Not Orphaned

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I have some ‘go-to’ sources that usually give me a way to start reflecting on the lessons appointed for a Sunday when I am preaching. In one of those places, I read a very helpful reflection about the passage in John appointed for today, and how we are called to live “Paraklete (Advocate) kinds of lives.” (www.workingpreacher.com) Though the phrase captured my imagination, the rest of the essay felt quite theoretical and disengaged. Nonetheless, today’s reading, and that phrase, “live a Paraklete kind of life” reminded me of something that happened many years ago.

This is the core of my sermon based on John 14:15-21:

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” I don’t know if you have ever felt orphaned. For me, the experience came early in life. I’ve shared before that a birth defect in my left hip made it necessary for me to have significant surgery and medical care through my childhood. It was my fortune and blessing that my parents were able to take me to Boston where I had all my surgeries at Children’s Hospital.

Even as late as 1968, when I was 8 years old and had another surgery at Children’s, the hospital set and strictly enforced visiting hours for parents. My mom could be with me from mid-morning till about 5 in the evening. After that, I was on my own, pretty much trapped in a full-length cast, waiting for sleep to come. We humans have an incredible capacity to adapt so, by and large, I learned to say my goodbyes at the end of the day without making a scene, though the leave-taking never got easy.

 One evening, I was washed over with a tidal wave of fear and loneliness as I watched my mami walk out the door of my hospital room. It kept getting worse and worse, until I lay in my hospital bed, just weeping. My bed was next to a big plate window that looked out into the hallway of the unit, and a woman—not a nurse, but perhaps a volunteer, or a hospital employee—must have walked by my room, seen my distress, and came in to find out why I was so sad. All I could say through sobs was, “I miss my mami”. She managed to get me to tell her where my mami was, then, she unlocked the wheels of my bed and literally rolled it out of the room and, down the hall to the public phone by the elevators. There was a phone book, hanging below the phone, like there used to be at phone booths, and before long, she had managed to get me to tell her that my mom was staying at the Longwood Inn, had taken out a nickel from her purse, had dialed and gotten my mother on the phone. To this day, almost 50 years later, I can still feel the indescribable relief and comfort of hearing my mother’s voice at the other end of the line. We didn’t talk long, but long enough for my mami to reassure me that morning would come quickly and she’d be back with me; then, the woman rolled my bed back into the hospital room and left.  

 The whole encounter could not have lasted longer than 15-20 minutes. It was a small enough moment that it brings to mind Julian of Norwich, who once found something as small as a hazelnut and gazing on it in the palm of her hand, she said, “I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall.” She goes on to add, “In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.” 

 That moment on the 6th floor of Children’s on a summer night in 1968 was such that it might have “fallen into nothing for its littleness”. And it meant the difference between life and death for the spirit and heart of a young child. Because she lived, I lived. I’ll never know the woman’s name. I’ll never get to thank her. In the larger span and scope of her life and mine, let alone the arc of human history, that moment was so tiny as to be insignificant. Nonetheless, she abides in me, and I will always abide in the sheer grace and salvation she offered me that evening. This was a Holy Spirit kind of moment, an absolute affirmation of the generous, creative, bold Spirit of Love described by Jesus in this passage.

I only preached at 8:00 this morning. Bishop Kee came for his visit and for Confirmation. He is gentle; there is a lightness of touch in his words, so I laugh and delight in his use of language and attention to detail. Then wham, I look up and he’s brought me right up against that unchanging, incredibly hard call of the Gospel—to live into the commandment given by Jesus: Love God. Love one another as I have loved you. Love not just your family. Not just your tribe. Not just the members of your denomination or religion or nationality or race or political party. Everybody. Everybody. We must love one another.

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