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.

Glimpse of the kingdom

This week I happen to be preaching on the story of Jesus engaging the “woman at the well” in a town in Samaria. For this meeting to take place, Jesus had to cross racial, religious, cultural, and even gender barriers. When the disciples found Jesus talking to the woman, they were shocked. Yet the meeting transformed the woman and her town.

Last Tuesday evening, I helped greet about 140 folks who came to take part in the weekly meals we’ve been serving through our partnership with our friends at Outreached Arms. There were about 100 guests who came to eat and about 40 volunteers who came to serve.

It was a glimpse of what Jesus was doing that day so long ago.

An executive from England in town for a corporate meeting spent the evening chatting over a meal with the homeless from Pittsburgh.

A company president so enjoyed engaging the guests that he forgot to have anything to eat himself.

Volunteers who spanned three generations served guests who spanned three generations.

Some guests who came to eat helped serve.

Others stayed late to clean up.

Lawyers and engineers stacked tables and chairs.

First time volunteers from the suburbs came because they had heard what God was doing here. They experienced the wonder of sitting down with the downtown homeless, and discovered they had more in common than they imagined.

It was a glimpse of the kingdom.