This Lenten season for Christians (like Ramadan for Muslims and the High Holy Days for Jews) tends to focus quite a bit on our need for forgiveness and repentance. But, in the end, all three periods in these Abrahamic faiths also lead toward hope.
I was thinking about that the other day when someone I used to work with on the afternoon newspaper in Rochester, N.Y., in the late 1960s sent me a note that contained his own remarkable story of spiritual collapse and resurrection into hope. It was a story I essentially knew nothing about, given that we've had only sporadic contact since our days at the now-defunct Rochester Times-Union.
So I found Emerson Moran's story both shocking and inspiring. He told me that he had given this talk I'm about to reprint at his Lutheran church about 10 years ago and recently revised it.
I offer it to you as evidence that there is almost no low point in life from which it is impossible to rise. May Emerson's story speak to your heart the way it did to mine. He called his talk "The Least Among Us: A Spiritual Memoir."
This is a new experience for me: Standing up in the sanctuary of a church and speaking Christian to Christian – vulnerable; the full spiritual Monty, as it were; taking a big risk to be honest with you, with myself – and with the Higher Power up in front of us here.
Instead, I’ll talk about what I do know about – and that’s how I’ve experienced some of God’s lessons about you and about me and about exactly who and what the “least” of God’s family really are.
Let’s begin with some honest self examination: Have you ever been down on your luck – totally broken and bereft, mentally, emotionally, spiritually? Financially and materially?
Ever been unable to care for yourself – alone and overwhelmed and absolutely terrified of the future?
Ever looked into the eyes of someone in pain or in need, someone really hurting – maybe even yourself in a mirror – and felt God was looking back?
If you answer yes, you know what it’s like to feel the touch of God. You know what it’s like to be a Least-er.
You’re not alone. Jesus would answer “yes” to all these questions, too.
Jesus was an outcast. He was rejected, scorned and betrayed. Even his own brothers thought he was nuts. He knew what it was like to be lost, alone, hungry, and thirsty in the wildness of the desert and the wilderness of the soul. He knew fear and anguish.
Knowing all this is one way he knows us when he sees us. When he looked into the eyes of the fallen and the failed, he knew God was there, too.
But don’t for a minute think Jesus was a victim. No, he was a radical – no namby-pamby, no milquetoast. He didn’t want to be your best friend forever or your boy friend or your buddy. Jesus knew our earthly domain was upside down – and he’s still showing us how to turn it right-side up.
Many of you know I first came to these pews more than a decade ago when Pat, my wife, was near the end of the road with early-onset dementia. Not quite Alzheimer’s, but pretty similar. It transformed the red-haired, funny, whip-smart, caring, passionate Irish woman I married her into the very, very least of anyone I’ve ever known. We dealt with it 20 of our 25 years together.
Dementia in any form is a truly terrible disease. First the memory goes. The personality disintegrates. Cognitive functioning falters, then fails. The brain can’t even control the body’s functioning anymore. Body and brain finally just stop trying. A diagnosis literally is a death sentence. There is no hope, no fighting back.
There is, however, a sound, the hard tick of a death watch winding down a second and an hour and a day at a time. The tick measures out a pain and suffering that when you witness it up-close and personal it sticks to your soul forever more.
For Pat, her dementia’s progression was mercifully slow – granting us years of value and quality in our time together. Caring for her became a gift, allowing me to experience the absolute purity of love in this life. But it wasn’t until the grim, grinding, tough, tough later days of her decline that the greatest blessing of all was revealed.
At the nursing home one day I cupped Pat’s face in my hands. Her blue eyes were veiled with dementia’s haze. I leaned in close, singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” a favorite.
It was over in an instant. Pat’s eyes were cloudy again, her features flat, the smile gone – but not my tingling.
I call this my “Matthew moment,” that passage (25:31-46) when it’s a couple of days before Passover and Jesus and the Disciples are hanging out over on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus is telling the Twelve those parables about fig trees and unfaithful slaves and bridesmaids. The words are rough and come in a rush. He knows there’s not much time left and He has to get it all out in a hurry.
He tells them that when they fed strangers who were hungry, and gave drink to the thirsty, and clothed the naked, and visited the sick in prison, “That just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”
The Gospels tell us the stories, some horrible and some glorious, about outcasts and the unclean, people who’ve been called “the great unwashed,” the misfits and the miserable, the forgotten and the left behind, the hopeless, the helpless and the have-nots.
But the Disciples didn’t get it right away. They were not alone. Here we are, maybe 80 generations later, and some of us still don’t get it. Meanwhile, all we need do is look around – and look to ourselves.
