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The kids on stage are heartbreakingly cute. Two have forgotten the lines to the Easter song booming from the speakers and instead are creating their own interpretive dance. Three boys wrangle for position in front of the center microphone. A frazzled teacher tries to soothe a sobbing little girl. I have babysat half of the kids on stage and had nearly all of them in a Sunday School or VBS class at least once.

While everyone oos & aahs and giggles at the antics, I find myself overwhelmed by jealousy. I won’t be around for the first loose tooth, fourth grade graduation parties, the first crush. I’m leaving for college. I’m jealous of everyone else in the pews who’ll get to watch the beautiful faces on-stage grow and mature. Starting my own new chapter means missing the rest of theirs.

***

Her hands are warm and sticky as she wraps them around mine.

Sarah-didi! She squeals and begins a litany of the adventures I’ve missed since the last time I came. I set my bag on the floor of her one-room house and smile at her mother, who’s trying to shush the flow of words.

Let didi sit down first! Her mother tries to no avail. I must finish hearing the stories first and then her mother and I can talk.

Later, she brings the children’s Bible I gave her, cuddles up next to me, and asks to hear another “Jesus story”. I happily oblige.

I am at the seventh birthday party, the day she starts a new tutoring class. I help her pick out new winter clothes. The chapters are building.

But her place in life is tenuous, held by parents whose means of making money leave them with fewer and fewer friends. One day, they disappear. They’ve cheated nearly everyone they knew out of money and ran. I’m furious with her parents, but for her sake I would forgive them. For the sake of a few more chapters

***

We bump into one another and then spin away. Three weeks here, a conversation there, a heart-to-heart time of confession, a crazy jungle adventure. Sometimes we talk about life and the future and how to know God’s guidance while staying up entirely too late. Sometimes we compare favorite recipes while cutting up tomatoes and onions together. People I thought I’d know the rest of my life drift away. Unexpected kindness comes from a stranger.

***

He tells me he wants to learn how to share his faith better and wonders how I do it. I try to answer his questions, but I’m not always sure myself. It’s a gut-wrenching conversation – the kind where you splay open your heart and then remember there’s someone else watching. I mean to connect him to a friend who’s got more experience than I – but that one conversation is all we get and I never talk to him again.

***

I thought that after college, after I moved to my new country, after I settled in, after something I would finally find a place to know people for a good long stretch. With whom every milestone would be celebrated, a community where conversations would stretch on for months and wind around the years like the way they used to tie up finished manuscripts with cords of ribbon and twine.

Instead, I have found a succession of unfinished stories – much like the file on my computer labeled “novels”. A collection of moments where we pop in and out of one another’s lives like picking up books only to read one chapter from the middle. Where some of the most meaningful, even intimate, conversations I’ve had have been in the presence of near-strangers. I’m learning to value the milestone of a week, of a month. Perhaps I have undervalued how much we touch one another in those moments – if used well.

***

We slouch into the office for another day of Excel spreadsheets and stories of heroic trials. After two weeks, I’m just barely “one of the group” and already my leaving in a month hangs like a fog between us. My options are clear: float above the fray or dig in, welcome and foster connection, and pay the price in tears upon leaving. It’s only a month. Not enough time to finish the story.

But perhaps we can add a helpful few paragraphs.

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