Packing up a house is an archaeological expedition through the layers of a life in one place, not only because of the collections of things that have to be sorted and assigned a destination, but also because of the stories that get unearthed.
One that came to the surface is a favorite from my days as the youth minister at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth. One Wednesday evening I was walking down the hall of the building getting ready for the night’s activities when I passed Hazel, one of the young people, coming the other way. For no particular reason other than to greet her, I said, “Hey—I like you and I tell people that even when you’re not around,” and we smiled at each other and both kept going in our set directions.
A couple of days later, I received a card from her in which she took the time to tell me she had had a really bad day at school and my passing comment in the hall had reminded her she was loved. “You made my day,” she said. I can remember sitting at my desk with the card and thinking I needed to mark the moment. Incidental contact had lasting implications. I meant what I said to Hazel, but I wasn’t aiming for a life changing encounter, yet the things we set in motion with our words and actions—however small they might seem—are out of our control in some sense.
As Ginger was digging through the layers of life here on West Trinity, she found a letter my father had written to me in August 2006. We were still in Marshfield in those days, and my depression was still heavy. I had started writing about it on this blog in December of the previous year. The public nature of my disclosure was new to me and to my family. My dad was not one who easily spoke about his feelings; when he needed to get to something, he wrote it down. The letter is full of compassion and empathy. He was working hard to connect with me, telling me about times in his own life when he found the darkness visible. He reminded me that his best friend battled depression most of his life. And then in the last paragraphs he wrote:
What I pray you will get from this letter is the understanding that you are loved, accepted, and prayed for. To express to you how proud I am of you would be impossible. You are the most multi-gifted person I have ever known. My heart overflows with memories of joy and excitement in watching you grow and develop.
In reading some of your blogs it seems that I am the source of some of your heartache. If so, I am saying to you I am very sorry. I can say in all honesty that not in any way did I intend to create problems for you. You are the pride and joy of my life—I love you.
As I read and reread the letter through my tears, I thought about Hazel walking down the hall that night because I realized that, in some ways, my incidental contact with my father along the way had left him with the impression that it was his fault. That was not my intention. I am grateful to look back and be able to say that in the time between the letter and my father’s death I had the chance to let him know my depression was not his fault and we both got better at forgiving one another. Still, I keep looking at the letter . . .
. . . and what I see is how hard a time I had understanding how much he loved me. I read what I have quoted here and on some level I can’t describe I feel almost surprised, not because of Dad but because of the layer of my being that has to be reminded again and again that I, too, am wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. We have talked so much about random acts of kindness that it has become somewhat of a cliché, yet it matters that we look up and offer regard to those with whom we encounter in our billiard ball world. When I look at the letter and I think about Hazel there in the hallway, I pray my kindness is more than random. Incidental contact can be intentional, even in a passing moment. It’s worth remembering that, in the more consistent relationships in our lives, the layers of incidental contact stack up into patterns and rituals that either build pathways to our hearts or walls around them.
The archaeological dig here in our house in Durham is days away from completion and we will pack up the plans in the rented moving vans and head north. They don’t make a truck big enough to carry the memories of the incidental contact that reminds me of a love that will not let me go.