As a writer and a Christian, it’s easy to get caught up in what I think The Great Storyteller is up to—all the symbolism and metaphor, the plot twists and the character development. For the most part, I’m pretty good at observing the story as it unfolds. To a point. Then I reach a place where all the pieces seem to fall together into neat, orderly succession, and I’m off! I know where this story is going. I can take it from here.
Of course, the world is complex. It doesn’t follow neat story boards or outlines, because it’s driven at least in part by the messiness that’s inherent in our free will. Sometimes the stories seem to go wildly wrong. They veer off course, thwarting any hope for a satisfying ending.
That’s how it felt when Vernon died last week—like the Great Director in the sky had taken a sabbatical and allowed everything to go haywire. Vernon wasn’t supposed to die! At least not now. Not like this.
There are many things I don’t know about Vernon’s story, but here’s what I do know. He was 50, he struggled with alcoholism, and he lived on the streets the past 18 years, save for a few months when he was provided with an home through a local organization that seeks a more holistic, sustainable response to homelessness. Vernon was found unconscious with a head injury a week ago, and died in the hospital after surgery failed to relieve enough pressure on his brain. There were more than 200 people at his memorial service Saturday, a testimony to the number of lives he touched.
I knew Vernon because he was a regular at the soup kitchen our church hosts, and he began joining us for Sunday morning worship services a couple of years ago. He liked to come into the sanctuary and sit down as early as the church was unlocked. I’d see him there on the weeks I helped lead worship, an hour and a half before the service started. He clearly enjoyed the music, but more than anything he enjoyed the simple things we take for granted: a chair, a cup of coffee, people greeting him by name, and a roof over his head in space that wasn’t too cold or too hot.
Vernon was always tired, as anyone living on the streets is, plus he was often inebriated. Nearly every Sunday, in the middle of the teaching, Vernon would fall out of his chair. It was a scene we were used to—someone sitting nearby always calmly helped him up—but it wasn’t a scene of dignity, and we worried that he’d eventually hurt himself. This excerpt—from a post I wrote earlier this year—tells how a simple solution became a powerful symbol in my life:
One Sunday, when we gathered for worship, we were informed that a special chair had been purchased for Vernon. Even if it looked comfortable and inviting, we should make sure it was always available for him. It’s one of those camp chairs that fold up—the kind you can sink into, with arms and a drink holder. Vernon was pleased. It was a place where he could be accepted, and rest. It was a chair that held him up in God’s dignity and love, nurturing him toward a place where he could stand steadily, and walk with God and his church. The chair didn’t say, “Come back when you have your act together.” It said, “We are ready to love you here and now, as you are, for as long as it takes.”
That day seven years ago when I first walked into New Covenant Fellowship, I didn’t require a special chair, but I did need that same acceptance, dignity, and love. I needed to be held up as I found my way. And as it turns out, finding my way is a long process that can’t be rushed. Vernon is finding his way, too. For the first time in more than a decade, he now has a place to live, off the streets. He still sits in his chair on Sunday mornings, but he looks different—he hair is combed, his face shaven, his eyes open and alert. We are all trying, together, to see what heaven might look like on earth.
Going to church yesterday and seeing Vernon’s chair there, without Vernon sitting in it, made all of the anger and sadness rise to the surface. Heaven on earth does not look like an empty chair! I want to believe it looks like Vernon, getting stronger and healthier, latching on to the hope of a more whole life here among us. “Really?” I want to ask God. “With so many hurting people in this city, and so little we can do to make a difference, our tangible love for Vernon and his place in our community had to end like this?”
But at the same time, I can see through the hurt that Vernon’s chair isn’t empty, at all. It is full of what I love about God’s people—not that we’re perfect and holy, righteous and good, but that we can come together to be humble and broken, messy and compassionate. The chair is full of truths about church that are often overshadowed—that church can be a place that gathers the true variety and condition of humanity, rather than just a tiny, well-polished cross-section. God’s community is perhaps the only place where we can both help someone like Vernon and identify with someone like Vernon.
When I think about it like that, I can see that this isn’t the end of the story, at all.
You can read more about Vernon in this News-Gazette article.