Just Another Homeless Family

Every year I went looking for my Christmas sermon. For over thirty years, my sermon search was part of my holiday tradition.  It’s not like it was lost; I hadn’t misplaced it; I just didn’t know where to find it. In fact, some years, I didn’t even know where to start looking.  So, as I prepared for Christmas - making hospital visits, handing out gift baskets in the food pantry, singing carols with the choir, welcoming people to the Messiah Sing, and decorating the church and my own home, I’d be searching for my Christmas sermon.  Once I found it, I was ready for Christmas.

This year, I have no pulpit from which to share a Christmas sermon.  That’s the reality of being retired. I wonder how many retired clergy find themselves a little out of sorts - kind of homeless - at Christmas.  So many rituals left behind. But old habits die hard.  I still went looking.

My nephew, Jesse, and his wife Meghan, just had their first child, a healthy baby boy

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Owen Wesley Lind - Born in Austin, TX on December 18 at 2:26 am

Owen’s birth reminded me of a Christmas sermon preached long ago.  If you have time to read it, I hope you enjoy it, and I wish you a blessed Christmas.

It was early winter, not too cold but cold enough.  They had just arrived into town. He was an unemployed autoworker.  He had been laid off, looking for work for over two years. He’d had a few odd jobs: packing cartons in a warehouse, night clerking at a convenience store, dishwashing in a diner.  His unemployment had long since run out. He was hoping for an extension, but now it looked hopeless.

She once had a steady job in an office, and then at a department store.  However, with the local economy suffering from so many plant closures, she couldn’t even find a full time waitress job.  Besides, she was now nine months pregnant. Recently, nobody had been willing to hire her.

Life had been hard for the past few years.  First, the auto plant closed. Then the house was sold with just enough profit to replace the transmission on their late model used car, pay some overdue bills, and make a deposit on an apartment – the deposit that the landlord kept after they got evicted for back rent.  To make matters worse, their health insurance expired months ago, and they didn’t know how they were going to pay for the baby about to be born. So they packed up the few belongings that hadn’t been sold or repossessed and headed for east.

They had been in town for a few days, staying in a rundown motel, the one with the broken coke machine and the sign advertising weekly, daily and hourly rates, the one across from the big church with the men’s shelter.  They had received help from its food pantry, but without a kitchen, it had been hard to cook, and eating out had taken every last dime.

Now their money had run out, and they were running on empty.  The hotel manager said that they had to go. “NO CREDIT – PAYMENT IN ADVANCE” read the sign behind the Plexiglas barrier at the registration desk.  The manager’s wife whispered something to her husband about the woman’s state of pregnancy, but all she got was a scowl and a muttered, “I told you that we can’t keep doing this.”

The couple went down to the local welfare office.  Having patiently waited in line for over two hours, they were met by a haggard and hurried social worker trying to get away for the holiday weekend.  Politely but curtly, as if to avoid eye contact, she said without even looking up from her desk, “It’s going to take a few days for your paperwork to be processed. Come back early next week.”

“Where do we stay for now?” they asked.  The caseworker opened her jam-packed file cabinet and pulled out a list of family shelters as well as the men’s shelter at the big church downtown. “What about a place for my wife to stay if we have to be separated?” asked the man with a worried wrinkle on his brow.  Still avoiding eye contact, the social worker shrugged her weary shoulders and replied, “Unfortunately, there are no shelters for women in this county. Our only one was closed a few months ago. Perhaps you can find something in the next county over.”

The young couple looked at each other in the determined way couples do, knowing the unspoken thoughts of the other.   No, they wouldn’t be separated – no matter what. Resolved that somehow things would work out, they left the welfare office and spent all day looking for a shelter that would take them both. They had no luck; the shelters were full.

They were sitting in a restaurant, drinking cups of coffee, staying warm, and wondering what to do next.  They needed to find a place to go before dark. They walked out into the parking lot and saw a woman in her mid-twenties standing alone, leaning on a building across the street and staring at the passing traffic.  Every now and then, she would run up to an approaching car, yell “Hi there,” and lean into the window to talk with the driver. She seemed like she knew her way around, and she had a friendly smile.

