Agonizing Decisions, Part I

Nobody ever promised life would be easy. We’ve had a heckuva decision to make recently. Sarah came to us with news that an 18-year-old male friend from another Virginia city (i.e., a significant distance off) was being evicted from his apartment within days and on the verge of becoming homeless. She asked, Could he come stay with us and start to make a new life here in Northern Virginia?

Oy.

Very long story short, this is someone whom she knows far better than we do: we had met him once, last summer, and I think I spent all of four hours with him that weekend. We spent about 40 minutes on the phone with the young man to hear him out directly about his present situation. 

On the one hand, he has no car and no license. He wants to work in an industry that isn’t local to our neighborhood, so he would need a way to get to work. He’s very desirous of working, but for various reasons (not important to get into here) hasn’t kept a job more than a few months. For various reasons he hasn’t been able to go to his parents for assistance. He seems like a decent person who’s struggling to get his life started. But I really don’t know him, and how do I bring someone into my home (in the presence of my wife and 18-year-old daughter) whom I don’t really know all that well?

On the other hand: Christ has no hands and feet but ours. What good does it do to talk about Christ’s love in action, if I can’t see it through?

“I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink.  I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’” Matthew 25:42-45

So what do we do? What is the proper Christian response to this?

We took counsel from many, many friends, and I cannot say any of them said, “Absolutely, you have to take him in.” Which is itself an interesting observation. I got a lot more responses along the lines of sharp, whistled intakes of breath, and caution to not do it. And to be sure, the last thing I would want is someone who takes up residence in my basement and then can never leave–not only for the impact on my family, but all the more, because it won’t have really solved the problem, only changed it and put it on my family’s back.

This becomes all the more a real question as I transition into the pastorate. I’m not aware that I’m under any obligation to take into the parsonage every homeless person who shows up at the door. But I am expected to help, and to help in ways that don’t create further harm to the person seeking help. Plus…it’s my daughter. And it’s a friend of hers.

I have agonized over this for weeks. An awful lot of my prayer life went into this topic for awhile.

So what should I have done? Let me know your thoughts…then next time I’ll share what we actually did.

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Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

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Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.

Get Over Yourself

Each of us, I suspect, has something that consistently sets us off. There’s something that, whenever it happens, is most likely to bring out the worst in each of us. And when it’s over, we’re left feeling confused–what the heck was that about?–and maybe more than a little guilty. Let me share this story, and see if it rings a bell with anyone.

We’re in the midst of renovating our kids’ bathroom upstairs and the main-level powder room. In an effort to save some money, I agreed with the contractors that I’d undertake some of the work myself. I’ll handle the painting. I’ll install the new towel bars and shower curtain rod. And I’ll swap out the bathroom ceiling fans, one in each room.

Shouldn’t be too hard to swap out a ceiling fan, I thought. Alas. I started on the first one and it became an exercise in frustration. Removing the old fan was a stubborn exercise, as it had become so dust-encrusted that getting to the screws that held it in was nearly impossible, and then learning that the screws were rusted, and stripping as I tried to get it out, made it even worse. Finally it was out, but what was billed as a fan that didn’t need any wallboard trimming was anything but, as I had to saw away another inch of my ceiling to get it in. Now how do I attach the exhaust port to the vent pipe? That’s about when I dropped the fan, and broke the exhaust port…which meant I’m heading back to Home Depot for another one, just before closing time. And trying to screw in the metal housing around the fan became the ultimate straw: the screws just would not go into the wood well, and quickly I found I had stripped those too.

All the while, at each stumbling block, at each frustration, something is screaming at me that I’m SUCH a failure. I manage Federal budgets worth billions of dollars, I have a master’s degree…and I can’t get a simple ceiling fan out? I can’t install a ceiling fan without breaking it, and ruining the screws? Now I’m going to have to call in A Guy to do this right, and it’ll cost me, both dollars and humiliation as he sees my inadequacies. There is NO way I’m going to pay for this! This isn’t rocket science, it’s pretty basic home remodeling…and I’m a failure!
statue

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. (Isaiah 41:10)

In retrospect after each such occurrence, I’m always amazed, and yeah, a little convicted by my response. There’s so much wrong with how I approached it. I was already apprehensive when I started, and then each little defeat magnified for me. I started to listen to the voices that tell me I’m not good enough, the same ones that try to tell us we’re never good enough for Jesus. And I certainly didn’t take the problem to Jesus.

It started again a few nights later when I went to work on the other one. This one, too, started to be frustrating from the get-go. This fan’s mounting box wasn’t attached to the rest of the house in the same way that the first one was, at all: it looks like it was attached from the outside, not the inside, and then the ceiling drywall was installed over it. So I’d have to hack apart more of the ceiling to get at it.

This time, I stopped. This time, I said, “It’s not worth it.” This time, I didn’t listen to the voices. This time, my evening didn’t end in frustration.

My bride is always perceptive about these sorts of things. She asked later, “Do you suppose God was trying to get your attention?” Yes, I think he was. I think he wanted me to get over myself: to get past whatever I think I should be able to do, and to recognize what gifts he has, and hasn’t, given me…and to learn a little more humility, to ask for help.

The handyman comes next week to install the new fan.

We Win!

Yes, yes, I know, this is a blog about exploring the path to and with Christ. But hang with me a sec, I have to take a detour here into something else I’ve had most of my life: my passion for the Houston Astros.

Game Seven of the 2017 World Series wasn’t the back-and-forth absolute gem that Game Five was. Nor was it the pitching duel of Game Four, the one Mary and I had the chance to attend (pic above is the view from our seats!). But in the end, for the first time in their 56 year history, the Astros shed their Disastros, their Last-ros, their baggage of all their horrible seasons and stood atop Major League Baseball as World Series Champions. And it was a marvelous, amazing feeling that in some ways I’m still getting used to.

I remember all the letdowns over the years, all the close-but-no-cigar games where playoff victory could have been ours. The long rivalries with the Braves, the Cardinals, and yes, the Dodgers that ended so many times in disappointment, were now all swept away. Being a longtime Astros fan is to know what heartache means. And still we had faith. And still we root for our Astros, hoping that one day we will know what victory feels like.

I came to follow the Astros when I was 8, the year my dad was reassigned to Texas for a year, the year I began discovering this thing called baseball, and your choices were the Astros or the Rangers, and the Rangers stunk even worse. And I stayed with them the rest of my childhood, into teen years–my first MLB game was when my dad took me up the road to Montreal when the Astros were in town. In fact, until only about 10 years ago I’d never been to an Astros home game–I was always watching them on the road, being the only one in the park with Astros gear on.

The first time I walked into Minute Maid Park, I had a feeling like coming home for the first time. I was no longer the oddity, no longer the outcast–I was surrounded suddenly by tens of thousands of other Astros fans, all in their Astros gear. I had come home, I was with my people, and they were beautiful,

I had the same experience last weekend, bringing Mary there. Sometime around the sixth inning, I remember looking around Minute Maid Park and just taking it all in, and commenting to Mary, “I don’t know why this feels like home to me, but it just does.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we too are fans of a team we’ve only ever seen in road games. We’re often in the role of being the one oddity, the one who doesn’t fit in, because our hearts are already in the Kingdom. And one day, we too will walk into our home stadium, be surrounded by those who follow our team, and finally feel completely at home for the first time.

I can’t wait!