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O God, Do Not Leave Us Comfortless

Kathy Douglass

Scripture: John 17:6-19

From our collect today: O God, do not leave us comfortless.

I didn’t make the connection when I selected this date on the lay preacher schedule

that it was Mother's Day. May 12th just sounded kind of nice, springlike, it felt good to me.

I'm more of a panorama vision, "how does this make my heart and spirit feel?" kind of person. My attention to pesky details can run a bit sketchy. To be honest, I also chose the date because it was the option farthest out on the calendar. I'm a bit of a procrastinator, not in the sense that I wait until the last minute to get things done, no, it's more that as an introvert, speaking in front of people can leave me a little anxious and I've discovered that if I let the anxiety marinate for awhile, it settles down.

I certainly had no idea at the time, that today, I'd be marking my first Mother's Day without Helen, my mom.

O God, do not leave us comfortless.

Have you ever experienced someone you love and trust expressing their hopes for your life? Someone drawing near, looking you in the eye, and from a place of trust forged over time, from shared miles and experience, from a depth of relationship that finds you known and understood, putting into words what they carry in their heart when they think of you?

Perhaps even more meaningful, the power and the tenderness of being prayed for. I believe we pray for one another, each in our own way, often. Yet it is an unforgettable experience to be within earshot when that prayer is uttered.

This past fall, as my mom’s suffering was escalating at a frightening speed, I arrived for Sunday worship at my normal early time to rehearse with our musicians. And just a few notes into our first song, I was overcome with a stabbing sadness. I couldn’t play, I couldn’t sing as tears ran down my face. I looked up at Jack and frantically said, "could you please come here?" In an instant he was at my side, on the piano bench, along with the other musicians and Rev. Sara. He invited me to take deep breaths with him, to allow for my heaving sobs to be released, and he prayed for me so I could hear. He put into words what he carried in his heart as he bore witness to my anguish. Jack asked God that I might be wrapped up in peace, that I would know that I was not alone in my despair, that I would encounter God’s tenderness and presence even as my mom was dying.

O God, do not leave us comfortless.

What a tender scene we witness in our Gospel today, Jesus, praying for his followers, asking God, so that his followers could hear, for protection, for unity, for joy - for shared purpose and meaning and mission. Hear our Gospel passage from The Message paraphrase:

God, I pray for these you gave me. They were yours in the first place. Guard them as they pursue this life, that they can be one in heart and mind. Make them holy, transformed in truth. As I return to you, may my people experience my joy, made complete in them.

O God, do not leave them comfortless.

I remember a particular visit to my mom a few years ago, before her illness advanced. She lived just 10 minutes away, and it was common for me to see her a few times a week. I usually found her in her recliner, coffee in one hand, remote in the other, watching her favorite British murder mysteries. On this particular visit, I invited her to click off the TV and come sit outside with me. My “invitation” may have sounded a little bossy, we’ll never really know.

We sat on her back patio under the awning that shielded us from the summer sun. We sipped iced tea and watched her little dog Marmalade, who is now my little dog, romp around the back yard.

My mom was a cradle ‘stiff upper lipian’. That's a thing. Her upbringing in faith was informed by a crummy and damaging theology that dictated that concern or worry, regret or sorrow have no place in the life of a Christian because if you love the Lord, what is there to be concerned or worried about? What’s to regret? Why the sadness? Here's the truth: my mom loved the Lord. And, because she was human, she was at times weighed down with concern, overwhelmed with worry, she wrestled with regret and bore deep sorrow. She was never granted, at least in her faith communities, the permission or the safe space to say such things out loud.

O God, do not leave us comfortless.

But then I come along, my furrowed brow, my tilted puppy dog head, the "tell me more" that's always on the tip of my tongue. I discovered as an adult child, the secret that I hear many parents discover about their older children. That sometimes, to encourage an opening to conversation, you just need to change the scenery. Take them for a drive, go for a walk in the park, get some ice cream. In my case, turn off the murder mysteries, and sip iced tea in the backyard while the dog romps around. I don't know how or why it works, but sometimes it does. An opening appears. Poet and singer Leonard Cohen said: “There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.”

My mom knew that huge changes were approaching. She knew she’d not been well for some time, that she was declining, mentally and physically. She knew that her agency around her own life and our lives as a family was waning, that one day, her tangible, touchable flesh and bone presence would no longer be the tie that binds. She knew that sooner than any of us would be ready for, she would be leaving us.

Jesus, in our gospel today, knew that he would soon be leaving his friends, and given the pained questions raised at the meal they’d just shared, it was clear that his leaving was coming sooner than some of them were ready for.

That afternoon in her backyard, mom and I talked honestly about some of the potential things we might need to consider: possible in-home assistance for this desperately private and ferociously independent woman; potential displacement from the home where she’d lived for 50 years and raised 4 kids as a single mom. A loss of autonomy. A loss of routine. A loss of car keys. Her stiff upper lip trembled a bit, and she began to cry. I asked her if she could tell me more about those tears, if she could put into words what she was thinking.

And despite the myriad ways her mind and body were betraying her, she was able to clearly say: “I just want you kids to be alright. I want you to stay together as a family. I want you to love each other after I’m gone.”

And how did I respond to this tender confession, this plea, this vulnerable expression of her hopes for our lives without her?

”Geez ma, I just don’t know if I can do that.” Thankfully, I used my inside voice and kept that thought right here.

Sidenote: To cut myself a little slack, I do wonder if, when Jesus prayed in front of his followers that they might carry on without his physical presence in peace and unity,

if any of them looked around and with their inside voices, muttered, “Geez…. I just don’t know if I can do that.”

See, I’d been kinda mad at my brother for 5, 8, 12, 20 years. I mean, we were on speaking terms, but those terms were often chilled and served with a side of defensiveness. Years of mutual resentment had built up. Turns out he’d been kinda mad at me for 5, 8, 12, 20 years.

And yet, here sat my mom, glimpsing the foreshadowed ebbing of her life, telling me that what mattered to her most, was us. We belonged to her. But we also belong to one another.

Hear again the words of Jesus: “God, I pray for these you gave me. They were yours in the first place. Guard them as they pursue this life, that they can be one in heart and mind.”

In my mom’s words also, I heard a prayer: that we be ok without her, that we continue what she started in us, that in her absence, we’d find joy and purpose and belonging in one another.

There is a crack in everything. A crack in her fortitude, a crack in my resistance to confront and repair my part in the disconnect with my brother. There, in her backyard, some light got in.

O God, do not leave us comfortless.

Jesus, knowing that his tangible and touchable flesh and bone presence would no longer be the tie that binds, prayed for his followers.

Jesus, as my ears hear it, in praying for his followers then, was also praying for his followers now. For you. For me. For us.

Guard them as they pursue this life, that they can be one in heart and mind.

Make them holy, transformed in truth. As I return to you, may my people experience my joy, made complete in them.

We, having been prayed for by the One to whom we belong, find ourselves comforted, carried and companioned by one another. In purpose, in unity, in mission. In belonging. In love.

Today is my first Mother’s Day without my mom, as she has also returned to God. Yet, I have not been left comfortless.

And in a sweet touch of serendipity, I am spending the afternoon with my brother. Amen.

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