“All mine are yours, and yours are mine…”
John 17: 10
When I was a junior in high school, a new teacher came.
He was strange. He bought his clothing at a clothes bin where poor people shopped. He never wore shoes, but rather preferred open-strap sandals, summer and winter. No socks. He ate vegetables, and he never got a fancy haircut. He shaved his head. I don’t suppose any of that seems strange anymore. We’ve traveled from hippies through polyester and into punk, but it was strange in 1961 rural Ohio.
My uncle, one of the town’s three barbers, wondered aloud one day what Mr. Bolleye -- that was his name -- could possibly teach.
What a turkey, he said, shaking his head.
Have you heard that phrase: What a turkey? It’s slang. My little Webster’s doesn’t even include the definition, but I suspect a newer unabridged would. The turkeys are the folks who just don’t fit, who don’t have the qualifications, who are unacceptable.
Today Jesus prays for his disciples.
He knows he’s headed for the cross, and he has grown to love this band. In this prayer, one of the most touching in the Bible, he asks God to keep them safe, and he commends their actions and spirit. He thanks God for them. Let’s take a good look at those for whom he prays.
Peter, an impulsive fellow who often acted before he engaged his brain. He will cut off a guard’s ear at Gethsemane. He’s the one who promises he’ll never desert Jesus, but then denies him three times.
Then there are James and John, the sons of Zebedee. They argued about who was greatest. They ask for seats at the right and left hand of Jesus.
The group as a whole is no better. Jesus says: “Feed the 5,000.” They say, “Lord, we’ve only got a little money. Send the crowd on into town, and we will take care of ourselves.”
When the guards come to arrest Jesus, they all run off.
If turkeys are those who don’t remotely fit the bill, then this is a model group. Fishermen, tax collectors and other ordinary people. Not much schooling. No training. No seminary. Square pegs in round holes. Despite all this, despite all their mistakes, their rashness and brashness, despite their selfishness, their lack of faith, despite their blindness -- even though they all fail all the time, Jesus loved them.
Listen to his prayer in plain, modern words. “Father, I pray for these disciples you have given me. I’m not praying for the whole world, but specifically for this group. They are yours. They have obeyed you. Now I’m no longer going to be here, but they have to stay here. Bless and keep them, father, and help them to remain as one, just as you and I are one.”
Jesus didn’t ask for better-equipped disciples. He didn’t seek replacements. He thanked God for the turkeys God gave him. He loved them.
I studied for a year under Mr. Bolleye. Physics, one of the most difficult of the sciences. He taught in strange ways. We went up on the roof and dropped marbles down onto boards, timing the fall with stop watches and calculating the speed and acceleration of falling objects. We stood three blocks apart and hammered boards and measured how long it took the sound to travel. We watched as Mr. Bolleye super-cooled a container of water and then dropped a penny into it, turning all the water instantly to ice.
It was the most fun I ever had in school. He was my best teacher.
Later, when I took physics in college, I never opened a book. I knew the formulae by heart. I knew the concepts. I understood the science. I got 100 percent on every exam, and I got an A, standing at the head of the class.
Thank God for turkeys!
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How can God use a turkey like you?
“Unless I see… I will not believe.”
John 20: 25
Gilberto wasn’t a nice guy. He hung with gangs, committed crimes, was, and is, a tough guy. They said he murdered someone during a robbery, so they convicted him and sent him down to Lucasville.
Later his lawyers learned the prosecutors had lied and covered up information that would show Gilberto was innocent. Don't worry, the lawyers said. You'll be out in no time. Months passed, then a year. The case worked its way up and down the courts. Again and again, he heard the refrain: You’ll be out in no time.
Years passed, and Gilberto did what he had to do to survive. Lucasville was the toughest prison in Ohio, full up with murderers, thieves, every kind of bad guy you can dream up. His family tried through the years to get him to turn to God, but he couldn't believe.
The years became a decade, then 11, 12, 13, 14...
Can you imagine the doubt? Can we even conceive of the doubts Gilberto might have had in 14 years? Is anyone tough enough to withstand that?
