask them how I could help them. But I could ask Cindy, or simply follow her lead.
One girl at the home captured my heart. I’ll call her Susie. Not quite two years old, Susie had beautiful blue eyes, dimples, wispy blonde hair, and an easy smile. She had spinal cord damage and could not sit up. She was also deaf and very quiet. But when you looked at her she would hold your gaze like she was intently studying your face. I wasn’t quite sure what I could do to entertain or comfort her. One morning, Cindy saw me standing over Susie’s crib.
Cindy walked over, took my hand and guided it to Susie’s hand. Susie took my hand and used it to caress her cheek, smiling the whole time. “She likes that,” Cindy said, herself smiling.
To say I learned more than I helped would be a gross understatement. This was not why I went, but this was the result. I learned in Kentucky not to underestimate those with “disabilities,” like Cindy, who taught me more about the kids I was trying to help than I would have ever learned on my own, and who became not only my teacher but my friend. I learned from the children and staff that small joys can exist alongside real tragedy. The stories of the kids who lived in the home were heartbreaking, but it was not a sad place. It was a place filled with love and caring.
Perhaps most of all, I learned about acceptance and humility. I could entertain the kids, help feed them, and care for them. But I could not do much more. I certainly couldn’t change the trajectory of their lives, nor could anyone there. So I followed the lead of Cindy and concentrated on that day, that moment, and that child. I tried to provide some comfort and, where I could, some joy.
- Wait, What?
We all need to concentrate on this day, this moment, and the people we encounter. Let us strive to provide some comfort, and, where we can, some joy. It seems to me that Jesus would urge us to do just that.
And to pay attention to the guidance of children, whether they are Little League players or Hot Wheels collectors. And to be the kind of outsiders who would offer assistance to someone on the road, or to people who have sinned, because we all have. And to be humble and quiet about our status as religious people, just like poor widows and tax collectors.
We won’t end up being rich and famous, but we will have found what is most important in life, and our lives will be full of compassion and joy, thanks to our willingness to learn from some wonderful, unexpected guides!