“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
John 12:24 KJV
Sometimes home is not a physical destination.
I was in Peterborough for the weekend after 40 years away. Going back to a place which holds your personal history can be an exercise in dyslexia. You feel your bones in the place, but your flesh has departed, so the past haunts you. When all your bearings have changed, you must find a familiar point from which to navigate to avoid being swept adrift in the shifting tides of time.
People who find themselves in such a dilemma look for a touchstone, a place from which to reorient from the past and all that has has happened in between. I thought to attend the church in which we grew up. I knew that most of the families would have moved on. No one would recognize me after 40 years so I could be a spectator in my own past, warming a pew in the bleacher section. After a few awkward handshakes - “Welcome, stranger” - I sat back and the service began. I was relieved to recognize no one, and was happy for the comfort of anonymity.
The service went on per usual, praise session with the newer songs none of which I could follow. Nothing attended the memories in my head from which I was trying to find a point of navigation. A name came up for mention in prayer, a man in Peterborough Civic Hospital. I’ll call him Bill for the sake of privacy. Bill was a quiet plumber who it seems, was once fired from his job for being too diligent at his work and presenting too honest a bill. He was not in it for the financial reward. Bill, the quiet guy was known for his small acts of kindness.
My parents moved away, and as a student I remained in Peterborough. I was in that phase of life where I lived from shoestring to shoestring, and sometimes that shoestring broke. That summer, I contracted infectious mononucleosis and became too sick to work for a few weeks. This was catastrophic for my bottom line, a fact that I could share with no one.
In the midst of this, Bill showed up at my door. I don’t know how I merited a visit, I don’t even know how he found my rental apartment. He came to the door with a woven basket that was covered with a cloth and presented it to me with the salutation “I thought you might like some cucumbers from my garden”. Under the cucumbers, was a twenty-dollar bill. What Bill didn’t know, was that I ate that week, because of that twenty dollars. A very quiet and seemingly unimportant act of kindness was very important to me. I never forgot it. So when I heard his name, I decided that I would go and visit Bill. In fact, I slipped out before the alter call - I had more important things to attend to.
In order to find Bill, I had to ask around. The orderly didn’t ask for any credentials, only seemed surprised, and when I went into the ward, I realized why. Not sure what section of the hospital it was, except it was one of those “LAST STOP” wards, the ones that are a holding place for the inconvenient near-dead. “Call us when it is time to come (but not before)”.
This is the silent question that floated in my own mind - where were his visitors? No family even, for Bill or anybody else? A silent ward with orderlies who wore a question-mark face to see any sign of visitor. Why show up? Why Indeed? It crossed my mind that this must be one of the sorriest spots in the universe, a purgatory where souls were parked in a state of frozen misery and even God must have departed. These people were truly alone and abandoned.
When I saw Bill, I was shaken. This once tall and dignified man was now a skeletal shadow curled up in the bed, with his legs shrunken and tucked up to the side like the beggar in the temple. He looked at me with wizened curiosity and I wondered whether he was truly lucid or if this visit was simply a ridiculous waste of time for both of us.
I explained to Bill who I was, and asked him if he recognized me. He did not. Further, he had no memory of any odd acts of kindness that came my way, likely because these acts were second nature, and legion throughout the pattern of his life.
After an awkward pause, I asked Bill if it would be okay to pray with him, and he assented. I though I was doing him a moot favour and I suggested it really because I didn’t know what else I could offer him. There is a phrase which often comes up in the King James Bible, to be “quickened”. The dictionary defines it as to be made alive, reinvigorated, stimulated. And this is what happened. Bill’s face filled with an ambient light as I began to pray. I prayed in the regular kind of words that one might drag up for such a situation where you really don’t know what to say. Bill on the other hand, became animated, if that is a definition you could apply to a wizened corpse halfway out the door to death. Bill’s face filled with a peace and a familiarity. I had taken him to a place where he was known and recognized, and where he already had a strong footing. It seems that in the most derelict and hopeless, forgotten of places, God was present in fullness and strength. Bill it seems, was enjoying a preview of what was clearly awaiting him, in a not too distant place of reverie and grace where he was well known. No wonder he had one foot out the door. Bill was evidently in a hurry.
I recently heard an Eric Bibb song, singing about that great turn of phrase, that “Great Getting up Morning” in the sky, for the faithful dead. God does not forget his own. Bill had reminded me that in our search for home, it is in the end, not the physical destination we first think of. Bill was getting a preview of that Great Getting up Morning for real, and he was looking forward to it. Home is the place beyond all our physical suffering, where God himself will wipe the tears from our eyes.
“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8 KJV