I met Virginia a little over 11 years ago as I began my first summer field education place during seminary. Virginia was a kind, Christian woman in her nineties who bore all the gentleness of age and none of its bitterness. If you had met Virginia yourself, you, like I did at first, might have assumed the generations-old log cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina had always been her home. She was a bit of a walking stereotype, one might have guessed.
Well, I guessed at least.
But, life and people being what they are, those first impressions belied her full story.
It is true Virginia’s family had owned and lived in that log cabin—which she now shared with her retired son and his wife—for many generations. It was the place she was born, grew up, and entered adulthood. But soon after her marriage, Virginia left that log cabin. She wouldn’t return to live there with her son and daughter in law until after his retirement, just a few years before I came to spend a summer in that place. To be a pastoral intern. And to come to know her.
The intervening years, encompassing nearly all of her adulthood, Virginia had become a city girl. She had lived in and raised her son up north, mostly, if I recall, in Chicago.
You might forgive me my assumptions if you also knew Virginia’s son, who when I met him wore overalls ALL the time, and sported quite the mountain-man beard. I didn’t know how clean-shaven he’d lived his office-work life before retiring to his ancestral home.
As I came to know Virginia and her family, I was first of all struck by the way our first impressions and assumptions can create barriers between us and who others truly are.
Then, Virginia opened my eyes to even deeper truths and revealed far more ingrained assumptions and stories I’d heard.
One day I set about to really learn about her experience. I expected to hear about the difficulties of living in that mountain area during the Great Depression, and to hear her sense of longing for the good old days. I had heard these stories from others. And perhaps others had so convinced themselves and me of their truth that I almost didn’t even ask.
When asked about the Great Depression, Virginia told me she thought it hardly made a difference. Her family had been so poor, the Great Depression didn’t really matter to them. I thought, “Heck, yeah, I guess if you aren’t really part of the cash-based economy, it probably wouldn’t matter too much.”
Then I asked Virginia if she missed the old days, if she thought of them as the “good old days.”
She didn’t think long and hard, or wistfully, at all.
Instantly, she said no, not at all. She said nearly every single thing about life today was better than when she grew up. Every. Single. Thing.
She wished people visited each other more.
Not for purpose. Without agenda. Just to visit. To get to know each other. To spend time together. We are too outcome oriented, she told me.
I think about Virginia often, and the lessons I learned from her.
I thought about her again recently as I travelled to (and then home) from my second trip to Pastors School in Zimbabwe.
My first trip to Zimbabwe, where we connected with our United Methodist clergy colleagues there, was akin to that conversation with Virginia. Assumptions shattered. Distance (or time, age or space) overcome.
Virginia did not hold me at a distance because of her age, experience, or clearly superior wisdom.
My colleagues in Zimbabwe, were, I have now found twice, also willing to help bridge the gap of the experiences, differences and distances which separate us.
I have written before about my first trip, so I will not do so again here. In many ways, that first trip was, and I suspect will always be, the most formative in my own experience with our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe.
I once again, this trip, found myself trying to walk the path of recognizing and valuing the differences between my own experience and my colleagues in Zimbabwe, but also not allowing my perceptions of those differences to seep into assumptions about their own processing of their (and my) experiences.
This trip, I had powerful conversations which were in many ways even more open than I experienced last trip. Conversations about the future of our shared denomination. Sharing about our families and ministries in ways that require a previous foundation. I don’t know that I had any grand revelations this trip. It was good. It was powerful. It was, I am certain, where God called me to be for that week. And I am still not sure what great insights it will shed. Perhaps we are foolish and arrogant to expect all such experiences to offer us that. Like God has to work in fireworks and theatrics.
I have found that often the most important moments and experiences in my life have come and gone without me understanding until much later their importance. And in so doing, I am constantly reminded of the presence of God in and through the mundane. The routine. Or at least the spectacularly unremarkable changes to routine.
One of my seminar professors told us, “It is best not to sing while your voice is still changing.”
In its context, he meant this to say that we would do well to not try to pastor people while we’re still being formed in seminary. I have the utmost respect for those who do serve churches in seminary—seminary wrecked me. It tore me down, and only later built me back up. My voice was changing.
But here’s the thing. My voice is still changing. For the longest time, I thought some day it would stop. I would settle into me. I think that is happening, has happened. But it is also still happening. And I think—I even hope—it always does.
And so it is with Zimbabwe, so it is as I prepare for a pastoral transition, we prepare to move our children from the only home they’ve known, and the only place Chris and I have shared as husband and wife. My voice is still changing.
I give thanks to God that God doesn’t make us wait until our voice is done change. Indeed, I give thanks for the messy, at times off-key, beauty chorus of our changing voices that God draws together from across time and space to be brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, the family and body of Christ.
And don't forget, we should visit each other more.