It’s been a last-things kind of week. Dad passed away, so we’ve been going to his apartment to clean it. My two nephews Aaron and Pierson helped me move the heavy furniture. They’re young and strong and I’m old and tricky, so they carried it out while I held the doors, and it worked out well for all concerned. I’d been there the day before sorting through Dad’s last things. Everything else he’s thrown overboard and these are the things he’s carried in his lifeboat— among them a framed quote from Knute Rockne, the newspaper clipping from when IU won the national basketball championship in 1987, a wooden duck my brother painted back when he was a teenager and hoped to become an artist, and two Hummel figurines that belonged to my mom’s mom that we kids had broken and Dad had glued back together so mom wouldn’t notice, except she did, but didn’t tell us until later.
Sitting in that little apartment made me think of when Dad was in his prime and we lived in a big, beautiful home full of pretty furniture on the nicest street in town, and Dad had an important job with a big company, and was president of the town board, but then the drinking and depression started, we’re not sure which one came first, and he ended up with a few knick-knacks, living in a nursing home.
Sitting by myself in Dad’s apartment with Knute Rockne and old newspapers and the wooden duck and cracked Hummels, I found myself comparing our lives, holding my life up against Dad’s, comparing the two, and feeling superior. He should’ve done this thing. He shouldn’t have done that thing. Should’ve turned left, not right. Should’ve slowed down, not sped up. Should’ve spent more time in time in church, less time in bars. It’s amazing how easy it is to think about what other people should have done. Then, sitting there in Dad’s apartment feeling superior, I remembered a quote from Fred Craddock, who’d said, “Don’t sit on your patio in the high noon of your tranquility and make light of the huts that people build in the midnight of their desperation.” It just smacked me like a thousand bricks how often in life I have sat in a sunlit place of advantage and privilege passing judgement on the meager lives other people cobbled together in the dark days of their despair.
It made me think of the story in the Bible, in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus was visiting this little town called Gadara and there’s a broken-down man chained to a tombstone at the edge of town. How in the world did that come to be? How does someone end up chained to a tombstone? Well, it turns out Gadara had launched a downtown initiative, spruced up their buildings, planted flowers, and got in a fancy new restaurant and a spa and boutique. Things were going along really good in Gadara. People were moving in, not moving out. Home prices were on the rise.
Except there’s this homeless guy, not fit for polite company. He wasn’t always that way. He used to have a little place there in town, then his baby died, and a few years later his wife passed away, and he just gave up, and the bank foreclosed on him. So he’s been sleeping on the sidewalk, which was okay when Gadara was just a sleepy, poor, rough-around-the-edges kind of town, but now that things are going better, now that things are cleaned up, he’s become an embarrassment and one day he acted up in front of a visiting garden club, and that was the end of it. They hauled him out to the cemetery, chained him to a tombstone, took a little food and water to him every day, and told everyone he was filled with demons and warned them to stay away from the cemetery and made little jokes about him. You know how that is. Sitting on their patios in the high noon of their tranquility, making light of the hut this man built in the midnight of his desperation.
So Jesus hears about Gadara and decides to visit. The first thing the citizens do is warn him about the crazy man they have chained up. Stay away from him. He’s lost his mind. He’s dangerous. But Jesus was never one to shrink away from crazy, hurting people. Most of us, we’ll cross the street to the opposite side, but Jesus walked out to the cemetery, asked the man his name, and the man felt so profoundly esteemed that all the desperation and brokenness in him were healed. It’s curious how Luke described the situation. It says the man’s desperation leapt out of him and into a nearby herd of pigs who jumped off a cliff to their deaths.
I’m not sure what to make of all this, except to think maybe desperation and brokenness have a life span, too. That’s a comfort, isn’t it? To remember our brokenness will one day end. Our personal brokenness, our family brokenness, our national brokenness, our global brokenness. It all has a shelf life. It too shall pass.
Well, you can’t have a bunch of pigs jumping off a cliff without someone hearing it, so word got around and the townspeople ran out to the cemetery, where they found the man in his right mind, sitting down talking with Jesus. Here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of marveling and being happy for the man, they grew afraid, and asked Jesus to leave. You know, sometimes we get our lives so gussied up, sometimes we get to enjoying so much the rarified air of privilege, we get to enjoying the patios in the high noons of our tranquilities, that we can’t bear it when someone sells off their little hut and gets a nicer place.
I was talking with a man the other day about reparations for the descendants of slaves and he was beside himself. He was a well-off man. Inherited a good bit of money, old money going back generations.
“If they get money, I want my share,” he said. “It isn’t fair.”
The things we think and say from the high noon of our tranquility. I guess it’s true that when we’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. Well, that’s all I wanted to say. I just came here this morning to tell you what I was thinking about while sitting in my father’s hut.