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Lessons from Troy

December 4th, 2008 by Jason · 6 Comments

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been racking my brain, reading, and reaching for some thoughts on how advent might act as a counterweight to the flood of consumerism Christmas brings.  Most of what I was coming up with was abstract and bleh.  Yesterday, it hit me like a water baloon: God already showed up on my doorstep a few weeks ago in an oversized green t-shirt and shorts (in winter) asking for help.

I was sitting in my cozy church office when someone rang the doorbell that never gets rung.  After the second ring I realized what it was and opened the door to a heavyset fellow with a midwest accent: “you all give hepp?”

“huh?” I replied.

“hepp, like for the homeless.” he reiterated.

“oh, help.  umm, yeah, I think so. come in.”

That’s how I met Troy, a homeless man (or more accurately a car-home man) who had been driving out from Chicago before stopping at Quest when he saw our strange looking cross that’s set atop stained glass.  He lives in his old-school-circa-1980s Oldsmobile and survives off of the seven hundred bucks he gets in disability each month.  After spending money on gas and food to get out here he had sixty bucks left to try and stretch over the next couple weeks.  So Troy took to our cafe, hanging out in the corner each day watching 1960s music videos on YouTube on his old laptop.  Since I work in the cafe, Troy and I have started to form a friendship as he’s introduced me to 1960s hip-hop and his world and I’ve shown him things like email and vegetarian lunches.  Anyhow, what struck me yesterday is that I’ve learned more from Troy about money, simplicity, and homelessness than from most of the books I’ve read.  A few of them:

  • Homeless people are just that, people. I emphasize the “just” because I now realize that when the homeless are an abstraction, an idea without a face or story then I have a tendency to make them more-than-human and less-than-human.  I turn them into saints because they know more about poverty than I do and simultaneously I ignore and fail to look at most of the ones who cross my path.  Troy has shown me he’s just a person, a cracked icon of God like the rest of us.  He’s not perfect, he complains about the dirt and smell of other homeless people and goes on about Mexican immigrants, but he’s also a human with a story and dreams—my favorite is that he wants to give a go at belting out some of his favorite oldies on our open-mic night.

  • I have a lot, and I don’t have a clue about most of it. Troy keeps making these offhand comments that open my eyes wider and wider to how well-off I am.  Yesterday, it was “you have a washing machine and dryer in your house?!   You are blessed.”  Oh.  I’ve made lots of mental lists about what I’m grateful for, but our washer and dryer never made the cut.  I simply take them for granted.  Then, the other day I suggested he go to the foodbank to save some money.  Troy looked at me for a second and then asked, “have you ever been to a foodbank?”  “umm, err, no, just driven by” I stumbled.  Check off another one that’s never made my “grateful” list: always having enough food such that I’ve never had to stand out on the street waiting for a handout.    It hit me: The more I have, the easier it is to be oblivious to most of it.

  • It’s not what you give, it’s what you keep. That line comes from Chris Heuertz’s book, Simple Spirituality, and I didn’t really understand it until Monday.  See, last week, I felt God saying I should take Troy out for a pre-Thanksgiving lunch and fill up his car with gas so he could turn on the heat at night.  I did, and I felt pretty good about myself.  (Sidenote: An extra twist was that when I went to pay for lunch I didn’t have enough cash.  I asked the cashier to take things off the order.  He asked how much I had and then said that was enough even though it was a couple bucks short.  So even as I’m all pumped about being so generous I have to take charity from the cashier.  Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?)  But then, over the weekend I started getting worried Troy might ask for some money on Monday if his check hadn’t come in yet.  Thing was, I had already given, on my terms, and didn’t want to have to wrestle through saying “yay” or “nay” if Troy asked.  So I avoided him.  I snuck into my office and camped out there.  Of course Troy came back eventually to say hi.  He didn’t ask for anything, but it was clear he wasn’t going to have enough to keep warm until Wednesday, so I offered him ten bucks.  However, I think God knew that, internally, I had “kept” those lousy ten bucks, because the first thing Troy asked me when he received his check for the month is if I wanted my money back.  It really didn’t matter how much I (self-righteously) gave, it’s what I kept, what I didn’t want to let go of.

  • What’s mine isn’t really mine. That whole shennanigan with the ten dollars was so thoroughly indicative of how I view money and possessions: as mine.  I fretted over the money during the weekend and when talking to Troy because in my mind those ten bucks were mine, not God’s, and so I was the one to decide what to do with them.  I eagerly possess Mammon and before I know it the relationship is flipped and it’s Mammon who possesses me.  This is highlighted every Christmas when I receive my Christmas checks and gift cards.  I’ve got enough, plenty even, and thus that money should be given away, as John Wesley did or as Advent Conspiracy suggests.  But I never do, because in my mind that money was given to me, so it must be for me.  Why is it so hard to realize that the money I have isn’t mine, it’s God’s and it’s for God’s kingdom purposes?

I’ll finish this post up with a verse from Isaiah 3:14 that’s keeps bouncing around in my head since I read it yesterday: the plunder of the poor is in your houses. That’s not only a description and indictment of the typical American Christmas, it’s also a pretty good summary of what I’ve learned from Troy: poor people are out there, all around, but one place they’re not: in my house (or life).  What is in my house is all my stuff, most of which I don’t even notice, and the money to which I hold so tightly.  And when I keep what I shouldn’t keep, it’s plundered from the poor.

Tags: poverty · theology

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 greg // Dec 4, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    thanks for sharing this rust…

    g

  • 2 isaac // Dec 4, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    J-
    yes, yes, yes. Good stuff. I’m jealous of your church. I wish we had a coffee shop where homeless people hung out and watched music videos. Sounds perfect. Probably something like Heaven.

    -I

  • 3 isaac // Dec 4, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    By the way, you should turn your buddy Troy onto some good rap and spoken word. Ya’ll should watch some Saul Williams performances on YouTube. He’s incredible.

  • 4 isaac // Dec 4, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Here are some good ones:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQ_o660d0oc

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjvVf2PKoV4

  • 5 …..Links for your Linking Pleasure 9 « Community of the Risen // Dec 4, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    [...] 3.  Jason talks about Troy the Homeless Man. [...]

  • 6 John // Dec 2, 2009 at 8:37 am

    Great sermon starter for Avent. By the way, the dog on your banner looks like my dog Charlie.