After 14 years, after the courts had admitted repeatedly that prosecutors had covered up evidence, after still others had proven Gilberto couldn't have been at the scene, the governor finally commuted his sentence.
Gilberto is out now, working as a legal aid, involved in church programs to try to intervene with young toughs before they join street gangs. He found God during his darkest moments, he said, and he intends to never let go.
He talked about the men in Cell Block L. There’s a riot there, and guards were taken hostage. Most of the prisoners and all the guards probably don't want a thing to do with a riot, Gilberto said. And the hostages. They may be experiencing doubt firsthand. They may doubt whether they will even be alive tomorrow.
Thomas saw Jesus die. He knew he was dead. He had seen people die. He understood life and death. It hurt. When you’re dealing with pain like that, it’s understandable if you won’t let some fool blow sunshine in your face.
God’s creation is funny. Part of the time it’s light. Part of the time it’s dark. Sometimes it’s warm. Sometimes it’s cold. Pain and joy. Near and far. Up and down. Hither and yon. All these strange and inexplicable opposites.
Can you feel warm if you never felt cold? Can you understand light if you’ve never been in the dark?
Doubt is perhaps the darkest of the dark places. It’s real. Experienced by real people for real reasons. Can we understand that and love them anyway? Even more important, can we ever understand or know or experience faith if we’ve never had a doubt? Real faith occurs, I think, when we believe despite our doubt. It’s part of my prayer life. I doubt sometimes. I tell God about it. O God, I say, I doubt. But then I say, “I’ll stick with you anyway.“
No doubt. Some people believe in that.
I don’t think they’re living in a real world.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. Can you believe, even in your doubt?
“… he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
Luke 4: 17
Scott was a drunk.
I met him when I was first got to the church that ran the soup kitchen. He came and asked for money for a hotel. I looked at him with deep suspicion and told him we didn’t have funds for that. I was nice about it, though, and Scott and I began to talk occasionally.
“Just call me Highway,” he said. “That’s how my friends know me.”
He got the name because as a young man he was restless, moving here, there, everywhere. He hitched rides, jumped freights. Always on the move. When he got sick and came back to Toledo, he said, he lived under a bridge for years.
He showed up at church one Sunday. He said hello to some folks, but they just walked past. He stayed anyway and sat down front, looking all the while at a 17-foot stained glass image of Jesus holding a lamb. When the service was done and the members gone, he knelt alone at the altar, Jesus looking down on him.
Highway could drive me mad. He always called at the worst moment. He thought nothing of interrupting a meal or calling just before bedtime. He was dying of Hepatitis C, a terrible disease that repeatedly filled and distended his abdomen with fluid. As often as not, he was hospitalized or needed a ride across the city. I took him shopping one time at a budget market, and his joy impressed me. He started conversations with everyone who came near. He would chat briefly, and then move on, leaving those in his wake grinning or laughing.
Highway had no way of knowing where I grew up, but one time he told me about a foster home where he lived as a teen. It was on a farm just south of my tiny home town, nearly 80 miles away. The farmer forced him to work long days. When he complained, the man chained him to a combine and beat him.
I knew the farmer, a respected church-goer.
Scott had a real way of mixing truth and lies in his conversations. Anyone who works with street people knows what’s going on when that happens. They’re doing what they must to survive. One day he came into my office.
“I need money to do laundry,” he said. “Maybe $10?”
I looked at him.
“I don’t think you want to do laundry,” I said. “I think you want beer.”
“No. I need to do my laundry.”
I looked at him for the longest time and finally gave him $10.
I didn’t think anything more about it until the next day when he came back into the office. He shuffled his feet, looked at the floor, and finally reached into his pocket and pulled out a wadded, wrinkled, damp $10 bill. He gave it to me.
“You were right,” he said. “I wanted beer.”
One winter day, he showed up and asked if he could wash his feet in the church bathroom. I looked down and saw that he was wearing sodden, frozen, worn sneakers and thin white socks.
“What size shoes do you wear,” I asked.
His feet were my size, so I went home and got a pair of wool socks and some good hiking boots and took them back along with soap and a towel. I offered to help him clean his feet.
