Praying for Ourselves

This is an adapted form of a sermon I preached on Sunday, July 24. The gospel reading was Luke 11:1-13. The Spiritual Gift we focused on this week was “Intercession.”

Today’s Spiritual Gift is a type of prayer: Intercession. It means praying for God to provide something. Usually, we think of intercession as praying for other people, praying to God that other people receive what they need. Some of us have that spiritual gift… Those on the prayer chain. Those in the prayer group. The people who write our Prayers of Intercession each week. These people are especially good at doing this publicly, and they lead us in prayer, and we thank God for them. But we also recognize that this isn’t something we can leave just to them. We should all be praying for others, right? Yes, of course.

Jesus talks about prayer in today’s gospel, but he’s actually encouraging us to do a slightly different sort of intercession. He’s not encouraging us to pray for others, but rather for…ourselves. And that’s a lot harder for some reason. That feels uncomfortable; it sounds selfish. But that’s what Jesus is saying here. And I think if we read closely, he also tells us why we should pray for ourselves.

The disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, and he answered with what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Here in Luke’s gospel, it’s a little shorter; the longer form we know is found in the Gospel of Matthew. But even in this shorter form, praying the Lord’s Prayer is a way of learning about ourselves.

We pray, “Give us each day our daily bread.” Now, Martin Luther explained in the Small Catechism that this “daily bread” is not just food. In fact, he said that daily bread is:

everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.

That’s a lot of things! Jesus tells us to pray, “Give us each day our food, drink, clothing, shoes, etc.” What does that say about us? It says that we need all this stuff, and that we can’t get those things on our own. We get them from God. The Lord’s Prayer tells us that we are needy. Otherwise, why would we pray it?

We pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” What does this say about us? It says that we have sins, and that we need to ask for forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer tells us that we are sinful. Otherwise, why would we pray it?

We pray, “Save us from the time of trial,” which can also be translated, “Lead us not into temptation.” What does this say about us? It says that if it weren’t for God, we would fall into temptation, that we would fall into suffering. The Lord’s Prayer tells us that we are weak and lost. Otherwise, why would we pray it?

Jesus doesn’t tell us this: “If you’re hungry, ask for daily bread. If you’ve sinned, ask for forgiveness. If you’re in danger, ask for salvation from trial.” No. He just says do it, which I think means that we are always hungry, always sinful, always in danger. We are broken, fragile creatures, and we rely on God for everything that we have, everything that we are. We forget that so easily, and this prayer helps remind us. The prayer Jesus taught us helps us to be honest about ourselves. Honest that we are a trainwreck.

The good news, however, is about God. God answers these prayers. Jesus encourages us to pray for these things, precisely because God intends to answer these prayers. Jesus promises that if we ask, we will receive. If we seek, we will find. If we knock, the door will be opened. We’re not supposed to get our act together first, and then start praying. Pray now, right now, and God will answer you.

Jesus came to save the needy, the weak, the lost. And that’s us.

Now of course, it doesn’t always look like God is answering. So often it seems like we ask, and we do not receive. But we do. We do receive…we receive exactly what Jesus promised at the end of our gospel reading today. He said this: “If even you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” The Holy Spirit. That’s what God promises to give us every time.

Perhaps we pray for a loved one to recover from an injury. We might not receive that.

Perhaps we pray for our marriage to thrive. We might not receive that.

Perhaps we pray for safety from storms or disease or financial worry. We might not receive that.

And it’s not because we didn’t pray correctly, or didn’t pray hard enough, or anything like that. It’s good to pray for those things. God might provide those things, but God never promised them. God never promised us a rose garden. What God promised was this:

In every situation, in every hardship, we will receive the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God who enables us and empowers us to get through any tragedy. God promised us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who gives us strength, and courage, and perseverance, and hope, in the midst of anything.

