I had a bonus day with my grandson Elijah yesterday. His mom wasn’t feeling well, so he spent the day and night at our house while she got some rest.
The first thing on our agenda: pick up a prescription for mom, along something for her to drink. That doesn’t sound too hard. When we arrived at CVS, we first grabbed some soda and some Gatorade, then made our way back to the pharmacy counter. Determined to be the world’s best two-and-a-half-year-old helper, Elijah insisted on carrying one of the drinks. First the Gatorade. Then the soda. Then the Gatorade. Then the soda. Repeat and repeat and repeat.
There was only one person ahead of us in line at the pickup, but they certainly weren’t in any hurry. My assistant waited with me as patiently as he could, which meant bouncing in place until it was our turn. As I spoke to the tech at the cash register, I heard a man chuckling as he sat and waited off to the side. He enjoyed watching Elijah shake the bottle of soda up and down, occasionally dropping it and chasing it across the floor before picking it up again.
Well, the prescription wasn’t even ready. So first things first. We’re definitely not taking that soda back home to mom. Back into the cooler it goes. Is that bad? Not for me. No soda explosions on my to-do list.
The store wasn’t big enough to contain Elijah’s energy, so we touched every candy bar in from of the checkout, bought our drink, and got out of there to grab some lunch. We had a lot more fun stuffing fries into our mouths at McDonald’s than we would have had galloping through the aisles in CVS. When we were done, we opted for the drive-through prescription pickup, and we were on our way home.
Yeah, pretty much anywhere we go together is an adventure!
“There’s someone on the phone — they need a place to stay tonight.”
“OK, I’ll talk to them.” When I pick up the phone, I never know how the conversation will go. Even though I’ve heard the request before, it’s never the same experience.
“Hey, how can I help you?” The story was familiar but unique. Evicted, no transportation, friend picking them up tomorrow to drive them back up north, need a place to spend the night. He and his wife were at the hospital last night until they were asked to leave the ER waiting room. Now they were waiting at a gas station, calling around to find someone who would pay for a motel room.
In the “olden” days, you would work your way through the yellow pages listing of churches in the area. Today, I guess you google “churches” and find out who’s in the area. Then you start calling until you reach someone who will help you out.
I had about an hour before a scheduled visit and had just finished up a sermon for tomorrow, so I agreed to come and get them and take them to a motel. It wasn’t out of my way and it’s not a lot of money and mercy is a good thing, so I headed out the door and down the road.
On the way, I though to myself, “Shouldn’t you be more careful?” I mean, you have no idea who is on the other end of that conversation. You have no idea what they are really up to. You are just going to go there and pick up a guy and his wife and take them to a hotel?
Then I thought, “Oh, stop it. What are they going to do, rob me? I was going to give them the 11 bucks in my pocket anyway. I’m meeting them at a public place. If they look creepy, I’ll figure something out. Why don’t you try trusting God? He made sure you had extra time today. He’s got your back, you know.”
I pulled in, walked up and met one of the nicest couples I’ve encountered in a long time. They had come to Florida from Pennsylvania, couldn’t really make it here, and were headed back where they had family support. They had been married just over a year, were feeling very alone, and very, very grateful. After a short ride, the very kind hotel manager got them situated, I had a chance to pray with them, and we parted ways.
What would I do if I were in that situation? Who would I call if I had no where else to turn? I have no idea. They had more courage and faith than I did today, humbly reaching out to a stranger, any stranger, for help. I think God is starting to get somewhere with me. My gut more often tells me “have mercy” than “be careful.”
And I didn’t even see it till just now: this is Christmas. A couple from out of town looking for a place to say. No baby, but maybe someday. You know what? This is even better than being in a Christmas play or live nativity!
A week ago my wife and I were sitting in front of a crackling fire in a wonderful 100 year old cabin in the mountains of northern Virginia. The fall colors were at their peak and the cool air so worth the long drive from Florida. The one thing that put a damper on a picture perfect evening was a large red “No Smoking” sign prominently displayed in the living room. Just in case you missed that one, another one hung over the front door. And that’s all it took to suck a whole bunch of charm out of the room.
I wondered, “What have people done to this place that makes a sign like that necessary?” In addition, a twelve-page rental agreement pretty much forbid everything a tenant might do, from drugs and alcohol to smoking and parties to long showers and too many flushes. I’ve stayed in other places with no other rules than “please take out a load of trash.” So I wonder what previous renters did to make such regulations necessary?
Yes, I know the answer to my question. Rather than taking out trash, the guests trashed the place. The cistern ran dry and the septic got clogged. A dirty bathroom and a sink full of dishes greeted the cleaning crew. Even though you are extra careful who you rent to and clearly state the rules, it’s hard work to open up your place to total strangers. Airbnb, VTBO and other services have been a great resource for us. But it only takes one bad renter to spoil it for so many others.
We’re not perfect, but we tried to leave the place in better condition than when we arrived. I’ll try and fix small things that might need repair. I hope I can be a renter who gives the next ones a better experience.
