Photo: L’Arche community members in Portland, Oregon, including Adam, far right. Photo provided by L’Arche Portland.
This is a web-exclusive article on the theme “Good News, Great Joy.” For more stories on this theme, see the December issue of The Mennonite.
Adam and I took frequent walks down to the Food Lion on the corner to buy a pack of gum. But we weren’t there for the gum. We were there to see Ed.
Ed was a long-timer at the Food Lion, our neighborhood grocery store on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Over the years Ed had struck up a friendship with Adam. They’d met when our L’Arche community began to hold a Christmas tree sale in the parking lot of the Food Lion a decade earlier.
L’Arche is made up of people like me and Adam, in different places on the spectrum of cognitive and physical ability. Adam was classified by the state as intellectually disabled. But we called him a “core member,” a man whose gifts of humor and gentleness centered our life and reminded us of Jesus.
I was Adam’s assistant, there to live in a home with him, to share meals and prayer, to help with cooking meals and flying kites, to travel together in loss and celebration.
One of our outings was to visit Ed. We’d take a long, slow walk down the sidewalks, waiting for the light at a crowded intersection, before Adam and I passed the scuffed metal carts lining the entrance to the Food Lion. “Well, hey there, buddy,” a voice would call out even before we saw Ed at the end of the line, expertly filling bags of groceries.
Friendship with Adam was light and kind, and it took a gentle reception to hold the gift of Adam’s life. Ed was there to receive Adam, just as he was. For Ed, Adam’s life was joy.
I cannot help but think about Adam and Ed when the church calendar turns once more to Advent. In Advent we are waiting to receive a revelation of God through Incarnation – God among us. Incarnation is an invitation to be truly human.
When God enters humanity it is not simply the transformation of God into human life – we are witnesses to the indwelling of God in the lives of people.
In the fourth century, Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that God “renews God’s Image in people, so that through it people might once more come to know Him.” For Athanasius, this is a re-creation of the human soul. Jesus shows us how to become human.
To become human means to see as Ed sees, to see Adam before you, to see in him a gift rejected by the world, and to receive that gift as good news.
Not everyone sees Adam as Ed does. The world around L’Arche moves quickly, at break-neck speed. Gentleness is confused for weakness. Adam and the other core members are calculated by the dollar, as lost earning potential, drains on government resources. Adam is treated with disregard, a life to be pitied.
Friends like Adam remind me of the ways I am also out of sorts with the world. It is as if the world is moving at too cruel a pace, too fast, too angry. Is there a place in it for me? Is there a place for the vulnerable part of me, the secret I have not told, the pain I have not revealed, the silence I have maintained?
Advent is the time when we sit with these questions, turn them about and look them over, let them sink into the marrow. Is there a place for me in this world?
The answer is waiting in swaddling clothes, born into poverty, birthed in a cave, greeted by cows and sheep, hunted by a tyrannical king, fleeing across borders, raised to be a laborer. The answer is waiting in an aging storefront where two friends on different places on the cognitive spectrum embrace, laugh and call each other silly names.
Advent is also a time of preparation for our own acceptance, to embrace the absurdity that God has made us holy, in our brokenness and frailty. Advent is a time to remember that all of it is an act of love, the holy interruption of a God who refuses to be God without us.
I suspect that for some of us this is a deeply painful realization because it will require us to give up on the project of self-justification that gives shape to our lives. I have no doubt that many of us labor under the belief that we are able to rise above the mire and become excellent, or at least better than our neighbors.
Following after God’s incarnation in Jesus is a dispossession of this way of going about life. Instead, we are called to the tutelage of people like Adam and Ed who help us see ourselves as God sees us. The closer we are to our own expectations of righteousness, the harder it will be to accept this Jesus, to discover him in unexpected places, in the unexpected lives of those around us.
Advent is a strange comfort. It is a kind of cleaning out, throwing away the expectations of what makes us worthy of love or kindness, worthy of justice or peace, worthy of God’s life winding its ways in and around ours until they become one. The work of this season is to put ourselves close to those who know what it is like to find themselves stripped away, often not of their own choosing. It’s here, in delighting in them, in drawing near, that we experience the Advent hope: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).
Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh (North Carolina) Mennonite Church.
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