Strip away our pretensions, rob us of our secrets, command us to be totally honest in the eyes of the Lord, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we discovered that some of the least among us are so skilled hiding in plain sight that they outwardly appear to be the “best” among us.
Here’s my point – the least among us are not a distant or detached abstraction. No, the least of us are present right here, right now. In today’s more clinical terms, they certainly include:
. . . the infirm and the afflicted;
. . . the homeless and the abused
. . . the alcoholic and the addicted.
. . . the falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned.
(In other words, folks pretty much like some of my own unwashed and unwelcomed Irish and English peasant ancestors.)
I’d suggest there’s more to it than stereotypes like these. I’d suggest that we – you and I – are just as vulnerable as are all those “other” people.
Think back a over a decade ago to those agonizing images of the lost and forgotten of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, up on their rooftops, waving those signs that said “Help Us!” and calling out for food and water and rescue that did not come.
Someday that might be any one of us, stranded on our own spiritual roof tops, the water’s rising fast, and we’re calling “Help Me,” but there’s no help in sight because we’ve been existing in a void of our own making that’s so desolate and detached that the darkness surrounds us like the soundless death of the misbegotten.
That’s what it means to be all alone. Forsaken. Lost and lacking.
Look around. Can you see just how many of us are out there alone on our own rooftops right now – and no one knows?
Some time ago I spent a weekend with other Christian men at a Via de Cristo retreat where there was a lot of talk about “the isolated Christian” who lives a life that looks just fine on the outside but is full of despair and defeat on the inside.
This “paralyzed” Christian is held hostage by self-erected barriers to growth and love, a volunteer victim banished to some inner desert island.
He or she may show up in our own Christian community outwardly laughing and praying and sharing coffee in the loggia – while inwardly they’re spiritually strangling in a dead-end life, undiscerning of purpose or prayer, separated from God by a chasm that seems unbridgeable.
But it is not. The gap routinely is closed when God, in his marvelously muted way, gently nudges unwitting bridge-builders to carry out his will as if by unspoken proxy. I know this to be true because it’s exactly what’s happened to me.
Once upon a time I believed I was master of my own universe. I had it all: my first wife, Marilyn; three sons, Daniel, David, Patrick; a house in the country, prominent jobs, plenty of ego and arrogance, a cat named Abijah and a couple of Labradors named Timothy and Barney.
I was a hot shot. Sometimes on the TV news. People looked up to me – unless they really knew me.
What most people didn’t know was that I was a hopeless, helpless drunk, a hard-core alcoholic ever since college, high-performing and deceptive for a long time.
I fit the old Irish axiom that the man took a drink, the drink took a drink, the drink took the man.
With a progression not unlike Alzheimer’s, my universe eventually collapsed in upon itself. I lost everything – family, home, job, friends, honor, dignity, worthiness.
Self-loathing and low-living took over. I ended up in a tiny one-room rental, complete with a Murphy bed, cockroaches on the walls, drinking around the clock, black-out to black-out.
By then, anything and everything of material or spiritual value to me had vanished. My own soul was so disgusted it lost its way, too. I knew evil. I was sick and sickening, a bona fide member of the last, the lost, the lacking, the least.
Then I was evicted. Almost six months without paying the rent. I resigned myself to dying on the streets, drunk and alone – and it didn’t really bother me that much.
I was an isolated, paralyzed Christian who’d abandoned Christ, family, love and life itself – and believed that instead they’d all abandoned me. Then the miracle began unfolding.
First I had to ask God and other human beings for help. I had to let people into my life. What I didn’t expect was that they’d bring God along with them.
I was in my late 30s, but felt like a frightened young boy. From a hide-away pay phone in my building’s boiler room, I called my far-away father and mother for help. Instead of sympathy or money, they offered a phone number. It was for a hospital detox unit not far from their home.
I dialed the number. A cheery voice on the other end said, “Oh, Mr. Moran. We’ve been waiting for your call.” My Higher Power was already on my case.
Before I could get medical help, though, I needed financial help.
They sent me to a county social worker. It was 10 in the morning. Breakfast had been generic beer. Plain white carton. Big black letters that said, simply, BEER. 69-cents a six pack.
I was filthy, smelly, and desperate – but to God that didn’t matter.
The case worker’s name was Biblical – David. I’m grateful I still remember that. He was a Vietnam Vet who’d come home from the horrors of the killing hooked on heroin. Now he was clean and sober and literally felt again his version of my pain.
Right there, at his green-metal government desk, under unforgiving fluorescent lights, David the social worker collected my history and weighed my prospects for survival. He wept for us both as he told me my chances were slim.
Looking back, it was as if Jesus himself was weeping over me – His first step to restoring my soul and lessening my leastness. I got the message loud and clear.
