The recent passing of actress Patty Duke led me to want to revisit a movie from my childhood: The miracle worker from 1962. It depicts the impact of the teacher Anne Sullivan on the young deaf and blind Helen Keller. As I watched the movie, where both actresses, Duke and Anne Bancroft, won Academy Awards for their on-screen portrayal I repeatedly thought of the parallels to missional mandate.
1. People are blind and this leads to all kinds of behavioral dysfunction.
The Kellers, although loving, were overwhelmed with the needs of their daughter, who was allowed to set her own social behavior. Keller's table manners were somewhat nonexistent in any definition which made interaction difficult at best. Spiritual blindness also leads to various forms of social and spiritual dysfunction.
2. Your past shapes you.
Face your deficiencies and acknowledge them; but do not let them master you. Let them teach you patience, sweetness, insight.
-- Helen Keller
Anne Sullivan had her own experience with time spent in institutions, plus additionally an eye virus led to functional blindness and even severe pain. Multiple operations would not cure her condition. Her younger brother died in the institution while she was young and the inner emotional pain could either hinder or motivate her. So chose the latter.
All of us have a history that we have experienced. Some have stories that lead us listeners to be somber and express sympathy. Will that backdrop cause us to use it to comfort others (see 2. Cor. 1) or retreat in self-pity?
3. How do you reach someone locked in their own world?
The challenge of impacting someone locked away is always a challenge. Issues of mistrust must be overcome, tenacity in light of rejection, lack of support from others, etc are all on the table.
4. Trust precedes influence.
Most of the movie depicts the mistrust Helen has for Anne Sullivan. That led to dramatic physical confrontation, which led to further allienation. That even set the stage for mistrust within the Keller parents, which threatened to prevent any relationship.
Working with entire families in first generation evangelism will bring confrontation and trust issues. I know of no way to circumvent this conflict - faithfulness and longevity will be the only tool to build respect and eventually trust. There is no shortcut.
5. Persistant love is a language.
Everyone speaks the language of love. Even when articulating a message that can be grasped is difficult, we should not give up. Sullivan repeatedly asks: How can I reach you? to the deaf Helen. She understood Helen first, then grasped that Helen had a unsatiable desire to learn. She added value to Helen which motivated the young girl to overcome her mistrust.
6. A breakthrough moment.
Wah-wah. At the household water pump, the culmination of a confrontation leads to the dramatic moment where the light goes on for Helen and she begins to see with the eyes of her heart. She makes the realization that it is Miss Sullivan that will unlock a world, rather than restrict and a change occurs.
We do not know when the time will occur, nor always the elements involved to result in spiritual sight, but it will be what keeps us going in the darkest days of conflict and emotional pain. It is worth it. Leading someone to the source of spiritual water and have them realize how vital it is, will be addicting.
The two became life-long companions. When the aged Anne Sullivan passed away at 70 years of age, it was Helen Keller who was holding the hand of her beloved Teacher.
Rare footage of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.