Today, aged 17, approaching his birthday and official adulthood, José is facing up to the prospect of having to leave the shelter and create a life for himself beyond the familiar walls.
Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind. The kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday.
When the columnist Mary Schmich wrote these words in the Chicago Tribune in 1997 they, along with the rest of the column Wear Sunscreen became a viral sensation. They so struck a chord that when Baz Luhrmann turned them into an ambient dance track, it became a number 1 hit in several countries.
I was partly responsible for the success of this single (well, I bought the CD along with thousands of others). There are some great one-liners in there: Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they’re gone; The older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young; Don’t mess too much with your hair, or by the time you’re 40, it will look 85; and of course, wear sunscreen. But the stanza above has always particularly struck me.
I was recently blindsided in Guatemala when I met José*. I’d gone with my colleagues from the Bible Society to a government-run shelter for children just outside of Guatemala City. All of the 800 boys and girls in the shelter were in some way or another wards of the State. Some were orphans, some had special educational needs, and some had been rescued from gangs – nine year-olds who had been given a gun and told to kill. These children rarely if ever leave the shelter, both for their own safety and for the safety of others.
During my visit I had the privilege to speak to fifty of the boys as part of a gathering organised by the Bible Society volunteers. What do you say in such a situation? I’ve rarely felt so inadequate. As I stumbled through a short talk about David the Shepherd boy, I was increasingly aware of the privileges of my childhood and that of my own children.
After I’d finished a young man, José, asked to speak with me privately. As we withdrew to a corner I asked, via translation, what was on his mind. Immediately his face, which had been a hard and expressionless mask, crumpled as the tears rolled down. Between sobs, José told us that when he was a young boy, he was abandoned by his parents and taken in by his aunt. Not long afterwards, his aunt also abandoned him and he became a ward of the State, entering the government shelter aged 11. In the intervening years he has never been visited by a family member. Not once.
This is the same experience as eighty percent of the children in the shelter. Today, aged 17, approaching his birthday and official adulthood, he is facing up to the prospect of having to leave the shelter and create a life for himself beyond the familiar walls. And he was terrified. He was preparing to leave the only home he’d ever known, for a world that had, in the experience of his short life, totally rejected him.
I can’t even begin to imagine the fear, the isolation. And the reality was, as I stood with José in the concrete yard of an institution full of forgotten children, that Schmich’s words on their own, however valiant in sentiment and however beautifully-crafted, had a hollow ring to them.
But there’s another famous passage that exhorts us not to worry. In the Gospels, Matthew records Jesus saying:
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
These words took on a new meaning for me that day. And how, might you ask, do they differ from Schmich’s poignant soliloquy? Because we are in the hands of God himself. Not a distant, impersonal God, sitting on a cloud, itching to punish us.
But a God who broke into our world as a helpless baby, born with the hint of human disgrace hanging over his head; the child of refugees, hunted by the authorities, raised in poverty and persecuted for bringing a message of mercy and love.
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