I often discuss with friends and neighbors — What does it mean to be whole and to be healthy? Is it a weight on a scale, a certain number of miles run, or a good book read?
How do we release stress, discover joy, and learn how to live well?
There are moments when the answers to these questions are obvious and wonderfully life-giving.
One Saturday evening last spring, I stood in a church fellowship hall. The walls were covered in crude black paper, gold stars were taped to the pillars, and 90’s rock thumped through speakers. Friends walked through the door, dressed in their best clothes, greeting one another with smiles, laughter, and hugs. At first, I felt self-conscious about my black dress—Did I pick the right thing? Are people going to look at me strangely? Then my friend Gina walked in. Gina’s eyes searched the room and met mine. Her face erupted into a brilliant smile, and she put both arms in the air to wave to me. I felt the tension and insecurity evaporate from my body as I ran to greet my friend.
Gina and the rest of the party guests have various developmental disabilities. My husband and I have built relationships with these new friends as we’ve joined the work of Reality Ministries, a local evangelical ministry committed to embracing friends with disabilities as the precious ones of God, at the center of God’s heart.
We danced for hours. As the night wore on, I looked around the room at all of these friends with and without disabilities, celebrating one another. We did the conga, led by Sloane who cannot walk or speak but whose eyes shone with joy. Though my face ached from so much laughing and my legs strained to keep up the dancing, I knew in my soul: This is what wholeness feels like.
My personal and cultural background tells me that to “be somebody,” I need to look a certain way, talk a certain way, achieve excellence, buy a nice house, maintain rich hobbies, raise beautiful children, and do it all effortlessly. During my years at Duke, our President coined a phrase to describe the impossible expectations that the Duke Undergraduate culture placed on women: “effortless perfection.” This is the ideal I was raised with.
The other great temptation that I face in learning to be whole is the tendency to “over-help.” Trevor Hudson, a South African pastor committed to reconciliation between white and black Christians, describes how this tendency toward compulsive caring can lead to “compassion fatigue” for those who are called to the ministry of reconciliation. In response, he writes, “Joy is the primary antidote given to us by God for the prevention of compassion fatigue.”
Yet, joy is not only having fun or celebrating with friends; true joy can only emerge from the truth of the gospel. Hudson writes, “In the breathtaking knowledge that the risen Christ has decisively overcome the powers of darkness and death and that nothing can ever separate us from God’s loving presence, we have to choose joy.”
At Reality Ministries, dancing with Gina or snapping my fingers along with James who loves to drum, I can feel the truth that joy is a gift of the gospel and true medicine for a weary soul. Sloane’s total dependence and Gina’s total openness remind me that belonging to others is the true key to wholeness. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche communities for people with disabilities around the world, teaches that people with disabilities offer the gift of healing to those of us who prefer to pretend that we are perfect, whole, and need-less. “People who are weak and fragile obviously need the help of those who are stronger. In L’Arche, however, we are discovering that the opposite is equally true: people who are stronger need those are more fragile. We need one another.”
From Gina, Sloan, James, and so many other joy-filled friends, I have learned to let go of my ingrained desires for competence, independence, and power. Instead, God has invited me on the far more joyful and unexpected journey of laying these seductive gods at the foot of the cross and walking in weakness, silliness, relationship, and love.
- Discover “Real Friends,” the special needs ministry of Reality Ministries
- Read the beloved book “The Scandal of Service” by Jean Vanier
On a broken sidewalk in East Durham, in a community labeled “the projects” by most of our city’s residents, I stood among a group of people that I had never met before. Severely questioning my good judgment, I desperately tried to look like I belonged in this place, even though every one of my senses told me that I did not. Eyes and faces peered out from tall, anonymous apartment buildings. Those eyes seemed to search me and find me, to ask me why, why have you come here? Just when I felt my awkwardness would swallow me whole, I saw a banner marking a particular spot on the sidewalk about 10 feet from where I was shuffling my feet and trying to melt into the hot pavement. The banner was purple, and said, “Prayer Vigil.” This was why I had come to stand on this particular white square of concrete—because here one of God’s children had been slain, and because here one of God’s children had taken the life of another.
I had come to pray with and for those without words, to cry out to the only One who was sure to hear, and to say to the ones suffering that they do not suffer alone. I did not know the young man who died, and I didn’t know the woman who had killed him in order to save her own life. I didn’t know their families, or their children, or their churches, or their friends. As our motley crew assembled by this royal banner, we participated in a community ritual that accompanies every murder in Durham, prayer vigils organized by the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Gathering at the place of the murder and praying to God, we represent with our eyes and our bodies that God sees and knows the ones lost on this spot. We preach without words the simple gospel that every one of God’s beloved creations is at the very center of God’s own heart.
Uncomfortable. Peculiar. Invasive. Extravagant. I will be the first to admit that these vigils to do not make sense. There is no measurable decrease in violence in Durham because a small group of people prays prayers of lament after each homicide. Those of us who pray often have little or no relationship with those who grieve these deaths. We don’t even have answers to the deepest questions that these grieving families ask—Why must some of God’s precious children continue to murder and die? This question touches the most mysterious parts of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Why must we live between the cross and the resurrection? At these vigils, I am also convicted that the reformed understanding of sin can be comforting. Standing on that pavement, I have to affirm the unfathomable brokenness of the world and human complicity in such brokenness.
Despite the tears, the awkwardness, and the unplumbed depths of grief, I continue to participate in the ritual because at these vigils, I see the face of the Lord. I believe that Jesus continues to spend time with those who weep and mourn, with the widows and the orphans, even and especially when those people live in the abandoned places of our community. I have faith that even when it feels like we are coming apart at the seams, we still live and move and have our being in this One who is always near to us (Acts 17:27-28).
The false god of individualism constantly whispers in my ear that I must hide all grief, must “keep it together,” and must rely on myself alone. During these vigils, I have faith in the greater truth that God created us for communion with one another and with God’s Holy Spirit. Standing in these circles, we know the truth of those words that Paul wrote to the troubled Corinthian Christians two millennia ago, “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor 12:26). Indeed, the pain and suffering in the body is so real and present at the vigils that we cannot escape our thirst for hope and good news. Paul also knew this thirst. He commanded the Corinthians to drink in the Holy Spirit as they practiced being dependent on one another. In our modern world, I believe that practicing dependence is one of the most radically faithful acts that we can perform.
I can also see into the recesses of my own heart at these prayer vigils. As I contemplate the reality that we can so easily blot out the life of another, I see the corruption in my own heart and lament the tragic truth that sin continues to rage in my soul. Yet at the same time, I marvel that God’s power so exceeds the power of sin that the distance between them is greater than the distance from the sky to the sea (Isaiah 55:9). I wonder that God who knit me together is also God who hears my most atrocious thoughts and God who stretched his arms wide for me on a Roman cross. When I think about the one who pulled the trigger, I hope that most Reformed of hopes—that even for the ones we most want to abandon, God might still have a plan for redemption.
As I witness the weeping of mothers who must bury their children, I see the sadness of my own losses and the insatiable longing in my heart to be loved with a love that will never die. In those moments, I hear Jesus’ promise, passed from one disciple to another, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). I know in my bones that I could not exist without God’s abundant love for me, and I long to share that all-surpassing love with everyone I meet, to the outer ends of the earth and the deepest places of the human heart.
- Read about the prayer vigils
- Learn about homicides in Durham
- Discover the wonderful book “Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence” by Religious Coalition founder Marcia Owen and Dean of Duke Chapel Sam Wells