“As holy as I felt that moment in Ethiopia to be, I need to view every moment as holy.”
In many parts of our world, and for a variety of reasons, the month of May kicks off with a party. From Finland to Hawaii, from Drumheller, Alberta, to the Northern Territory of Australia, the first day of May—May Day—is a cause for celebration.
It also happens to be my birthday. And this one’s a big one.
This year, while millions of people around the world welcome the arrival of spring, march in solidarity with their fellow workers, or pay tribute to their country’s native culture, I will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of my nativity. At the point of writing this, I’m not sure what that celebration will look like. But I am hoping for more than an insulting birthday card and a bottle of Geritol®.
Sixty years. If I add a day for each leap year since 1955, that adds up to 21,915 days of life outside the womb. That’s more than half a million hours (525,960 to be exact), 31,557,600 minutes, or 1,893,456,000 seconds. Breaking it down like that makes 60 seem like a much smaller number!
But however you choose to look at it, the years of our lives do break down into a whole lot of moments. And when I think about it, I’ve had some pretty amazing moments in my life.
This past fall I had the opportunity to spend a week in Ethiopia visiting developmental projects that receive funding through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. We spent one night at a development agency base camp in the northern Afar region. Earlier that day we had visited an irrigation project and witnessed the transformation of the desert. We walked over dusty, bone-dry ground into ready-to-harvest fields of maize and green groves of papaya and banana trees.
Back at base camp, the staff laid out a feast of Ethiopian delicacies for us under a star-soaked sky. We filled our plates from tables laden with doro wot, shiro, beef tibs, green beans, potatoes, red lentils, carrots, onions, spongy injera, sweet bananas and juicy papaya. Then we sealed the meal with bowls of popcorn and cups of coffee brewed from fresh roasted beans and sweetly spiced with cardamom and sugar. When we had talked the day dry, we rose and found our beds.
That’s when it happened. As I lay on my cot, I could hear the murmur of Afar women in whispered conversation. Suddenly, the murmur burst into bright flames of laughter. Their high-pitched trills floated up and out into the darkness, wiggled through the woven walls of my room and into my soul, filling me with wonder and making me smile for being there, in that corner of the world, in that holy moment.
I rearranged my office recently. As I was sorting through boxes and moving shelves, I discovered a notebook that my oldest daughter gave me for Christmas 18 years ago. It’s a simple cardboard covered spiral-bound notebook, available at any office supply store for less than five bucks. What turned it into a treasure was what she had done to it. Sprinkled throughout its pages are handwritten quotes, an eclectic ensemble of wise words from some of her favourite writers, musicians and poets. There are quotes from Annie Dillard, Stevie Wonder, Luci Shaw, Ray Bradbury and Bruce Cockburn. There’s even a quote attributed to her youth pastor at the time.
On the first page of the notebook she wrote me a note. “Dad. This is your very own inspiration book. It is for the times when thoughts, poems, ideas, stories and quotes find you unexpectedly. It is to let you write for the simple joy of it, away from a desk, computer or deadline. It is to be filled with things found through the pure love of thought and expression. Take it with you anywhere. You never know when inspiration may make a visit.”
Roughly a third of the notebook is filled. Since finding it, I have gone back to read the “thoughts, poems, ideas, stories and quotes” that found me unexpectedly in the months following that Christmas morning. I can’t remember when or why I stopped carrying it around with me. It might have been when the cover tore away from the coil binding. There is an elastic band around it now to make sure that cover doesn’t get lost.
Written on the face of the cover is a Frederick Buechner quote. It’s a passage taken from his book Now and Then where Buechner imagines being “called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything [he] was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher …” He then writes these words:
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”1
He’s right, of course. All moments are key moments. I need to be reminded of this truth. As holy as I felt that moment in Ethiopia to be, I need to view every moment as holy. I live better when I remember—as Buechner says—that “life itself is grace.” Everyday life.
In his book called The Wisdom of Each Other, Eugene Peterson counsels a young friend with these words: “The life of Christ emerges from within the actual circumstances of our seemingly very unspiritual lives—the daily stuff of ordinariness and accidents and confusion, good days and bad days, taking the humdrum and the catastrophic both in stride.”2
By the time you read this, the May Day partying will be over and I’ll be on my way to 61. I think I’m going to find a way to reattach the cover of my notebook. Then I’m determined to fill its remaining pages with everyday moments.
1 Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
2 Eugene Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other: A Conversation Between Spiritual Friends (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 53.