This is an abridged version of chapter 10 of ‘Love Does’ by Bob Goff, which I read over my time away at New Year’s, continuing a tradition of reading a book that someone else has brought to the cottage (see, The Kingdom of God is Like a Yoghurt Plant). I read it in company one of the evenings, and everyone loved this chapter. It’s a good book, and a very quick read, if ever you are able to get your hands on a copy.
The premise of the book is simple: it’s a collection of different stories from Bob’s own life about the way that following Jesus has made his ordinary life extraordinary. He writes of faith as living out love, which “involves being present and making a sacrifice” – and suggests that this is why Jesus is called Immanuel, ‘God with us’ – it is a love that does.
When the kids were growing up, we didn’t have a television in the house connected to a cable or an antenna. If something bad happened in the world, I wanted the kids to hear about it from us as parents. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I rushed home before the kids left for school and gathered them around our dining room table and told them what had happened. Like everyone else, we struggled for words to describe to our kids why such a thing would occur.
After talking for a while, I asked the kids this: “If you had five minutes in front of a group of world leaders, what would you ask them to help make sense of life, faith, hope, and the events that are unfolding around them?” and had each of them write down what they would ask on a piece of paper.
Adam, who was seven at the time, loved having people over to the house. I wasn’t surprised when Adam said that he would ask the world leaders if they wanted to come over to our house. When you’re seven, there’s nothing like having someone over to play with to get to know them better. Maybe, Adam thought, having the leaders over to the house could facilitate better understanding between each of these leaders and they would become better friends. I told Adam I thought his idea was a great one, and he wrote it down on a piece of paper.
Richard was next. He said he would ask each of the world leaders what they were hoping for. The idea was that if world leaders knew what each other were hoping for, then perhaps they could start hoping for the same things. Rich reasoned that the problem was no one knew what other people were quietly hoping for. Richard’s idea sounded super as well, so he wrote it down.
Lindsey was the last to go and had listened to her brothers’ ideas. As the oldest, she was the precocious one and had written down her idea already, and I read it out loud. If the leaders couldn’t come over to our house for a visit, then what if she and her brothers went to their houses to ask them what they were hoping for? Even better, she had written, all three kids should do a video interview with the leaders so they could share it with all the others. That way, each of these leaders would know what the others were hoping for and maybe find they were hoping for the same things. I was amazed at what fantastic imaginations these kids had. They didn’t even consider that what they were asking for was absurd or naive. Or that they needed to be famous or powerful to ask their questions. Perhaps what the leaders would prefer was a few innocent kids asking innocent questions of them.
I had the kids put their ideas together in one letter. Then we downloaded the names of every president, prime minister, or dictator of every country in the world from the CIA website. The information was all there; we just needed to figure out the addresses. The kids decided they didn’t just want to write to a couple of the leaders. They wanted to write to all of them. Heck, why not give them all an equal shot at meeting these great kids? I thought.
Next, we got a post office box. Mostly because we didn’t want Ahmadinejad knowing where we lived. Maria and I also made a deal with the kids. We told them that we’d mail all of the letters, and if we got even a single yes from one of the world leaders to their request for a meeting, we would take them!
We mailed the letters. Lots of them. Hundreds and hundreds of them. We waited a week or two and then every day after school, we would check the kids’ post office box for any mail. It wasn’t long before responses started coming. It was slow at first, maybe one or two a day. But then dozens started streaming in every day from all over the globe. We got a small globe of planet Earth and stuck a pin in every country whose leader responded. It wasn’t long before our little earth was peppered with hundreds of pins and looked like it was undergoing serious acupuncture treatments.
Pretty much every letter the kids received back said thanks but no thanks. But the wording was so eloquent that it still made the kids feel great. For instance, Tony Blair, prime minister of England at the time, hand-wrote something to the effect of “jolly good idea about meeting.” He still said no, but it was cool knowing he at least thought it was a nice idea. None of us were really sure what jolly good meant exactly, but the kids guessed it must be a nice way to say no. From then on, when I asked them to do their homework or the dishes they would say, “Jolly good!”
It was a Tuesday like any other day, and after school the kids and I swung by the post office to pick up their mail. They came springing out the door of the post office like they always did with a wad of letters wrapped in a huge rubber band. They jumped in the car and divided the letters between them in the backseat. There were several more nos but also a letter from the State House in Bulgaria. They opened it up together and started reading. Then came a shriek and from somewhere in the backseat the words that changed everything.
“We’re invited to the palace to meet!” the kids roared in unison.
“Of course you are!” I answered.
A day or two later, an envelope from the prime minister of Switzerland arrived, inviting them to Bern. Then a letter came from the president of Israel, inviting the kids to come to Jerusalem. Over the following weeks, they didn’t just get one yes—they got twenty-nine. Maria and I didn’t know what to do, so we did the best thing we could think of. We began a family training program to spruce up on our manners. One of the yeses came from a real live prince, so we taught the kids how to bow and curtsy too.
Maria and I had a promise to keep to the kids. So we told the school that we were pulling them out for a grand caper. Some of their teachers had a cow when we said how long we’d be gone and one wrote me a letter about it. I opened it, wrote “Tough!” on it, sent it back, and we left.
