Have you heard of the Church of the Exceptional? It’s a nondenominational, interracial ministry devoted to ministering to the physically and mentally handicapped in the area around Rutherford County, North Carolina. In 1974, then-Governor Jimmy Carter and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale were invited to present a Guideposts award to the congregation, where thousands had assembled in a municipal center in Georgia. Before the speeches were delivered, the liturgy called for the lighting of the main altar candle.
A middle-aged woman with Down syndrome walked slowly but proudly down the center aisle carrying a lighted taper. The pastor followed closely, to offer assistance. They reached the altar, but despite repeated efforts, the candle would not light. The crowd held its breath, and Carter recalls a sense of embarrassment that welled up inside. The pastor moved forward to help, but she shook her head, and continued to try. Finally, the candle was lit, and the crowd erupted into applause. But the brightest thing in the huge auditorium was the woman’s face, which glowed with happiness.
Jimmy Carter writes in his book Our Endangered Values that he doubts whether anyone that night remembers his words. But every life was affected and touched by this woman’s faith and determination.
In my mind, I am still in that municipal center, watching as she lights one candle—undaunted and steadfast—this heartwarming glow spilling person to person throughout the gathering. And now into my study here on Vashon Island. Yes. I need stories to remind me that grace and hope, and savoring and gratitude, and courage and resiliency are alive and well. The catch, of course, is that these fountains of grace are not necessarily where we expect to find them.
A Larger Message
Here’s what I think: The woman is not just lighting a candle, but inviting all of us to a paradigm shift. A different way of seeing. A different way of being. A different way of loving. Most of us seem to have an aversion to anything “broken” (especially our own brokenness, speaking of obstacles). Still wedded to the notion that those who are different need to be marginalized or “fixed.” Which means that we make premature judgments, naming whatever is wounded or shattered or broken, as wrecked or ruined or threatening, and to be feared; and we miss—we do not see—the flame and the glow of the glory of God that is within each and every one of us.
What is it about labels that seduce us? Or do they comfort us? There is no doubt that fitting life (and people) into boxes is easier. We are certain we know. We are certain we are correct. And it does tidy things up a bit.
It’s just too easy to fuel the fire of misunderstanding and intolerance and small-mindedness when I witness all of this through the lens of my own labels. I can literally imagine myself sitting on that platform, thinking, “Why in heaven’s name are we letting this woman light the candle? Is there not an easier way? How did she get to be one of us?” I do know that when we label, we exclude, rather than include. Not only individuals, but encounters too.
I do know that when we label, we live with scotoma, which means selective blindness. And scotoma shuts down our heart, our capacity to care, give, love or welcome.
You believe WHAT?
What are THEY doing here?
What can I receive from THEM?
Why should I help THEM?
More often than not, Tion Medon’s counsel to Obi-Wan Kenobi on Utapau (for Star Wars aficionados) is right on: “There is no war here unless you brought it with you.” For starters, Lord knows the world could use a little more tenderness right now. I live on an island. And I would be fibbing if I told you I didn’t want to put my fingers in my ears, hum loudly, and pretend the news and the world would go away. But then I read a story of a woman’s resilience carrying a candle of hope.
This is an excerpt from Terry Hershey's new book This is the Life, about embracing life's present moments. Click below to learn more.