We Will Be Like Him
First Baptist Richmond, November 5, 2023
All Saints’ Sunday 1 John 3:1-3
Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
Today I want to share with you a story I wrote more than 30 years ago, when I was still the relatively new pastor of my first church and still telling people that I had been an English minor in college. You know how some movies say they are based on a true story, or “inspired” by a true story? Well, this one was inspired by the truth of 1 John 3:1-3, our Epistle Reading for this morning, and by the end of it I hope you can see how. Let me apologize in advance for the style of the story, which seems to have been inspired by Charles Dickens or some other Victorian Era novelist. I can only imagine what I had been reading in those days when, at the age of 29, I stepped to the pulpit and shared this story. It’s called, “The Ugliest Child in the Orphanage.”
A long time ago, when there were still places called orphanages and still orphans who lived in them, a child was born. It was a difficult delivery. When the doctor finally got there he discovered that the child was in the breech position, and try as he might to turn it there was nothing to be done. The mother died shortly after the baby was born. She did get a chance to see it, and what she saw was a boy, a beautiful boy, with a head full of wet, black hair, a tiny red mouth,
and eyes that pierced her soul with joy. She died smiling, holding her baby in her arms.
“You have a son, Mr. Turner,” the doctor told him. “A beautiful baby boy. Nine pounds, three ounces.” But the flatness of his voice betrayed the tragedy, and when Turner asked him, the doctor told him. “We did all we could. I’m terribly sorry.”
Mr. Turner tried to raise the baby on his own, but instead of bringing joy into their home as the two of them had hoped, the child only served to remind him of his loss. When he looked on that tiny face he saw her eyes, her mouth, and on its head her hair. It was more than he could bear, and those who knew him weren’t surprised when his health began to fail. He had loved his wife too deeply to lose her, and just over a year later he died too, in his sleep. A woman who lived in the apartment next door said she heard him calling his wife’s name even more loudly than usual that night.
And so it was that the child came to Brook Valley Orphanage, and into the care of Mrs. Abigail Steuben. She had never had any children of her own, never been married for that matter, and when the opportunity came about to serve as administrator of the orphanage she thought she might rather enjoy the presence and vitality of children, but she hadn’t realized there would be so many of them. After several years of keeping up with who punched whom and wondering how children could get so dirty Mrs. Steuben was thoroughly exhausted. Quite frankly, when little Nicholas Turner came she saw him as only one more mouth to feed, and a pitiful little mouth at that.
He had never learned to smile, and much to the delight and sorrow of Flora, the cook, he could only say one word —“Da-da”— which he repeated over and
over again. At first it had sounded like a question, and later like a memory, and finally he stopped saying that word or any other altogether. He ate his meals in silence, staring at the other children with expressionless eyes.
In spite of the lack of attention he received, he grew. Even though Flora had stopped trying to talk to him she hadn’t stopped putting a little extra food on his plate out of pity. When he was twelve years old he was as big as any of the twelve-year-olds at the orphanage, only paler and pudgier because he didn’t get much exercise and hardly ever went outdoors.
He spent a great deal of time in his room. While the other boys shared a single large room lined with beds Nicholas slept in a converted broom closet, largely because of the way he smelled. He had long ago passed the point where he could be made to bathe, and now he simply refused, so that his hair was dark and greasy and his face was spotted with pimples. When he came to the kitchen to eat he was often still in his nightshirt, padding along on bare feet and stooped over so that a long shock of hair fell down in front of his eyes. He drooled almost constantly, and the other boys would make fun of him by pointing out to their friends the wet trail he left behind as he slouched back and forth between his closet and the kitchen for meals. Most of them thought he was developmentally delayed, although that’s not the way they said it in those days, and their suspicions were confirmed by Mrs. Steuben who could think of no other reasonable explanation for his behavior. But whether they thought he was slow or simply strange the one thing agreed upon by everyone at Brook Valley was that Nicholas Turner was the ugliest child in the orphanage, which made it a simple thing for Mrs. Steuben to respond to the odd request she received shortly before his thirteenth birthday.
It was a letter from a Mr. Haman Potter, and this is how it read:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I hope you won’t find my request too unusual. Several years ago I lost my wife after a lengthy illness. In the aftermath of her death, I plunged myself into my work hoping to so occupy my mind with thoughts of business that I would not think of her. Although I wasn’t entirely successful in that regard, I have been blessed with a great deal of success in my business dealings and plan now to retire in the near future.
I don’t want to retire alone, however, and it is for this reason that I am writing you. I want to adopt one of the children at Brook Valley, but I would like to request that you work out arrangements with my attorney allowing me to adopt the ugliest child in the orphanage.
I have my own reasons for making such a request. I simply ask your gracious compliance. Please send me the child’s name and age as soon as you possibly can. My attorney will be in touch with you shortly.
In the meantime I remain,
And below the name was his business address. Mrs. Steuben folded the letter carefully and leaned back in her chair. Through the open window behind her she could hear the sounds of the children at play, and she turned to watch them. “All those children,” she murmured, “and he wants Nicholas.” She pronounced his name in exactly the way you would mention a contagious disease.
She took her time letting Nicholas know about the letter. For one thing she
didn’t cherish the thought of going near the child, but she also wanted to make sure Mr. Potter’s attorney followed through. As promised, he came to see her in person within a few days of her response, and after he had approved her choice they drew up the necessary papers. As Mrs. Steuben signed the last one she asked, “Just out of curiosity, why would anyone want to adopt the ugliest child in an orphanage?” And the attorney smiled and said, “You just have to know Mr. Potter, that’s all. He’s like that.” And as he stood up to leave he gave Mrs. Steuben a sealed envelope with the name “Nicholas Potter” written on the outside. “Would you see that the boy gets this?” he asked, and she nodded, realizing only then who Nicholas Potter was.
