Help, I Need Somebody
This is the sermon I preached this morning at UUFNW.
Help, I Need Somebody
Rev. Dr. Michael Tino 11/3/13 –Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester
© 2013 Michael Tino
It was Monday, June 24. Eric and I had been fathers for just about two and one half days, and our baby would not wake up to feed. We would rouse her, and she would squawk a few times and go back to sleep. She was breathing, but nothing we could do would wake her up. We called the pediatrician in a panic, and were advised to take her into the office as soon as possible.
A few short hours later, having had Nora’s jaundice properly diagnosed, I picked up our six-pound girl, at the time small enough to fit on my forearm, placed her yellow sunhat on her head, and carried her across the street to Tampa General Hospital for admission.
Before that moment, I had known fear in my life—sometimes paralyzing, but usually controllable or at the very least confrontable. It is possible that before that moment, I had known helplessness—I had certainly known despair and powerlessness, and sometimes they intersected.
But I say it is only possible because in that moment, holding my listless tiny daughter and preparing to turn her over to nurses and doctors who would save her life, I finally understood what it meant not to have any power at all over the outcome of a situation. I was helpless.
I certainly had never before experienced the kind of powerlessness that made me turn to prayer—prayers of pleading with a merciful God, however it was that such a God might hear me, to heal this tiny, sick being that I had come to love so much.
Now, I don’t believe in a supernatural God. I don’t believe in a guy in the sky who listens to our prayers and answers them if and when he feels like it, or if we happen to have made him happy enough on a particular day. But that didn’t stop me from praying. By myself, and with a hospital chaplain (a UU seminary student I know mostly through Facebook, who happened to be doing her chaplain internship this summer at Tampa General), I prayed.
And in praying, I remembered the prayers I used to say years ago when I, too, was an intern hospital chaplain.
You see, people all the time asked me to pray with and for them. They asked me to pray for their healing, for good outcomes for their surgery, for their loved ones’ painless death. I prayed a lot in those sixteen weeks.
But I couldn’t pray to a God I didn’t believe in. So I had to figure out what I was praying to and for.
“Gracious and loving God,” I would pray, “today we pray that your presence is felt in this hospital. We pray that you do your work through the hands of the doctors and nurses caring for Bob (or Mary, or Nora even, to use my own personal example). We pray that each touch carries with it your love, your power, and your peace.”
I could pray that way—I could pray that the presence of the divine, however it might be understood, worked through the caring and capable people in the hospital.
And I could pray that way, too, when Nora was sick. As I did so, it slowly but surely dawned on me what I was doing. I was reminding myself that in the depths of my helplessness, there were others there to help me.
Nurses whose care—for Nora, but also for me and Eric—was evident 24 hours a day. Lab technicians, nervous about taking blood from such tiny and delicate hands and feet, who stroked Nora’s head to calm her and carefully warmed her feet in their hands. Doctors and medical students who paraded through the hall like a scene from “Make Way for Ducklings,” but who made sure that all of my many questions were answered and assured me again and again of the routine nature of the treatment regimen Nora faced.
Eric and I, of course, cared for each other, and when he went back to the hotel to sleep, there was my own Mom, who told me about my own bout with jaundice as a newborn, before the advent of blue light tables, when she lied about her own recovery from childbirth to be able to stay in the hospital with me another night.
And my friends—near and far—who calmed me down and reassured me. Chaplain Katie, of course, too, who came and made me laugh and then prayed with me, those very familiar-sounding prayers of the UU chaplain.
Those prayers reminding me that in my helplessness I was not alone. That the spirit of life and love was all around me, holding me, holding Nora, that it was breathing through an entire team of people caring for us, and that I could ask that spirit for help because I could ask others for help.
Last week, I reminded those of you who were here that understanding our interdependence is necessary for making and dealing with change in our lives. Understanding our interdependence is necessary for so much more than that.
It is, in fact, where the holy resides. The holy resides in our ability to ask for help and receive it. The holy resides in our ability to hear another’s cry for help and respond. The holy resides in our connections of compassion and vulnerability.
In our willingness to fall to our knees and overcome barriers of theology and pride in order to admit we need some help. The holy resides in our admission that we need somebody else.
That first night in the hospital, while Eric slept in our hotel room (we took turns overnight as they would only let one of us stay), I held Nora’s little hand as it poked out of the light table bassinet. This was all the physical contact I could have with her most of the time while she received the treatment she needed. So I held her tiny hand and I sang to her.
And the song that came into my head—I can’t explain to you why—was Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time. I sang it, making a promise to my infant daughter that I knew I could not keep:
When you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time. When you fall, I will catch you; I’ll be waiting, time after time.
I knew it was an impossible promise, and yet I made it anyway. Like so many parents who have come before me, I promised to protect my child knowing full well that there would come a time—hopefully later rather than sooner—when that promise would be broken (though not through my lack of trying), and hoping she would forgive me when that happened.
But that promise was more than just the surface-level impossibility, and I’m not one to make promises lightly. So here’s what I think I was promising my daughter that night four months ago:
I promised my daughter to surround her with love. With the love of everything and everyone I can. With so much love that it envelops her like a warm quilt staving off the chill of winter nights.
I promised my daughter to surround her with community. With people who care about her, and about whom she should care. With friends and acquaintances and a faith tradition to which she, from very the moment of her arrival, was a treasured and celebrated addition (and yes, they did take a break in the plenary at the UUA General Assembly to sing to her when news made it to Louisville from Florida, so this is literally as well as figuratively true).
I promised my daughter that I would teach her how to form relationships with others, so that even when I am not around she could have people that she might rely on.
I promised my daughter that I would do everything I could so that she will never feel helpless—that she will always know that something or someone is on her side, wherever she is.
And in making those promises, I realized that I had learned those things myself. That the spirit of life and love was surrounding me, too, as well as a cloud of witnesses, friends and caregivers near and far. That I, too, had people on whom I could rely for help—if only I admitted I needed it.
And so I did. I prayed and I wept and I sang to my child, and I told God—as I understand God—that I was putting all of this into larger hands than my own. And the tiny hand I was holding let go, and Daddy and child fell asleep.