Barney loves grilled cheese sandwiches, Elvis Presley, stuffed teddy bears and people. Abandoned by his parents at birth, and diagnosed with severe learning disabilities, he spent his first 30 years in a state hospital. After a spell living in a group home, he decided to go it alone, quite unaware of his seven younger siblings who lived nearby, who were also oblivious to his existence.
Barney lived independently for decades, but became such a local celebrity that the new Post Office was named in his honour. Barney spent his days popping into shops, making new friends and investing time in conversation. People would stop him in the street to catch up with him. He used his networking skills to raise money for local charities and would often be spotted strolling around town with an empty mayonnaise jar, collecting cash for his latest cause. Asked what his favourite charity was, he answered, ‘All of them.’
Kathleen was a surprised widow. Her husband Jimmy, a local physician, had died quite unexpectedly from heart failure. Her world shattered, she determined to energetically press on with faith and life. Every Sunday she can be spotted at our church, sitting in the same place, wearing her trademark encouraging smile. Kathleen has an endearing, but rather strange habit. When she watches television, she joins in with the dialogue. If an onscreen character asks if anyone would like coffee, Kathleen catches herself joining in: ‘Yes, please.’ She caught the habit from Barney.
Meeting Barney during one of his downtown walkabouts, Kathleen, together with a friend, decided to invite Barney to go to the cinema with them. He was delighted, and the movie trips became a regular habit. He would phone Kathleen many times a day, to discuss upcoming films, keen for another outing. And he would often join in with the onscreen conversation, which wasa little embarrassing in a crowded cinema. When Kathleen’s friend went through some personal trials and dropped out of the little film group, Kathleen continued and made those cinematic outings with Barney a priority.
When Barney’s seven siblings were finally tracked down and came to visit him, they were welcomed by the mayor of the city and treated to a civic luncheon in Barney’s honour. They were moved by the news that their newfound brother was such a local treasure.
Barney died last week, and more than 100 people gathered in a city park to celebrate his memory. When Kathleen told me about their excursions, and about Barney’s downtown chats and charity work, I realised that true heroes are those who stop fantasising about the lives they could have. They just get on with the lives they do have. Barney and Kathleen could have allowed grief or disability to derail them, corralling them into a life of sullen self-preoccupation. But each chose a different pathway.
It’s been said that most people spend their entire lives indefinitely preparing to live. We squander days and decades waiting for our circumstances to improve, postponing joy, ignoring opportunities for service, always waiting for the better tomorrow that never arrives.
When life is lived on hold, it turns into grey survival and we fail to notice that, as we reach out to bless others, we bless Jesus, who made it clear that when we visit the prisoner, clothe the naked and care for the sick, those acts of kindness are also done to him. With a pause for a natter, a rattled mayonnaise jar and handful of movie tickets, we change our world as we determine to live with kindness and generosity.
Today, let’s look for Jesus and show him kindness. Somewhere in our day, perhaps heavily disguised, he’s waiting.