They looked at each other and thought, “What do we have to lose?”  They walked up to her and asked: “Do you know where we might stay for the night?  We’re not from around here; we’ve run out of money; we’re waiting for welfare; the shelters are full; we’re expecting a baby; and we’ve got to find a place – just for tonight.”  With expectant eyes, they pleaded, “Can you please help us?”

The woman looked at them for a few seconds, and then with a grin she said, “Sure, follow me.”  Off they went, following this stranger, not knowing exactly where they were going, but knowing that they really had no options left.  As they walked, the woman introduced herself, saying her name was Lisa. She barraged her new acquaintances with a constant stream of friendly questions, but interrupted their answers with a running commentary on the neighborhood.

Eventually, this angel of the night led them to a big, dilapidated house.  Paint peeled from the broken shingles, garbage filled the overgrown yard, and several abandoned mailboxes hung on the front porch. The house was boarded up, but a piece of plywood had been preyed loose from one of the windows.  Lisa and the man helped the pregnant woman through the window and then climbed in behind her.

Once inside, as their eyes adjusted to the darkness of a building without windows, they could see many rooms and lots of stuff in various states of age, dirt and decay: clothing, newspapers, mattresses, blankets, dishes, pots and pans, beer and wine bottles, along with some discarded syringes and empty crack vials. There was a hose running through the wall from a spigot outside the house next door.  Somebody had even hot-wired electricity, thus allowing a few single light bulbs hanging from old ceiling fixtures and wall sconces to light up the interior maze of rooms.

As they looked around, the soon-to-be parents realized that other people were living in this supposedly abandoned house.  Lisa introduced her new friends to the others and explained their situation. She showed them to a soiled mattress surrounded by clothes, pillows, blankets and bags.  “This is my space. You can stay here. Nobody will bother you. I’ll be back in a while.” And then she crawled out the window they had just crawled in.

The couple cautiously sat down on the mattress.  They were exhausted, too tired to speak and lost in their own thoughts. He was reminiscing about days past, better days, and wondering if he would ever see them again.  Why did the plant have to close? Why did they travel to this God-forsaken town? Where was their family when they were most needed? And, why, Lord, did she have to get pregnant?  Leaning his sore back against the dirty wall, Bill recalled the discussion, actually the argument they had about abortion so many months ago. Without the utterance of words, he wondered: “Did we make the right choice?”  “Too late now,” he concluded.

Angry, frustrated and scared, his thoughts turned to money.  They didn’t have enough money for a hotel room, much less a hospital bed.  “How will we handle this one?” he asked himself. Evading his own question, he thought, “At least we have a few more days before the baby is due.”  He felt more alone than he had ever felt in his whole life. He just looked at his wife asleep on the mattress and sighed.

Meanwhile, the pregnant woman lay quietly on the stained mattress.  She couldn’t sleep; she was too tired and too scared. Thinking to herself, lots of questions raced through her mind. Where were they?  Who were all these people in this house? Were they safe? Were they foolish to follow Lisa here? She too remembered the argument in the early days of her pregnancy.  “Were we stupid to have this baby?” Glancing over at her husband, she was thankful they were off the streets and relatively warm. “Fortunately, the baby isn’t due for a few days.  We’ll figure things out.” She fell asleep.

Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the woman awoke to the breaking of her water – all over Lisa’s mattress.  The contractions began coming fast and furious. She was frightened, and he didn’t know what to do. People in the house began to stir.  Someone turned on a broken lamp and brought it over to their corner.

Shouldn’t they go to the hospital was the question on everybody’s mind.  But nobody had enough money for a cab, and it was too late to walk. And if they called for an ambulance, they would risk losing their safe haven. “Could she have the baby here?” somebody asked.

