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Archive for January, 2012

“Even if my father and mother abandon me, the LORD will hold me close (Psalm 27:10)”.

Francis Phelan is a bum. That’s what he calls himself and his comrades on the streets of Albany, New York. Today, we call people like Francis homeless.

Francis is the lead character in the book “Ironweed” by William Kennedy. The book won a Pulitzer Prize.

In addition, the story was made into a movie by the same name. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep were both nominated for Academy Awards for their roles as Francis and his girlfriend Helen.

The story is a moving and troubling one. It’s 1939 and Francis has been running from his past since 1910, when he dropped his infant son, resulting in his death.

His life had once been promising. Francis had even played Major League baseball.

Now he goes from place to place in Albany, trying to find a place to sleep for himself and Helen. Francis scrounges a dollar  or two out of odd jobs mainly to buy booze.

Helen is seemingly the more responsible of the two. She is better with money anyway, and chastizes Francis for his free ways with a buck.

Yet, she is also haunted by her past. Helen came from a good family and appeared to have a career as a singer or pianist in view.

However, she was eventually abandoned by her married piano teacher, a man who also seduced her. Helen, like Francis, ended up on the street.

“Ironweed” portrays the plight of the homeless from day to day. If it is true, as F. Scott Fitgerald wrote, that the rich are not like you and I,  then you could say the same about the homeless.

Out on the streets, it’s open season.  The hobos of Ironweed have a tough existence.

Before he returned to Albany, Francis rode the rails, a common occurrence in the Depression. During one episode in a boxcar, a man who admires his shoes tells Francis”I’m gonna cut off your feet” and proceeds to go after him with a meat cleaver.

Helen has her purse snatched on Halloween by a group of masked urchins. She had what amounted to her life savings in the bag -15 dollars.

Helen also suffers indignities no woman should have to face. Francis, seeking a place for her to sleep, puts her up in a car with a bum who spends his nights in an old wreck of a car.

Francis knows Helen will have to do more for the man than just be pleasant. However, in his mind he doesn’t have many options for her.

Both Francis and Helen are subject to incidents of mental illness. Francis hallucinates that the men he has killed in his travels, including the meat cleaver bearer, are in his presence taunting him.

Helen is invited to sing at a gin house by the bartender, a former renouned singer himself. As she sings, she imagines the audience is hailing her performance with cheers and great applause.

The truth is, when she finishes, Helen receives a mild clap or two. She idly leaves the stage with a sense of disappointment.

The life of the bum includes poverty, crime, mental disability and addictions. A good many of us have never experienced lives like those of Francis or Helen and can’t imagine having to live that way. However, in our current times  having to scramble hour after hour to exist isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

It’s not just the extremists and conspiracy theorists who are warning of potential economic collapse. Every day, I read some report in which a reputable government official or business  person  is decrying the state of the world economy and hinting at a future of economic hardhsip at least as difficult as the Depression.

I’ve never been homeless or extremely poor, although I’ve come close a time or two. It is a hopeless and powerless place to be.

At times I have been  poor enough not to be able to afford health coverage for my family, but with enough income to not be eligible for assistance from the government. During one of those periods, it was extremely frustrating to not be able to find medical care for a sick daughter at a free clinic because we didn’t live in the county offering it. (Our county was next door and didn’t offer such a service.)

When you are homeless and in poverty, or close to it, you feel abandoned. And you are to some degree.

In once scene from “Ironweed”, a drunken woman is sick and drunk outside a city mission. The preacher who runs it is a good man, but he refuses to  take people who are not sober in over night.

Francis tries to help her, but he is powerless except to ask for a blanket and some soup for the woman from the mission. When he returns, he and Helen find her being eaten by wild dogs.

The Bible describes such happenings. People in dire straits are subject to the attack of wild animals (Psalm 79:1-2).

Sometimes the predators are human.  Jesus desribed them as “dogs” (Psalm 22:16).”  Wild beasts of all varieties are out there who would like nothing better to make a feast of some vulnerable person on the street.

We may not have the greatest digs in the world, and might even end up homeless, but the person who follows Jesus can know one thing: they have not been abandoned.

In fact, every day we can live, at least spiritually, in a mansion. The Psalmist wrote:

“One thing I ask from the LORD,
   this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
   all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
   and to seek him in his temple. 
For in the day of trouble
   he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
   and set me high upon a rock.

  Then my head will be exalted
   above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy;
   I will sing and make music to the LORD. (Psalm 27:4-6)”

Governments, corporations and corrupt people may try to take away our dignity. That’s impossible though because the source of our self respect is in our relationship with God.

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“My child, don’t lose sight of good planning and insight. Hang on to them, for they fill you with life and bring you honor and respect.  They keep you safe on your way and keep your feet from stumbling (Proverbs 3:21-23).” (New Living Translation)

My nature is to shoot from the hip. In the past decade I have lived up to that aspect of my personality to the hilt.

I have moved myself and/or my family to about 11 different domiciles and back and forth to three different countries. I suppose my career as a teacher of English to speakers of foreign languages can be blamed.

However, there is more to it than that. Lot’s more. Probably more than I can go into here without getting off the point in this post.

Over 10 years ago I quit my job in the States and took one in Finland. Three years later I moved back to the States.

