The last thing I was looking for was something "that would preach,” as they say in this weird American form of church ministry. Pastors often look for the obscure sermon illustrations that fill them with covetous joy, as they exclaim, “that’ll preach.” I’ve heard enough sermons on plumb lines: the course of the ship, the journey of life, lessons from Lord of the Rings and Nehemiah campaigns to build new “churches.”
So when you read the byline and see that I’m a pastor, don’t think less of me for using my son, Ben, as an illustration. He used me as an illustration on how to love. Don’t misunderstand: my son is no wunderkind. Maybe he is, but we haven’t discovered it yet. He’s your typical 4-month-old boy, and my wife and I are loving life with him.
What’s amazing about Ben is his love for people. He’s but an infant, yet he already longs to connect eye to eye with everyone who passes by. Just the other day, Bekah and I were at a college football game. Ben was a little excited (to say the least) at the feast of visual stimulation that surrounded him. Inside and outside the stadium, Ben’s sole purpose for existence was to catch someone’s eye and give them the biggest grin he could muster. As soon as he saw a person strolling our way, his eyes locked like a laser beam on their head. He was resolute, and with baited breath he’d wait for the other’s gaze to meet his. As soon as they did, it was like long lost friends reuniting. We’re talking more than just a smile—Ben’s entire face would beam pure, uninhibited joy just at enjoying another’s presence.
I’ve read articles on how babies respond to beauty. The prettier the face, the greater the response from the baby—that’s generally the conclusion drawn from such experiments. My son isn’t representative of a normal baby’s response, because that day (and every other day), he showed no prejudice, no favor to those our world would deem beautiful, successful, intelligent or popular. His common denominator for sharing his joy was humanity. I’m guessing that the pure innocence of a 4-month-old doesn’t discriminate by the world’s standards in spite of such studies. I have to hope that we haven’t corrupted them this early.
As I continued to watch my son captivate the presence of complete strangers, I was struck by how inept I am at dealing with people. My son, without language, can captivate people with joy. I never do that. Mike Mason, in his book Practicing the Presence of People writes, “To love people is to enjoy them truly, warts and all.”
All I see, and all humanity typically sees, is just warts.
I’ve tried to adopt my son’s behavior toward others. I spent an afternoon smiling the biggest, most genuine smile I could muster at everyone I passed on the street. I’ve never received so many strange and disgusted looks in my life. People reacted as if I were violated their personal space by smiling so uninhibitedly at them. I’ve thought long and hard on why this is, and I think it’s because such a smile that radiates such joy doesn’t merely invade personal space. It stares into the soul where light and darkness, hope and despair, community and loneliness all collide in a battle for you, me and everyone else on this earth. A baby can get away with such an offense, but not a 26-year-old man. My son is bringing the love of Jesus, a momentary glimpse into the kingdom of heaven, into the lives of strangers everywhere. As Mason writes, “Isn’t the kingdom of heaven a gentle invasion of personal space?”
Maybe, just maybe, this sort of invasion is what Jesus was getting at when He said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matthew 19:14, TNIV). You see, Ben gets it. He truly enjoys people—all people. And he’s not afraid to show it.
I look at Ben, and I see pure joy, joy that isn’t tarnished by greed, selfishness, oppression or hate. I see Jesus in Ben, and every other infant who, like Ben, smiles at me for no reason other than I am human.
Some may chalk Ben’s smiles up to his naiveté of how people really are. Sure, that may be there. But I chalk it up to the image of God stamped upon his soul (that same image stamped upon you and me) being unhindered by our sinful nature. Is Ben without sin? Of course not. His sinful nature is there, just like it is in you and me. But the difference between Ben and me is that he doesn’t let his sinful nature build up barriers between himself and others. I do, and I’m guessing most adults do too.
Loving people for nothing else other than the fact that they are human … now that’ll preach.