The Little Things

Speaking only for myself, I’m starting to think it’s the little things in life that take up the most space in my insides. By little things, I mean the warmly familiar things that bring an instant smile to my face—the things that, even when they’re out of sight and mind for decades, when they suddenly return, you remember every detail as though the years of separation were mere minutes.

I write this having recently reorganized our basement storage closet. The process involved opening and inspecting various boxes and bins, a few of which contained things from my childhood. In one particular bin, I discovered a stack of fighter jet posters concealing a much grander pile of 80s-era Fangoria magazines, all in pristine condition. Oh, how I loved Fangoria—the sci-fi/horror movie images immersed in articles detailing the films’ writers, directors, special effects artists, and actors. It was all so mesmerizing. And to top it off, each magazine cover unfolded to reveal a poster-sized movie scene that, as you can guess, went straight to my bedroom walls.

The bin now emptied, a pile of cover posters rested before me, their edges pocked with thumbtack holes and brittled by forty-year-old tape fragments. Beside them were the magazines they once adorned.

Having already unfolded, flattened, and scattered the fighter jet posters across the living room floor, I did the same with the cover posters. After a few minutes of meandering and observing, as though I were in a museum, I made an empty seat in the middle and began thumbing through the pages of each magazine. Revisiting the familiar articles divided by dated advertisements, suddenly, I was ten years old again. In a flash, I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom in Danville, Illinois. It was Friday night in 1982. I’d just finished watching the second of two old black-and-white horror films on “Nightmare Theater,” a favorite show broadcast on a public access channel out of Indianapolis and hosted by the ever-cool Sammy Terry. I had a steel flashlight in hand. As usual, its bulb was dimmed by failing batteries. Still, I scanned the magazine pages, doing my best to read the tiny print. As I did, my creativity surged with desires to write stories, create props, and bring elements of other, more fantastical worlds into mine.

These little things, both the posters and magazines, brought back years of relatively simple moments on memory’s tidal crests, each hitting the shore with drenching details covering massive contextual spaces. To this day, I’d say these spaces are the largest parcels of my identity. In a very human sense, these little things own the most real estate of who I am as a person. By comparison, I stumbled across my high school and college diplomas in one of those basement bins. Academic diplomas are key notches of achievement on anyone’s timeline. But the diplomas stirred nothing. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the days I graduated from high school or college. However, these little things painted detail-rich portraits of countless moments spanning years of my life.

As plain as the time-traveling scene this past week in my living room might have been, a lot occurred in its fast-fleeting minutes. Looking back at it, at least two things come to mind that are worth sharing. The first occurred to me right in the middle of the posters on the floor. It involved my disgust for winter and the snow it brings. This might seem silly at first, so bear with me. Here’s what I remember thinking.

It was Aesop who first said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” At first thought, I’m not so sure I fully agree with that statement. I think it’s relative, especially when considering my own family. The more I’m with my wife and children, the more I can say that familiarity breeds appreciation. On the other hand, there’s an element of truth to Aesop’s words. A brief renaissance of sorts occurred when I rediscovered those childhood things. This was only possible because, at some point many years ago, while fully absorbed in the familiarity of these little things, I found myself capable of saying goodbye to them, of boxing them up and putting them away for good. I don’t recall the moment, but I’m guessing it must have happened. These well-beloved things wouldn’t be sitting in storage bins for decades if it hadn’t. And yet, the decades-long separation played a strange role in the happiness I experienced when I rediscovered them.

This reminded me of winter.

The little things of summer are familiar loves to me. I love the sunshine. I love verdant yards. I love the landscapes. I love taking the top off my Jeep Wrangler. I love the crisp depth of a star-filled sky on a cloudless summer night. When summer first begins, I feel this way in spades. But eventually, the definitive sensation of the feeling dissipates. I find myself taking less time to admire the stars. I just don’t get around to taking the top off the Wrangler as much. Working in the yard becomes more chore-like.

But then, as if it were nature’s storage bin, snow comes along and hides all these wonderful things in winter’s closet. The snow hides the grassy landscapes. It covers the Wrangler’s hardtop. Its clouds drape the sky and conceal the stars. But in the spring, winter’s closet is opened, and all the familiar things snow was hiding are found. With them comes a resurgence of familiarity and a rebirth of incredible joy, the kind that only those little things can offer. Being away from them makes you love them all the more.

