Guest Blogger: Pastor John Helveston
Okay first of all I’ll answer the question: “What were you, a Converge Pastor, doing going to see an R rated movie?” Answer: My wife was at Women’s Retreat in Monterey so I didn’t think she’d find out. And, yes the language is rough and rank from opening scene to credits, but Eastwood’s teeth are clenched so tightly you can rarely understand what he’s saying anyway.
Lesson 1: S _ _ _ U_ and Listen
When the young (He looks about 15) priest visits Walt (Eastwood’s character) soon after delivering a trite homily at his wife’s funeral, Walt treats him like a vacuum cleaner salesman – barely opens the door wide enough to see his curly red hair and starched collar. The priest asks why (Bad idea), and Walt tells him: “Because you’re an overeducated virgin who knows nothing of life and just likes to hold little old ladies’ hands and make them feel better!” (A toned-down paraphrase). Too often we think because we know the Gospel the other person knows nothing (And the other person knows that’s what we think). But like Walt, the person we’re seeking to save may be much better acquainted with grief and others of life’s hard and instructive realities than we are. I’m fifty-five years old but have never been in combat, laid off, had a spouse betray me or buried a child. When I discover the person in the booth across from me has, my best course is to S _ _ _ U_ and listen, listen hard. (I have to write “shut up” that way because there are children in my church who don’t like it when I say things like “shut up” or “stupid”, even if I’m saying we should not say those things). The young priest in Gran Torino finally learns the lesson of listening and wins a measure of respect from Walt. If we learn to listen to what the other person has experienced, what he knows about life, we may in time win the opportunity to share what we know about eternal life.
Lesson 2: Give Up Control
Walt is a decorated Korean War veteran who worked for Ford for forty plus years and now, as a retired widower, lives in the same home where he and his wife raised their two boys. The house is the same but the neighborhood, like mine and many of yours, bears little resemblance to the way it was when the homes were built. Walt is the last white American on his street. Most of his neighbors are Asian, many of them Hmong. Walt doesn’t know the difference or care; he resents them all and spouts racial slurs fluently and in the same tone you and I would have say “Good morning.” But, Sue, a twenty-something Hmong woman from the family next door isn’t put off. She persists in talking to Walt, ignoring his insults, looking past the hardness. Eventually she invites him over for a party. He accepts only because he’s tired of beef jerky. He’s only interested in eating but, in spite of himself, he honors his new friend and her family. He honors them not because of what he did for them, but what he accepted from them. Here’s a lesson I first learned from Dick Varberg in the Philippines (A man who knows more about life and loving people than I ever will). When we do for others, when we give to them, when we invite them to our homes to eat our food, that’s good. But when we give up control, become guests rather than hosts; when we allow others to do for us, when we accept their invitations, go to their homes, that’s even better. It’s more affirming to them and bestows greater honor. Walt had no Gospel, but if he had, the day he went to the party would have brought him closer to the chance to talk about it.
Lesson 3: Start With a Toolbelt
Thao is the teenage Hmong boy next door. He’s wimpy, dominated by his sisters, void of confidence and vulnerable to gang recruitment. In his typical raw fashion, Walt outlines the boy’s shortcomings for him, but then begins to invest in his life. Having seen him work hard in the neighbors’ yards, Walt begins to teach the boy about tools. Then he takes Thao to a barber shop to train him “how to talk with men.” (Okay I’m not recommending the language but just go with the spirit of the thing for now, okay?) Finally he takes him to a hardware store, outfits him with his own tools, tape measure and tool belt, and gets him a job working construction for a friend. Thao’s life is changed, everything has changed: the way he sees himself, his value, his future, the way he sees Walt. At that point if Walt had a Gospel to share, do you think Thao would listen? Honestly I was convicted when I saw this; convicted because this blasphemous, profane, crusty, non-believer did something I’ve never done: sacrificed significant time effort and energy to change a life with no expectation of getting anything back, with “no strings attached”. Now you may say: “Uh, John, did you forget this is a movie; Walt isn’t a real person.” No, I didn’t forget and I haven’t lost it yet. ‘See I wasn’t really convicted by Walt, I was convicted by a man Walt’s investment in Thao reminds me of, a real man. His name was Spec, Spec Wilson of Laurel, Mississippi where I grew up. Spec is a legend in Laurel. He played football at LSU and was an excellent golfer (Yes, he should have gone to Ole Miss but nobody’s perfect). Well one day Spec and his buddies played a golf tournament and an eighteen year old boy named Ed Jenkins caddied for them. Ed had just finished high school and had never met the men before. But after the match, Spec paid Ed for his work and asked him: “Son what ‘you gonna do with your life?” Ed said: “I don’t know, Sir, get a job I guess.” (Looking down like Thao). Spec grunted (Like Walt): “No son, you need to go to LSU and get an education.”
Ed laughed, “I’d love to but I don’t have any money.” It was true. Ed and his family were Cuban refugees who had escaped with nothing to the U.S. just before Castro came to power.
Spec said: “I’m going to Baton Rouge tonight, I’ll pick you up at seven o’clock.” Ed thought Mr. Wilson had had one too many Budweiser’s so he just went home and forgot about it. That night at seven sharp Ed’s doorbell rang. The next day he was enrolling as a freshman at LSU. Today he is a successful landscape architect in Louisiana, and a grateful one. I know this story because Spec’s son, Chris, is a friend of mine and when Ed bumped into him a few years back and realized who he was he said: “Let me tell you about the day your dad changed my life.”
No, we can’t all be influential enough to get kids into major Universities or affluent enough to pay their tuition (Though some of you may be). But we can all invest in a life, and when we do we may receive the most rewarding of all dividends: the chance to offer eternal life. Now go make somebody’s day.