Soubriquet is a bit of a stretch: as I understand its meaning, it denotes an affectionate or humorous nickname. Nom de guerre is probably more to the point, when it comes to my relationship with Wild Man. He has, for the most part, been a terrorist: bullying child from the apartment complex next to our church: bully not just in an abstract sense: he has bullied my own eight year old son, and all of the other younger children at one time or another over the past six months or so, since he was adopted by our youth group. I have run him off our playground after church before, after some particularly egregious behavior, not, of course, without mentally noting just how decidedly inhospitable and unChrist-like my own playground policing was. After services, my son and his friends always check to see if WM is around, before they head out for the playground: if the answer is in the affirmative, more often than not, they will play in the parish hall, until WM goes home, dropping himself over the fence from one of the long branches of our playground oaks.
Shortly after one of my banishings, I looked up from the “cup of salvation” I was serving around the communion rail, right into the face of my young nemesis. A sobering experience.
Suffice it to say, Wild Man was the last person I would want invading my peaceful Sunday pew. But, God is all about breaking and entering, isn’t he? Unquestionably, an agent provocateur, and she must have amusedly decided that today my Baskin Robbins lottery number was up.
Only WM was not alone today. With him was a small blond barefoot Dickensian urchin. I had seen this boy playing with my son when I picked him up from Sunday School. B— was WM’s little brother: a gentle, attentive, heartbreaking boy who my own son had taken a liking to, intermittently bemused and slightly horrified that this boy was the younger brother of the playground terrorist.
There was some rough brotherly shepherding on the part of WM at first: little broo had set his shoes beneath one of the pews, but could not find them: combination of helping to look and chiding from big broo. I got down on my knees at one point to survey pews from behind the back rows, when WM genuinely thanked me, even gently touched my arm, and said they had found them.
Through the early part of the service, WM vacillated between attentiveness, standard boilerplate WM-obnoxious behavior (calmly shushed or redirected by the rector’s younger son in the pew ahead of us), and occasional bopping of his brother for crimes to which only he seemed privy. Trumped up charges all: the boy was simply trying to be a quiet witness to the service.
What were fascinating, however, were WM’s “unexpected” bouts of attentiveness. During the offertory, one of our tenors sang a gorgeous solo of The Lord’s Prayer. He sat rapt as the man sang, applauded quietly on his own, looked at me and said, “Wow. That was pretty.” When we sang another version of The Lord’s Prayer during the communion service, he again remarked about how pretty the song was. And, as we prepared to go to the rail, he very carefully explained the protocols to his brother, about passing The Kingdom of God is yours today / and yours also around the rail, and about younger broo simply crossing himself for a blessing, as he was not yet baptized to receive communion.
In our church, it is customary for the choir members and their families to receive communion first, to facilitate the singing that occurs while others are being served. I explained this to WM and his brother as I left early to join my wife and son at the rail. When I returned to the pew, WM smiled and jokingly chided me with, “You left us!”
When it came their turn for communion, I slid out of the pew to let them and others pass by. When I sat back down, I noticed that little brother, still barefoot, was sitting half-curled up in the pew by himself. I asked him if he’d like me to walk with him up to the rail and help him receive a blessing. He said yes.
I’ve mentioned his bare feet twice now: there was something very moving and powerful in the innocence of this barefoot boy going to the rail, his hand in mine, and then standing and receiving the blessings of the Eucharistic Ministers. I felt very deeply blessed by his—and yes, even his brother’s—presence, as I stood behind. It unnerved me deeply to feel the intimacy of being with them in God’s family. As I stood there, big broo looked over from his spot a few people down the rail and whispered, “Thank you.”
The two of them disappeared out the door, after we got back to the pew, time and privacy enough for me to crack open a bit and fill up with tears—a bit more of God’s breaking and entering.
After service, in the parish hall, I found both boys looking at the art work on the walls, from a week’s worth of children’s Breakfast with the Arts classes. I had attended two of the classes with my son. Little brother was standing in front of a painting entitled Zebra Bird: a Walter Anderson-like portrait of an eagle’s head. “This is my favorite,” he said. “Well,” I said, “it happens to be mine. Do you want it?” No hesitation at all: yes. As I untaped it from the wall, I heard big brother over my shoulder say, “This is my favorite.” Violin Bird: a pelican in similar Anderson-like fashion. “It’s yours,” I said. Very genuine thanks on big brother’s part, and an assurance that “this will go up on my wall.”
You’ll notice that a few paragraphs back I dropped the use of big brother’s soubriquet. I will now drop its use permanently. I will not disclose his name here, but it is the only way I will refer to him in the future.
It is easy to yearn for God from the comfort of our loving and loved insular lives. Easy to show up and share in the loving fellowship. B—‘s big brother answers a call to God that struggles within himself and finds his way to a table of worshippers that struggles to welcome him. Rough and tumble: God’s pure larceny. Amen.