This one happened in Florida, late one morning when the intercom from the front office told me, “There’s a man on the phone who wants to talk to the pastor.”
I knew how these conversations usually went. But I wasn’t all that busy and was feeling fairly pastoral, so I said, “OK, I’ll talk to him.”
It was a little different than what I expected. He didn’t ask anything of me other than wanting to have lunch with me. I was free for lunch, so when he told me where he was, I told him I would meet him at the barbecue restaurant just a quick walk away.
When I arrived at Woody’s, I figured that he was the guy standing by the front door, so I introduced myself, we went inside and sat down.
I told him lunch was on me. I was fairly certain a request for help would eventually come, so I was prepared to pick up the tab. When the waitress came, I ordered a lunch special, but he only got a plate of fries and some ice water. Interesting.
As we waited for our food he did most of the talking and I mostly listened. He was an experienced truck driver and was on his way to St. Augustine for his next job. He didn’t have his own truck, but was meeting someone for his next haul.
The food arrived in a few minutes, and while I enjoyed some pulled pork and sweet tea, he launched into a lengthly monologue about driving truck, his experiences and what he hoped his future would look like.
“You know all those orange and blue trailers you see on the road? Those are all beginners. That’s their first job. Trust me, they aren’t making much money. Barely enough to get by. They are just learning how to drive, so when you see them, give them lots of room.” I took his word for it, though I didn’t know if that was a fact.
I did ask, “So how long do you have to drive before you are making good money?”
He said, “At least ten years. Until then, you aren’t making anything. Most drivers don’t last that long. You have to stay clean — no record, no drugs, no alcohol. Most can’t do it. Companies can’t find drivers who are clean and most guys who want to drive can’t get jobs.”
Our conversation went on for about an hour. Mostly about truck, a little bit about family, and of course a mention of church life, since I’m a pastor and all. Then he mentioned that he just need to get up to St. Augustine to pick up the truck for the next job.
I said, “I can give you a ride.” He was meeting someone at a place near the outlet mall. Half-an-hour away, not a problem. Of course, in the back of my mind a voice tried to tell me I probably shouldn’t do this alone. But I didn’t feel threatened and he seemed honest enough, so we headed up the interstate to his destination.
On the way we talked about where he had lived in Florida, his time in the military, his kids, who were grown and living somewhere, and of course a quick mention of wanting to get back to church. In fact, when he was in the area, he would probably stop in.
When we got to the motel, he told me his truck was arriving the next day. I wasn’t going to just leave him there, so I went inside and paid for a hotel room for him.
As I drove home, I marveled at how he chose to spend a couple of hours with me rather than just asking for some help. I don’t know if he had practiced that skill, or if it just worked out that way. But it was effective. I probably would have said no to an outright request, but was willing to help as the need unfolded. Pretty clever. I’ll bet anyone could use that strategy. Invite someone into your life, gradually unfold your need, and let them be a part of your story.
I didn’t come away from that encounter feeling used. Instead, I was fascinated how our lives had intersected for just a moment in time. I learned a lot. Every time I see one of those trailers on the highway, I remember that day and what he told me about those drivers. I also think often about my vocation, and how people seek out a pastor for help. I’m safe, often generous and usually compassionate. I didn’t do any preaching or teaching that day, just bought a guy lunch and gave him a ride. Ministry moments aren’t spectacular. Neither was Jesus. Maybe that’s the point.
It doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but some who are seeking help knock at the door of the church. One family I remember in particular wasn’t in search of food or fuel, but just a campsite.
As most are, they were on the way from one place to another, and just needed a place to stay for a week while in Florida. I’m not sure why it was a week, but that was their story. They had a running car, a couple of kids, a tent, a propane stove, camping equipment, and food. They had everything they needed except for a place to pitch their tent for a few nights. But there was a campground just a few miles away, and they wondered if I could help pay for a site.
Not a problem. I drove down with them, went to the camp office and said I wanted to pay for a site for them for a week. It was pretty warm that afternoon, but it was cold, oh so cold in that office. The icy stare I got from the woman behind the desk would have made Frosty shiver. “We don’t usually do that.”
I said, “I just want to pay cash so this family can camp here for the week. I’m a pastor here in town.”
Her look softened every so slightly for just a moment, but then she held form, “We don’t like to do that.”
“I don’t understand.”
She stood up and walked from behind the counter, “It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing. It’s just that when the weeks up, we won’t be able to get them to leave. The we have to call the sheriff and I don’t want to have to deal with that.”
I just looked at her. She looked back. “But OK, I’ll do it this one time. It’s just that we don’t like to do this kind of thing.”
The campground wasn’t full or anything. No big events were coming up. But I understand. If you don’t want to have to kick them out, it’s better to not let them in. She must have had that experience before. I never thought of that.
It often isn’t as simple as we think. It usually isn’t easy helping people, no matter what anyone else might tell you. It’s rarely a “one and done.” There is sometimes another chapter to the story. Or someone has to clean up the mess later.