It is so that I cannot hear Jesus’ promise today without pausing in an experience that surely shaped my own family story. It is a story of being ‘orphaned.’
My dad was all of five years old when his own father died. His death was unexpected and, no doubt this, combined with it being an entirely different time and influenced by his family’s not knowing how to handle this, no one told actually him that his father had died. Trying to soften the reality for him (and probably the rest of them as well), instead he was told that his dad had ‘gone away’ — as though that would make matters any better.
It was not much later that another child on the playground broke the truth to him, telling him that Tom Clark had not, in fact, ‘gone away,’ but instead he was dead and buried.
It is worth noting here that the point of my sharing this now is that my dad recalled none of this, for the trauma of it caused him erase the event and everything that came before and after for some time from his memory altogether. In fact, he would tell you that he had no childhood memories whatsoever until his mother remarried and, as he put it, there was a greater sense of security in his life. It was then finally safe to remember.
Oh, it’s not as though he was actually ‘orphaned,’ but the experience of losing his father in the heart of the Great Depression left his world turned upside down. As you can imagine, there was not a lot of work for a young widow in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1933, and while Beulah did all she could to care for her two sons, no doubt it was a precarious time. And if this was so in 1933, just imagine what it was to be ‘orphaned’ in the time of Jesus. Undoubtedly, then and now, it has always an experience of profound vulnerability which could lead to extreme poverty — even death —- not just the death of memory.
And so I wonder now how we are to receive Jesus’ promise that he will not leave his disciples, all of us, ‘orphaned.’ Surely it is not merely physical provision nor protection he seeks to ensure now, for legend has it that many of his first disciples met imprisonment and death because of their ongoing witness to him. Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if what Jesus offers in this promise is a sense of continuing identity — lives which are not void of purpose or meaning. And oh, even more than that, perhaps in the promised certainty of his continued presence, to not be left ‘orphaned’ means that those so not abandoned will have the courage, the hope, the freedom to live lives of profound love. As Jesus did. To be sure, those who are traumatized by profound abandonment may always be less able to be and do all that we are called to be and do as followers of Jesus. His promise is to not cut us off from all that leads to life.
And I wonder this, too. It is my suspicion as we see the decline of involvement in congregations — in intentional Christian communities, if you will — that a whole lot of the world now has no sense of the meaning of this promise for them. Indeed, I expect that a whole lot of those whom I encounter have no appreciation for the value of this gift as more and more have been or are being raised in homes and communities where they are given no opportunity to know this profound security and the gifts it brings and the lives to which we are called because of it. They may not be ‘orphaned’ in this life now, but they have no sense of what it is to receive this kind of connection in this particular family, to use the metaphor Jesus starts with today.
And yet, this last week, I encountered one who did — one who would have no earthly reason to — but she did.
I had traveled to Springfield, Illinois to join with others for ‘Lutheran Day.’ We spent the morning learning and being trained to lobby our state representatives and the afternoon trying to track them down at the state capitol, which you may know, is something of a challenge when they are in session. You may or may not know that the state of Illinois has been without a state budget for nearly 24 months. As you can imagine, this political gridlock has real and dire consequences for the most vulnerable among us. We were there to urge them to adopt a budget which addresses those profound needs.
So it was that my representative’s administrative assistant, Christine, was sitting at her desk when I approached. I asked if he was in. After checking, she ushered me in saying it was fine as long as I was willing to watch him eat his lunch. When our conversation was finished, I stepped into the outer office where Christine stopped me. She had seen my clerical collar and wanted to share her story. She told me then that she had not grown up in church, but that she and her sister were both active in congregations now. Christine is Catholic and her sister is Lutheran. And then she pulled me over to a bulletin board and showed me pictures of her own children — the youngest of whom is pictured celebrating her First Communion.
Somewhere along the way, Christine became aware of the fact that there was something more available to her than what she had always known. That the status of ‘orphan’ in her life — particularly in her life of faith — was not what was meant for her. And on Tuesday afternoon, she saw another ‘member of the family’ and made sure that I knew we were connected to one another.
We did not have time then for me to hear exactly how it was that she came to this realization, and yet I cannot help but wonder if there is a hunger in each of us for this kind of connection and meaning. I know this thought is not new, of course, and it followed that my brief perusal of the internet the other day brought me to these words penned in 1670 by Blaise Pascal:
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” – Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)
I am not certain that God was once ‘there’ within each of us and left an empty space to be filled later, but I have experienced that hunger, that helplessness myself and I am alternately confident and hopeful that this is so for all the others in this world God made. And yet, I am left to wonder how it is that those who do not know that they can take this promise for granted, can somehow come to know that this is so. That no matter what else may be true, they and we are not left orphaned.
- Is it enough for you and I who have been so profoundly buoyed and blessed by this truth to simply speak of this gift to those who may not have known this is theirs to rely upon?
- Are we safe in presuming that the words of Blaise Pascal in 1670 are still so? That everyone we meet does hunger for this connection, this sense of purpose, this core identity, this promise that we are not ‘orphaned’?
- And isn’t it also so that this certain truth of Jesus’ constant presence makes it not only safe to remember but also to look ahead in confidence and hope?
Indeed, how do you hear Jesus’ words of promise today? How does it make a difference in your living that you have not been left ‘orphaned?’ And how might it make a difference in the lives of those you know — brothers and sisters the world over for whom this promise also may ring true if only it is spoken aloud to them?