Again, it might seem silly, but it’s what I was thinking while sitting on the floor of my living room and turning the pages of Fangoria. I was thinking that snow prevents contempt for summer’s familiarity. I don’t know what that means for my longing to live in Florida.

This morning, a second thought is kindled. It’s a scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I don’t remember the words exactly. I only recall that Frodo is about to part company with Sam, Merry, Pippen, and the others at the sea’s edge. Observing the moment, Gandalf does not forbid anyone in the group from crying over the coming separation. Instead, he reminds them that not all tears are born from bad things. Some tears come from joy. Sometimes that joy is actually hope anticipating future joy. His point is that separation can only be temporary for those bound by hope. Hope knows a future togetherness. These friends won’t be apart forever. And when they do meet again, all the little things that made their journey so wonderful will be remembered with twice the joy.

Looking back on that moment among my childhood things, I experienced a sliver-sized sense of what Tolkien meant. I experienced joy’s fulfillment following separation. Observing this through the lens of faith helps make better sense of other things, too. By the Gospel, more often than not, I’ve learned it’s the little things that matter the most. Achievements—making lots of money, driving the nicest car, having the biggest home—these things mean very little to me. Marrying my wife, experiencing the birth of my children, teaching them of Christ, the glorious mundaneness of worship week after week, being dedicated to the minutest of details in my vocation as a pastor, writing what I hope will be a memorably picturesque note to you every Sunday since 2015—these are the little things. They take up the most real estate in my life, and they’re worth every square inch. In a far greater sense, I’m certain they’ll bring incredible joy when their fruits are rediscovered and remembered in the togetherness of heaven (Revelation 14:13).

And so, typical to my Sunday morning ramblings, I’ve already gone on long enough. I’ll end by sharing what happened when my two daughters happened down the stairs and discovered the living room floor showcasing my 80s childhood. In short, they each negotiated multiple acquisitions. Evelyn bargained for all the fighter jet posters. Finding success, she immediately went to work attaching them to her bedroom walls. Madeline took several of the cover posters and did the same. I was glad to see these things loved again. As for what remained, I refolded them into their original cover forms and went to Walmart. I returned with fifteen picture frames. Two hours later, a handful of my favorite Fangoria covers were beautifying my basement walls. After decades apart, we were together again, which brought me joy.

Know that the future and forever togetherness inherent to the Gospel of salvation through faith in Christ will be far better.

Misplaced Concerns

I received word that a childhood friend passed away recently. She wasn’t a best friend, but she was part of a circle of families close to my own. Hearing the news, more than a few memories were stirred—summertime at the public pool in Danville, Illinois, where I grew up; riding together like a gang through the neighborhoods on our mag-wheeled Huffy bikes; jumping dirt hills on KX-80s; trick-or-treating as our favorite Star Wars characters; Friday nights at the roller rink; all of these were wafted to remembrance.

I suppose my first reaction was to wonder what Death was doing by reaching out to such a young woman. But then I rose from my chair, heard my knees crack, and remembered my own age. Naturally, I humbly withdrew my reaction to Death’s dealings. Perhaps my departed friend wasn’t as young as I preferred her to be, and as it would go, what did that mean for me?

It means I’ve arrived at the edge of a shadowy land where, both chronologically and biologically, Death is making more rounds among the citizenry.

I could say I don’t want to think about it, but that would be foolish. I’m not going to live forever, that is, there’s no gate strong enough, no lock steely enough, no wall sturdy enough to keep Death out when its carriage arrives at my door. As it was with my childhood friend, no matter what I think is right or fair with regard to Death’s dealings, the exchange will be made, and I will go. To believe differently is to live by lies.

Of course, it’s just as inappropriate for me to dwell on these things as it is to ignore them. To dwell on Death would be to live in fear. To live in fear is to be cursed with finding Death and its dread hiding behind everything. It would be to epitomize an insightful line from Don Quixote, the one that goes something like, “Fear is sharp-sighted. It can see things underground, and even more in the skies.”