Now, if leaders were talking to grown-ups like me, they would talk about boring things like having more jobs, gross domestic product, better schools, and more roads. You know, the kind of stuff crafted for public consumption. But they weren’t talking to me; they were talking to our kids.
What would happen more often than not is that the kids would begin in an official reception room and have an official meeting with the leader. But then the leaders would realise these were just kids who had no agenda other than to be friends and they would invite us back to their private offices where they could just talk as friends. The kids would ask questions about the leaders’ families, how they got into public service, and what their hopes were for the future. The leaders would talk about their children and grandchildren, what they were doing when they were our kids’ ages, and their dreams of friendships between people from our two countries.
In one country, the kids were meeting across from the former Communist Party Headquarters and were escorted past guards wearing holsters with some serious guns peeking just out of their coats. Doors were opened to a large reception room with dozens of chairs lining a huge table that must have been fifty feet long. In the room was an interpreter who greeted the kids warmly, and after a short time, we heard heavy steps coming down the hallway announcing the arrival of the leader.
A stout man with a grave expression entered the room, came toward us down the length of the table, and sat down. There was an electrified hush in the room. The leader peered at the kids and said in Russian, “Children, I’m more nervous meeting you than if I were meeting with President Bush right now.” There was a long pause as the translator finished the sentence in English.
“And when I get nervous,” he grumbled through his accent and paused, “I get hungry!”
With these words, his demeanour completely transformed. He clapped his hands and palace servants flooded into the room with trays and trays of kid food, the kind you would eat at a sleepover. Our end of the table was soon covered with strawberry tarts, pastries you could hardly see because of all the icing and cherries, unknown delights doused with whipped cream, and mountains of ice cream. The leader sat back and grinned and watched the kids’ faces beam with excitement. “Eat!” he shouted as he raised his arms to present this feast fit for child kings.
The kids tried to practice their manners, but they were appropriately swept up in the enormity of what was before them. By the time they were finished—they didn’t even make a dent, to be honest—their faces were almost totally smudged with sugar and happiness. But they got hold of themselves, wiped their faces clean with napkins that you don’t throw away, and focused on the business at hand.
But before they could even launch into the questions, the leader leaned toward the kids and looked furtively from side to side like he was about to tell them a secret. In a whispered voice he said, “You know, when I was your age, my dad used to pretend that he had forgotten his hat in the woods and would send me to fetch it. Don’t tell my soldiers this, but I was afraid that the bears were going to get me. So I would whistle like this . . .” He broke out into a whistled song for the children and he had them whistle along. Then, with the look of a sincere friend in a heavy Russian accent, he said to the kids, “This is my promise to you: I’ll never let the bears get you.”
And with that preamble, he shared his thoughts drenched in sincerity about how a friend knows what you need even before you ask. He ended his talk with these words that still ring true for our family.
“You know what it is about someone that makes them a friend? A friend doesn’t just say things; a friend does.”
At the end of each interview, the kids thanked the leader for taking the time to meet as they handed over a small red box. Each leader carefully unwrapped their present, lifted the lid, and held up the key to our front door. The kids told each leader that they had really meant it about coming to our home and invited them to bring their keys when they came—you know, since they were friends now.
The prince loved his key, promised that he would make good use of it, and invited his new young friends to dinner at his house. This kind of invitation happened often because, even though the formal meetings were over, friendship creates a whole new economy. When people realize there’s no agenda other than friendship and better understanding, it changes things. The leaders realized we weren’t there to tell them to stop doing this, start doing that, or talk about controversies or conflicting beliefs or plans.
I want to live in a new normal where I can reach out to people who are different from me and just be friends. I remember hearing in elementary school that we could be pen pals with someone far away. That was great and all, but there’s a big difference between being pen pals and being real pals. To make an impact you have to go there and start a friendship. Friends do—they don’t just think about it.
When the kids returned from one of the trips, they read that Tun Mahathir, the prime minister of Malaysia and longest-serving leader in Asia, had hosted the world Islamic Conference. Mahathir drew significant criticism from the international community by saying the words in his keynote address “Death to America, and death to Israel.” Our State Department condemned the comments, but the kids had a better idea. They had just met with the president of Israel and wanted to share his hopes with Tun Mahathir in another in-person meeting. They sent a letter and the next week, Mahathir’s people cabled back that he would meet them just outside of Kuala Lumpur the following Wednesday. It’s pretty short notice to fly around the world, but we figured, what the heck? So we sold the pickup truck and went! Because that’s how love rolls; it does.
Something happens when you get engaged, doesn’t it? It changes everything. And the friendships made during those early days by the kids continue to this day and have dramatically expanded. Why? Because they were authentic friendships; there were no angles, no plan in particular other than to be friends. There was no agenda either; there was nothing on the other side of the equals sign to make it balance—just us. And it was all about whimsy, but it was a strategic whimsy on the kids’ part, one that was wise beyond its years.
You’ll never guess what happened a little while later. Lindsey opened up her e-mail and there was a short note from a leader from one of the countries. It didn’t say much, just this: “Dear Lindsey, we miss you and your brothers. Can we please use our key and come over for a sleepover?”
And they did.