“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” John Bunyan
Craig Romkema is one of my favorite poets ever. He’s 36, loves watching basketball and is an avid fan of geography. I met Craig in 2011 for the first time. And in that first encounter, I spent 20 minutes with my arms around him, praying. As I prayed, his mom kept telling me how hard the last few months had been. Craig’s father had recently passed away and she was thinking of moving from Iowa to Raleigh to be closer to family, and to be able to attend our church regularly.
I listened, I smiled, and I kept trying to pray.
But more than anything else about that night, I remember the feeling of Craig’s beard on my fingertips.
Because Craig lives with the symptoms of autism and cerebral palsy. He has severe movement disability and is unable to have a one on one conversation without monumental assistance. His most basic point of connection is to grab your hand, put it on his chin and say the word, “tickle”.
He can comprehend this book, enjoy the new Avengers movie and have deep thoughts about history and politics, but he just can’t get it out of him. His brain functions are not that different from ours, but his body and his voice keep him in a prison of being misunderstood.
Imagine living in a country where you understand the language but nobody understands you. Imagine being in love with a person but every time you wanted to kiss them you ended up pushing them away. That’s what it’s like being Craig.
A few years after those first 20 minutes, Craig’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. We tried our absolute best as a church to be there for the family. Bringing meals over, praying with faith and hanging out with Craig so mom could go for her doctor’s visits. And that became my Thursday mornings. For weeks, I would pick up Craig and we would hang out together. Yes, there was always something “more important” to do that day... prepare a sermon, answer emails, lead a meeting, write this chapter.
Still, I couldn’t shake it. I needed more of Jesus. And spending time with Craig felt like the closest time with Jesus I had every week.
On our 3rd date together things began to get serious. As we were driving along, I noticed that Craig was focused on a car that was about to exit a cheap gas station car wash. I also noticed that my car needed a good clean so I sang out loud (in the necessary falsetto), “At the car wash... woooh! Talking about the car wash, yeah!”
I looked at my co-pilot, and after three seconds of nothing... Craig lost it.
So I lost it.
We laughed so hard my stomach began to properly hurt. I think I lost 3 pounds and gained one ab. And I understood why Karl Barth wrote,
“Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”
Just when the moment was about to pass, I felt compelled to sing it again, loud and proud, “At the car wash... woooh! Talking about the car wash, yeah!”
I’m pretty sure that’s the most I have ever laughed with another human being in a 20 minute stretch. Craig peed himself a little. And so did I.
I'm also pretty sure that’s the most I have ever enjoyed God’s presence while singing a song in my car (sorry Hillsong United).
Of course, we went straight to the car wash singing the song over and over again.You guessed it, Craig started singing with me! I would start with, “At the crash wash”... and he would add the sound effects.
Me: “Talking about the car wash” (Still in falsetto)
Craig: “ye-ah!” (In his beautiful, raspy, barely-understandable voice.)
For weeks and weeks my car was the cleanest vehicle in the state. Every Thursday morning I would pick up Craig, grab him a cup of decaffeinated coffee, read him Pablo Neruda poems inside Barnes and Nobles and then we would head over to the car wash.
* I'll add the song here so you can make it the soundtrack of the next few paragraphs.
My dad has a saying which he picked up from my abuelo, “Things that are done well, look well.” My mom also has a saying, which she told us on a weekly basis, “Life will teach you.” I can imagine you have a few of your own. Probably picked them up from a grandparent or an old boss.
Jesus had one.
It was the sort of quote that people heard, remembered and shared (his most tweet-able line). And yet it did not make it into the four gospel. We hear it via the Apostle Paul, while he’s speaking to a group of church leaders. He’s telling them about an upcoming, dangerous trip. He’s also reminding them to take care of God’s flock and to have no desire for wealth or fancy robes.
And his whole sermon is built on that famous echo (and one of the most basic things we forget about christianity) - “It is better to give than to receive.”
As in, “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)
The system of this world cannot understand that concept intellectually, it can only be experienced with the heart.
Notice that Paul is not telling unbelievers to try this. He is speaking to church leaders. It’s a reminder to those in authority of the ultimate roar from heaven. The style of the Kingdom; Giving not taking. Loving not drawing. Providing not withholding.
I must say that giving my time, my money, and my social energy to Craig was one of the best investments I have ever made to myself.
My charity became my pleasure.
The car-wash became the church.
My brother became my savior.
The man I was trying to help became a friend that helped me focus. I rediscovered the joy of friendship during my time with Craig. It was beautifully awkward to walk around the nicest mall in Durham, North Carolina with a grown man arresting my hand against his beard, and asking me to tickle him again.
Looking into my brother’s eyes made me realize how little I was looking into myself. Through his harsh voice and his broken walk, he showed me time and time again that a person with a disability has the ability to overcome the worst. Everyday. At every moment. This was written about him,
“A pioneer throughout his life, Craig has been the first with this disability to attend his local elementary school, to graduate with honors from his high school, and, after ten years of hard work, to receive his degree in English Literature from Dordt College.”
What a champion!
Trust me, I prayed many times for Craig to be healed. Still do. I wrestle with God because my friend is not well, and God could make him well, I know He can. However, while I wait for the miracle, I hang out with my brother. I love my brother where he is. I do whatever it takes to connect with him, to show him that he matters, that his life is valuable.
I like how Bob Goff said it,
“Give away time and you’ll find empathy. Give away empathy and you’ll find love. Give away love and you’ll find purpose. Keep trading up.”
When Craig’s beautiful mother passed away, I had the privilege of preaching at her funeral. There were no words to make the moment easier. I just shared the good news of Jesus because I knew that is exactly what she would have wanted her family to listen to. After reading Scripture, praying for the family and watching a slideshow of Craig’s mom with all the relatives, we gathered for snacks and sweets.
I wanted to provide comfort. I wanted to pastor the moment well. But the only thing I could offer to Craig at the funeral, was a look into his eyes and the sound of our song... “at the car wash, yeah!”
With tears and smiles on our faces, we’re sang it with others. It was a human moment; a sweet, awkward moment among friends. The kind of giving that is expecting nothing in return.
And I agree with Jesus, it was better.
Carlos A. Rodríguez is a pastor, an activist, and a communicator. He's the CEO of The Happy NPO and the author of Simply Sonship, Drop The Stones and the upcoming Proximity. Together with his wife Catherine, they have three gorgeous children and have moved to Puerto Rico to continue relief efforts all over the Caribbean (post hurricane Irma and Maria).
Support their non-profit work here at TheHappyGivers.com
* Buy this for a friend? 👇🏾