Now of course, we don’t control God. Our prayers don’t allow God to give us these gifts. God will give us the Holy Spirit whether or not we pray. So why should we pray? Not to change God’s mind, but to change our minds, and our hearts, and our eyes. A life lived in prayer is a life where, over time, we can see more clearly who we are, how needy, weak, and lost we are. A life lived in prayer is a life where, over time, we can see more clearly the signs of the Holy Spirit coming to us. And a life lived in prayer is just a life in which we pray.

So I invite you to pray right now. What do you need right now? Ask God to provide it. Don’t worry about getting it right. Don’t worry about whether God promised it or not. Just ask for it…the point of prayer is to connect with God. Trust God to provide what you need. Go ahead…take a moment.

Amen.

 

Snapshot Extra: A Mother’s Perspective

In the “Snapshots of My Depression” series, I’ve shared vignettes from my childhood and adolescence when I experienced an episode of depression. Now that I’ve shared my hospitalization story, I’ve completed this part of the series. There are more snapshots to come, but these will be snapshots of my depression during my adult life. (I’m considering taking a break from this series for a while, though, before getting into that. We’ll see.) Anyway, my mother has been reading this blog, and she shared with me her perspective on what I went through as an adolescent. As is usually true with mental illness, I was not the only one deeply affected. My family suffered as well, just in a different way. She gave me permission to share her insights here. We both think that they might be helpful to another parent living with a child who has depression and suicidal thoughts. From here on, these are my mother’s words (lightly edited), not mine.

Michael,

I’ve been thinking a lot about what you wrote in the past few blogs, not shining moments in parenting. Where were your parents in all this, I’m wondering? Didn’t they notice a pattern, a shout out for help going on? Why didn’t they do anything?

It’s not that we didn’t do anything, we just didn’t do the right thing. We did talk with people at school, administrators, teachers, counselors, and most told us it was a passing phase that you needed to work out. Angst or adolescent behavior that somehow on its own you’d grow out of. “Those who talk about suicide are the ones who don’t do it.” You hadn’t given away valued possessions, your behavior wasn’t different, you didn’t have the usual signs that are present with suicide victims. It was easy to say we’d tried and listened to the experts.

But during that whole elementary and junior high time there was a gnawing in me that someone who talks about suicide must be really unhappy with themselves. That perhaps that was something in and of itself we should be dealing with. I wasn’t sure how, but I thought that might be a place to start. But I never acted on it.

Then when we got the call freshman year that you had tried to commit suicide and that the school would not allow you back without a therapist’s signature we knew we had no options now and that the time had come to address whatever feelings you were dealing with. Dad called a child therapist friend, who I thought would say she’d see you and you’d have sessions. But instead she said that hospitalization was the way to go and that she’d make the arrangements right away. As scary as that whole time was, walking away from you, leaving you in a locked ward, I knew that now at least you’d know that we were, and so was Muhlenberg, taking you seriously. We were listening now to whatever you had to so say and wanted you to know that we were and ARE here for you.

I also learned a huge lesson that the teachers, doctors, guidance counselors may give you advice and tell you what they think is going on with your child. But you know that child better. Best. Read the books, listen to the advice, and then make the decision based on what your gut tells you. It’s advice I’d tell any parent now. And I’d also say that there may not be any signs, and that you may just have to rely on that gut feeling.

Snapshot Extra: A Believer’s Prayer

In my last post, I discussed my eleven days as a behavioral health patient at First Hospital Wyoming Valley, following my suicide attempt. While I was there, I wrote this poem. It was my way of trying to come to terms with my faith and my own life.

“A Believer’s Prayer”
11/23/1993

I have always been confused
About what you meant for me
I never knew what I should do
Or who to try to be

I struggled with your existence
As I struggled with my own
But now I know you love me
And I’ll never be alone

Yet I still cannot be sure of
What you want me to do
Although you live inside me
It’s a challenge serving you

So now I ask for help, O Lord
For you can do no wrong
I beg, when I go down again,
Your love may keep me strong

I know you have a plan for me
I know you know what’s best
So I’ll just keep on loving you
And let you do the rest

Snapshots of My Depression #9: Eleven Days of Hope

So, following my suicide attempt at age seventeen, I spent eleven days at First Hospital Wyoming Valley, a behavioral health facility in Wilkes-Barre. For days, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell the story of those eleven days. I really don’t know how to put it into a clear narrative. I think the best I can do is list a bunch of things I remember.

