This beautiful passage from John feels ethereal and mystical – love and comfort and the Spirit of truth, “the world neither sees her nor recognizes her; but you can recognize her,” “you will know that I am in God, And you are in me and I am in you.” Like the passage from John that Michelle preached on two weeks ago, this passage can get used to exclude rather than include. And it too easily gets disconnected from real life, from real bodies that live and breathe in this world. I hope today we can find some ways to make connections between John’s poetic theology and real life.
This small front porch is a place where the text starts to make a wee bit of concrete sense to me. To use the images from John, it has been a place of comfort the past two months, a place to remember that we are not orphaned, that we have each other even when it feels like we are alone. So let me tell you about this porch.
Two months ago, shortly after we were confined to our homes, our household started the practice of singing on the porch each night at 6pm. Sometimes there are only two of us, sometimes it is all five of us. Sometimes we sing real songs or hymns; occasionally we hum improvisations, using brooms, watering cans and gardening implements for rhythm instruments. We sing for ourselves; some times neighbors listen from their own porches or as they pass by with their dogs and children. While we sing we watch the flowers bloom and glance upward to the mourning dove nest atop one of the pillars.
We are not as exciting as the neighbors one block over who play the Beatles and dance in the street on Friday nights but it has, nonetheless, been helpful to have this rhythm as part of our lives while the days blur together. And it helps me remember that we are not alone, that the breath that we inhale and exhale as we sing is always with us – and it is not always dangerous. It helps me remember that we are in God and God is in us, in each of us.
I am not sure everyone in the household appreciates the singing as much as I do. And like other prayer, it can sometimes feel more like a chore than a treasure. And it feels like a gift of love that we give each other each evening, an anchor to hold onto when things are uncertain – because let’s be real, this unending uncertainty easily leads to overwhelming anxiety.
But it is not all songs and freshly planted geraniums and portulaca on the porch. This other part of the porch story is not as joyful and unfortunately, in these pandemic days, it is not an uncommon story. Strangely, the porch has been helping me learn what Paraclete means. Paraclete is the Greek word that appears in this passage. It is hard to translate. Usually we translate it “Holy Spirit” but it can also be translated “counselor” or “advocate,” “comforter” “helper” or “the one who comes along side.”
For more than a year I noticed that my backyard neighbors, Nathan and Erica, interacted with a man who walked around the neighborhood and sometimes asked for money. My own inclination was to ignore him. Observing Nathan talk with the man several times helped give me the courage to stop ignoring the man and begin talking with him. And – I became convicted by the signs we have in our front yard: “Black Lives Matter” and “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
(I was going to try and make up a name for my neighbor because you know, anonymity. I decided to look up what his name means and I laughed out loud to realize that it means “counselor to power.” Counselor is one of the translations of Paraclete; I will just call my neighbor Paraclete.)
At some point, Paraclete found out where I live and began coming to our front porch, knocking on the door, asking for money or a sandwich. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond – though sometimes I would remember my father telling me about “hobos” that would knock on the backdoor of his home when he was a child. His mother, my grandmother, would make a plate of food and the man would sit on the back steps and eat.
Sometimes when Paraclete asked I would give him loose change, other times I said no and turned him away. Eventually, I sort of fell back on our faith, on the words of Jesus: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink” though it felt kind of obligatory. It took a while but over the months I came to appreciate Paraclete, to look for him, even miss him when he disappeared for weeks at a time.
Paraclete often talked about playing music at his church. I invited him into the living room to play the piano a time or two. Music started to become a language we could share when it was too hard to understand his meandering speech.
Then COVID-19 hit with mandates for distancing and staying home. It was hard for Paraclete to understand why people stepped back from him, why I stepped back from him on the small front porch and took time to put on a mask. Though he was given masks and sometimes carried one around, actually wearing a mask was not a priority for him.
The anxiety and fear in the air, on top of the already difficult life that Paraclete was dealt, became too much to handle. He no longer had regular access to his case worker, the church Paraclete spoke of so fondly was closed. He knew where to go for food but many of the people he depended on were suddenly fearful. He stopped taking his meds. His landlord kicked him out.
I think Paraclete recognized that he needed help but what could that look like besides sandwiches on the porch? A number of neighbors began to more actively watch out for him, making calls, trying to offer help but feeling stuck and useless. The usual services were unavailable. We all felt defeated by the unseen virus and the threat of spreading illness unwittingly. Nathan and I wondered aloud if Paraclete would even survive.
Ten days ago Paraclete was taken to the hospital by the police. The Mt Rainier police know Paraclete all too well, and I am grateful that the officers were compassionate and patient that day. Early reports are that Paraclete will be given more help this time around and his case worker will try to get him into some kind of residential situation, with regular support. I am so grateful that Paraclete, the counselor, the one who comes along side, is now receiving some comfort himself. My prayer is that he will be able to find his way back to the gentle spirit that he is, with a place to stay and a community that cares for him.
So that is what has been happening on my front porch. It has become a place for singing and for offering sandwiches. It has become a place where I try to understand what it means when Jesus says in John – “You will know that I am in God, And you are in me and I am in you.”
It takes a lot of imagination to live that out, God in me and God in you. Christ in me, Christ in those we meet. Maybe if we just start where we are, at home, on the porch, or on the playground, or the bike path, or in line for carry-out, or in the one-way aisle at the grocery store, even on a zoom call… Maybe we just need to start where we are and trust that
the one who comes along side,
that one will be there – in you and in me. And let’s pray that we will recognize this Spirit of Truth, this Paraclete, because it remains with you, with me, and will be within you and within me.
May it be so.