Small Somethings

The Christmas break after my first semester of seminary brought Olivia and I back to my old stomping grounds, swept up in a strong northward breeze and carried upon it back to my home state of Massachusetts. It blew me into the doors of the church that I had spent in which I spent most of my youth. Much about the place had changed. So had I. The space had a new layer of paint here, a remodeling there, but for the most part, the space had remained familiar.

After the service, I caught up with a few old friends. One person with whom I looked forward to connecting was a man who many in the church have taken to calling Jeep.[1] He stood near the Welcome Center, his head of light gray hair just barely bobbing over most of the crowd that spilled out into the narthex.

After grabbing my coat, I turned to see him a few feet away. I waved him over and introduced Olivia to him before I began asking him about how life had been.

A few minutes later, he paused and asked, “So, how’s seminary been?”

Jeep, from what I can recall, was well-acquainted with the seminary life himself, going to a well-known seminary north of Boston back when I was still in high school. I began rattling off a couple of subjects that I had taken and puffed my chest out when I told him what my grades were.

Olivia rolled her eyes. Jeep laughed before holding up a hand and looking at me with a serious expression on his face.

“Honestly, Tim,” he replied, “I really don’t care what grades you got or what subjects you studied. I trust that you’ll do alright in that department. What I’m concerned with is how you’ve learned to love people more like Christ.”

That memory has stuck with me over the last year. As I find myself out in Kentucky, working for a wonderful church as its pastoral intern, Jeep’s voice just sits there in the back of my head, gently chiding me for focusing on quantifiable results that are summed up in a letter grade instead of listening to God’s voice to see where God is working on me and through me.

This has especially been the case during regular check-ins with my seminary on how I’m doing. There’s a presentation at the end of the summer that I’m supposed to be preparing for, based on our learning objectives and theological questions. That’s all well and good, but it’s been hard to change from an academic mindset to one out in the field. Every time I hear how one of my friends is working on the border advocating for the rights of immigrants and those seeking asylum, or another who is working in hospice care, I sometimes look at my own situation and wonder what quantifiable thing I can bring to the table at the “judgment day” come this August.

Not because there’s nothing to do, but on the contrary, there are so many things going on in the running of the life of the church each week. I find they’ve all been essential and formative.

This past week, for example, I had the privilege to visit two families who had children. I had so many conversations with wonderful people. I have sat with students and processed pain with them. I’ve taught Sunday School and youth group a couple times and watched as something clicked in the minds of one or two of my students. I have broken bread with children. I’ve helped teach a family how to use a washing machine and a dryer. I’ve been covered in grime from diving in a dumpster to fish out an iPad a student threw out.

Perhaps this is what Rilke meant when he advised a young man to “be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

My theological questions may not have a direct answer in a way I’m used to finding in order to get a grade. Instead, it might require getting down, into a dumpster from time to time, to find it. A flash of it might happen sitting by someone who is home-bound as we stop by to visit.

I think I heard a glimpse of it in a sermon my supervisor delivered when she observed that it’s not mountaintops or valleys or extraordinary experiences that offer the most formation in us, but the long, slow plod of the everyday -the bread and wine moments, the every day staples, the small somethings in life- which does through the habits we allow to form along the way.

I’m not used to living out uncertainties outside of the letter grade and the textbook, but I think I’m starting to adapt, trying to listen even amid the ordinary tasks of the week. Rilke concludes likewise, stating, “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I’ve discovered my time in Kentucky to be good work. Certainly, strange at times, but worth it at the end of the day.

I can’t wait to tell Jeep.

[1] To this day, I’m still not sure how people got from John to Jeep, but I’m content letting that mystery remain unsolved.


The Lonely Planet

Love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

There’s a long stretch of highway between the place where my parents live and my old hometown which rambles past old forests and hills. I found myself driving it this past December time and time again, getting lost in my thoughts as traffic lines whizzed by in one long, continuous, yellow blur underneath the cold, gray New England clouds. I would drive it again later at night, accompanied only by stars which held vigil for the sun to return.

Galileo, when he looked through his telescope at the very same skies, once noted that “the only motion which is observable to us is the one which we do not share.” In other words, when two objects are moving in the same direction, it appears as though both are standing still. I wonder if he ever realized his thoughts about space and celestial bodies were just as applicable to the space and persons around him.