Lisa had returned and was frantically running around trying to decide what to do. After all, they were her responsibility now.  A middle-aged woman staying in the room upstairs came down. Her name was Pearl. Standing next to her was a sleepy young child, about the age of five. Pearl looked at the young couple and then at Lisa and declared with the wisdom and authority of age, “When I was growing up, babies were born at home.  I guess she’ll have to do it here.” Taking charge, Pearl instructed Lisa to get some hot water and some towels. She told the expectant father to calm down and hold his wife’s hand.

The contractions started coming harder and faster.  The pregnant woman was screaming and crying. Her anxious husband was shaking.  A small group of people staying in the house began to form a circle around them.  Lisa shooed them away, back into the shadows.

After an hour and a half, she pushed hard, and a baby was born.  Pearl took the baby and slapped it on his behind exclaiming: “You know, they say that when a newborn is spanked on its bottom, he forgets everything he learned in his mother’s womb.”  Cutting the umbilical cord with a kitchen knife, she placed the baby on his mother’s breast whispering, “Here’s your angel child. He’s a boy.”

As the group stood quietly around the mattress, each with his or her own thoughts, Pearl’s child crept up to the young mother and her newborn infant.  He leaned over them, kissed the baby on the cheek, and whispered in his ear, “I hope you find a place to live.”

The new mother gazed at her husband smiling with tears in his eyes.  She then looked up at Pearl and her child, Lisa, and all the people standing in the sacred circle.  Quietly she asked, “What shall we name this baby?” Lisa smiled and said, “How about Jesu? And on that cold, winter night, in an abandoned house, in a poor city neighborhood, a child was born, a son was given, and his name was Jesu.

The homeless couple are fictional characters.  Lisa, on the other hand, was a real person. In December 1991, Lisa and her companion Ivan were homeless.  Actually, they were living in an abandoned storage trailer in the parking lot of a factory across the street from my church. They both had been on the streets for some time, in and out of the shelter and jail systems, and they had become my friends.  I had been trying to convince them to get off the streets and into permanent housing. I feared they wouldn’t survive the winter months. Each time we talked about it, they laughed and told me not to worry.

On Christmas Eve, I asked Lisa if she would like to be the angel in my Christmas message.  In her excited manner, she was delighted. In appreciation, I gave Lisa and Ivan money to have a shower, a meal, a new set of clothes, and a bed for the night in the hotel across the street form the church.  I then invited them to attend Christmas Eve services and hear the story.

As I rose to the pulpit that night, I saw Lisa and Ivan sitting in a pew in the middle of the nave.  Both of them were freshly showered and wearing relatively clean clothes. When I first mentioned Lisa’s name in the sermon, her eyes lit up, and by the end of the story, she was grinning from ear to ear.

The next day, Lisa and Ivan were arrested for trespassing.  Because of bench warrants, they were locked up in the county jail and had a warm place to sleep for the next several months.  Maybe God was watching out for them. Both Lisa and Ivan have since died and are now real angels in heaven. I know they still love each other.

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This is Lisa and Ivan.  I made their portrait downtown one day when we were all watching the filming of The Preacher’s Wife.  I still miss their smiles.

Trusting in God's New "Living House"

So here we are, coming to the conclusion of Advent with only one more candle to light and seven days till Christmas. Advent is countercultural. I’ve always treasured its invitation to stillness, quiet, and reflection during the pre-holiday madness.

It’s strange not being a cathedral dean or parish priest during this season. I miss the traditions of Advent: the great hymns and antiphons, the Sarum blue vestments, the Bible stories and characters of the season, the wreath with its four candles, St. Paul’s Christmas toy shop, Trinity’s Messiah Sing, and, yes, all the preparations for welcoming strangers and friends to church on Christmas. It makes me realize just how much the liturgical calendar, the rhythm of the church year, and the discipline of preaching and leading worship ordered my life.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to preach and teach this Advent at The Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City (Long Island), New York, and Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas. While these two churches differ in liturgy, architecture, and demographics, they share a similar cathedral ethos in worship, witness, hospitality, and service. And when you walk through their doors, you know that you’re in an Episcopal Church, so it feels like home.