  • The first two days were horrible. I wasn’t sleeping well. Since all the beds in the ward were full, I had to sleep in a different (locked) ward at night. Worse, it also meant that I had no place to go during the day to lie down if I was exhausted (which I was). On the second afternoon, I was so tired that I lay down on the floor in the common room. A woman who worked there, an executive of some sort, told me to get up. She said, “We don’t sleep on the floor here.” I tried to explain, but she didn’t seem to care. I also remember that I called my mother that day, begging her to get me out of there. She wisely told me that she wasn’t the person I had to convince…I had to convince the doctors there.
  • It got much, much better after that. After two days, I had a bed in the ward, and I slept like a baby. That went a long way. I was also taken off “suicide watch,” so I was allowed a lot more privileges. I was able to eat in the cafeteria, which really wasn’t bad. (It’s where I discovered the beauty of mixing cheese into scrambled eggs, oddly enough.) I was able to spend some time outside. I was able to go on a few field trips with the rest of the ward. I recall going bowling. I recall going to church.
  • I turned such a corner after a few days, and became so invested in my recovery and in my life, that most of the new patients who arrived during my time there couldn’t understand why I was there. They expressed shock that I had tried to kill myself so recently. Some actually thought I was a nurse or something.
  • There was a lot of talk therapy, in three different styles. I received one-on-one therapy, but I don’t recall anything about it. A few times, we also had family therapy with my parents. The only thing I remember about that was seeing my mother crying. I also remember that group therapy, when the whole adult ward was together, was perhaps the most helpful part of the whole experience.
  • There were maybe twenty other patients with me in the ward. The population changed daily, as a few people were discharged, and someone else would enter. What struck me most about them was how normal they all were. They weren’t what I thought of as “crazy.” They were people like me, people who were just having a really hard time dealing with some particular situation or problem. This was truly a hospital, not an asylum.
  • In fact, I do remember a bit about one other patient. I don’t recall his name, but I remember a few things about him: he met his wife on the internet. (In 1993, that was quite a feat!) He looked like Stephen King. He was an even bigger Beatles fan than I was; however, he was convinced that the line “and curse Sir Walter Raleigh; he was such a stupid git” in “Happiness is a Warm Gun” was actually “and curse the walls around me; I was such a stupid git.” In his defense, his version (while wrong) makes a lot more sense than the one John Lennon actually wrote.
  • I wasn’t on any medication, which was unusual. The doctors there determined that I could be helped just with therapy; my life on antidepressants didn’t start until many years later.
  • I wrote a poem while I was there, called “A Believer’s Prayer.” I’ll include that as an extra blog post in the next day or two.
  • It was the strangest Thanksgiving dinner ever. My eleven-day hospitalization included Thanksgiving, but I was given an eight-hour pass to go home. It was the first time my family ever had Thanksgiving dinner at home, not with any relatives.
  • But the most important thing I remember is my friends and family. I was awestruck, shocked, humbled, by the effect that my suicide attempt had on my friends. One friend, Maisy, came to visit me every day while I was there. I had visits from high school friends (thanks, Jeff) and college friends (thanks, Chris). There were pay phones there that we could use during free time. My father had given me his credit card when I was first admitted, and said, “Call anybody you want to, any time.” I called so many friends. And they were all so upset. So hurt. So sad. And so grateful that my attempt was unsuccessful. One very dear friend was so upset, and so angry with me for trying to kill myself, that she refused to talk to me for a few months. While that hurt a bit at the time, I understood, and we talked through it. I received cards from some of my college classmates, and from people at my church. My younger sister not only wrote me letters, but got friends of hers (who didn’t even know me) to write me letters as well. I was astonished at how loved I felt. One activity that I was encouraged to do was to make a list of the people who cared about me. My list couldn’t even fit on one page.

