THE ANGEL WITH THE EXTRA CHROMOSOME

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For a long time now, I’ve suspected that people with Down Syndrome are angels in disguise. This isn’t a flight of fancy. I truly believe it. You might think that’s a rather odd conclusion and I’m okay with that. Maybe it’s me and God’s secret. Except that I’ve now shared it with you. All I know is that there’s something about these unique people that goes beyond the usual potential sweetness that lies latent in even the hardest hearts of the rest of humanity.

Have you ever met, seen, read about or heard about a person with Down Syndrome who was mean? Have you ever seen one that sits around complaining about the state of the world? Have you ever met one who is sarcastic? If your answer to any of these is yes, please tell me about your encounter because I’d like to hear it.

Now I’m not saying that you’ll always know how to converse with them, but my guess is if that’s the case, then the issue is not with them. They may just be making you uncomfortable because you’re not used to their level of vulnerability which possibly reminds you of your own. Also, they don’t play by the “rules” of society. They are blatantly kind, obnoxiously helpful, unabashedly affectionate, extremely meek and they are missing the slightest hint of guile.

Like very young children, they don’t use the mask of sarcasm that may show high intelligence, but also hides insecurity, bitterness and passive aggression. Maybe that’s because they have nothing to be insecure about because they’re not competing and comparing themselves to anyone. They have nothing to be bitter about because they don’t bemoan their condition and talk about what a raw hand they were dealt. Some might say, “Well they don’t know any better. Of course they don’t bemoan their condition. If I had an extra chromosome, I wouldn’t complain either.” Well, maybe in that case, we can all learn something from them.

That’s all a preface to share with you a recent encounter I had that convinced me that God had just shown up disguised as a Down Syndrome man…

I was waiting for the bus one morning recently to head to a speaking engagement that I was looking forward to at a university. I was on very little sleep, but was feeling fueled by a bit of adrenaline at the wonderful opportunity I’d been given to give a talk on personal values. I felt pretty well prepared and I had that sense you get when you know you’re about to be doing exactly what you’re meant to be doing on this planet. For me, that “what” is inspiring and touching people’s lives, whether that’s through writing, music, acting, film making, coaching, speaking or conversation. Any time I’m lined up with those things, I feel alive and aflame.

I’d be lying though if I said I wasn’t also feeling nervous as to whether the people would receive what I was saying, whether I was too tired, whether the kind man who had invited me would be glad he did, etc.

My bus came, I got on, and as I walked toward the back to find a seat, I passed a man with Down Syndrome sitting to my left. We looked at each other. “Hallo!” he said to me. “Hallo,” I smiled back. There were a lot of seats available. He was sitting near the window. I climbed into the seats directly behind him and also sat near the window like him. I wasn’t sure if he would strike up a conversation with me. He didn’t. Now and then, he would look over his shoulder at me as discreetly as he could manage. I was going over my notes for my talk, mumbling prayers in my heart, both for myself and for this sweet man in front of me.

I spent a while looking at him from behind, wondering what his life is like, what he does in a day, who he interacts with, if he finds life hard, if he ever feels sad, if he has kind people around him. I’m not generally a chit-chatty person with people I don’t know, unless I have to be. My introverted side makes me averse to small-talk. But with a Down Syndrome person (angel), that’s okay because, while they might not pick up on subtle humor, they pick up on spirit, on love and on empathy like nobody’s business.

About three stops after I’d gotten on the bus, he started to get his backpack on and get up from his seat to get out at the upcoming stop–the one at the Planetarium. Hmmm. How fitting. A place to journey through the stars.

As he headed towards the exit door, we kept glancing at each other like two shy middle schoolers with crushes. “Tschuess!” he said. “Tschuess!” I smiled back. He hopped off the bus and stood there as the bus started to move. Then he turned, stood still and looking up to my window, blew me kisses with awkward hand motions, never losing eye contact. He stayed rooted to the spot, and blew kiss after kiss after kiss until the bus had pulled completely away. I waved to him, smiling, never losing eye contact with him.

The older ladies sitting in front of where he’d been sitting looked behind them to see who he was blowing kisses to, wondering what was going on. Maybe they wondered if I knew him. Maybe they wondered why he was blowing kisses to some woman on the bus.

But I knew. I knew that, in that moment, God had wrapped himself in human skin and appeared to me, not as a dashing knight or a famous movie star or a fairy tale hero, but as an ordinary man. Not even an ordinary man, but perhaps to most, an under-ordinary man who is often overlooked, or if noticed at all, is possibly ignored or mocked. I can’t convince you that he was God with skin on. But as with all mystical encounters, I don’t need any convincing because I was there and I know how my heart leapt. I also know that I went and gave my talk and felt a strength and power surging through me with a boldness and confidence that was not there prior to encountering him.

