Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

NPR ran a story the other day that brought me to tears. About a former mortgage banker Ray Jackman, who now works full-time with kids with severe disabilities. About those kids — kids like Robbie McAllister, a teenager with cerebral palsy — who live and learn at the Massachusetts Hospital School, a pediatric care facility and school for those with severe, long-term conditions. And, about the exhilaration of trust.

Every week Jackman takes a few of these kids out to ski. The skiing lesson is no ordinary operation. In McAllister’s case, Jackman has to hoist the 19-year-old out of his wheelchair and into a funny-looking, neon chair contraption. There are some seriously intimidating seat belt buckles to work with, too. Then Jackman and a volunteer together manage to lift McAllister and his seat onto the ski lift.

At the top of the slopes, Jackman launches into his lesson. “Let’s fly down that mountain at 100mph. I want to beat that able-bodied person,” he says.

Learning to Trust

For a kid like McAllister, who has little to no control over his muscles, the ensuing exercise is a lesson in total trust: in order to ride at breakneck speed down a mountain, he must first leave the safe confines of his electric wheel chair — his “comfort zone.” And he has to put his trust fully in the care of Jackman, who on the ride down is six feet behind him, using two tether lines to direct their downward descent and brake when needed.

All the way down you can hear the loud, garbled sounds of one teenager’s terror and excitement at the exhilarating rush of sudden mobility. At the bottom of the slope, he’s beaming after the ride of a lifetime. That smile is the only reinforcement Jackman needs to know that his Herculean efforts were worth it.

In the constant, often frantic push and shove of life’s many responsibilities, I can find myself forgetting to breathe. To clutch tightly and anxiously on the reins and to hold my breath — to assume my rightful control in these situations — is a default practice. Maybe it’s an automatic reflex for many of us. (Is it distrust or mistrust or a combination, I wonder?)

But the image of a kid who, locked in a wheelchair, can beam widely back at the world in a condition of helpless, courageous trust on a risky and breathtaking joy ride … that’s what exhilarating trust looks like in answer to the sometimes heart-stoppingly scary enterprise of being human. Existentially, we’re all that kid in the wheelchair. We’re all bound in some form of paralysis. None of us can cheat death or ultimately control our destiny. God knows this.

But we can trust. We can exhale. We can beam back at the world in surrender.