“You better let me do this,” he said. “I haven’t had these shoes off in two weeks.”
He went into the bathroom and tended to his feet, and a terrible smell filled the church. It hung in the air for more than a day. It’s something you should know. Homelessness has an odor. It stinks.
Scott’s apartment raises a question about mercy.
Eventually, receiving treatment after treatment, Scott’s bills became so large that the system had mercy. A bureaucrat assigned a case worker to get the government to admit Scott was alive. Terminally ill people who can’t work are entitled legally to some help. Most don’t know how to get it, and even most professional care-givers know little about the process. But the book-keepers know. They can dispense mercy. They do it to get paid. One byproduct was the apartment and a small check given each month to his sister to help him survive.
And so, here, near the end of his life, Scott found himself in a ramshackle apartment, with a sofa, a lamp, a fan, a television set wired up to a coat-hangar antenna, a small refrigerator, and a stove. He had a shower, a real blessing, but he still had to work his little network to get enough to eat. He still drank, although much less. His body wouldn’t take it like it once did.
In places like this, among people like Scott, I saw real mercy, a mercy that asked no questions, raised no expectations, demanded no response. Many among the poor refuse to judge others. They know they can’t, for they know their own sin.
The ancient desert fathers long ago told the parable of the water and rock. The rock, they said, was hard, the water soft. But pour the water just a bit at a time onto a rock, and over time it will wear away the hardness and reshape the stone. Jesus calls us, like the water, to respond softly to the hardness of life, to become soft, persistent, never-ending drops of love.
The paradox is this: As the drops of love fall, they will reshape you.
Reflect on Jesus for 10 minutes. He said the good news was for Scott, so the church tried to kill him.
“There was a rich man… who feasted sumptuously every day.”
Luke 16: 19
Elaine didn’t bathe much.
She was a bag lady, perhaps Toledo's best-known street person, and like most bag ladies she lived on the streets, day and night, good weather and bad. The smell kept away people who might disturb her.
It was OK until progress came to town.
The empty parking lots along the river, the ones littered with broken wine bottles and trash, turned into shiny offices, a hotel, a resort shopping area. Tourists came, and one day the hotel manager saw Elaine sitting by a light pole. A hotel guest veered past, making a wide berth of the cursing old lady with straggly gray hair, a dirty face, and a shopping cart full of trash.
The campaign began.
They arrested her and hauled her off to jail. Thirty days. Vagrancy. As soon as she finished, they arrested her again. For much of 1985 and 1986, she was hauled off again and again to jail. Each time, the police disinfected their paddy wagon. On one occasion, an officer who didn't want to be bothered with that made her walk to jail, followed by a gawking parade. Finally, they threw her shopping cart, including a battered suitcase, in the dump. Everything she owned.
This upset some local lawyers, so they held a fund-raiser and got together enough cash to put Elaine in the cheapest hotel in town. She stayed one winter, then returned to the streets.
Near the end of her life, when she was critically ill, a woman who works with street people stopped to talk, give her some food and cigarettes, and to try to clean her as best she could. When she began to bathe Elaine, she found a gaping hole where her breast was supposed to be, with maggots crawling out.
``I cleaned the maggots out,'' she said. ``She didn't even feel it. The only time she got upset was when they rolled around to the back and started biting on flesh where she had feeling.''
Jesus talks about a rich man and a poor man, about heaven and hell. God tells the rich man there are people who wouldn’t get it even if someone rose from the dead to tell them about it. Imagine that.
The strangest thing of all: It could be you or me.
Elaine grew up in a middleclass household. Her daddy was a factory worker, her mom a housewife. She went to school, fell in love, married, and lost her husband in a war. Then she suffered a severe head injury in a car crash. She worked in a factory and later a tavern, but the crash changed her. She was hospitalized for years in a mental institution and then an enlightened society freed her to live on the street.
``Sometimes you have no choices,'' she told a young reporter. ``It wasn't any big deal. I just went where I could.''
This was 1985. She counted the years on the fingers of her hands, wrapped in tattered gloves.
``Been eight years, honey,'' she said. ``Been eight years I been out here.''
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. Feel lucky today?