Popes Who Bless, Unicorns, and the Love that Wilt Not Let Us Go
When I lived in New Orleans, Pope John Paul II visited those of us who lived in the Crescent City. It was about this time of year, Septemberish in 1987. I remember moderate traffic reflows and road closures, but nothing like what we've experienced during Pope Francis's visit to DC, Philly, and New York City.
The papal altar for his unrestricted public audience was built in a huge open air area near the University of New Orleans, which was no more than a couple of miles from where our family lived. There was no way, given my dislike of large crowds--except when I preach--and my dislike of extreme distances from a speaker or performer, no way I was going to camp out there with at most a weak hope that I'd be able to catch as much as a glimpse of a little swatch of white fabric, however holy. As pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, I thought I was due a VIP pass, but I was unable to find anyone who agreed with me.
So, on the day of the great papal mass at the University of New Orleans, I did yard work. My neighbors, unlike me, had evidently decided to head on over to the University of New Orleans to take a chance on seeing the beloved Pontiff. This left our street and all those around us like ghost towns. New Orleans grass--fertilized by the Voodoo Queens, according to urban legend--grew heartily nearly year 'round, and that was the only time I remember in five years of yard-mowing and landscaping duties as assigned by my then-wife being the lone yard person at work. On a Saturday afternoon, as that day was, there were normally tons of us out, regardless of the heat, but not that day.
The heat and humidity notwithstanding I was dutifully doing my husbandly chores, which included making sure the yard was mowed before we went to church on Sunday the next morning. My wife was a missionary kid, and it was usually better just to do what she wanted me to do on some kind of religious grounds--no pun intended--rather than try to understand why, or even to ask why. No offense, wives, but I'm sure more than a few husbands here today understand what I'm talking about.
Stay with me now. There's a very important sermon point in here somewhere. I've forgotten what it is, but I know it's here! At least it was here last night and earlier this morning.
I was sweating like a Puritan in a sweatlodge, hating every second of what I was doing, when I looked up and saw a couple of blocks north of me a humongous, super-stretch limo. I thought to myself, "Who in hades would plan a wedding or a funeral on the afternoon of the Pope's visit? What numbskulls!" Most of the time, except in very elite neighborhoods where the filthy rich were driven to the grocery store or their nightly reserved dinner tables in the Quarter, those huge limos with bars, exercise rooms, and humidors built in were only visible to commoners like me if a wedding or a funeral were nearby.
As the limo got closer to our house, I noticed the rearmost driver side window opening. OMG! It was Pope John Paul II, and he waved at me. Just me, David Farmer. Liberal Baptist preacher, soaking wet with yard-mowing sweat, flecks of grass all over me--skin and clothing included, wide-eyed and faint like a deer spotlighted by out of the blue headlights. Of course I was in shock! He smiled anyway as the limo drove on down St. Bernard Avenue toward, I assumed, St. Louis Cathedral in the Quarter. I kind of waved back in disbelief, and I'm sure his Excellency thought, "They’re pretty slow down here."
I rushed inside to awaken my wife who was napping with the boys and told her what I'd seen. She said before going back to sleep, "I told you not to drink the boxed wine when you're thirsty from mowing!"
A sleeping wife on my hands, I decided that in order to share my amazing news with someone who cared I’d need to change my sermon for the next morning. Though it took me most of the night to prepare a new sermon from scratch, that’s what I did. I think it was a congregational favorite during my five-year tenure. I titled it, "I Saw the Pope!"
I can’t imagine how a faithful Roman Catholic communicant would have felt to have had my experience. Maybe she or he would instinctively have run toward the limo and tried to kiss his ring or something, or unavoidably yelled out, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” My substantive differences with some of his theology notwithstanding, I admired his unswerving commitment to world peace, his sincerity, and his humility, and I felt blessed nonetheless to be eye to eye for a few seconds with someone so devoted to living by Jesus’ core standards.
I had to tell someone what I’d experienced, or I’d pop. Since it wasn’t going to be my wife, my congregants the next morning would be the recipients of my shared excitement. It seems to me to be the most natural thing in the world to want to share our most pivotal experiences with someone or someones whom we believe will hear us and share our excitement and often the joy that goes along with it.
Nearly all of us, though, have been disappointed by someone whom we thought would celebrate an out of the ordinary experience with us, but who was either uninterested or, worse, dismissive. James Thurber wrote a modern fable that for me illustrates this point precisely. Thurber called his fable “The Unicorn in the Garden.” Here is my retelling of the fable; it’s Thurber’s story in my words.
A gentleman was at breakfast one sunny morning, and he happened to look up from the table at just the right moment to see a unicorn walking around in his rose garden. Unaccustomed to such sights, he hurried upstairs to awaken his wife. Once she’d been roused into half-slumber, he said to her, “There’s a unicorn in our rose garden; he’s actually eating our roses.”
She opened only one eye and said to her husband, "Seriously? The unicorn is a mythical beast, you know," before turning over and going back to sleep.
The man walked back downstairs fully aware that unicorns didn’t and couldn’t exist. Yet, when he went back out into the garden, the unicorn was still there; except by then he was grazing through the tulips. More willing to part with a lily than a rose or a tulip, he offered the unicorn a lily, and the unicorn ate it though without enthusiasm.
More excited than he had been the first time he tried to tell his wife, the man ran back upstairs, awakened his wife again, and said, “There really is a unicorn in our garden, and he ate the the lily I gave him.” His wife, wide awake by this time, sat up in bed and said, “You’re nuts, and I told you if you wouldn’t take your meds I was going to have you readmitted to the psychiatric ward. You’d better pay attention to what I am telling you. I refuse to live with someone who sees unicorns. Do you understand exactly what I’m telling you?”