Besides, I’m a Christian. Living in fear is not what Christians do. And why? Because even though I said I won’t live forever, the truth is, I will. Yes, Death will arrive. I don’t know when, where, or how, but it will. When it does come, I will go. Still, Death won’t own me in that exchange. I have another Master to whom the fateful carriage will transport me. By the power of the Holy Spirit in faith, I can live and breathe and move within each day apart from a strict attachment to this world knowing that even though “in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). That awareness from Saint Paul is nothing less than a faithful interpretation of Christ’s promise to Martha in John 11:25-26:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Death had come for Martha’s brother, Lazarus. It sounds like it came in a dreadful way—through illness. Jesus didn’t debate the fact of Death or its means. Instead, He comforted Martha with a better fact—a Gospel-fact—not only that Death wasn’t the end-all, but that the One who was stronger than Death was now on the scene. With Him, Death is defenseless. With Him, the bright-beaming rays of eternal life on hope’s horizon are visible. From that vantage, Death and its fear are neutralized by the Christian confidence of faith. Faith in Jesus is the antidote for fear.

Re-reading what I just wrote, I wonder if there’s more to consider when it comes to how the world around us views Death and its fear. I sometimes wonder if too many people have things somewhat out of order. What I mean is that perhaps people have lost sight of the seriousness of Death’s finality and what comes after it because they’re too distracted by the concern for the ways it might arrive—COVID-19, a school shooting, cancer, or whatever. Again, Death is coming for everyone. What happens beyond that moment is the more crucial concern. Still, so many have traded the momentousness of Death’s eternal irrevocability for the temporary nature of its occurrence. They’re afraid of dying, not necessarily the specter of Death itself.

It would seem this misplaced concern has given birth to a sharp-sighted and irrational fear strong enough to prevent people from actually living. They see danger in everything, and as a result, they’re afraid to visit family and friends, they’re afraid to return to work, they need this and that preventative measure in place before feeling safe enough to do just about anything. I read just this morning that the State of Oregon is considering establishing a permanent indoor mask mandate.

Perhaps worst of all, this fear is still keeping some Christians distant from Christ and the gifts He gives in worship.

But remember, with Jesus—and being strengthened by the Gospel means He provides—Death and its fear is counteracted. Christians don’t have to be afraid of COVID-19 or any future variants. They don’t have to live in fear of a school shooter. Certainly, Christians are mindful, using their reason and senses attuned by God’s Word to watch, discern, serve, protect, and defend against Death’s means. Indeed, we are mindful of Death. And we should be. Compared to the world around us, we know and understand its dirty dealings the best.

But we don’t dwell on them.

By faith, we have been grafted into the One who defeated Death (John 15:5). We have the One who has given us the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

With promises like these in hand, when we feel the creeping nudge of fear’s tendrils, we can know to run to, not away from, Jesus. It’s only with Him that we’ll receive what’s necessary for facing off with Death and its fear. It’s only with Jesus that we’ll have what we need for living in Christian confidence, come what may.

Strumming the Chords of Memory

I’m once again taking the opportunity to get a jumpstart on the eNews for this week.

You know how it goes for me. The sermon is done, and so now whatever comes to mind this morning is going to be quarried for gems.

I suppose with today being the 66th anniversary of our congregation, and since anniversaries are something of meaning, how about this?

It might sound somewhat absurd, but last week I spent about $12 to buy specialized batteries for a ramshackle calculator I’ve had since high school. But that’s only the half of it. I spent another $10 to buy three weirdly-sized batteries for a miniature, and equally bedraggled, R2D2 toy I’ve had for nearly as long.

For reference, the calculator’s screen is being held together with tape. The device’s black metal face is more than well-worn, with plenty of age-betraying scratches and dents. Honestly, it isn’t much to look at. And technologically speaking, it’s not even that advanced, especially in comparison to the calculators of today. For the twelve dollars I spent to revive it, I could’ve bought a brand new one with far greater capabilities.

The same goes for my R2D2, which by the way, sits on my desk just below my computer monitor. His white plastic case has yellowed with time, not to mention at some point along the way, the foot from one of his robotic legs came loose. It took superglue and surgeon-like skill to repair and reattach it in a way that it could still function. Like my calculator, he’s pretty beat up, which means he’s not going to be winning any astrodroid beauty pageants in this galaxy anytime soon. And yet, with the new batteries, at least he continues to be as I remember and expect. When you press his button, he whirs, boops, and beeps with glee. Even better, the tiny light on his dome still twinkles magnificently.

To look at these items, you’d think I was crazy for keeping them around, let alone spending as much as I did on batteries to keep them functioning. The thing is, for as immaterial as they might seem, they’re mine. They mean something to me.