I think the two most important things about being at First Hospital were people, first my peers there, and second the effect I saw on my own friends and family. Don’t get me wrong. The nursing staff was great. The therapists were great. And obviously the executives there did a great job creating a program in which peers could help one another so well. But it was my peers who really seemed to make the difference. They showed me that I was normal, that I was okay. They were a mirror to me. And my friends…sheesh, I had no idea how much I meant to them. I had no idea how much I had affected them. I had no idea.

Those eleven days were a watershed in my life. By no means did they cure me of depression, but they helped me to start to taking it more seriously. I never had another suicide attempt after this.

Distracted from the Calling

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this weekend. The Spiritual Gift of the Week is “Service.” The gospel reading is Luke 10:38-42.

There was a church called St. John’s by the Gas Pump. And St. John’s by the Gas Pump made shoofly pies. It was something they did every year. It was a fundraiser, and a great time of fellowship for everyone who came out to bake. But over time, the group of bakers dwindled. Some died, some got tired of it, some moved away. It wasn’t as easy to get new help as it once was. Until one year, when only one woman came out to bake. We’ll call her Martha. Why not.

Martha was frustrated. Shoofly pies were important to her. This was a major part of how she contributed to her church. It meant a lot to her to come out and share this time with her friends and family. It meant a lot to her to train younger women and men in the ancient art of the shoofly. But now she couldn’t do it. She was so frustrated and upset. Nobody supported this ministry anymore. It felt like nobody supported her. She was alone. Things weren’t the way they used to be. And so she went to the pastor.

“Pastor,” she said, “Pastor, don’t you care that everyone has left me to make the pies all by myself? Tell other people to help me!” And the pastor said this to her: “Martha, Martha,” he said. “You are worried and distracted by your pie-making. That’s not what’s really important at church. Why don’t you forget about the pies, and just come to worship, and also my weekly Bible study? That’s what’s really important here, after all.”

Martha was disappointed and hurt. She didn’t really expect that the pastor would help, but she certainly didn’t expect that response. She felt unimportant, like everything she’d worked for was not only gone, but had been worthless all along.

Do you see why I called her Martha? This is more or less what Jesus does to Martha in today’s story! She’s working hard to do what she was supposed to do…providing hospitality for her guest, and then Jesus tells her, “Forget it Martha. Just sit down and listen to me. All this stuff you’ve been focused on? It doesn’t matter. You’ve been wasting your time.”

I can certainly see how Martha could take it that way. But I actually don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying.

After all, this is the same Jesus who made it clear in last Sunday’s story of the Good Samaritan that we are to do things to help one another.

This is the same Jesus who compared the kingdom of God to a woman kneading bread.

The same Jesus who cried out that the Pharisees were neglecting justice and the love of God.

The same Jesus who did good works of healing and teaching, even on the Sabbath day.

I don’t think Jesus was telling Martha, or us, not to do things. I don’t think Jesus was telling Martha, or us, that our daily work is useless or unimportant.

Besides, we don’t need Jesus to tell us that. We tell that to ourselves all the time. Don’t we? Don’t you sometimes think that what you do isn’t important? That nobody notices? That nobody cares? Don’t you sometimes feel like you’re just wasting your time, spinning your wheels? While someone else is doing the important work? While someone else is doing the things that matter? While someone else is making all the decisions?

I wonder if that’s how Martha felt. I wonder if we’re all Martha.

Martha, Martha, you are so worried and distracted by so many things. You are worried and distracted by the voices that tell you that you’re unimportant. The voices that tell you that you don’t make a difference. The voices that tell you that you don’t matter.

