I’m looking forward to one of the most intriguing reunions I’ve ever anticipated: reconnecting with a former cocaine dealer who I last saw — and interviewed for a newspaper column — when he was 15 years old.
Before he went to prison. Before his father joined him in the drug-dealing business and killed himself the night before father and son were to go to trial. Before the two of us began writing each other, off and on, for nearly three decades as he bounced from prison to prison.
Now, he’s a free man — and 44 years old. And I’m going to make good on a long-ago promise to buy him dinner to celebrate his freedom.
I sent him a copy of my book 52 Little Lessons from Les Miserables (Thomas Nelson, 2014) because the man is a living, breathing Jean Valjean. Remember? Victor Hugo’s protagonist is released from prison after 19 years, having originally been placed there for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family.
But nobody trusts him. Nobody will even give him a room. Except for a bishop, who welcomes him, feeds him and, most importantly, forgives him after Valjean takes off in the night with the bishop’s silverware.
“I’m glad to see you,” says the bishop as Valjean stands before him, flanked by two police officers, “but I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver like the rest and would bring two hundred francs. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?”
Grace. Second chances. Redemption. The stuff that Jesus is all about.
A rare act that necessarily begins with a relationship. Which is what we as writers of faith should never take for granted: the idea that our profession is about so much more than punching words into a computer. Or even stories.
It’s about relationships. And not just the ones we write about. But the ones we create as we write — with sources, editors, librarians, archivists, a Jewish woman in Jerusalem who wound up translating all my Yiddish for a book on the first nurse to die after the landings at Normandy, American Nightingale (Atria Press, 2004), you name it.
I was 32 when I met that young who just got out of prison. I am now 61. In the intervening years, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we are to be about more than writing. We are to be about relationships.
A Pharisee saw a chance to back Jesus into a corner. What, he asked, was the most important commandment? Jesus didn’t hesitate.
“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
As writers, I’ve often thought our privilege was getting to be four-wheel-drive vehicles with the ability to go where others can’t or won’t.
I would not have met this modern-day Jean Valjean had I not been a newspaper columnist at the time.
I would not be hiking nearly weekly with a new friend had I not met him when writing about his 125-foot fall from atop Oregon’s 9,184-foot Mt. Thielsen.
I would not have had the chance to hear a Belgian innkeeper tell me what it was like, as an 8-year-old boy, to watch Hitler’s army goose-stepping into town in May 1940, had I not been writing a book on that WWII nurses.
There’s this idea that, as writers, we’re to wall ourselves off from the world, light a candle, and write, write, write. And, frankly, I love that part of the job. But our words build bridges to countless people with whom we might be salt and light. And it behooves us to remember that before we were writers, we were — and are — people.
In our case, people called to relationship — with God and with other people.