IMAGINE YOUR POLICE MUG SHOT.
That’s the look my buddy, Terry, held on his face for about 45 minutes during last Sunday’s Bible study session.
It’s the expression of Barney Fife without a bullet.
Here’s what happened.
Our pastor has been preaching a four-week series of sermons on the power of words. Preacher that he is, he’s trying to get us to memorize another Bible verse:
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen,” (Ephesians 4:29).
In the Bible study lesson I taught a couple of weeks ago, I tried to illustrate that by having my wife read a letter I got from a reader. It was a lavishly kind letter that praised my books and me as a human being. It praised me a lot. By the time I finished reading it, I felt as though it would take only two miracles before I would qualify as St. Stephen.
While my wife read the letter to the class, I noticed Terry grabbing a sheet of paper and writing frantically. We all found out what he was writing a short time later, during the discussion. He was writing down some of the rotten words people had used to make him feel lower than toe jam. It was really hurtful stuff, from family, friends, and teachers. Stuff like, “You’ll never amount to anything.”
After class, my buddy told me he had never gotten a letter like the one I got. That was two Sundays ago.
But last Sunday, about 15 minutes into the lesson, I reminded my buddy of what he had said.
“You said you had never gotten a letter like the one I got. We can fix that.”
Instantly I hit the button on my iPad, Bluetooth-linked to a Bose speaker.
The room filled with the rich strum of a guitar solo by Michael Soloway: Canon in D.
That was the cue. My daughter, making a guest appearance in the Bible study, stood and faced Terry. She started reading the letter she had written to him.
She was crying before she read the first word.
Her letter talked about how Terry had encouraged her and helped her many times during her growing up years. I remember one poignant moment when he recognized in her face that something was going on, even though we hadn’t told him that she was struggling with a broken heart over a busted romance. He asked her what was wrong, and she fell into his arms crying.
In the classroom, we had a box of tissue on the table. I brought a second box from my home office, and I pitched it up there. Hands reached for it instantly. People grabbed tissues from both boxes throughout the next 45 minutes. That’s how long it took us to get through just some of the letters.
Every letter talked about things Terry had done for us and for people we know: buying shoes for his students at school, buying fertilizer and putting it on someone’s yard, staining another person’s deck in 100° weather, and boldly telling three of our Bible study members that he was praying God would help them break the habit of smoking – two have stopped, one to go.
I put together a notebook of letters for Terry. I called it “The Notebook.”
My favorite letter in there is the one his wife, Cris, wrote.
Terry and Cris both gave me permission to let you read her letter.
Cris couldn’t read the letter to her husband. So I stood and read it for her.
Only then did I notice Terry’s Novocain face regain its posture as he began to quietly weep with the rest of us.
We read each letter to background music. I read Cris’s letter to the music of Enya, “A Day Without Rain.” In case you want to give it a listen while reading what follows.
A letter to Terry
As I sit to compose this, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. What I see in you, what I’ve only recently begun to appreciate, is the truly beautiful gift you have for bringing God’s warmth to the people you meet.
There’s an exuberant light that you extend to everyone you come into contact with. It just tumbles out and engulfs complete strangers. Many of them are caught unawares. I can see their bewildered smiles as they try to make sense of this unfamiliar person who seems genuinely interested in them, lathering them with the hearty laughter, lively conversation, and more often than not, some random act of kindness.
I’ve come to realize that this isn’t driven by the innate “friendliness” of an extrovert, or the easy conversation between kindred spirits, or even pulpit urgings for outreach. And it isn’t always smooth or glib–sometimes it can even be a little awkward. But it’s endearing, and lovely to watch. It has the openness and instant familiarity you tend to see only in children who aren’t bogged down by self-consciousness or the need to keep safe social distances.
Every now and then during these encounters, your unsuspecting stranger would catch me standing close by and I’d smile so as not to ruin what you’ve started. But honestly, my heart lags far behind yours in its reach.
It happened Wednesday. We walk through the door at Burger King: You start in enthusiastically, with a warm vigorous handshake: “Hey man, how are you doing? Haven’t seen you for a while. You’re not working here anymore?”
“No,” the young man replies, hesitantly, trying to make sense of such an enthusiastic greeting from a fast-food customer.
Then he remembers . . . Ah, the friendly man who comes in sometimes.
He broadens his smile and offers, “Actually. I was just going to the company across the road to apply for a job. They work with legal documents.”
“Yes!” you respond approvingly. “A chance to move forward . . . good, good!”
Still holding his handshake you put your arm around his back and give a slight squeeze of the shoulder, beaming encouragingly at him as a big brother or father would.
I see him visibly relax, and he immediately succumbs to the simple but powerful spiritual warmth of another human being.
At this point I catch his eye and decide to chime in “Good luck. Hope you get through.”
He nods and smiles quickly at me. But he’s soon caught off guard, again, when you regain his gaze and confidently assure him, “I’ll pray for you, man. I’ll pray that things work out for you.” I didn’t think to pray for this guy. I was just parroting social niceties. But he could see that you meant it. And with a hearty “Thank you. Thank you.” he was off, and we finally placed our order.