A number of years ago, some friends and I visited the Daybreak Community in Toronto, Canada. Daybreak is a community for severely disabled people. We went not to visit them, however, as much as to visit Father Henri Nouwen. Henri left a prestigious career in academia to serve as a humble priest to the people of Daybreak. Even though his priestly duties were his priority, Henri continued to write thoughtful and inspirational books on spirituality. Though he died in 1996, his life’s work remains influential. Henri was one of greatest spiritual writers and thinkers of the 20th century. On our visit, we quickly discovered that Henri lived what he wrote. He was truly a man of deep faith and harbored a heart full of love.
Given Henri’s notoriety, none of us expected that he would act as our tour guide that day. It was not, however, the “bells and whistles” of the place that made Daybreak so special. It was the people, the sense of community and observing Henri’s love and care for his flock that moved us. He knew everybody’s name and he knew their stories. He made everyone at Daybreak, as well as those visiting the community, feel as if they were “God’s beloved.”
Billy was one of Henri’s beloved. Billy had Down Syndrome, but that did not stop him from practicing the craft (art?) of carpentry. He was a highly skilled woodworker, who along with several others in the wood shop, created beautiful furniture for the Daybreak Community. It was not, however, their work that I will remember. Rather, it was how Billy greeted me that made my visit to Daybreak’s wood shop so memorable.
As soon as I walked in the door, Billy stopped what he was doing and dashed across the room to greet me. He got right up in my face, almost nose-to-nose, and said, “I have a joke for you!” He proceeded to tell me MY joke. It was MY joke, nobody else’s. His joke was ONLY for ME! Billy’s joke was not particularly funny, but it did not matter. It was all that Billy had to give and he loved giving it. It may be one of the greatest gifts I ever received.
After Billy gave me my joke, he gave Allan, Gary and Henri their jokes. Henri said that he received many jokes from Billy over the years. He only remembered one as actually being funny. Nevertheless, Henri said that every Billy joke he received made him feel special. He did not mind making repeated trips to the wood shop, especially when he was in need of a little love. Personalized jokes were Billy’s way of saying, “I love you.”
I never saw Billy (or Henri) again, but his gift remains stuck in my soul. I cannot remember the actual joke, but whenever I get down on myself, I think of Billy dashing across the room, getting in my face and saying, “I have a joke for you.” Somehow it shakes me out of my negativity. It reminds me of the incredible power inherent in a small act of love. I cannot get out of my head that when I meet my Maker, the Divine One might dash across the room, get nose-to-nose with me and say, “I have a joke for you!”
Was not Billy’s gift the perfect manifestation of Divine love? I think so. Billy’s gift also reminds me that, if all it takes is to give somebody a joke to make them feel beloved, then maybe I should skip preaching three-point sermons and make up a few jokes to give away…one person at a time.
As you read this, imagine me dashing across the room to YOU, getting in YOUR face and gifting YOU with Billy’s words: “I have a joke for you!” My joke may not be funny, but my love for you is real. You are my beloved AND you are God’s beloved. That’s no joke!