Martha, Martha, you are so worried and distracted by the tragedies that surround us. By a world in which black men are killed so easily, and police are killed so easily. By a world that tries to divide itself into those who care about the lives of African Americans, and those who support our law enforcement. A world that tells us you can’t do both. By a world so full of anger and hatred. Where it seems there is no room for people of goodwill. Where there is no room for healthy disagreement. A world in which you could never make a difference.

Martha, Martha, you are so worried and distracted by so many things. There is need of just one thing. Christ. The Christ at whose feet Mary sat, listening. The Christ whom Martha was also serving, just as well, but who forgot that. Sometimes serving Christ means doing the dishes. Sometimes serving Christ means cutting the grass. Sometimes serving Christ means painting, or vacuuming, or photocopying, or unclogging the toilet. That is just as important as playing the organ, just as important as preaching the gospel. That’s why we’re looking at twenty Spiritual Gifts this summer…because I am not the only one here who is called by God. All of us are, called to different things. And what you are called to do, whether it’s Service or something else, is so important.

Remember that. You are called to the things you do, the places you go, the relationships you inhabit. When we are worried and distracted, we forget that. We forget that God has placed us where we are to take care of one another, to build up one another, to serve our neighbor. Martha, Martha, your sister Mary listened to Jesus. You listen to him too! Listen to Jesus telling you that you are God’s child! Listen to Jesus telling you that you are an important part of God’s story! Listen to Jesus telling you that through you God will change the world!

It can take time to really hear that. Take the time you need. Listen to scripture. Listen to the words spoken to you in Holy Communion: this is my body and blood, given for you. Listen to the words spoken in the rite of Healing: in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, be strengthened and filled with God’s grace, that you may know the healing power of the Holy Spirit.

And then do the things you have to do. Do the things you’re called to do. Take the kids to soccer practice, because God calls you to raise them well. Take out the trash, because God calls you to provide a home that is safe. Go to your job that may not feel like a calling, because God may be calling you to be a sign to your co-workers that they are loved. Read the news that is so terrible, because God may be calling you to be a sign of hope for black people, whose lives do matter. God may be calling you to be a sign of hope for police officers, whose lives do matter. God may be calling you to be a sign that there is hope for our nation. That there is always hope, because God is here. God is here. God is here. And one way or another, you are called to proclaim that through your actions.

I know it’s so hard to remember that. Martha, Martha, we are so distracted. There is need of only one thing: God. And God is here. Amen.

Snapshots of My Depression #8: On the Way to First Hospital

This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.

This story starts where the last one ended. I was in the Student Health Center at Muhlenberg College, thinking that I had come down with a nasty cold or something. I’d heard that mono was going around, and I so I went to get checked out. The nurse in the health center checked me out, and then asked, “Have you been under a lot of stress lately?” I thought I ought to be honest, so I said, “Well, I did try to kill myself a few days ago.”

And so it began.

The nurse said, “Stay here a minute. I’ll be right back.” She looked very concerned, and left. Was it something I said? She came back in a few minutes, and asked me to follow her. We walked over to the other end of the health center, the counseling center. I was led into the office of one of the counselors. I sat down in a chair opposite his desk. I don’t recall too much of the conversation now, but what I remember is this: after confirming with me what the nurse said, we kept talking for a while. Only after we had talked for a half an hour about suicide, depression, etc., did he share with me that because I attempted suicide, I had to leave campus, and I would not be allowed back until I had a doctor’s note that said I was no longer a danger to myself or to others. He told me that he had to call my parents to pick me up. I was shocked and appalled. I wasn’t looking for this. I was just trying to be honest with the nurse. I muttered something under my breath. The counselor misheard me, and apparently thought he had an opportunity to “break through to this troubled kid” or something, because he said, “Motherfucker? Yeah, you can call me motherfucker. That’s fine.”

