Carol Howard Merritt: "I Will Not Leave You Orphaned"


When my daughter was about five years old, we went browsing in a bookstore in D.C. when we realized that a writer named Daniel Handler was signing books. It took us a while to figure out that Daniel Handler was actually Lemony Snickets, a children's author known for his morbid humor. Lemony Snickets wrote A Series of Unfortunate Events, books about three siblings whose parents die. So, my daughter picked out a book and we stood in line. When I read the signature, Handler had inscribed in the book, "To a future orphan." I looked down at my beautiful, tiny daughter with the words in her hand and became horrified. It was such a terrible thought and such a true statement. Finally, I had to laugh.

Of course, in the best of circumstances, my daughter will be a future orphan. Hopefully, it will be when she is at least 50 years old, because I could not imagine leaving her before then. I want to share in the joy of her accomplishments and the heartache of her losses. I want to be there when she finds love in the vast array of places we find it - in her creativity, in her career, in beauty, or with another person. It hurts too much to imagine that I would not be there for her to care for her. It was a thought I could not bear when she had those skinny arms of a five-year old and I held her in my lap. And it's a thought I cannot bear now, even though when we hug, she towers over me. My arms still ache for her, and I want to cry, "I will not leave you orphaned."

I want to focus on that ache, for a moment. It's difficult to concentrate on, of course. It's an invisible thing, the world cannot see it, that attraction that makes a mother long for her child. But even though the yearning might not be visible, it remains one of the strongest forces in the world. When a nursing mom hears her infant cry, her entire body responds - emotionally, chemically, and physically. And that alertness hardly dissipates as the child grows and becomes less physically dependent on her mother. Something draws them together - that pull which forces a mother to pick up her distressed toddler is the same lure that compels a daughter to pick up the phone when she is in crisis twenty years later. That pull that draws them to share a dining table during holidays, even when they will inevitably get on one another's nerves. That longing requires them to forgive one another, to mend their ruptured relationship, even when they hurt one another deeply. 

The ache. The longing. Sometimes we do not know it until we are separated from our loved ones and it becomes even stronger. It is that hope that causes a father to stand at the driveway of his home, looking into the horizon, just so that he can welcome his prodigal son back. Even when that son has squandered every gift he has been given, even when the son does not have a single success story to carry back to his father. His father keeps looking, hoping, craving for his empty arms to be filled.

And for the son, it is that insatiable hunger for his father's pride. The yearning that causes the son to look up and steal glances at his father, hoping for some sign of approval.

It is this craving for a loving relationship that will, above all else, haunt a person at his or her deathbed.

Whether it is the bond between a parent and a child, or between two lovers, or two friends - it is our reminder that our lives are inextricable. If we have to traverse the continents to see one another, we will. Then we will cherish each moment that we have to share, in the same way that we savor the fleeting sweetness of honey or the beauty of a sunset. We delight in walking next to one another, in spending hours in the pleasure of each other's company, in carrying each other's burdens, and even in laying down our lives for one another.

Yet, as a pastor, I know that these relationships are imperfect. I have spent hours in my office, listening to people as they sort them out. Half of marriages end in divorce. Families can cause massive pain. Friends often betray us. Given all the pain that can occur, it seems that most of us would be better off living in complete solitude. Yet, we do not. We still live in such a way that we are intimately tangled up in each other's lives. There is something that draws us to each other.

What is this strange magnet? What is this pull that connects us? What is this thing that draws us into relationship with one another, even though hurt is inevitable, even though we will say the wrong thing, even though we will let one another down, even though betrayals happen? Why do we long for one another, even though we know that there will be inevitable heartache involved? What draws us together, in pleasure and in forgiveness?

I think it might be the same thing that allowed Jesus to look at his friends, the ones who would inevitably betray him, with the overwhelming concern and love. It was the yearning that compelled Jesus to say, "I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you."

We are made in the image of God, and in that image, we long for one another. We work with one another and delight in each other. Our lives are not complete without company. There is something divine in that way that we can share our space, our households, and our breath. Because the Holy Spirit binds us to one another in these extraordinary ways.

In this passage, Jesus gives us a glimpse into the ways in which we are made in God's image, and in that vision, he describes his relationship with God, his parent. He describes this incredibly intimate bond, where they grow into one another, like vines and branches. Twisting in and out, relying on each other. And Jesus does an extraordinary thing as he describes this divine interconnection. Jesus draws us into the relationship, saying, "I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you." With the presence of the Holy Spirit, Jesus explains that we will be intimately entwined in one another. We will be absolutely dependent on each other.

I remember when I woke to this interdependence, and I became aware of how much my life was reliant on God. You see, I grew up as a fundamentalist and went to a Bible School. During that time, I realized that so much of my faith no longer made sense. I had a growing call to be a pastor, but my church didn't believe in women ministers. I had a growing concern regarding racism and poverty, but the religious Right movement that I was actively involved in seemed to uphold systems that would keep people oppressed. I longed for a more life-giving faith.

And yet, leaving my fundamentalist background and going to a more progressive church, was not as simple as closing one door and opening another. It left me with huge fear and concern: I was afraid that my family would shun me. I was worried that they would cut me off for questioning, that they would cut me off for my newly-forming beliefs. And there is something there, in the core of my being, that longs for connection with my family. I feared that I could not leave the strict confines of my faith without giving them up.

One afternoon, as I was in the midst of this crisis of faith and concern, I went to the ocean. I was visiting my family in Florida, and so I was drawn to the deep waters where I had always gone for solace and comfort. I swam out past the waves until the water grew smooth. I floated on my back and all of a sudden the fear that had overwhelmed me seem to dissipate into the briny sea. Arms grew up around me, and I felt God surrounding me and holding me and I had the innate understanding that I was born of God. God would not leave me orphaned. Even if my family would abandon me, God would uphold me just as those waters upheld me.

As the years went on and I left the harsh faith of my youth, as I became a woman minister, my family did not shun me. And yet, that fear of being abandoned woke me to the understanding that God surrounds me and upholds me. It roused me to the arms that embraced me. I became aware of those words - I will not leave you orphaned.

And that is my hope and prayer for each of you, as you go about your days, as you face the heartache, betrayal, and messiness of our entwined life, that you will always know that you are held and loved by a fierce God. That you are bound to God with that force that will not let you go. No matter how many times you run off, no matter how many times you disappoint, no matter what you might believe, there will be forgiveness and reconciliation. The Spirit and that bond remains. 

To the glory of God our Creator, God our Liberator, and God our Sustainer. Amen.