August 11th 2020
The automatic glass doors of the convalescent home flew open. A delightful blast of cool air—which those who reside in the northeast during August fully appreciate—sent a welcome shiver through my body. Hands moist with perspiration, I feebly gripped the slippery pen and signed my name at the front desk.
Down the hallway in room 106 I would find my 93-year-old friend Mable Smith. For those of you wondering how I visited a rehabilitation center during COVID, please take comfort that my visit happened 7 years ago.... remember those days when we were allowed to visit our loved ones needing medical care?
Three weeks prior Mable suffered a mild stroke on her way to church. Now recovering, she would be sent home soon when her sense of balance was regained and her vitals stable.
I peeked into the room. The bed empty. I thought the worst.
“She’s in the dining hall,” called the orderly across the hallway, with military-like authority. “Keep walking until the end, make a left and you’ll see the entrance.”
Now Mable was a true character. Feisty. Opinionated. Life-long Presbyterian. A little eccentric. She spent her career as a Navy secretary and shared with me, on an earlier visit, her harrowing firsthand account of being in Pearl Harbor during the bombing. “Lucky to be alive,” she quipped, describing the pandemonium of that 1941 Sunday morning.
“Hi Mable,” I gushed, entering the room and giving her a hug as lowered myself into an empty chair next to her. “Who’s your friend?”
Across the table sat an aged woman, slowly spooning tapioca pudding into her mouth with a high level of intentionality. She hardly noticed my entrance.
“This is Chi..yo..ko,” mouthed Mable slowly and phonetically, making sure I understood. “She was born in Japan. Survived the bombing of Nagasaki.”
I stretched my hand across the table. The woman abruptly and respectfully stopped her methodical motion, placed her spoon on the tray, clutched my fingers and smiled. “Chiyoko,” she muttered softly. “Hello.”
“We figured we wouldn’t be friends if we met in 1942,” quipped Mable. “We were supposed to hate each other back then. Look at us now!”
For the next few minutes I listened to the story. Somehow Chiyoko survived the blast as a teenager, navigated the horrific aftermath and scraped together a few piecemeal jobs to put food in her stomach. Eventually she met a US serviceman stationed at a base in Japan, learned English, married him and moved to the United States. A widow for over a decade, no children and outliving her friends, she was essentially alone in the world—except for her new friend Mable.
For whatever reason, I’ve never forgotten that meal (certainly not the food). Perhaps this week, after reading articles recalling the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it triggered my memory. So without wading into the history and politics as to why those bombs were dropped, I think there’s a lesson to learn from a couple of elderly widows who survived a very dark period of our world’s history.
Maybe the lesson is how the prevailing forces of our historical moment seek to define us as people: influencing our relationships, shaping our values, dictating our behaviors. Perspectives and attitudes toward people—people we don’t even personally know—are consciously and unconsciously shaped by those with loudest and most convincing voices. As social animals, we even mimic the behavior of others in our quest for identity and belonging.
Then 75 years pass..... The cultural, social and geo-political winds change. New enemies are found and created. New wars need to be fought. New people groups need to be feared. But in the end, the lie of our suspicion and fear is exposed by the serendipitous encounter of two convalescing women eating puréed spinach and Gorton’s fish sticks together—in (of all places) Cinnaminson, New Jersey. The futility of hate is unveiled by life’s brevity and our deepest needs for intimacy.
These things we know to be true: Our loved ones will pass on, our workplace colleagues disperse, our children will go their different ways and our political parties will be voted in and out of office. And, if we are the last one standing, we’ll desire only a few elemental things: companionship and love. Ironically—as in the lives of Mable and Chiyoko—both may appear in the form of those we were once told to hate and fear.
James Baldwin wrote, “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated.”
Jesus put it another way: Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Why? I always believed Jesus made these outrageous commands because it might lead to more peace, fewer wars and better relations with my neighbor who lets his dog do his business on my lawn. And that can certainly be true.
Now I’m thinking Jesus was a few steps ahead of what Baldwin and others would later learn from their firsthand experience of witnessing the corrosive effects of hate—not only on its recipients but on its givers as well. Perhaps Jesus’s commands are really a love letter to you and me from someone who wants to see us flourish and live into the fullness of what we were created to be. The commands are not simply given to win over our enemies...they’re actually for our benefit, regardless of the outcome. Creating identities around hate and suspicion produces little people. And Jesus is always about bigger people. Bigger hearts, bigger lives, bigger visions.
So why wait until the day we’re eating tapioca pudding and fish sticks to expand the companions around our dinner table? Let’s rise above the noise of today and tune into the frequency of God’s heart. Life’s really too short to waste time.
President & Founder