If there's one thing that has stood out and stuck with me while reading Henri Nouwen (and there's not, there are actually dozens of things...) it's that those who are the "least of these" mentally and physically among us in the church are key teachers to the rest of us.
That seems kind of backwards, doesn't it? I hadn't thought about it much before reading several of Nouwen's books. I would say my attitude toward the mentally and physically challenged at church was kind and tolerant. But I never saw the richness they have to offer, and I admit I thought of myself as above them. I wouldn't have said that out loud (I hope), but inside my heart I truly thought I probably had more to offer than those who have trouble bathing, dressing, and feeding themselves. I was bright and articulate, unlike some who have trouble stringing words together or even speaking at all.
But Nowen did something incredible that opened my eyes to my folly. He left a prestigious teaching position at the Harvard School of Divinity to become the live-in pastor/helper at a home for the severely physically and mentally challenged. He did life with a group of people that many considered "useless," and he called it his true vocation.
I am so thankful that for some reason, I have no idea why, there seems to be an unusually large number of mentally and/or physically challenged members at my church. Because of them, I get to participate in a small way in the wonder that Nouwen experienced when he opened himself up to the blessings they have to offer. There's a man at church who wants to shake my hand and/or hug me every Sunday morning. Not just me- every single person at church. It's not "normal." It's not "socially acceptable." But it is his absolute gift to share so openly, unashamedly, with no pretense or hidden motive, the love of God with all around him. When I see him approach person after person, I see God reaching out in love to all hurting, sinful, broken people without a pause of hesitation.
This same man has lately taken to picking up the bucket that the young children pass by on their way to the children's worship and holding it for them to drop their change into. That bucket is supposed to just sit there on the stage unattended, but he picks it up, sits on the stage, and grins as the children pass by. I imagine there are some people who feel uncomfortable about this. My first response was a bit of shock mingled with concern that the children would be fearful of approaching the bucket. Thankfully, my initial response was replaced by a sense of wonder. I'm thankful to see the love God has for children played out through a man whose social facade doesn't prevent him from seizing the joyful place of watching children give money and trot off happily to sing and learn about God's love for them. I would grab the bucket myself if social decorum didn't prevent me!
What gets me is I'm not even close enough to the place where I can really spend time with and learn from these people that I feel have a special insight into God. I'm still kind of on the outside watching, not really getting into relationship with those that could bless me. I prefer a more academic route, a theological discussion, a lecture, a cognitive experience instead of relationships that would be open channels of love and revelation. When will I abandon what I "think" I know in order to experience what God can teach me through community with those who don't care what I know? When will I really toss the world's way of doing things out the window and step into the Kingdom's way of doing things? When will I put aside my hunger for advancement, acknowledgement, and success and accept a path of humility, openness, and contentment?
It all goes back to my problems with thinking I have to be someone, or achieve something to be valuable instead of recognizing that my value was inherently placed within me at the time I was created, and I have no power to strengthen or weaken my position or identity. As long as I think I can make myself into something I will use people. But if I can accept who I already am, I will be able to love people. Most of all, I just want to be honest about it. I don't want to kid myself into thinking I'm being loving when really I'm expecting people to fill up the empty places and gaps in my heart.