Yesterday afternoon, I was scheduled to be working from home. But there was a request for me to come up and do an echocardiogram. So I came up, and one echo turned into two, which was followed by an impromptu admin conversation on a diversity of issues. Eager to get back to the kids and the tasks I had left behind, I bolted out the hospital staff gate at my normal "American" tempo that easily outdistances any Burundian 2:1. (To be fair, any Burundian could outdistance me on foot, especially at long distances; they are just not usually in a hurry.)
Halfway home (meaning 100m from the gate), passing between the school and the church, I am hailed in French by a Burundian guy in a sport coat who is awkwardly holding a large sac in one hand and a roller luggage in the other as he tries to catch up with me.
I don't recognize him, and since there are often random people trying to stop me, often with the hope that the conversation will eventually get around to me financially supporting their personal project, or at least getting my telephone number, I cautiously respond with what I hope is friendly-but-not-overly-welcoming.
He continues in French: "I just wanted to say 'hello' to you."
Me, hesitatingly: "Hello."
He switches into what I would have previously called "broken English". Now, after several years working in a foreign language, I call it "impressive English."
"Maybe you don't remember me." I don't, and I guess he can see it on my face. "Several years ago, we came to the hospital with my father, and you took care to heal him. We were so happy. He is passed now, last year in 2019, but after you healed him, he was at home for three more years, and we were so happy. I remember how you talked to us when we were in the hospital. I saw you and I wanted to thank you and to greet you."
"Oh, thank you for giving me this news of your family," I reply, trying to match his cadence.
"My wife is here." He gestures behind him to a smiling woman following us at about 50m, holding no luggage other than a bundle of blankets that probably hides a baby somewhere. "Our baby was sick, and we brought her to be healed. Dr. Alice (sic) gave her treatment, and now she is healed, and we are going home. But I saw you, and I wanted to thank you for your effort for my father. We were happy that he was with us for three more years."
I wave at the mother and she waves back and smiles. "Thank you for telling me. I am happy your baby is okay, and I wish you a good journey. Please greet your family for me and for Kibuye."
He smiles, and they continue (more slowly now), down the road as I enter to gate to our housing area.
I am sharing this story in 2020, which may be the most concretely characterized unit of time ever. Our frustration with 2020 makes us talk of "wanting to send it back" or "kick it to the curb and move on." We compare it to a dumpster fire, and then feel we've insulted dumpster fires. The general sense (and oh I've felt it!) is that we just want to get this year behind us. Though I am 110% sympathetic, we need to recognize the shortcomings of this desire, since A) January 1, 2021 is unfortunately nothing magical, but more importantly B) Time is more magical than we give it credit for.
So a few thoughts on Time and Timing from my roadside interaction yesterday:
1. Beautiful Interruptions. I didn't want to go up to the hospital yesterday afternoon. I didn't want 10 minutes of work to turn into 45. But aside from the benefit of the actual work, I probably would have given up that time just for the encouraging interruption on the way home.
Generally speaking, I dislike and resist interruptions. They are out of my control and not according to my plan. But I am a Christian, and as such, I have to reckon with Jesus, who simultaneously lived with an intense vision towards a specific goal (his death and resurrection) and yet welcomed interruptions with grace (e.g. blind Bartimeus or the bleeding woman). Jesus understood what I affirm in my head and don't really believe in my heart - that God is at work all around, and therefore things outside my control may be much better than I think they are. A beautiful interruption reveals the incredible fallacy of my heart that my will is the only force for good in my life.
2020 is full of life interruptions. Could it be that those interruptions are hiding some redemption somewhere? And I don't need to know what that redemption is in order to be hopeful that such a redemption might somehow exist.
2. Delayed Gratification. As years in Burundi roll on, these kind of episodes get more frequent, and we more frequently don't remember the original circumstances. Last December, we were crossing the border to Tanzania. The border guard told me that he had come to Kibuye with his wife, because they had had no children, and now they had a 3 year old healthy child. I gestured to Rachel who was waiting in the car. She came in, and he brightened up. "It was you! Look, here on my phone, here is our child!" No memory, but lots of joy.
It's the passing of time. It's the slow turn of the earth and all that happens under the sun. Our lives bounce off of someone else, and we quickly lose sight of their trajectory, but it is altered nonetheless, just as ours is because of them. We can't remember all the events that made it so, but we are changed because of the time in which we live and in which we interact with others.
One of the things for which 2020 cannot stop the clock is our hearts. The Bible often uses seed analogies to talk about this. That which is planted in us continues to grow and change. By God's grace, life is still happening, and we are still becoming. "A fallow field is never dormant."
3. The Whole of Time is Greater than the Sum of its Events. There is something bittersweet about being thanked for taking care of someone who has died. In this case, the son was thankful because, even though his father is gone, he had three more years to spend together. What did his father do with that time? Maybe a lot. Maybe he helped many people or bequeathed great wisdom to his kids. Or maybe not. I don't think that what he accomplished was the point. The phrase "spending time" puts our focus on those events that took place in between, but Time is something else in addition to that.
Think of a long friendship. Think of a healed wound. Think of a beautiful song. There is no way to experience the beauty of a 8-minute song in 4 minutes. Time itself gives something to the experience. Even more minutely, think of a drawn-out note within a beautiful song. It is Time itself that blesses the moment.
Maybe 2020 won't be much to look back on. We joke about the "skinniest photo album ever". But "not much to look back on" doesn't mean less to experience now. As much as I want to put my head in a hole for the remaining months of this infamous year, the goodness of passing time remains before us, and I'm thankful for the interruption and delayed gratification that reminded me of it.