Normally for my Pastor Dad posts, I have written about my middle son and his travails particularly when I was in the middle of leading worship at my previous congregation. But about six weeks ago my oldest son gave me something to reflect upon.
On April 22, I was taking students from the campus ministry that I serve to a Pirates game. It was a great day to go but I had a few tickets leftover and I decided to see if my boys wanted to go with me. It would be a very long day for both of them, but I figured it would be fun. And it was. And the students were also helpful in herding the boys. We took the bus from the Lutheran University Center to PNC Park and my younger son just jumped on board pushing his way past everyone to sit by himself toward the back of the bus. Several students followed him and sat with him. Made my heart settle down. They watched my older son as the younger wanted to run the bases but the older did not. It was a very nice day that way.
But what has been sticking in my brain was what happened after we left the ball park. Our group was walking back to the bus stop and in Pittsburgh that meant walking over the Clemente Bridge to the downtown portion of the city. Along the way, there were panhandlers with signs asking for money. Now these were not particularly shocking panhandlers, at least not for anyone who has walked city streets before. But for my oldest it was shocking. My younger son was blissfully oblivious to their presence. They might as well have been invisible to him. Just like infants see only black, white and red, five-year olds (at least my five-year old) do not see such need and want. Somewhere between five and nine though, they become visible.
This display was shocking for my oldest. What was even more shocking though was that I, a guy who routinely talks about helping others, and a guy who has talked with him about not being home at such and such a time because I was helping someone who was in need, walked right by, pretending I was as blind to the need as my five-year old. My oldest tugged on my jacket and just sort of nodded in the direction of a panhandler. I asked him in that resigned indifferent adult tone, “What of it?” And he said “He needs help. Can’t we help him?”
And I am stuck. Do I stick to my No Money rule? Or do I just tell him to keep moving? To be honest I break my No Money rule from time to time, just because it is easier and doesn’t disrupt my routine nearly as much as doing something much more personal. In my previous congregation, I had a fantastic fund from which I could draw to provide the things that people asked for. If someone told me they were hungry, I could go buy them meals. I once helped a man replace a utility pole on his property because the utility company said it wasn’t their property. I also helped a man who had been traveling a bizarre distance by bike, foot and hitch hiking, get some new underwear and a watch. I cannot even number the times I filled gas tanks. In all of those instances, I was able to spend time with people and it was a far more demanding experience than just plunking down some cash and having them move along. Yet it was also more rewarding, and it did keep the amount of times the church and I were scammed. I am sure we were scammed anyway, but it was a different side of things than someone just getting money from us.
At any rate, I could have simply given my son one of several quarters in my pocket to go and drop in a cup but I didn’t. I simply said, “It’s more complicated than that.” How is that for a response that my son will not truly understand for a few more years? I know he is developing a sense of justice for others, because of this experience and some other conversations we have had. Economic justice seems to get at him most of all. “Why if people have an extra house do they charge rent so other people to live there? Why can’t they just let people live there for free?” The heart of his wrestling comes from the good and abundant gifts that God has showered down upon us and the reality of living in a fallen world, where people hoard and acquire far far beyond what is needed.
Those of us who are older might assuage ourselves from such reality and let loose with lines such as, “Well that’s just how life is.” We are so accustomed to life in a fallen world that we give in to it. We go along and cooperate so that we forget to question what our faith professes about the God who created everything. As I age do I grow blind to the vision that God gives enough? While I know that people on the streets have made some bad decisions, I am also aware that the problems are more than just those bad choices.
Worse yet though, did I fail as a father to help instill practices of compassion in my son to give to those in need? Would giving him a quarter to drop in a cup have been all that bad? In ignoring the man on the street, did I do more harm to my son in thwarting his compassion and desire for justice? I saw a nuisance. He saw someone in need. I saw a failure. He saw a way to share God’s love.
My children are like new glasses. They restore my sight, allowing me to see things that I have become blind to. My son has many years to learn the intricacies of alms giving. I am just glad that he sees the need and desires to help.
There will be quarters in my pocket in the future. And they will not stay there.