Elegy

My dad would have turned 100 this week.

Dad passed away in 1981, but I can still remember the way he felt when he hugged me when I came home. When I had to leave, I will never forget the way he stood and watched until I had driven out of sight. Dad told me every day that he loved me. He was constantly after me to do my best. When I got my first job cutting the neighbors’ grass, he insisted that I do more than was expected. Even now, when I see someone cutting grass and allowing the clippings to blow in the street, I think of him. He would not have approved.

I’m reading a book called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, who was born about 100 miles south of where I grew up in Ashland, Kentucky. Vance simply tells the story of his family, but it’s full of insights about poverty and brokenness. Its lessons reach way beyond the poor whites of Appalachia.

In the week ahead, our church will take part in National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day with a walk and vigil downtown. We’ll remember those who passed away without a home, and without loving, supportive relationships. We’ll also remind ourselves of our own blessings.

We like to think that we’re our own persons; that we control our own destinies; that we can be anything we want. It’s true, but it’s also true that our family, our friends, the places we grow up, and even our ancestors, influence us far more than we know. Homelessness can often be traced to the kinds of broken relationships that Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy.

Dad was far from perfect. He could be moody and lose his temper. He never had a new car, and we lived in the same converted duplex until I left home. But he worked hard his whole life and was always there for us.

I’m older now than Dad was when he died, but he’s still the most influential person in my life.

The children in the story

John Huffman, the minister 40 years ago at the church I now serve, told about hosting a staff Christmas luncheon in his home. They had a “white elephant” gift exchange, and were all laughing and having a good time until it all came to a stop.

One person picked a gift bag, reached in, and pulled out a little baby Jesus in a manger. They were all stunned. Who would put the baby Jesus in a white elephant gift exchange?  But then they noticed that it looked like the baby Jesus in the nativity set on their living room table. John’s wife, Anne, checked, and sure enough, the baby Jesus figurine was missing. Somehow it had fallen off the table and into a gift bag. They all had a good laugh and put the baby Jesus back where it belonged.

John said, “The more I thought about it, this little incident was quite telling.  So often Jesus is relegated to a kind of “white elephant” status at Christmas. Not central to the celebration at all.

The Christmas story we love the most is from Luke. Luke gives us shepherds, angels, and the baby Jesus in the manger. We love Luke.

And then there’s John.

No angels, no shepherds, and no baby.

John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek word for “word” is logos. It’s where we get the word logic.

In other faiths the logic is, follow the rules, and if you’re good enough, you might please God. But John says that Jesus is the logic of God. Instead of rules, you get a person who wants to have a relationship with you.

John says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

The infinite became finite. The inaccessible became accessible. The immortal became mortal. You could touch him; hold him; you could feel his breath on your cheek.

That’s the logic of God.

And John says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

We’re the children in this story.