Called by Name

When was the last you were in a situation where someone forgot your name? Perhaps a situation where no one knew who you were and made no effort to even learn your name?

There was a story carried by the New York Times in 1993: John Doe No. 24 Takes His Secret to the Grave. The mystery of John Doe No. 24 outlived him.

There were few clues when he was found going through the dumpsters, wandering the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois in 1945. He was deaf and mute and probably about 16 years old.

Unable to speak and misunderstood as mentally disabled, he was placed in an institution . He became John Doe No. 24 because he was the 24th unidentified man in the state’s mental health system. Officials believe he was 64 when he died November 28, 1993 at the Sharon Oaks Nursing Home in Peoria.

Deaf, mute, and later blind due complications from diabetes, the young black man survived institutionalized hell: beatings, hunger, overcrowding, unnecessary medications, and the dehumanizing treatment that characterized state institutions through the 1950s. In spite of his environment, he made friends, took on responsibilities, and developed a sense of humor. People who knew him found him remarkable. They remember the tantalizing hints to his identity; the way he would scrawl “Lewis” and his pantomimed wild accounts of foot-stomping jazz bars and circus parades. He loved to dance, feeling the vibrations of the music.

As death approached for the man known only as John Doe No. 24, his one-time nurse Donna Romine reflected sadly on his mystery. “Ah, well,” she said, “God knows his name.”

Somewhere hidden in the life of John Doe No. 24 was a story. There was a name. Were there were memories of a mother who held him, a father who carried him? Where did he live, what did he do before he was abandoned on the streets to fend for himself?

At the brief graveside service, when asked if anyone had any words to say, no one spoke. What do you say when you bury a life no one knew?

When I think of this story, I am reminded of the passage of scripture where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, and specifically the verse:

He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out (John 10:3).

I think the nurse caring for John Doe No. 24 was right when she said, “God knows his name.” Who knows how many times God whispered it to him through the years? When everyone thought he couldn’t hear, who is to say that he wasn’t hearing the only voice that matters?

The Good Shepherd knows each sheep by name. When you read through the gospels, every encounter Jesus has is a personal encounter with a unique human individual; a person with a name and a face.

We’ve met a few of them already in this blog: There was the woman who Jesus met at the well. Her lifestyle, ethnic background, and gender left her an outcast in her society. But her lifestyle, spiritual and emotional pain are as relevant then as toddy. In his encounter with her, Jesus went right to her heart, compelling her to discover and face the truth for herself.

Then there was the boy who shared his lunch with the crowd of 10,000 (remember, we counted the women and children who were left out of the statistical account?). We discovered that a miracle is God’s extraordinary message in the midst of the ordinary; a response to what’s most needed. Jesus is God’s message to the world.

Last week, we met the man born blind and we struggled with the question “why does an all-loving, all-powerful God allow innocent people to suffer?” While there is pain and suffering in this imperfect world, Jesus is there to break our darkness and suffering to be our light in the midst of that pain and suffering.

In each of these encounters, Jesus related to that person as a unique individual with a name and a face. That is how he related to John Doe No. 24. That is the way he relates to you and me. He calls us by name and meets us in a one-to-one relationship.

Sunday bonus: After reading the story about John Doe No. 24 in the New York Times, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a song, John Doe No. 24. It’s featured on her Grammy award-winning album, Stones in the Road. She also purchased a headstone for his unmarked grave.

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