I corrected him. “That’s not what I said. I said, what the hell.” I was there for another hour, until my mother arrived. I don’t recall if the counselor and I spoke during that time or not. I just remember thinking that this was ridiculous. I was not asking for this kind of help. I did not need this kind of help. Why the hell did I say anything in the first place? There had to be a way out of this.

There wasn’t. My mother arrived. We went to my dorm and got some clothes and things. I assumed I’d be home a day or two, get the note they needed, and be back by the weekend. I tried to figure out how to let my professors know. (I didn’t trust that counselor to do it.) Luckily, my advisor was in his office, and he was so gentle and concerned. I was really surprised about this…why was it such a big deal to everyone? But I appreciated his concern, and his promise to contact all my other professors.

My mother and I went home. I have no memory of the conversation in the car. It can’t have been fun. By the time we arrived home, it was dark out, and my father and sister were waiting for us. Everybody was quiet. Nobody was really sure how to react. My father said that he’d been in touch with an acquaintance of his who was a counselor, and she urged him to get me to First Hospital Wyoming Valley in Wilkes-Barre that night. So we went. I can’t recall if my sister came along, but my parents drove me up to the hospital that evening. I figured that a psychiatrist at the hospital would sit down and talk with me for a bit, and then refer me to someone else near my college. No such luck. Instead, he convinced me to reluctantly admit myself. (I found out later that he would have sought, and likely received, a court order to have me committed had I refused.)

firsthospital
This is the building I stayed in. It didn’t look this run down, though. Some time after my stay, the hospital moved out of Wilkes-Barre to Kingston. The building sat vacant for years. This is the only photo I could find of the old hospital, taken just before the building was torn down to build an apartment complex.

They took me upstairs to the adult ward. Even though I was only seventeen at the time, they put me in the adult ward because I was in college…they thought I’d feel more comfortable there than in the pediatric ward. (They were probably right.) I was shown around the ward…the common room, the telephones, the therapy rooms, the group therapy room, and the bedrooms. The only trouble was there wasn’t a bed available in the adult ward at that point, so even though I would spend my days there, I would be sleeping in a different area of the hospital. (As it turns out, in a room with three other men, one of whom snored like a dying jackhammer repeatedly being brought back from the dead. Bedtime was not pleasant.) Apart from being taken out for bed, I would not be allowed to leave the locked ward at any time, because I was on “suicide watch.” Most of the patients ate in the cafeteria, but my meals would be brought to me.

I was scared. I did not want to stay there. This is not what I had in mind when I spoke so freely to that nurse in the college health center. I hugged my parents. They promised to come the next day during visiting hours. Then the door was locked. I am sure that I cried.

Next time, I’ll talk about the eleven days I stayed at First Hospital. As bad as that first day was, it got much, much better. I’m looking forward to writing that post…this one was the hardest one yet for me to write, and I’m glad it’s behind me. The emotions of that day were so powerful, and they’re still buried deep within me.

 

Surprised by Mercy

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 10. Two important themes of the day were the Holy Baptism of a child named Owen (not his real name), and the Spiritual Gift of “mercy.” The gospel reading for the day was Luke 10:25-37, the story of the Good Samaritan.

Good morning, Owen. I’m so glad you’re here today. Today you are baptized. And I’m really glad it’s today, because baptism is all about God’s gift of mercy, our Spiritual Gift of the week. Today God pours mercy upon you through water. Today God marks you with a lifetime mercy even as I mark you with oil. Today God calls you to a life of mercy, even as the assisting minister gives you a lit candle, and calls you to let your light shine before others. And today you become part of a community of mercy, the church.

The church is a community of mercy, Owen, a community where we recognize that we have received mercy we don’t deserve, mercy we’ve never earned. I want to tell you about another community of mercy I was part of once.