Preaching on the second and third Sundays of Advent, I had the privilege of engaging one of my favorite characters in scripture—John the Baptist—a character that I think speaks to us all, regardless of religious identity. What follows is a synopsis of these two sermons.

For me, Advent is best described by Alfred Delp, a 20th century German priest executed by the Nazis for his participation in the Resistance movement. From prison, he wrote, “Advent is a message that shakes us up so that we will come to know who we are and to whom we belong.”

He continued: “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up. Where life is firm, we need to sense its firmness; and where it is unstable and uncertain and has no basis, no foundation, we need to know this too and endure it.”

I came to a deeper appreciation of this Advent message when I heard the doctor say, “Tracey, you have dementia, probably Frontotemporal Degeneration.” I was shaken to my very core, as my life had suddenly become unstable and my future uncertain.

It felt as if John the Baptist had walked into that doctor’s office, ripped apart the fabric of my life, and confronted the essence of my identity. For years, I’d preached that if Jesus was a carpenter, then his cousin John was a demolition contractor. If Jesus was the bearer of a new day, then John was the wake-up call. I’m here to tell you that Jesus is the way (but not the only way) to new life, and his forerunner John is the great interrupter of our old lives.

Meeting John is like waking up to a cold shower or an assaulting alarm clock. It’s like having your mother scrub your skin raw after an evening of playing hide-and-go-seek in poison ivy. It’s what happens when you encounter real poverty for the first time, and you realize how much stuff you have. It’s how you feel when you finally get in touch with your own prejudice and bias—you know, all those “isms.” It’s when you’ve got it all together, and someone else—a child, parent, friend, or neighbor in trouble—turns your life upside down. John’s baptism is hearing the doctor tell you that you have an incurable and untreatable disease and that it’s probably time to step down from your job and get your affairs in order.

John’s baptism of awakening often leads to frightening places where we realize that we are not immortal, invincible, or God-only wise. Instead, we come to an understanding that we are mortal with fragile and often foolish lives.

Repentance is the turn-around that follows the crash; it’s the rebuilding that follows the demolition, the construction that follows the destruction. Repentance is a change of course, a matter of being grasped by God—picked up and put down—so that everything looks and feels different, a little like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Singer-songwriter Carole Etzler wrote, “Sometimes, I wish my eyes hadn’t opened, but now that I’ve seen with my eyes, I can’t close them.” Repentance is seeing your life or somebody else’s with new eyes, then letting go of old patterns, behaviors, attitudes, and perspectives and beginning to create new ones.

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Two years into our pilgrimage with dementia, Emily and I now find ourselves dwelling in C.S. Lewis’ metaphor of the “living house” as we try to construct a rich and full life. In his seminal work, Mere Christianity, Lewis writes:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is [God] up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it.

As some of you have heard, we are trading our dream house overlooking the lake for an old house in a quiet neighborhood where we intend to live out this next chapter of life.

Our plan was to create a first-floor master bedroom and bath and a front porch to watch the world go by. But now, in order to build our little addition, contractors are getting ready to knock our house about in ways that we had not imagined. As the old Yiddish proverb says, “We make plans. God laughs.”

That’s how it is with repentance. We offer up our lives to God, with all of its brokenness and all of its mess, and God responds (probably with a smile on her face), “I forgive and I love you. Now, get on with making amends and living anew.”

The remarkable thing about repentance is that we get to do it over and over again. Life is full of turning points, both large and small. If we miss a turn, or if we start to back track, the opportunity for repentance will present itself again and again. I guess God realizes that we never quite get it.

When the demolition is complete and the dust settles, when the storm has passed and the waters recede, when the illness is over and you start to feel like you might live, when the old pattern is really gone and you’re looking at a blank palette—then, and only then, can that re-construction begin in earnest; then, and only then, can new life and new patterns appear. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, and we just have to be patient and wait.

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Friends, when life feels insecure, uncertain and unstable—when all seems to be on the brink of falling apart—trust and believe that God is rebuilding your “living house” and that instead of being made into a decent little cottage, God is constructing a palace—better than anything you ever dreamed or imagined is possible—in which the Holy One intends to dwell.