For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
John 3:16 (NKJV)
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
John 1:14a (NKJV)
She wasn’t exactly an unwed mother.
And it wasn’t really a shotgun wedding. As I understand it, no firearms were involved in the ceremony itself, though there may have been some armed “encouragement” employed during the engagement process. Her parents were apparently very determined that by the time the baby arrived, she and the baby’s father would have been married for a respectable period of time. And so they were. Married, that is, for almost 7 months before the baby came.
But then, the unthinkable happened. The baby died just a few days after his birth. That was when she first called me, at 2 am one dark December morning. After I shook off the sudden awakening from a deep sleep, I searched my mind for some recognition of who she was. Then it hit me: I’d read her name on a page torn from an attendance pad; she’d been visiting the church I then served for a few Sundays, always on her own. “Oh, yes,” I said, “I remember you. How can I help?” That’s all it took. The story poured out of her, almost too quickly for me to keep up.
(Have you ever noticed that we humans can talk faster than we can listen?) It was not a pretty story: she’d “made a mistake” - as Southern women used to say - and had gotten pregnant by a boyfriend she didn’t really like all that well, much less love. Her parents had insisted on their getting married. She told me she’d had the white dress wedding dreams are made of - except for the groom, who wouldn’t have been her first choice...and, of course, the baby. She hadn’t really been ready for motherhood, she said; but it was what it was. The baby had been born after a long and difficult labor. And then, she told me, choking back the sobs, he had died, just a couple of days before. She’d come home from the hospital the evening before, but she’d had to wait until her parents and her husband were asleep before she could call me. (Yes, they were living with her parents.) Neither her parents nor her husband “approved of female pastors” - but she couldn’t bring herself to talk to the pastor of the church she’d attended her whole life. “Why not?” I asked, as politely as I could. “Because he doesn’t care,” she replied. “And I’m tired of a guy in a three piece suit telling me how to live my life. Which is why I’ve been coming to your church,” she continued. “I heard that your church really cares about people.”
“Well, I’m grateful for that;” I replied, “how can I help?” As it turned out, all she wanted me to do was to come to the baby’s funeral. She wished she could ask me to do the funeral; she couldn’t, of course, for all the aforementioned reasons. Her parents and her husband didn’t even see the need for a funeral; she’d had to put her foot down to make it happen. But she needed to see the face of someone who cared, just for some support. She wasn’t sure she could get through it, otherwise. “Tell me when and where,” I replied, “and I’ll be there.”
And so, two days later, off I went to a graveside service in a backwoods cemetery even Google Maps couldn’t have found...though this was a good 20 years before Google or its maps. We weren’t more than a couple of minutes into the service before I began to understand what she’d meant by “needing a little support.” The pastor got off to a good start by reading a few comforting Bible passages, but things went downhill from there. “Yes, you’re feeling a little sad today,” he intoned, “but this is only a speed bump on the roadway of life. Soon you’ll have forgotten about all this,” he went on, gesturing towards the tiny white coffin. By that point, the grief-stricken mother had been overcome by sobs, and was shaking her head almost convulsively in disagreement with the preacher’s trivializing assessment of her situation. At that moment, I experienced a deep desire to punch him in the face. If I hadn’t been wearing a clergy collar (I couldn’t resist), I probably would have knocked him flat. But then, thank you God, the saving grace of the day appeared, in the form of a young trainee pastor who’d been asked to sing a solo. He wasn’t much to look at, thin as a rail and acne scarred; his oversized Adam’s apple wavered violently as he sang without any accompaniment, in a high- pitched tremolo that wouldn’t win any voice jury prizes. But the compassion written on his face couldn’t have been more welcome, and the words he sang were perfect: “Does Jesus care? I know he cares. He cares for you and me! Though the darkness be calling, and tears be falling, I know that Jesus cares.” God bless you, I thought, you’ve saved the day. The bereaved mother’s sobs had ceased, and her face was calm now. She’d been reminded that Someone did care, and that was all the support needed to make her sorrow bearable.
All this happened almost thirty years ago, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget it; and Pastor Tom’s excellent sermon yesterday brought it all back to me. Though I never saw her in church again, the young woman called me several times over the weeks that followed, always in the wee hours of the morning. In one of those calls, she asked me if I really believed that God cares about individual people, “unimportant people like me,” she said. “First of all,” I replied, “there are no unimportant people. What God has made can never be unimportant. And yes, I do believe that God really cares about you and me and everybody else. I believe it because God took on our flesh and moved in with us. Only a God who cares would do that. Most of all, though, I believe because of the Cross. A God who didn’t love us wouldn’t die for us. But Jesus did. And that’s enough for me. I’m praying it’ll be enough for you.” Not my most eloquent moment, theologically speaking, though she told me she “got it.” She called me a time or two more, and then I never heard from her again. But I still believe what I told her all those years ago: the Incarnation and the Crucifixion are more than enough to make me believe that God actually does care about each one of us. In the midst of this strangest of Advents, I’m praying that it’ll be enough for you, too.
Isaiah ‘twas foretold it,
the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary, we behold it,
the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God’s love aright,
she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
O Flower, whose fragrance tender
with sweetness fills the air,
Dispel in glorious splendor,
the darkness everywhere.
True man, yet very God,
from sin and death now save us,
And share our every load.
(“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”
The United Methodist Hymnal, #216, vs. 2-3)
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood