Henri Nouwen died in 1996. He was a priest, a professor, a theologian and a spiritual writer. Before he died, he was the spiritual director of a L’Arche community in Toronto, Canada. L’Arche communities are communities of mentally impaired adults found all throughout the world. In his book The Road to Daybreak, Henri recounts this incident. He was invited to give a lecture in the United States, which meant that he would be gone from Daybreak for a few days. He had learned never to leave the community without taking one of the mentally impaired members of the community with him.
The first time he left after having been in the community for a while, everyone thought he was never coming back. No amount of words to the contrary could convince them that Henri was only going for a few days. Every time after that, when he had to leave, he would make certain to take one of the mentally impaired persons with him. This time he asked Bill Van Buren to go. They entered the lecture hall together where great applause welcomed Henri. He then proceeded to introduce Bill who stood up proudly. There was some applause. As Henri went to the podium, Bill followed him. Henri wasn’t sure what to expect. He began to speak using a manuscript, and every time he finished a page, Bill would reach over, take it, and proudly place it on top of the preceding page.
At the end of the lecture, everyone cheered; Henri’s lecture was a great success. But to Henri’s surprise, Bill proudly by his side, whispered in his ear, “I’d like to say something.” Henri thought, “Gosh, he’s going to embarrass himself. I don’t want that to happen.” But at another level, Henri knew in his heart of hearts that he felt he might be embarrassed. Finally he said, “Sure, Bill.” Bill went to the podium. He looked out over the vast audience. His shoulders thrown back, he said, “Hello. My name is Bill. The last time Henri left Daybreak he took Steve with him. This time he asked me. I’m very happy to be here. Thank you very much.” Well, the audience broke out in thunderous applause. Everybody stood up and clapped for a good three minutes. Bill stood there smiling. If you were to ask anyone in that grand auditorium, what Henri Nouwen said they would not remember a word. However, you can bet your last dollar they all would remember Bill. They would remember him proudly turning those pages. They would remember his simple words. They would remember the look on his face. They would remember the love he had for Henri. They would remember Bill.
Who are the people who have turned the pages of your life? Some of them, I suspect, you will never know. They still, in their own way, have turned the pages of your life. Some of them you know well. Stop and think for a moment. Imagine him. Imagine her. They have stood by your side; they have helped you live by turning the pages of your life so that you can shine. They are the people who have been proud of your successes, the people who are sad when you leave home, the people who always lift you up, the people who show you who matters and what matters, the people who have shown you Jesus.
The challenge is this: “Whose pages of life are you turning?” By whose side are you standing, helping them get through the day’s task, building them up? When the last bell tolls for you and you stand at heaven’s gate, the four sentences that will get you in are these: “Hello, my name is ________. I came with Jennie and Andy, Pat and Judy, Margaret and Masa, Kate and Sue, Josephine and Larry, Nate and Mary. I’m very happy to be here. Thank you very much.”