The Power of One

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Weird Eddie was once a confirmation student of mine.  I didn’t call him Weird Eddie, but everyone else seemed to.  He even called himself Weird Eddie.  Clearly, he did not march to the same drummer as the rest of the seventh grade.  He wore long sleeves and long pants in the middle of summer.  He was very bright, just not in step.  Confirmation required a week at confirmation camp between seventh and eighth grade.  He was very uncertain about going, so I tried to encourage him.  I thought maybe camp was an economic hardship, so when his permission slips didn’t come in I took them in hand and marched myself over to the apartment he shared with his mother and high school aged sister.  I knew his sister when I saw her.  She seemed to be more in step with other high school students, even though she never “hung out” with other kids.  His mother, like Eddie, seemed out of step.  Her hair was dyed jet black, with the dye staining her hairline.  She always walked Eddie to the door of the confirmation classroom and waved as she left. It was a hot day in May when I climbed the stairs to the third floor of the house where an apartment had been carved out.  His mother met me at the door with a not-so-large bath towel wrapped around her chest.  Nothing else.  When I explained that the church would cover the expenses and Eddie chimed in with his eagerness to go, she signed the papers. 

Eddie arrived at camp woefully undersupplied.  It soon became apparent he had not been introduced to underarm deodorant.  He was charmed by the sample sized bar soaps provided on each camper’s bunk, and soon had a collection.  It took no time for the other kids from our church and from all the other churches to notice that Eddie was, well, weird.  Eddie liked the camp food, and cheerfully solicited anything that the other campers refused to eat.  He loved to mix all the different breakfast cereals into one bowl and eat them together.  Let me be perfectly clear about one thing.  Eddie was weird, but he was entirely well behaved and exceedingly polite.  We often wound up being partners when partners were required, and I discovered that he was astonishingly thoughtful compared to the other 7th grade boys.

The tradition was to close the last night at camp with a square dance.  Of course, I was Eddie’s partner.  The call came to swing your partner, and I reached out to grab Eddie’s arm.  I realized later that I had been Eddie’s teacher for almost a year, and had never touched his arm.  My heart almost stopped when I realized how little meat was on his bones.  I had never touched him, and I had never seen his limbs exposed.  On the last night of camp, I learned that he was almost always hungry.  Camp was a feast.   He had never seen so much food and so many choices before. 

I couldn’t sleep that night, and it had nothing to do with the giggling and whispering in the girls’ cabin.  I was about to resign my position from that church when we returned from camp.  School was already out for the summer and no one would return to the school offices until late July, after I planned to leave that town.  I had very few days left to do anything, but I could not get Eddie out of mind or heart.  I talked with his mother some, and the whole picture began to emerge.  She clearly struggled with mental illness and possibly cognitive impairments.  The high school daughter bore the weight of being the adult in the family, and sometimes she retreated from all the responsibility into the company of pulp romance novels. I couldn’t blame her. 

I relocated to my new position, over 400 miles away, but Eddie stuck in my heart like the s’more sticky fingers with which he grabbed my hands as we danced.  I realized that everyone in the little town had grown so used to seeing Weird Eddie walking everywhere with his mother, still holding his 7th grade hand, that no one really saw them anymore.  No one ever touched his arm. 

I wish I could say there was something heroic I did that changed everything.  Nothing I could do felt like enough.  I do not know, 30 years later, how his story turned out.  I only know I can still feel my hand on his arm.   The week that the staff returned to the school offices, I drove back.  I was passed along from one office to the other, one half interested face to another.  Today I’m sure no one would have talked to me, lips sealed by the privacy act.  I found the guidance counselor at the junior high school.  She shook her head when I started asking questions about Eddie.  No, she had never touched his arm either.  She looked up his file, and discovered that in second grade someone had red tagged his file for Family Services to investigate.  No one ever had, it became apparent.  She promised me that she would take up Eddie’s case and look into what could be done.  I don’t know if she ever did.  I never saw Eddie again.  It’s a cold case, but I’ve never closed the file.  I touch arms now.  Always. 

One is a very powerful number in scripture.  One is the number for God.  One is the Word that became flesh.  (Notice it’s only ONE Word?)  One is the only begotten. 

But we don’t think of one as powerful at all.  We prefix one with “only.”  What can one do?  It’s the number for helplessness, scarcity and resignation.  One is the least. I am only one.  One person can’t change the world.  I’m just a blip on the screen. 

Pick a Gospel, any Gospel, and read it between now and Easter.  Mark is short.  Matthew is the lectionary gospel for the year.  John is the lectionary for Good Friday.  Notice everything that is singular.  One.  Just. Least.    It’s an interesting exercise. 

It only takes one to betray Jesus.  Only one follows behind the posse that has arrested Jesus, to see what happens.  Only one is required to deny having ever known him, and his speech makes it clear that there is no one else remaining there to deny him.  Pilate is only one man, but he has the power of Rome in his hand.  One man could have made all the difference, and even though his wife sent word to him not to have anything to do with that man, Pilate chose to make no difference…and that choice made all the difference. 

When Jesus comes as a guest into a house, and a woman bathes his feet with her tears, no one else has offered to bathe his feet or offer hospitality.  When Jesus comes to Bethany, a woman anoints his head with oil.  No one else attends to Jesus like this, and Jesus says that she will be remembered for this.   Do you know her name?   I don’t either.  I just know that when we do remember that night, we remember that it was the night in which he was betrayed. Not the night in which a woman whose name we have forgotten anointed his head with oil to prepare him for his burial.    One is a very powerful number, not because so much can be accomplished by one, but because without one all that remains is…no one. No one remained, no one took up their cross to drag along with Jesus to that place on the hill.  Oh but there was one.  One Simon of Cyrene.  He was pressed into service to carry Jesus’ cross.  Without him, there would have been no one.  That’s the power of one, and we remember his name.  A Cyrene, he was an African, and by tradition, Black.  We tend to forget that too. 

It’s there in other places too.  In the parable of the good Samaritan, there is no one who will stop to help the man beset by robbers and left for dead.  No one, except of course, the one.  The Samaritan one.  When the boy asks for his inheritance and squanders it, and famine comes, no one will give him any food, not even the pigs.  No one, except for the One who waits for him by the mailbox every day, the One who kills the fatted calf and put a ring on his finger.  The boy isn’t an only child, but his brother chooses to be no one’s son when he tells the One, “This son of YOURS…”   is no brother of mine.  

Me, and only me.  Elijah is tired of being the only voice speaking for God, hounded to death and running from death at the hands of that Jezebel.   “I, and I only” he declares.   Moses wearies of the whining of the people of Israel he didn’t give birth to.    It’s too much for one person.  He’s burning out faster than that pillar of fire in the night.  He has to lay some of his burden down so that he is not the only one.     One is a very powerful word when we isolate ourselves as “I’m the only one who ever….”   It’s powerful and destructive.  It brings down even our very best efforts.  “I’m the only one who ever…” quickly becomes  “No one ever…”  No one else ever wants to jump on board with Only One Who Ever.  There just never seems to be enough room in that boat.  

One.  It’s all I can be.  I can’t be everything or everyone.  But I’m never no one or no thing.  I am one.  For all my shortcomings and short sightedness and short stature…I am still never less than one. 

God started it all with just one.  Saved it all with just one.  Loved it all, as though there were only one. 

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. 

As long as there is One, there will always be someone and anyone.  As long as there is One,  we are never less than one.  And together…..   together, what are we?  What can one do?

One can dance.  One can swing a partner.  One can touch an arm, a life.  One can see what no one sees.   One can speak the Word.  One saves the World, and as long as there is The One, we are never less than one.  

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About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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