Where the Beautiful Gate in the ancient city was exactly, I’m not sure. I’ve been to Israel a couple of times and somewhere beneath two centuries of life is the entrance near Solomon’s porch where Peter and John healed the lame man.
Max Lucado describes the scene this way:
”The needy man saw the apostles, lifted his voice, and begged for money. They had none to give, yet still they stopped. “Peter and John looked straight at him and said, ‘Look at us!” (Acts 3:4). They locked their eyes on his with such compassion that “he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them” (v.5). Peter and John issued no embarrassed glance, irritated shrug, or cynical dismissal but an honest look.”
God Will Have To Build It
When I began serving in the special needs department in our church, I admit I was a bit startled and a little timid. Some of the pain and suffering I witnessed caused my throat to tighten. Using just her eyes and a look, special needs pioneer Pastor Gina Spivey would urge me, “Suck it up, Peña.” She is as natural with those impacted by disabilities as I am with breathing. Over the years, she’s taught me that not everyone with special needs is in pain, but from my own experience, many are. And for some, it’s bad. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Disability is not easy on the eyes.
When I was in Romania last year, a young girl was brought to the Joni & Friends outreach. Being the photo journalist on the trip, I would often escort therapists outside as they received their next patient. One girl in particular stands out in my mind. She was lying across the back seat of a car. Her face was puffy and pale. She was drooling and moaning. Her face was so swollen I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open. A tiny tube designed to remove fluid from her lungs every hour was in her nose and taped to her face. I noticed that she was dressed for winter while the rest of us were in t-shirts. She will never walk, talk, play with friends, hold a book or meet a boy. I struggled to hold it together. Where was Gina when I needed her?
Catching only bits and pieces of my interpreter’s broken English, I came to realize the woman who brought the child was her grandmother. The young girl’s parents had died a few years earlier, and the man who brought them wasn’t the dad, just the driver; the taxi driver. Which explains why - as everyone else was working to carefully transfer the girl inside the facility - he was leaning against the hood to light another cigarette. Meter running, I suppose.
I’ll never forget standing behind the curtain with physical therapist, Colleen, as she surveyed the rows of a hundred donated wheelchairs and random parts; one hand on her hip and the other supporting her nose. “I don’t know how I can help this little girl. God will have to build this chair.”
A Gut Feeling
I was witnessing compassion. Colleen gave up her vacation and paid her own way to join a rag-tag team of other volunteers in the distant outreaches of Bucharest. Without her brilliant, bio-mechanical mind, the people in need would not be measured correctly for their chairs. But without her heart, the little girl from the back seat of a rented taxi would not have been truly “seen.”
A modern-day Peter and John, Colleen saw this little girl for the child of God she was and went to work to make it a little easier for her caregivers to get her around. If the grandmother ever describes Jesus to her family, she could very well describe him as a middle-aged woman in scrubs with thick glasses who spent a lot of time making sure the foot rests would accommodate growing, paralyzed legs.
That was Colleen. Military units have words to describe people like Colleen. Brave, trusted, equipped, selfless and compassionate.
I’ve learned the word compassion has its root meaning as being somewhere “in the bowels.” The belly. The gut. The bowels I understand were once thought of as the seat of “love and pity” and an ancient word that describes the impact to someone’s deepest parts. I have a sense it’s where we get the phrase, “a gut feeling.” And that day, my gut told me that a little girl who couldn’t walk, speak or see was going to receive a newly constructed wheelchair no matter what.
You Can Spot A Fake
Back in my old fitness magazine days, we would often used fake weight on photo shoots to help save the models from wear and tear. The weight would need to resemble the workout plan’s prescription, of course, but in order to get all of the shots over the course of a day or two, we needed the load on the bar to appear like 400 lb., but to really be half that. The sweat on the brow was real, but the look on the face was an act. (I would know.) I would call for the model to “grit your teeth,” and “squint the eyes,” or “smile through the pain.” Not only was I the resident fitness director, I became an expert in facial expressions.
Reminds me that in the old city, the Beautiful Gate that led to Solomon’s temple was likely a very popular place for the blind, the lame as well as for con artists to congregate. Some sat there each day in desperate need of anything someone could give. Others were there to swindle all they could get.
I tell ya. I’ve been to every stop along this faith and fitness road. I’ve seen just about everything. I’ve seen the healthy body stage, the stewardship phase, and the self-worth craze. I’ve seen congregations turned into runways where authors like me could strut. I’ve been around long enough to know what’s real.
Move With Compassion
Anyway, a few hours later, we were again outside on the dirt road about to lay that sweet girl into the backseat as we tried to fit her custom-made wheelchair in the trunk of the cab. Unsure of the circumstances this little patient was going back to, Colleen - exhausted mentally and physically - was under the arm of teammate who was praising her work.
Per tradition, we needed a photograph of the moment. We placed the sweet child and her new chair up against the wall and asked Colleen and others to surround her. When it came time for me snap the pic, Colleen tried to smile. She couldn’t. Tears raced from the corners of her eyes to the corners of her mouth. I suppose I could have asked her to smile through the pain, but I know a fake smile when I see one.
Lowering the camera down from my eyes, I stood there realizing that God’s antidote for people in dire need can come in many forms; even in the form of washed-up weightlifters and wanna-be writers like me. Beautiful gates, it seems, can be found in every corner of the world. You just have to find them. You may have to step out of the shadow of the squat rack, social media, and the perfect filters, but when you do, you may just find yourself walking alongside Peter, John and Colleen. And if you find someone in pain or need, you just need to follow their example. Stop, look, and help.
I’m not sure how an old fitness fanatic can become a disability advocate, but I think it has something to do with grace.
The blurry banner image at the top of this entry is a pic of the little girl we had the humble privilege of serving. We wanted one of her alone. And when everyone stepped back, I like to think she smiled.