After one year, watching my income dwindle to nothing in super rich California, I moved to the oil laden Middle East, where I was paid handsomely and my bank account stabilized — for a time.  But again, after one year, having endured enough of an unsuitable situation, my family and I moved back to Finland.

Three years later it was back to the States. This time I was hopeful that this would be it. I intended to spend the rest of my life in the hills of southwest Virginia, the land of my childhood.

It was not to be. My job status went sour and it was back to Finland after about 20 months, this time sans fam.

The common thread in all this job switching is the  “last minute” nature of it all. In some cases,  I felt like a man on a rocket ship barely escaping Planet Earth as it explodes.

I already alluded to my poverty in one of those circumstances which led me to desperate action. In another, I decided to stay in Finland and not return to the Middle East the night before my plane was to leave. The stress release after that decision was palpable.

In all of this hopping around I have had the viewpoint that God rescued me “just in time”, a term used by Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book “God Can Make a Way”. Perhaps, but now I am not so sure that  my “rescue” was what the Lord was up to.

How much of the pond jumping was due to my flighty persona and how much was due to God’s intervention I may never know. However, another potential spontaneous job switch which popped up last month has made me reconsider God’s role in such maneuvers.

Not particularly caring for my seperation from my wife and kids at holiday time recently, I went to be with them. While there I truly prayed my guts out that I could stay home for good. (In fact, this prayer had been sent up regularly BEFORE  I arrived back in the States at Christmas.)

Because of the nature of my work, which is not tenured, I tell people that my “second job” is looking for employment. While home I spotted a job in my field within 45 minutes of my home and jumped at it.

I got a message back right away. The interview, held the week before my scheduled return to Finland, went well. It appeared I had a job offer and could return home.

I was excited when a colleague in Finland who knew about my possible departure sent me a message via social media and told me not to worry. There was a ready replacement for me, I was assured, so I was advised that I shouldn’t feel as if I was leaving my employer in the lurch.

Right after I read my coworker’s note, I checked my Email. Sitting in the the inbox was a message from my interviewer.

*Wow! Here we go again,” I thought.  Nope.

It was a “Dear John” letter. Something went awry in the 48 hours between the interview and message from the person I thought could be my future boss.

I can’t say I was devastated, as accepting the job had its obstacles. However, I was definitely disappointed. My normal modus operandi of last minute salvation went belly up this time and the opportunity of remaining with my family with it.

I have been reflecting back on a whisper I believed God put in my ear before going home for the holidays. I had read a commentary in the Life Recovery Bible which had described the weaknesses of Abraham and Sarah as twofold.

One flaw in the lives of these patriarchs was there tendency to take action before God had revealed Himself on a matter. Another mistake they seemed to make was to not plan. God spoke to me that these were failures I myself needed to avoid. 

I believe He told me that any move back to the States on my part needed to be well thought out. While reflecting on these matters pre-Christmas, I also had no specific direction from the Lord that I was to up and go home.

Indeed, even if the job had been offered I would have had great pause. I had legal, contractual and ethical commitments to consider which would have been difficult to extricate myself from.

One night in the midst of pondering all these grey areas, my wife read the Bible to me out loud. One of the verses she read was this one:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him (I John 4:16).”

I determined as I heard this that I could rely on God’s love. Again, Abraham came to mind.

He had been told by God to take his son of promise Isaac up to a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham trusted God so much that he did it, believing that even if Isaac died God would raise him up again (Hebrews 11:17-19).

I figured that even if I had to get back on that plane and come to Finland and resume my life without my family, God could fix matters so I could turn back around. As I sit here a few days later, that hasn’t happened.

However, it is clear to me that being away from my wife and kids is less than optimum. I still believe God can make a way.

It just may involve a little more detailed and orderly program of action than what I am used to. In fact, I am coming to believe God intends to rescue me through this kind of planning, and not via a rocket ship this time around.

Jet lagged and sleepless last night, I lay awake at 3 am worrying. Then I got up and read my Bible.

Knowing God wants and has a plan and wants me  involved in the details actually comforted me. While I might have preferred a last minute phone call or cash infusion to make things right, I think in the long run this way is better.

Seeking God and planning for a while  offers possibilities for stability. It also has potential for producing a much more rewarding future in a lot of areas.

Drawing up a game plan for action may not be as thrilling as my previous impulsive decisionaking, but it seems to be more in line with the Master’s plan. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t do things “just in time”.

Indeed, I saw this during the Psalm that was my main source throughout the holidays. The Psalmist writes:

 I waited patiently for the LORD;
   he turned to me and heard my cry. 

 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
   out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
   and gave me a firm place to stand (Psalm 40:1-2).

However, in the same song he cries,

 Do not withhold your mercy from me, LORD;
   may your love and faithfulness always protect me. 
For troubles without number surround me;
   my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
   and my heart fails within me. 
Be pleased to save me, LORD;
   come quickly, LORD, to help me (Psalm 40:11-13).

AND

 But as for me, I am poor and needy;
   may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
   you are my God, do not delay (Psalm 40:17).

The man is desperate and believes he needs quick relief. However, he is willing to wait for God’s “just in time” moment within his desperation.

That’s not a contradiction. That’s a message that God works through, outside and (just) in time. In my case, He has decided to involve me and my participation a little more than usual.

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