Sometimes I wonder whether the reason why Galileo had so many enemies was because people worried about what it would mean if we weren’t the center of the universe. Suddenly, life would become confusing and mysterious. Its basic structure about understanding our importance in light of everything else would be twisted around. We needed to figure out what was up from down.

Do you ever think that the Earth feels lonely in her journey around the sun?

I wonder if it’s the same reason why people don’t like hanging out with many people that they used to when they were younger. They fear what their friendship meant if their companions don’t travel in the same old paths that they once did. Old stomping grounds become abandoned fairgrounds. Whole cities built and maintained once by the bonds of friendship are lost to and reclaimed by the forest of the unknown.

I’d been traveling back to catch up with old friends and tie up loose ends. But most recently, I’ve been spending some days sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table and listening to her tell stories. She’s trying to write her memoirs, you see, but writer’s block had frustrated her. And so, I sat and listened to her as she partly read, partly narrated, stories about her coming-of-age and into young adulthood as the daughter of a Japanese Imperial Army officer around the time of World War II. My particular job, if you could call it that, was when she would pause to search for what to say next, I would ask a clarifying question about some time, place, person, or event.

The day would begin after I would walk in and unbundle myself from all of the layers I had wrapped myself with before taking out a pen and a notepad and setting them beside a teapot full of green tea. Most times, they would rest unused unless I heard something so remarkable I didn’t want to forget it. In those moments, I would sit up from my chair, jot one or two words down, and return to the position that I was in before.

Erik Erikson describes the last stage of psychosocial development as the crisis between ego integrity versus despair. It’s when a person begins to look back on their life and reflect on whether or not the choices they made were worthwhile and meaningful in light of the impending void. It’s why so many of the elderly tell stories, they want their lives to mean something. And, personally, I think that stories are one of the best gifts that the elderly can give.

When I was younger, my grandmother would tell my brother, my sister, and I the same stories. We would sit, listening intently as she described growing up in what would become North Korea after a successful military campaign by the Japanese Imperial Army to colonize it and later escaping as refugees when the communists invaded. But these stories were just entertainment for our young minds. Their purpose, to us at the time, was merely to keep us out of trouble when my grandmother babysat us. But I realize now that in each story was wrapped a part of herself, a small diamond in the rough. A passing light in the night sky.

I think the reason why we didn’t value her stories as much was because she was always there and always available. As a small child, I could not understand the amount of maneuvering that my grandmother did to get where we were then because we all were going in the same direction at the same speed. Our extended family shared in the same day-to-day narrative.

Perhaps it’s the fact I have to drive further than when I was younger. Or, perhaps it’s because I’ve grown to appreciate the wisdom and experience that the elderly have to offer us. Perhaps it’s because living away from my family has made me value the time I have with them more. Whatever it is, this past winter break, time at my grandmother’s house has been substantively different.

Perhaps it is because my orbit has differed significantly enough that I can finally look upon that of my grandmother’s and appreciate her own long Odyssey through space and time. However, it’s one thing for a person to leave for a time. But what happens when a friend’s orbit takes them away from us indefinitely?

Even though it was I who left on a plane for another place for another time, I feel like it is my family and friends who are spinning away with frightening speed. Galileo was right: we all are in the everyday motions of living our lives. It’s only when we begin to take a step back or begin to live into another story that we see the motion of others. It is the motion that we do not share in. It is not our story to live. But when we listen to the stories of our fellow travelers around the sun, we might be able to catch something now that we might have missed before. We might catch a new side of someone that we glossed over before because we assumed we knew them as they traveled with us.

Try as I might, I don’t think I have the capacity to begin to comprehend what looking at life from death’s vantage point is like.

Some truths can only be discovered after living it out.

Some truths need to be unpacked over time.

Some truths are not for the young to know.

But we can still listen. If we lean in close enough, perhaps from across an old kitchen table and two cups of tea,  we might be able to see the motion of our friends. And in knowing the distance between them and us, accepting that some paths are not for us to follow but simply to watch through the lens of a telescope, we can love each other’s lonely planets still all the more.