Abandoned and Restored
Abandoned and Restored
The Psalter said it and Rutter's anthem repeated it, a line from Psalm 27 that just wouldn't leave my mind: "If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up."
It's a faithful certainty surrounded by an horrific circumstance.
I'm taken back to my own beginnings. I stood in a corner of the living room, facing walls, sobbing quietly. My mother and father had just received a letter from Fairfield Memorial Park confirming their purchase of graves. Evelyn and Harold Howard, in their mid-thirties, were being prudent, not morbid. But how was a six year old child to understand that? My tears were, of course, for me and the thought of being abandoned by the two most important people in my life. What would happen to me if they died? My parents were my universe. I loved them almost as much as I needed them. They doted, absolutely, utterly, and completely, on me.
I never retreated to the corner of the living room for any other fear, though a child's life is beset with many. Chester, the bully, scared me daily after school; but I could run faster than he. The planet Mars' orbit brought it closer to earth than ever before; and, with the newspapers playing it up, I worried profoundly about a collision. The policeman knocked on the door looking for the kid who threw a rock into the window of a passing car; but the culprit, little Bobby, hid behind his father who advocated for him like Daniel Webster against the devil. I lost my jar full of marbles in a gamble with a boy a grade ahead of me; and I was humiliated and defeated.
But Chester, Mars, the man in blue, or the gambling marble pro did not send me weeping to the corner of the living room.
The fear of losing my father and mother did.
Of the hundreds of illustrations of the meanings of the Lord's Prayer, one comes often to mind. About a child from the tenements whose father, a violent drunk, had abandoned the family when the boy was a toddler. The priest noted the child wouldn't say the "Our Father." He asked the boy why. He replied to this effect, that he wasn't going to pray to any God who was like a father. The only one he had known was a brute. Childhood, meant to be a garden of delights, becomes a cheerless desert absent parental love.
The song claims that "nobody knows the trouble I've seen," nobody, that is, but Jesus. His cry of desolation on the cross ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") puts him in the company of those on whom Psalm 27 takes pity... and illuminates the Psalm's promise to those abandoned of a blessed outcome because of those two crossed beams of wood.
I can honestly report that I haven't spent very much time trying to decipher an eternal plan within the patterns of my life and work. But I have a suspicion, voiced here on the website already several times, that, unbeknownst to me in the doing of it, I played a part in the fulfillment of the second half of that verse from Psalm 27, the one that claims God will find a way to make up for parental misfeasance, neglect, or abandonment.
Talk about God working in mysterious ways! In February 1956 I was obliged to leave a student assistant minister's position in Westchester. I was rescued by a couple of District Superintendents, one of whom sent me to Brooklyn "until June and the Conference session," assuring the Connecticut Yankee Ivy League (potted variety) graduate that he would only be spending a few months in the "borough of churches" before moving on to greener pastures in Connecticut. Those few months turned into seventeen and a half years. Though opportunities to leave were afforded me, I stayed in Brooklyn... with my Norwegians and Swedes and anyone else who found his way to the corner of 45th and 7th. Young people, lots of them, came into view. I dusted off memories of my own happy days in youth fellowship for clues as to what I should be doing with them and for them. But never, no never, did it occur to me during that long and fulfilling sojourn in Brooklyn that I, for heaven's sake, had been given a mantle, as surrogate Dad.
Reasons for parental dysfunction in that corner of the world were many, though not that different from most places. Alcoholism, the chiefest reason. But also: long voyages on merchant ships, financial straits, drugs, and a general discomfort of some men with being domiciled, not knowing what to say and not knowing how to be affectionate to their own children. Thanks to my own parents I experienced little of that last deficiency, not being the recipient of parental affection, and poured out on the young people around me the abundance of kindness Evelyn and Harold lavished on me. Mary Moon it was, she the hand laundry proprietor around the corner, who first apprised me of my surrogate role, long after I had left Brooklyn. At the 60th birthday party for her son, Tommy, one of my youth group "kids" once upon a time, I congratulated Mary on the success she had had with all five of her children. "You did a great job, Mary," I offered as we said goodbye that night. "No," Mary came right back at me, "we did a good job, pastor." For the first time ever I caught a glimpse of why I was sent to Brooklyn.
A similar tale could be told about Valley Stream and twenty-nine years feeding the sheep, playing basketball with them, and spending hours year in and out teaching confirmands their lessons... and with them sampling Happy Meals at every McDonalds on the South Shore. The older I grew the more "children" I acquired, some of them way beyond voting age. Thirty year olds sometimes need a Dad too, especially if their own made too soon a departure from this mortal coil.
Which, the surrogate role, leads me to the further observation that God's best work on earth is done through human agency. I never liked nor would quote that sermonic cliché about God having no other hands but our hands. For heaven's sake God is the sovereign here! Nothing is beyond God's capability. But (and a very important "but" it is) God's chosen methods for us go through us. Miracles - dramatic and inexplicable rescues from disease and disaster, for instance - are things that happen to other people, not me. I have received something better: a sense over the long haul of my life that, by God, I may have been useful in helping others find an abundance of life.