When I lived in NYC I worked at an Episcopal church overseeing their programs for the homeless – an overnight shelter, a lunch program, a food pantry. One day, Tom, the rector, came to talk to me. I could see a woman standing out in the hallway, pacing a little bit, waiting to begin volunteering. Tom told me a bit of the woman’s story. As he left, he looked and me and said, “Just love her.”
The woman’s name was Hope. Over the next several months she became one of my best volunteers – deeply compassionate and understanding, always ready to listen to whatever troubles one of the guests was having, quick to offer a word of encouragement. But that day, Tom was right: “Just love her.”
A few months earlier, just before Christmas, Hope and her husband had ridden out to Kennedy Airport to meet their daughter Rachel’s plane. Rachel was an art student who had spent the semester studying abroad in Florence. Always full of life and quick wit and creativity; a lot like her mom. After a series of notices of delays on the airport arrival board, all of the waiting family and friends were asked to meet with airline officials in another part of the terminal. As the whole world would soon come to learn, Pan Am flight 103 would not be arriving that night — or any other night. It had been brought down by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Each day as we handed out bags of groceries to families and made sandwiches for those who needed a lunch, Tom’s words would go through my head – “Just love her.” Hope gave hugs to every guest that needed one and told stories about Rachel at every opportunity – her love of art and writing, her independent spirit, her hopes for the future.
One day Hope came into the fellowship hall with a large bag. “I need you to do something for me,” she said. “I need you to take these things and keep them… and think of Rachel.”
She pulled out of the bag a large red winter coat and a children’s book that was one of Rachel’s favorites. When I got it home and opened it up, a picture of Rachel fell out onto the table.
I thought of Rachel as I took communion last week. I had just preached two funerals, both with 1 Corinthians 13 as their central text. I remembered back to the memorial service after the bombing. I had not met Hope yet. I didn’t know Rachel’s name or any of the other 269 names that were read aloud as the church bell tolled somberly for each one. But now it was personal. Now it was real. I had read her book. I had seen her face. I had put on her coat. After listening to all of the stories that her mother had told, I felt like I could dream her dreams.
“Isn’t that the mystery of God’s love, too?” I wondered. At times it can feel so other, a stranger; a story that happens to someone else. Something far beyond our capacity to understand or embody.
But when we love, we put on God’s coat, something God’s worn many times before. His scent lingers in it. It fits around us like his very self. When we are patient, when we are kind, we read another page in the book that he loves. When we put others first, when we do not envy – a glimpse of his face catches us by surprise as it slips out right in front of us. Personal. Real. God’s dreams becoming our own.
As I received the bread and the cup, I heard familiar words. “I need you to do something for me. Take these things and keep them. Wear my coat. Just love her … and think of me.”
How will you take these things and remember?