By Brian Merritt
One of my most prized possessions is in a wooden box on the dresser in our bedroom. That box contains souvenirs and tokens from my 46 years of life. It also has a bunch of coins that I have bought and collected over time. There is one Silver dollar in particular that holds a special meaning to me.
I do not know what blew my grandfather into town that holiday season. It was not often that we saw him at all. He had separated from my grandmother and I certainly saw him much less. I heard the hushed conversations between my aunts and my mother about him. He was a drunk and chain smoked. I had heard about his exploits from my mother, but had very little contact with him.
What I did know was that he had helped built windmills on the plains of Nebraska, he would make racist comments from windows of cars and had a soft spot for those who rode the rails. To me he was old, but I am now sure that he was probably not anywhere near as ancient as a young child thinks. Or it was possible that his hard living had aged him will beyond his years.
There he was, drunk, and sleeping on our basement couch. He had that distinct odor that had either exited his mouth or the pours of his skin. I remember staring at his back and watching his shoulders raise and lower as he snored.
The next morning, he ate breakfast in our kitchen and while talking to my parents took something from his pocket. In a wad of paper towel was a silver dollar that he gave as a gift to me. On one side was the balding face of Eisenhower and on the other was an eagle flying on the moon with the earth in the distance the planet earth can be seen. I went and put this coin with all the valuable toys that I had in a case in my bedroom.
The next time I heard about my grandfather it was with a bit of drama. It was at a family gathering at my aunt Gwenn’s house in Brule, Nebraska. I always loved going to my aunt’s house. She was the one who seemed to be the most commanding personality in that large family. I seemed that my grandfather wanted to be at the festivities and my grandmother was going to be there as well.
There were whispers that he had changed, found someone new, wanted to reconnect with family. I do know there was a lot of skepticism from his children and fear about having him inhabit the same space as my grandmother.
That began something that I had not noticed before. He was sober and was not smoking. The story went the he had met a good Baptist widow and fallen in love. She had told him that she would only date him if he gave up smoking and drinking. He seemed to be a much different human to my young mind.
The years past and we had more contact at family gatherings with my grandfather and he never seemed to waver from his newfound sobriety and in his retirement worked on rebuilding steam threshers and windmills.
I remember him as someone who would sit in the room with the men of his wife’s house in Scott City, Kansas and play pitch with the other men. When he died we all gathered in that small Kansas town for his funeral.
The Baptist pastor gave an admirable service, but probably did not anticipated the snickers from the family as he praised the litany of good attributes. My grandfather was being compared to biblical characters of great holiness. Yet, for the family that knew him the entire span of his life they laughed out loud at the pastor’s only truncated timeline of his history. Their memories remembered every hurt, every pain, every shortcoming that he displayed over a long life. The pastor only knew the sweet old many who attended worship every Sunday and helped around the church. To the pastor my grandfather’s history was different than the one most of his relatives knew.
Now when I take this coin out of the box on my dresser it is filled with so much more hope that it could have been if things had not changed from the night that I received it. When I look at it I know that there is the possibility of change. The possibility that our lives before might be unrecognizable to some in the light of the transformation that happens to us.
He will change our mourning into dancing, a light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. These are big promises. We live in a cynical culture that does not believe in the possibility of change. We brand criminals for life and they are barred from voting, relegated to substandard living and made pariah’s in our community. Mental illness still holds the stigma of being a moral shortcoming instead of the public health issue it is. We have enemies that the only way that we think we can overcome them is by violence, destroying them or defeating them in humiliation. We do not believe in the possibility of change.
I wish that I thought the church was a different place, but I have spent most of my years serving it. The reason so many people are cynical about the church is because they were fed an ecclesiological myth that when Church happens by the grace of God that it is where people become more than human. When they find that the church is teamed with all too human characters they have their worst fears validated. Hypocrisy, lust, addiction, greed, power mongering, are for out there, the church is different. This is a dangerous lie that allows us to skirt honesty or to make worship a showpiece for weekly entertainment.
Augustine’s early assessment of the church is still the most accurate. The church is the hospital ward for the sinner. It is not a gathering of the perfect, but a triage of the imperfect. Why do we gather in this building, on the street, in the houses of our neighbor and in the hospital wards of our city? Hope. It is the flickering light of hope that there is the certainty of change, transformation and radical revolution.
It is a new year, a time of expectation, a time of hope, a time of renewal. What do we bring to this new year as followers of Jesus Christ? Are we content to wallow in the abject disappointments of the past? Do we need constant reminders of the faithfulness of our God? What we have is hope. It is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the fragrance of salvation to those who follow its scent. We are people of hope.