She couldn’t find him in his room and not wanting to look for him she tossed the envelope on his bed. “Not that it will do him any good,” she thought. “I’m sure he can’t read.” And, in fact, he couldn’t, but Flora could, and as soon as Nicholas found the envelope he padded off to the kitchen to find her. She could tell when she saw him that something was up. There was something in his eyes she hadn’t seen in all the years she had known him. A brightness that caused her to wipe her hands on her apron immediately and reach for the letter he held out to her.
They stepped out onto the back porch, sat down, and Flora began to read in a slow, firm voice:
My Dear Boy,
They tell me your name is Nicholas. I like that name. I like the name Nicholas Potter, too, and that’s what you’ll be called from now on because as soon as the paper work is finished you will be my son, legally. What do you think about that!?
I know you don’t even know who I am, but know that I’m anxious to meet you, and that I’ll be coming for you soon. When I do, we will always be together, and that’s a promise.
Until then I remain,
Of course Nicholas didn’t say anything when Flora finished reading. There was the same silence between them that had always been there, but it was a silence filled with hope instead of despair. She blinked back tears, swallowing hard to ease the tightness in her throat, and Nicholas? Still no tears, not even a smile, but his eyes did seem even brighter than before. That night he hugged the letter to his chest as he fell asleep.
The next morning Flora read the letter to him again, and again that night. It came to be a ritual for the two of them until one morning Flora looked up as she was reading and saw that Nicholas was mouthing the words as she read them. He seemed embarrassed to be caught at it, and he never brought the letter to her again. Instead he would read it himself every morning when he woke up and every night before going to sleep, tracing the words silently with one finger.
It was just a few weeks after he received the letter that Flora came by his room one night to check on him. It was past his bedtime, but as she came down the hall toward the door she thought she heard a noise in there, a low murmuring that almost frightened her. Tiptoeing the last few steps she put her ear to the door and heard someone repeating the words “My Dear Boy” over and over again, quietly, but very clearly. She knocked, and when he opened the door a
moment later there was no embarrassment on his face. “You can talk,” she whispered, amazed. Nicholas only nodded. “Why haven’t you ever done it before?” “I didn’t want to,” he answered, and while Flora stood outside the door with her hands up to her face he went on. “I want to now. I want him to be…proud of me when he comes.” And this time there was a tear on his cheek, and Flora did something no one had done in twelve years— she hugged Nicholas.
In the weeks and months that followed she helped him as much as she could, but it was Nicholas who took the initiative. It was Nicholas who disappeared one day with a bar of soap and a scrub brush and came back from the creek an hour later looking and smelling like a different person. It was Nicholas who began practicing good posture and seemed to stop drooling overnight. It was Nicholas who studied several hours each day and came to each meal carefully dressed, but in the midst of all the startling change in his life Flora was not forgotten, because it was Flora who kept believing with Nicholas that Mr. Potter would come, even when the months turned into years.
The other children had seen the change in Nicholas too, but they attributed it to a strange quirk in his particular brand of disability. As soon as Mrs. Steuben let it slip that he was waiting for a father who would never come the other children became even more cruel, and shouted after him a rhyme one of them had made up every time they saw him,
Daddy’s Boy, Daddy’s Boy, Daddy’s never had a boy!
Understandably, Nicholas still spent a great deal of time alone, but his hope could not be shaken. Every morning and every night he would take the letter from beneath his mattress and read the words of the promise: “I’ll be coming for you
soon.” And then he would trace his finger over the first three words and say them out loud, “My Dear Boy,” and to his ears, they sounded almost exactly like the three words he wanted most to hear:
“I love you.”
It was two days before Nicholas’ eighteenth birthday when Mrs. Steuben was surprised in the foyer of the orphanage by the most handsome man she had ever seen.
“Good afternoon,” he said, and when she didn’t answer he stated his business. “I’ve come for my boy.”
“Your b-boy?” she stammered.
“Nicholas Potter. I’m his father. Is he here?”
Haman Potter didn’t look at all like Mrs. Steuben had imagined. She had assumed that anyone asking for the ugliest child in an orphanage would be, well…ugly, but Mr. Potter could never be accused of that. She turned to hide the flush in her cheeks and saw Nicholas standing at the edge of the front lawn watching the other boys play football, and for just a moment a terribly devious thought crossed her mind, to tell Mr. Potter that the boy was no longer with them, that she didn’t know what had happened to him, but when she looked into those magnificent eyes again she could only croak out the truth.
“Him? Standing next to the gate?” And as soon as Mrs. Steuben nodded he was out the front door. He had asked for the ugliest child in the orphanage, but this boy! Why this boy was tall and square-shouldered, dressed in obviously handmade but immaculate clothing.
He quickened his pace.
That profile! Strong features, jet black hair combed back into neat waves, a handsome face!
And then he was there.
“Nicholas?” And when he turned toward him Haman Potter saw at once a pair of piercing blue eyes that filled immediately with recognition, and then with joy. There was no need for introduction. And in the embrace that followed only two statements passed between them. Haman Potter choked out the words he had been waiting to say, words that he had rehearsed on his way to Brook Valley that afternoon, “My Dear Boy.” And Nicholas Potter heard the words he had waited for so long, and when he found his voice he whispered back a reply. “I love you, too…Father.”
It was only as they started back toward the orphanage that Mrs. Steuben realized what should have been obvious all along.
The two of them looked exactly alike.
—Jim Somerville © 1988, 2023