At the end of my talk, my final question to the students was, “When you get to the end of your life, if a book were to be written about you, what would you want the title to be? What do you want to be remembered for?” There were some great answers that gave me hope for the world. My favorite answer though was from a gentle young man from Guatamala who had listened attentively and had enthusiastically engaged my entire talk. His answer:

“I’d like to be remembered as an ordinary guy who was happy.” He continued, “Society tries to make it like you have to have money, or be famous, or do some big thing to be happy. But I’d like to just be an ordinary guy and be happy.”

I wonder if the young Guatamalan man also gets out at the Planetarium.

'Starseeds' by apichart sripeng

 

Top image credit: ef.art.pl
Bottom image credit: ‘Starseeds’ by apichart sripeng

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7 REASONS LOUIS THEROUX REMINDS ME OF JESUS

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I started watching Louis Theroux documentaries several years ago when I lived in England. In case you don’t know who Louis is, he’s a journalist, documentary filmmaker and presenter from the BBC who travels the world interviewing unlikely people—people, in fact, who most of us would shy away from. He has interviewed white nationalists, black nationalists, neo Nazis, religious fanatics (including the folks from Westboro Baptist Church who hate pretty much everyone), swingers in Los Angeles, extreme wrestlers, gangsta rappers, survivalists in North America, the criminally insane (or those perhaps pretending to be so they can live in lush hospitals rather than in hardcore prisons) and many others.

What makes Louis unique is his ability to win the trust and friendship of diverse people whether he agrees with their views and lifestyles or not. He most often doesn’t seem to agree with them yet seems to have a morbid fascination with them and a way of pushing the limit in terms of his disarming inquisitiveness.

After watching Louis, I often go away thinking, “Man, he’s so much like Jesus!”

Here’s why I think that:

He meets people where they are. He doesn’t come in trying to change them, at least not overtly. He shows up, is courteous and exudes the best of manners. He doesn’t talk down to people, but he also doesn’t shy away from confronting people’s narcissism and duplicity. When he has a contention with someone, he mentions his disagreement so politely and hesitantly that it would be hard to imagine anyone getting upset with him. Although some do…

Those who end up disliking him (rare as it is) are those most entrenched in a worldview that brings with it self-righteousness and exclusivism. Much like Jesus dealing with the Pharisees of his day, the people who get the most irate with Louis are those who are so convinced that their thinking is right that they become volatile and sometimes even threatening when contradicted. They tend to fall under the category of religious or racial extremism. Those who have become most angry with him have been white separatists, some of the Westboro Baptist members, and neo Nazis.

His sense of horror over people’s behavior seems always couched in seeing people as human and not evil. Though it seems hard for him to hide his sense of revulsion at the lifestyles of some of the people he visits, he still treats them as human beings. Even when he asked probing questions of the young man who raped and tried to kill his own mother, he managed to ask him accountability questions while at the same time treating him with dignity and respect.

He hangs out with “sinners.” And not the garden variety type. Not people who feel bad for saying the F word, or who yelled at their kids today and feel guilty about it. Not the pastor who committed adultery. Or the nursery school teacher who commits credit card fraud. No, that stuff is small potatoes. Louis goes to the murderers, the prostitutes, the pimps, the porn industry and…judges them? No, he just hangs out, talks with them, tries to understand where they’re coming from. In other words, he extends friendship and grace.

He’s fun to be with. When you watch one of his films, you see that the people he interviews genuinely enjoy his company. They laugh with him at his silliness, at his awkward and often uncomfortable questions, at his willingness to participate to whatever degree he’s able to—either physically or psychologically. He enters their world and goes where few dare to tread and because of this, he often wins people’s trust.

His gentleness belies his courage. Although he is clearly nervous at some of the situations he gets into, he doesn’t let it stop him. He’s no coward. You couldn’t be a coward and confront neo Nazis who suddenly ask you if you have Jewish blood or show up to train with extreme wrestlers with a drill sergeant for a coach. (In the wrestling documentary, the coach pushed Louis so hard that he had to throw up.) The guy’s got moxie.

He’s got heart. “Extreme Love” is possibly his most moving documentary in which he befriends families of autistic children, gaining the trust and love of both the families and the kids. They include and welcome him because he included and welcomed them first. Sound familiar?

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Louis could teach all of us a thing or two about how to treat people we differ from with more love and respect.

I hope you get a chance to watch one of his films. Like me, you may wonder if Louis Theroux is sometimes Jesus in disguise.

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