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.

Don’t Change the Channel

2022 has arrived.

I watched a “2021 Year in Review” segment yesterday on Fox News. It was only a few minutes long. Unfortunately, each of the notable events mentioned were tragic in nature. The list included things like the collapsed apartment building in Florida that killed 98 residents, Derek Chauvin’s trial, the hurricane in Louisiana, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the deadly tornados that ripped through several states, and so many other heartbreaking occurrences from the previous year. Altogether—the events mentioned, the images shown, the concerned tone—sure made it seem like the ones both in front of and behind the cameras were doing everything in their power to avoid mentioning anything good about 2021. It’s as if they’re rooting for this overly-fearful world to remain firmly in terror’s grip, allowing nothing through the airwaves that might suggest a footing for joy in 2022.

The gent presenting the list, Bill Hemmer, closed out the segment by suggesting the new year is likely to be dominated by more COVID strains.

Interestingly, the very next segment was an equally grimy chain of news stories built from links of gloom, starting with a recap of Joe Biden’s recent “winter of death” comments, his vaccine mandates and the court cases emerging from them, and then, if the viewer was paying attention, a strange juxtaposition of understaffed hospitals and thousands of healthcare workers being fired for refusing to get the vaccine. Right after a handful of commercials about this and that drug for this and that condition warning of this or that possible side effect, the next segment highlighted outgoing New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s admittance that he never thought lockdowns would actually be helpful, even though all along he swore by them as crucial for preserving the lives of New Yorkers. I wonder how the tidal-sized number of people in New York who went out of business because of the lockdowns feel about his comments.

As you can see, a few minutes of TV news served to be little more than an exhausting parade of misery.

In one sense, I think all of this may have been shocking to my system, mainly because I rarely watch TV. I get most of my information by reading. However, since I’ve been ill at home (which, by the way, happens to me every year after Christmas, so Covid or not, this was nothing new), I’ve spent more time than usual with our television, primarily binge-watching 80s flicks with anyone in the house willing to watch them with me. I must confess that “Gremlins,” “Predator,” and other such gems proved to be far better choices than 24-hour news. I should add to this confession that my relatively short interlude with cable news has also served to remind me how the fictional awfulness in movies can’t hold a candle to reality. Not even Hollywood movie scripts conjuring otherworldly xenomorphs with bloodthirsty appetites can outpace the world’s creativity for genuine dreadfulness.

Perhaps a New Year’s resolution for some among us could be to spend less time watching TV and more time doing something enriching—like visiting with classic literature, or writing a poem for a loved one, or perhaps most enriching of all, upping one’s visits with the Word of God, namely attendance at church and Bible study. If you find you’re a lot sadder and more anxious these days, you should consider the recent studies suggesting that regular churchgoers were the only ones to experience improved mental health during the last twenty months.

Go figure. When you spend time with the One who has overcome Death—and He adorns you with the Gospel spoils of His victory—you certainly shouldn’t expect to leave a less enriched or hopeless person.

Still, and as I was intent to preach on Christmas Eve, going to church is not for the faint of heart. It takes guts to attend. Although, this is true not for the reasons terror-mongering TV anchors might suggest. For example, even though the Church is still in the seemingly serene season of Christmas, when pitched against Christmas’ tranquil festivities, a narrative describing troops tramping through the streets of a little town in Judea killing all the boys who are two years old and younger certainly seems to interrupt the mood. But that’s exactly what the historic lectionary’s tradition for the Second Sunday after Christmas will give to countless Christians across the world this morning—an account from Matthew 2:16-18 that won’t let anyone in the pews forget just how awful this world is and what it is willing to do to retain its power.

But don’t let this hard news convince you to change the channel of your attention too soon. Stay tuned this morning, because it won’t end on a low note.

Yes, it will be an honest report. We’ll be shown the world in which we live. But Jesus will be a part of the news story. Bill Hemmer won’t be the one bringing the message. It’ll be the one ordained for preaching: the pastor. He’ll be the one doing what God has called him to do, which is to proclaim Jesus as the Word made flesh—the divine antidote God has mindfully inserted into this world’s terrifying narrative. Jesus will be heralded as the ultimate point of origin for joy and the only pathway forward through and into a hope-filled future.

In a world of terror—a world in which the Gospel writer Matthew reminds us that not even children are safe—Jesus has come. He succeeded in His effort to defeat Sin, Death, and the devil. He’s the only one who could do it. By His death and resurrection, no matter what hopelessness the world might try to force feed into us in every imaginable and unimaginable way, we’ll always have the certainty of God’s final deliverance from all things dreadful promised to those whose faith is found in Jesus Christ (John 16:33).

No matter what the new year has in store, Christians can smile even as they’re muscling through the mess. And sometimes, just sometimes, some of us are blessed enough to do it while enjoying the 80s films that made us smile as kids. But as I suggested before, perhaps an even better idea would be a trip through the pages of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, or perhaps a casual visit with Robert Frost—all after church, of course.

God bless and keep you in 2022. I would promise it to be a time of joyful hope, but I don’t need to. God already has. Look to the cross and see the incredibly vivid reminder for yourself.