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Entertaining Strangers, Encountering Angels

My three children, young single adults, are scattered this week—Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, a situation that prompts an oft-uttered prayer, “Lord, send into their lives people who will inspire them and make good things to happen.”

As I pray this prayer, I think of Paul Helton, our first conversation, and the many good things that resulted from that call.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
It was a Monday evening, as I remember, in the fall of the year, some 21 years ago. I was a young minister, finishing seminary, and in the hunt for my first full-time church.
 
He called, Paul did, identified himself as chairman of a pastor search committee, and said he would like to come for a visit. He was in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Pittsburgh and we were in Louisville. I said we were scheduled to interview with another church committee. He wanted to come anyway, already had his ticket, he said; so like Paul, I later learned. Come on, I said; and five days later we met him at the airport and talked for three hours.
 
In some ways, the meeting was superfluous. I had known within minutes of the first phone call that God had prepared me for ministry in Paul’s congregation. Nothing in the next nine years led me to think otherwise.
 
So it came to be: Our family of five moved north and took up residence in that spectacular city in western Pennsylvania. From our first vision of the city of three rivers, emerging from the Fort Pitt Tunnel to a glorious sight of the City of Steel, to the final reception in the fellowship hall of our beloved church—they were rich, rewarding years, blessing our lives with a steady stream of people, transplanted from all parts of the country and from all over the world.
 
Just a month ago, one of those families visited us from Brazil; and now my elder, itinerant son has set his sights on that part of the globe. Two weeks ago, we gathered with another family in the stunning beauty of Heinz Chapel to help solemnize a wedding; the reception was among the flowers at Phipps Conservatory.
 
Carnegie Museum of Art, Fort Ligonier, Summer’s Best Two Weeks, Three Rivers Stadium, Allegheny General Hospital, LaRoche College, Pittsburgh Marathon, North Park Baptist Church, Point Park College, and just two blocks from our home, the 3,000-acre county park whose deer often strayed into our backyard.
 
They form a mosaic of memories that have shaped the minds and hearts of our family and brought much happiness, especially for the three children. As the motto of one Pittsburgh organization so aptly says, “The moods of a lifetime are set in the oft forgotten episodes of childhood.”
 
I thought about how all this goodness, all this gladness came our way because of one man, Paul Helton; one man whose exuberance for life and enthusiasm for ministry infected us from the start; whose delight in the church and confidence in our ministry played such a pivotal role in our relocation from Kentucky to Pennsylvania.
 
For almost a decade we were partners in the Lord’s work: praying, thinking, planting, singing, dreaming; and of course, folding bulletins, planning parties, knocking on doors.
 
I thought about all this when word came today of his death, after a long battle with cancer and heart disease, in retirement in Florida.
 
From Corbin, Ky., with a 1952 Georgetown degree, Paul spent a lifetime managing money and customers for what used to be known as U.S. Steel Corporation. His work took him to such faraway places as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Yugoslavia, but his thoughts were always with his wife, four children, church and pastor.
 
These things flooded my mind today, as they have many times over two decades. I prayed again that God would send into the lives of my children people who will inspire them for good and open opportunities for happiness. People like Paul Helton.
 
I remember the day I first met Paul, and in this mood I recall the word of God, “Do not neglect to provide hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
 
I bow my head, give thanks and weep; it is gladness and also great grief.
 
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.