“For your information,” he told his wife, “this unicorn’s horn is pure gold.” As she rolled her eyes, the man went back downstairs and out into the garden, but by the time he got there the unicorn had gone. He sat down in his favorite outside chair and dozed off.
The wife got up and got herself dressed, and as soon as she could she went downstairs. Seeing that her husband was asleep, she decided it was the right time to call 911 and have him hauled away to the psych ward; she couldn’t cope with his hallucinations, and she wasn’t even going to try. Who knew what his next hallucination would be?
The EMT’s arrived promptly, and once in the house they sat down with her in the living room. “Ma’m, tell us exactly what has been going on here and why you called us. The dispatcher was a little fuzzy.”
"Fine," she said. "My husband said he saw a unicorn this morning. He told me it ate one of our lilies. He also told me it had a golden horn in the middle of its forehead."
About that time, the husband, having awakened from his nap, came into the house and into the room where his wife was with the EMT’s. One of the EMT’s asked the man, “Did you tell your wife you saw a unicorn?”
“Of course not,” the man said laughing. “The unicorn is a mythical beast,” whereupon the EMT’s lunged toward the wife, but she put up a vigorous struggle so they put her in restraints.
“We’re sorry, sir. Your wife is hallucinating, and we must get her the help she needs.” With that the EMT’s whisked the wife off to the psychiatric hospital, with her cursing and screaming all the way.
“The husband,” wrote Thurber, “lived happily ever after.”
The Apostle Paul had a problem. He likely had several, but there was one personal problem he could not overcome no matter how hard he tried and no matter what help he sought. He called it his "thorn in the flesh." There have been endless speculations about exactly what his thorn in the flesh may have been. Because he referred to it in conjunction with flesh, I have to believe that it was a physical affliction--though some compelling alternative suggestions have floated around such as depression, sexual identity confusion, and a mother-in-law.
The most convincing detailed suggestion I've ever heard about came not from a theologian or scripture scholar, but from a physician, an ophthalmologist—though it runs in my mind that this ophthalmologist, Dr. John Bullock, was not the first to explore the possibilities of eye disease; I believe that first person was a Christian scripture scholar. Nonetheless, the ophthalmic pathologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital during my years in Baltimore was Dr. Richard Green. Dick and his wife Janet were gracious and pastorally supportive members of University Church.
The ophthalmologist to whom I initially referred, Dr. Bullock, was a friend of Dick's, and Dick thought I'd be intrigued by his friend's years-long research. He was right. I was still editing Pulpit Digest in those days, and the contact with this doctor eventually led to an article on his ideas for my preaching periodical. He believed Paul's thorn in the flesh was permanent visual damage as a result of having been struck by lightning.
A burst of light had once knocked Paul off his horse and left him completely blind for a few days with a sense of scales on his eyes, after which there was very little vision permanently regained. Dr. Bullock believed that not only was Paul stunned by the bright light, but also that the light source--lightning—actually struck him. He's very fortunate to have survived.
Anyway, a man of letters, extremely well-educated, Paul was driven to study on the one hand and on the other driven as a pastoral figure to correspond with churches whose pastors he oversaw. He could still write his own name as long as he wrote with huge letters, and he could make out large items; but he couldn't look into the face of anyone who loved him or someone who wanted to talk to Paul about how transforming the love of God is.
This plagued him; he anguished over his condition. He prayed directly and repeatedly for healing, but his eyesight was never restored.
In a handful of poignant prayers when tears bathed his face and his soul, beyond the mystical revelations he had already received from God, he pled for healing. He did not get healing, but he did sense God saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
Apparently, though, he stayed quiet about what he had sensed and seen spiritually for a long time, doubting many people would believe him, but he finally broke down and shared his unicorn story with people who were saying he had no spiritual substance. He wasn't likely to get much sympathy from the Corinthian congregation, which for the most part disliked Paul with a significant amount of zeal, but he told them anyway hoping there would be a soulmate or two in the crowd. Chances are, they figuratively rolled over and went back to sleep when they heard his claim.
Fortunately for secondary audiences, like us, of Paul’s hard-to-believe story there are new opportunities to listen to his unicorn story and benefit from it—though our experiences may never be anything like his. If we are willing to be open to his soul-sharing recollections, there’s an important lesson for us.
The probability of joy in life must not rest on but may certainly be enhanced by having a soulmate with whom to share whatever news, whatever details are important to us always minus any worries about the possibility of judgment. I suspect that most of us have seen a unicorn or two in our lives; some of us have risked sharing the news with a soulmate while others of us--and I suspect the majority of us--have kept quiet for fear of being considered a little or a lot "off" by those around us including those dearest to us.
One of our Friday Bible study regulars shared a story the other day about a tense experience she had some years ago that she thinks was neutralized by God in a way that on the surface many might have considered mere coincidence. For her, though, it was more than coincidence, and we benefitted from hearing her unicorn story.
The fact is that many of us on the liberal end among followers of Jesus prefer “Brylcream” religious experience—you know, a little dab’l do ya. Nonetheless, the Lifeforce that is God may still break into our comfort zones from time to time with a life-changing reminder that we are living in the embrace of Divine Love, the Love “that wilt not let us go.” And there is a soulmate somewhere, someone willing to listen with openness, with whom we should share our experience, however unusual or unbelievable.
So, here’s to Popes who bless and unicorns and the God who lovingly cradles us in our places of weakness!