Once in detox, I knew for the first time in years I was safe and cared for – as if rescued by the will of God the day before I was supposed to die.
Then came the flood of guilt, shame, remorse. Isolation now had a name – “fear” – crippling, relentless, visceral, self-centered fear.
Trust me - When you’re the “least” is when the fear is the “most.”
That’s when God showed up a second time. She looked and sounded just like a nurse. Her name was Mary.
She took a piece of yellow paper like kids draw on in school. She taped the paper to the wall next to my bed. With a black Magic Marker she wrote in big letters:
“I’m A Worthwhile Person –
No Worse or No Better
Than Anyone Else.”
This was 1981. Framed, her message today hangs over my desk at home.
No one thought I could survive on my own. I went from hospital to rehab to a half-way place called Gate House in the middle of Pennsylvania Amish country, complete with morning drive time horse-drawn buggies. I was a stranger in a strange land.
We were 17 men, aged late teens to mid-70s. I still hold some of the names close: Pedro, Charlie, Harold, Joe, Denny, Ray, even a guy named Jack Bible.
All hard cases. Down-and-out loser guys. Certifiably unemployable. On public assistance. Medically, mentally and emotionally damaged. Chillingly aware that the odds were stacked against us. Instinctively driven to care for one another.
I was there six months. It saved my life. Christ Himself was saying, “Yo, Least Guy – we’ve been waiting for you. Welcome back to the family of the Lord.”
We pooled food stamps to buy milk and meat; stood in line like refugees for bags of free staples; stuck together; accepted the scorn of some of the town-folk.
The most least of us was Joe the Painter, a beat-down old Navy veteran just off his latest tour through a VA drying-out clinic. Joe was crusty and gruff and dually-addicted to bad news and bad booze. For some reason he took me under his wing. We were the morning cook crew. Just stay close, he said, and I’d be OK. I believed him.
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving Joe cashed his welfare check, booked into a flop house – and drank himself to death in five days. The men of Gate House were the only ones at his funeral – except for the guy who drove the hearse.
We buried Joe in a cheap wood box in a pauper’s cemetery under a huge oak tree out at the edge of town. It was one of those gray, windy, raw up-north late November days. I remember dried-out leaves blowing around us and a black-garbed Amish man and his Standardbred horse both watching from a two-wheeled gray buggy.
Joe, by the way, was right – I still stay close, in spirit, and I’ve have been OK ever since. He still occasionally reaches into my consciousness. I always ask, “Joe, did you die that I might live?” He never answers; he doesn’t need to.
This I do know – but for the grace of God they might’ve buried me right next to Joe, under that same big tree. But that wasn’t to be God’s will. Instead, God opened up the gates of hell and let me out. He wasn’t done with me, either.
Over time, I came to understand that God’s will for me is to be an un-paralyzed Christian; to be a loving, present, sober man of faith; to keep doing the next right thing, like honoring and caring for my wife through her very last breath and beyond; honoring my mother and father on their own terms; embracing all the joy and love of my children, and their children, and their children (!); to experience a new life’s love with a grace-filled woman met through the only perfect Christian dating site – church!
When I was a kid growing up Mom and Dad – people of great faith – regularly read from a little book called “My Utmost for His Highest.”
It’s a set of daily readings taken from the long-ago lectures of a Scottish Bible teacher named Oswald Chambers. Many of the lectures were delivered in soldier’s huts in the desert in Egypt during World War I.
There was so much truth and insight in what he said that his book’s still around. Recently, flipping pages, I stopped on one talk titled “The Ministry of the Unnoticed.”
Chambers writes that the people who influence us the most don’t have the remotest notion of the affect they have on us, that they possess the “unaffected loveliness which is the characteristic touch of Jesus.”
He said that “We always know when Jesus is at work because he produces in the commonplace something that is inspiring.”
I believe in my heart of hearts that Jesus sent to me these commonplace people: David the social worker; Mary the nurse; Joseph the Painter. They carried into my lower-place life that “unaffected loveliness” of the touch of Jesus that graces me still.
So, yes, God does work though people. I sense and see it every day, especially among other “least-ers” like myself, men and women who’ve traveled their own soul-cursed road of personal suffering until they astonishingly discovered the God-given joy of relief, redemption and irreversible faith that our gracious Lord will, indeed, help, save, comfort and defend us – if and when we let Him.
* * *
HOW TRUMP'S WORDS HELP ISIS
Why hasn't ISIS said much of anything about Donald Trump since his election? This analysis comes up with this reason: "In effect, Islamic State has no need to present Trump as a strident Islamophobe because the president’s own words and deeds play right into their worldview." In other words, you don't want to criticize one of your best recruitment tools.