As part of my seminary training, I spent a summer as a student chaplain at Penn Foundation, a behavioral health facility in Sellersville. All the clients were either in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, or had a mental illness. These were people in need of mercy, and Penn Foundation was a place they received it. It wasn’t a religious organization, but there was a spiritual component. And I was there to help some of the residents on their spiritual journey, to help them get in touch with God. And then my supervisor would reflect with me on how well I did, and he would evaluate me. I have to tell you, I was scared. This summer program was crucial to my seminary training. If I failed there, I might never become a pastor. I felt alone, surrounded by people I didn’t understand. I felt as though I was thrown into a new world, a confusing world. Ever feel like that, Owen? Oh, right, you’re a baby. You probably feel that way every day.

Anyway, then I met Pam. The first time I met Pam was at the first session of a seminar I was leading on spirituality. Only two people showed up, and Pam was one of them. Pam shared that she was in recovery from alcohol addiction, and she also had schizophrenia. I don’t remember anything about the other person, but I remember this: the conversation was really awkward. The seminar did not go well. I went home feeling like a failure. The next week, I didn’t want to go to the next session, and I guessed that nobody would show up. But Pam returned, and she brought a few other people with her. And that conversation was so much better. I learned Pam’s story. I don’t remember the details anymore. But I remember this. Pam was at Penn Foundation because she had hit rock-bottom. Through her illness and her addiction, she came to a point when she knew that she had nothing to rely on, not the drugs, not her family, not herself, nothing… and it was there that she had found God. And she found that God showed her mercy, mercy she didn’t deserve, but mercy she desperately needed. Pam saw that God gave her just enough to get through the day, each day. And then others shared their stories…they were all unique, but in a way they were all the same. They all shared that rock-bottom moment, the moment they realized there was nothing they could do anymore to help themselves. They all shared that they experienced God’s mercy in that moment. And they all shared that they knew in their bones that God was with them each day. They didn’t know what tomorrow would be like, but they knew God was with them today. They taught me that. They showed me that I didn’t need to be perfect, or have everything worked out. God was giving me exactly what I needed for each day.

Owen, you know this. You know that you need to rely on others, and you know that you can. I think I knew that at your age too, but as I grew up I forgot it. I started to think I could take care of myself on my own. Pam taught me that that’s not true. I still did need mercy. And I still received mercy. I thought I was at Penn Foundation to help other people. Maybe I was. But I know God sent me to Penn Foundation so that Pam could help me. Thanks to Pam, Penn Foundation became a community of mercy for me.

That memory reminds me of the story of the Good Samaritan. The Good Samaritan is a story of being surprised by how God works. It’s a story of God coming to you in unexpected ways. The key to this story, Owen, is knowing what a Samaritan was.

Jews and Samaritans hated each other. To Jewish people, Samaritans worshiped God wrong, Samaritans were unclean, Samaritans were stupid. And Samaritans would never help a Jew. Nor would a Jew want the help of a Samaritan. When Jesus told this story to his fellow Jews, the people who heard it were uncomfortable, shocked that the hero was a Samaritan. What if you desperately needed help, and a member of ISIS came to your aid? How would you feel? Oh, right, Owen. You probably don’t know about ISIS. I hope you never do. But it would make most of us uncomfortable. That was Jesus’ point. The Good Samaritan story isn’t just about how to be nice. It’s about seeing that God can work through others, even through those we least expect.

A Jewish person, beaten and left for dead, received God’s mercy through a Samaritan.

An anxious seminarian (that’s me) received God’s mercy through someone with schizophrenia, recovering from alcohol addiction.

And Pam received God’s mercy through hitting rock-bottom.

God’s mercy doesn’t come where we expect it, Owen. God’s mercy comes from the most surprising places. That’s how God works. God brings new life from a cross. God brings that new life to us through ordinary tap water. And that’s the God you’re beginning a relationship with today, Owen. Nobody is outside God’s mercy. God will show that mercy to everyone. And God will use anyone to show that mercy. And that’s good news. Because you will need it. Just like we all do, even if we pretend we don’t.

Welcome to a life of mercy, Owen. Welcome to this community of mercy. Welcome to baptism.

Amen.