Emily’s Inn

Matt. 3:1-12

On November 9th in a small town outside of Munich, Germany, my friend’s daughter committed suicide. Emily-Elizabeth was 36 years old, a divorced mother of two sons, l1 and 7. This was Emily who as a strawberry red head with freckles and a pug nose climbed up onto her grandfather’s lap, looked him straight in the eyes, and said, “You’re pretty old, Pops!” She was full of the old nick from the time she was brought home - that was her charm and her curse. Always rebellious and defiant, she stood her ground in a family where conflicts and emotions collided. Somehow she became the lightening rod. The youngest of three, she acted out and received a lot of attention, much of it negative. In high school, she was pegged as a problem and eventually sent to a special school out of state. For a time she lived with us and we considered becoming foster parents. Her mood swings were difficult, and she was belligerent and continuously disruptive. There was little doubt that she was seriously disturbed. My friend tried everything, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually she met a German exchange student and returned with him to Germany. They married and she lived there for l6 years. His family owned a pub and a farm, which he worked. Emily worked in the pub and hotel, but spent much of her time painting. Her depressions became cumulative and eventually she was hospitalized and diagnosed as schizophrenic and bi-polar. Medication helped for a while, but became intolerable. She divorced, kept in touch with her husband and with her children, and progressively withdrew into her own world. She rejected the Christian God but sought a loving, meaningful, supreme being. Emily felt as though her soul was caught like a bird, seeking freedom. Having seen her children over the weekend, she went home and oversedated.

My friend was stunned. He had kept in touch with her and tried to encourage her to continue with the help that she was receiving. Years of frustration, conflict, wandering on her part, and stress within the family overwhelmed him. He realized that mental illness is a major (often unspoken of) factor in most families. He knew that it is often systemic. His pain was palpable. We talked on the phone, he checked his passport, and boarded Lufthansa for Munich and a small town in Germany.

Emily’s years of struggle and wandering had come to rest on a hill top under pine trees. The snow was deep. There were flowers. A Protestant minister said the service, although they had attended the Catholic Church. “I have never been so cold in my life,” my friend reported, “and initially I felt terribly alone. But a funny thing happened,” he said.

He stayed for five days at the inn in the village, which Emily’s former husband owned. “I ate and slept at the inn. Daily, I would walk up to the grave. Each day someone had put fresh flowers on it. I ate alone in the inn, but every time I ate, the other people in the inn spoke to me when I came in and came over and said good-bye when they left. They could speak very little English, and I no German. But one by one the people in the inn and in the town came over to me and put their hand on my shoulder or shook my hand and spoke to me. Their compassion was incredible. I had traveled so far. I felt so profoundly supported. Maybe after all I was not alone, nor was my daughter. Their kindness and hospitality, their compassion were simply overwhelming.”

Neither of us said anything for a minute or so. Then my friend said, “It was a strange experience. You certainly can’t find a sermon in that!” I thought for a moment and said, “I think you visited the inn at Bethlehem.” “Maybe you’re right,” he replied.

Each of our lives is a pilgrimage. We carry heavy burdens and bad things happen. It is seldom easy and often we lose our way. You and I ache, we hurt, and we despair. The compassion and love that the townspeople shared reflected the compassion and love of the Gospel story. Their experience as a people and their life in the town and around the village church had taught them the importance of caring.

John the Baptist proclaimed that the journey of Israel led to the gift of the compassion and love of God in the incarnation of a babe in a manger in an inn. My friend told of the love and compassion that he received from simple townsfolk at an inn. You and I are called to lead others to the inn in Bethlehem, which still exists in our hearts, and to share the Good News of forgiveness, compassion, and love.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” “Come let us adore him.” Amen.