I gave myself an inflated, pretentious title some years ago that I have rarely confessed in private, let alone in public. I began calling myself, “The Apostle to Suburbia.” It had more than a grain of truth about it. Although I grew up on a farm just outside a little South Carolina town called Conway, I have lived practically all of my life in suburbia. It is of course, a hypothetical construct, suburbia. Some of our Washington neighborhoods, while clearly a part of the city, look suburban. I once lived in Newtown, Connecticut, which, although a small town, was in fact suburban in character, too. I’ve served a number of churches, only one of which was anything other than suburban.
In one of these suburban parishes down in Charlotte, my secretary came into my office one day and said that a man was waiting to see me. “Elder Holt,” she said, was his name. I said, “Tell him to come in.” Elder Holt was a tall, handsome, soft-spoken African-American, who I imagined to be somewhere in mid to late middle age. He began telling me his story. He ministered to a small, struggling congregation on another side of Charlotte. He had a passion for another ministry, however. There was a large state mental hospital in Morganton, some distance away. Elder Holt explained that he regularly drove to Morganton simply to be with the patients on the wards there. Frequently he would visit with people who had no one else to visit them. And because he found it helpful to have something to break the ice with strangers who were frequently untrusting, he had a collection of little gifts that he took with him—things like inexpensive trinkets or perhaps some candy, maybe a pair of socks or a little picture. So he was always scrapping around for money to buy gas and to purchase his little gifts. He wondered if I’d be willing to help him out.
I imagined for a moment that Elder Holt probably had an agenda to carry his religious message to patients. Having worked in a mental hospital myself, I was a bit reluctant to give money to support such a project, knowing how vulnerable it was to being misunderstood, or even something that would play into the structures of disturbed minds. “No,” he said. “I want them to see Jesus, not just hear about him, so I just visit. I make friends. They look forward to my coming now.”
As rector of a relatively small parish, I had no big discretionary fund. But I did have a small one. I gave him some money. Thus began a friendship. A couple of times a year he would show up. As I listened I learned that his tiny congregation did its best to support him, but they had no real means to cover his expenses. He would sell what few possessions he could do without in order to come up with gas money to go to Morganton. Once he came with a few golf putters that someone had given him. He was selling them for whatever he could get to help pay his bills. The phone company sometimes cut off his service. Occasionally he was without gas or electricity. His old car was falling apart. And Mrs. Holt did not like any of this and more than once wondered aloud if she should just leave him.
On one visit, I asked him, “Elder, tell me. What would you ever do if you could just get out of debt—have enough money to pay your bills—be free of financial worries?”
“Pastor,” he said without much hesitation, “I’d go right back in. I’d go right back in.”
My suburban mind, my suburban notion of responsibility, my middle class ethic of success, my goal to be free from my own financial worries, my thinly veiled god of security, all came together in my mouth, the weight of them causing my jaw to drop. It might have been the first time I had ever sat face to face with a fool for Christ.
Do you know that term “fool for Christ”? It is one that the Russian Orthodox frequently use to describe holy people that sometimes do crazy things because they actually love Christ enough to take him seriously. The best-known fool for Christ in the Western tradition is St. Francis of Assisi, the most admired and least emulated of all our saints.
The man in today’s gospel lesson is known as “the rich fool.” His is a very different kind of foolishness. He has made it big, perhaps even bigger than the average suburbanite. His reward? A life of luxury and ease, the kind of life that, truth be told, most of us aspire to either win or hold on to. “Eat, drink, and be merry,” has become a byword for plucking the prizes of capitalism. And fools imagine that such a good thing is endless and bottomless. “Fool!” says the voice of Truth. “This night your life will be required of you. And these things…whose will they be?”
Elder Holt was very much another kind of fool. He was a fool that actually followed Jesus. Though bankrupt and threadbare, he was rich toward God.
Sometimes my suburban, middle-class mind wonders why it is that the gospel of Jesus seems so hard, so strange actually to follow. “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight,” says the Apostle Paul. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” he claimed.
Could it be that this Apostle to Suburbia is missing something?
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016
|The Rich Fool, Russian|