By This Shall All Men Know

Dear Will:

I sat yesterday in a Sunday School class with the finest people I know. Our text was John 13 (just following the Last Supper) wherein Jesus washes the feet of His apostles and utters these defining words of Christendom: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). He was saying, in essence, that the best way to tell who His true followers are is to watch how they treat others.

The scene there in the Santiago Creek Ward could not have been significantly different from the one you might have seen on the evening of June 17, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. That is, until things became entirely different. About an hour into the Bible study that night, a visitor pulled out a gun and shot ten of the worshipers, leaving nine of them dead. The misguided ideas which drove him to that hateful act remain in stark contrast to the message of love inherent in the book they studied together that night.

Two days after the murders, survivors and relatives of some of the victims gathered at a legal hearing to confront the accused killer. But rather than releasing the full force of the anger and pain which surely they feel, they took the opportunity to extend forgiveness to the man apparently responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. To those who are not believers, what transpired at that hearing may have been entirely unexpected. But to those who have embraced the teachings of Jesus, they should not be. Remarkable still. Truly remarkable. But not unexpected at all.

How is such tenderness possible in the face of such heartbreak? Barack Obama explained it well on Friday, June 26, at the funeral services for The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who led the Bible study that night. In his wise and moving eulogy of the senior pastor, the President evoked a truth that rests at the heart of Christian theology. “God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.”

Grace. God’s love extended to the undeserving. Not earned, but given freely. Not claimed by the entitled, but accepted—humbly—by the unworthy. Not just manifested in the face of tragedy, but triggered by tragedy itself. Amazing grace. That has saved a wretch like me time and again. That compels me to be my best today and enables me tomorrow to strive for even better.

“As a nation,” said the President, “out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.  We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other—but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

To do that, we must go and do likewise. We must follow the good example of the members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “As I have loved you,” said Jesus, “love one another” (John 13:34). It’s what He asks of those He has loved. And it is the essence of discipleship.

PW

The Miracle of Taylor’s Life

Dear Will:

A couple of weeks back I attended a funeral for the son of a very close friend. It promised to be a very sad day.

Taylor had been born with just a single chamber (as opposed to the usual four) in his heart. He had his first surgery the day he was born. Doctors told his parents, Mark and Tammy Hyer, that Taylor’s life would be a short one—maybe a few days, at most a few years.

Defying the odds, Taylor’s heart held on for several years more than that. It was hardly a normal childhood inasmuch as he had very little stamina and thus could not play as hard (or do all of the same things) as other kids his age. He also had multiple surgeries and took a bunch of medication. But he was in a great family who enabled him to do as much as he could and who filled his life with laughter and love.

About a year ago, Taylor’s heart finally gave out. Somehow he had wrung 13 years of life out of that tiny, misshapen organ. And in doing so, he had finally grown big enough for a heart transplant. Now if you know anything about transplants you know that you can stay on a list for months waiting for a suitable donor. Well, Taylor waited only a few hours—and it’s a good thing, for his heart literally shut down as the donated heart was rushed into the hospital. The surgeon kept him alive just long enough to give him a new, four-chamber heart.

For Taylor, it was a true miracle. For the first time in his life he could breathe. Instead of watching the other kids play basketball, Taylor could join the game himself. He could climb mountains, ride his bike, act like a kid. His body began to take shape, and Taylor was finally just a normal teenager.

How we all celebrated that wonderful, life-changing surgery. His family shed many happy tears as they recounted the unlikely sequence of events that led to the transplant. They offered many, many prayers of thanks for the extension and enhancement to Taylor’s fragile life.

Thus I was stunned when I received the phone call telling me that Taylor had died. Barely 14, he had returned from a backpacking trip, had enjoyed a couple of fun but uneventful days with the family. Everything seemed to be going great. Then on Sunday in the middle of the night, he awoke feeling very ill. His parents attended to him and his father gave him a blessing of comfort. As soon as the blessing was over, Taylor’s dad gave him a hug, and in that instant Taylor died in his arms.

As I spoke to Mark and Tammy about this tragedy, their calm perspective astonished me. Thinking that I had come to their side to give them support and comfort, I found them comforting me instead. “We’re just really grateful that God gave him that bonus year of life to find out what it’s like to be a normal kid,” they told me. “What a blessing for him to get the chance to do the things he had been missing out on for so long.” There was no rancor or self-pity, no bitterness or despair. Rather they expressed gratitude to God for the miracle that was Taylor’s life—a life that by all accounts lasted at least 10 years longer than anyone could have reasonably expected.

I anticipated that the day of the funeral would be very sad indeed. Instead, I found my faith renewed and my love expanded. It made me want to hug my kids (of course), but it also made me want to be a better person. And it made me grateful for my faith in God that helps me to see that beyond the transitory sadness of today there is purpose and promise that extends into eternity.

PW