I remember the store in my hometown of Danville, Illinois, where I bought the calculator. The last time I visited, I discovered the store no longer exists. Nevertheless, the calculator I got from one of its shelves is still helping me with math problems. I remember loaning the calculator to an old girlfriend—Estella—who, by the way, is the reason behind the tape holding it together.

As far as R2D2 goes, sure, I could buy another miniature figure just like him to adorn my workspace, and it would probably have more articulating parts and cooler sounds. But this is my R2D2. Again, he might not be much to look at, but he’s mine. And truth be told, even if he somehow loses all functions, or I discover him in a completely unrepairable state, I’ll never throw him away. He means something to me. I have memories stored away in my brain that only he can stir. Rest assured that even if he becomes nothing more than a pile of parts to be scooped up and put into a ziplock bag, I’ll keep R2 for as long as my mind will recognize him.

I suppose in a broad sense, when I consider all of this as a Christian, I can’t help but be reminded of how our God thinks on all of us in love. The human race is coming undone, and for the most part, it isn’t much to speak of. We lie. We cheat. We steal. Heck, we even have it in us to grind up babies in the womb. Overall, if there’s a line marking the borderland of horribleness, at some point along the way we’ll cross it. Still, God thinks on us in love. Even Saint Paul, at one time a devilish persecutor of Christians, couldn’t help but share how astounded he was with God’s mercy.

“For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

Of course Paul didn’t just aim that honesty at himself. He turned it toward the entire human race, making sure we’re all fully aware of the predicament we’re in, while at the same time showing the divergence of God’s actions.

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The contrast is astounding. Paul didn’t use the term “sinners” lightly. He knew the core of the word. He knew he was referring to all of mankind, himself included, as rebelliously hateful enemies of God and completely dead to righteousness with every fiber of our being. And yet, it’s in this condition that God reached to us. Our yellowing nature, our lives barely being held together by the flimsy tape of human frailty, our broken efforts and our pummeled pasts—God sees all of this. And yet He doesn’t throw us away. We mean something to Him, and so He was willing to do the work and to pay the seemingly craziest price to restore what would otherwise be considered as junk.

That has me thinking from another perspective.

As I noted already, when I plink away at my old calculator or I admire my old R2D2 toy, some pretty substantial memories are stirred. I did quite a bit of reading last fall from Abraham Lincoln’s various writings, and at one point along the way I remember him saying something about how memories are like mystic chords that swell a chorus when strummed. This pathetic old calculator, this silly little R2D2, as trivial as they both may be, are tools for strumming. When I see them, I remember former days. When I reach out to touch them, I reconnect with a vastness of people, places, times and the like, all of which—through the lens of faith—leave me marveling at what, how, and to where God has carried me along the timeline of my own life.

Everything along the way has value. Unfortunately, and as the French novelist Georges Duhamel once said, it’s often true that we don’t know the true value of our life’s moments until they have undergone the test of memory. In other words, what’s happening right now matters, and it will either be remembered with fondness, or it will haunt us like the chains strung around the neck of Jacob Marley’s ghost.

As we navigate life, this can be a petrifying thought, even for Christians.

But be comforted. One thing is for sure, God thinks on and reaches to us in love. The death of Jesus Christ for sinners is the all-surpassing Gospel announcement of this. The One who was given over for our redemption, He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Revelation 22:13). I don’t know how it is for you, but knowing He was and is always with me, I can look back at the things in my life that I regret and be reminded that I meant something to Him then and I mean something to Him now, that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that His mercies never come to an end, that each day is a new day in His loving kindness, that His grace is fresh and bountiful every morning (Lamentations 3:22-24). I can ponder the fact that even my worst day filled with my most grievous Sins has been long forgotten by the One who, by virtue of His atoning sacrifice, looks me in the eye through the words of Isaiah 43:25 and says with a certain and thundering voice, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.”

With this Gospel at the ready each and every day, when my course in this life finally comes to an end and I draw my final breath, both the joys and regrets of life will all be found resting in the promise of a tearless future in the nearest presence of Jesus Christ, my Savior—the One who promised never to leave or forsake me (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:5). Through this lens of faith, even my calculator can be a reminder—a weird reminder, but a reminder nonetheless. It whispers that the same Savior who was with me as I tapped away in 10th grade math class in Danville, Illinois, is the same one who is with me now as I prepare to do a little computing with the average attendance numbers for a church and school four hundred miles away in Hartland, Michigan.

And a small, motionless R2D2 with a similar story looks on in twinkling affirmation.