A MOMENT OF GRACE
You dont turn fifty without
feeling the preciousness of time.
Thats about how old I was when we
moved back to the community where I
attended high school and where my parents
still live independent, active lives. Mom
is eighty-four; since January 2007 she
has started hanging out regularly at
Curves. Dad is eighty-eight, running a
bountiful vineyard and orchard. He
finished the winter pruning ahead of
What makes me think I
have any business talking about time, now
that Im around them more regularly?
Not too much, I suppose, except for the
fact that time is more than the
accumulation of seconds, weeks, and
years. Time is more than birthdays,
calendars, and counting. "How do you
measure a year?" asks the song in
the Broadway musical "Rent."
525,600 minutes? In sunsets, midnights,
cups of coffee, laughter, and strife. How
do you measure a year in the life? How
about love? Ah, yes, thats the
answer. Measured in love. Seasons of
I remember my Greek
teacher many moons ago pointing out the
distinction between "chronos"
and "kairos." Chronos is
clock time that never stops counting.
"Ninety years without slumbering,
tick-tock, tick-tock. His life seconds
numbering, tick-tock, tick-tock."
But kairos is time-concentrated.
Kairos is time as opportunity; its
the marriage proposal, the time of risk,
the weighty moment when the universe
stands still and quiet. You can hear a
Kairos. Thats the
time with Mom and Dad that is precious to
me now that Im on the backside of
For example, Friday
lunches with the two of them. I
dont remember exactly how the
routine began. With an invitation or
suggestion probably. Anyway, for the past
year, one of us will phone the other on
Thursday evening or Friday morning and
check whether it suits. More often than
not it does, and around 12:30 p.m. I
drive over to their home about three
miles away. We sit down over food to talk
about family news, church politics,
health, and whatnot.
Last week, however, was unusual.
Mom phoned on Tuesday morning saying that
it didnt suit Wednesday, Thursday,
or Friday. Might it work for me drop in
on short notice? "Sure," I
said, "thatll be
terrific." I knew shed rustle
up some food a whole lot better than the
brown bag lunch Id stashed in the
office refrigerator. I wasnt
But it wasnt the
food that turned this lunch into a kairos
occasion. Somewhere in the course of the
meandering conversation, Mom pulled out a
book shed just finished: Chameleon
DaysAn American Boyhood in Ethiopia
(Mariner Books, 2006) by Tim Bascom.
My sister had loaned the book to Mom. In
a moving narrative Bascom writes about
his memories of traveling to Ethiopia
with missionary parents when he was just
five years old. Within a week or two of
landing in country, his older brother was
dropped off at boarding school.
The following September
Tim himself was delivered to boarding
school for first grade. Stoic and
strained, his parents drove away, the
metal gate clanging behind. It would be
Christmas before theyd see each
"I began to
cry," writes Tim. "I sobbed so
hard my shoulders ached. I felt like
something big and monstrous was bursting
out of me, like I might explode into a
thousand wet pieces."
Alarmed, his older
brother Jonathan put his arm on
Tims shoulder and told him it was
going to be okay. "Really," he
said. "It only lasts for a
My mother had finished
the book the night before our Tuesday
lunch. Bascoms story had touched
some deep memory, pain, and regret
within: that of leaving her own young
offspringmy brothers and sisters
and meat boarding school and
driving away to the mission station many
miles distant. Moms eyes filled
with tears as she recounted closing the
book and weeping about how this early
separation may have scarred her progeny.
Dad had sat down beside her. One by one
they had named their eight children and
narrated the trajectory of each
lifeas a measure of reassurance.
I sat across the table
while Mom talked. I carry my own searing
memories of boarding school, particularly
third grade. My parents know that; I have
a hunch thats why Mom invited me
over for lunch and told me about the
Time was slowing down,
concentrating, the usual banter was gone.
I revisited the trauma of third grade,
the witch of a teacher who tore into me,
the actual physical longing I bore to be
at home with Mom and Dad rather than at
I recalled the
confusion I felt as a boy. My younger
brother was being schooled at home at the
time as a special arrangement; why, oh
why, I pleaded and sobbed, couldnt
they do the same for me? Life had shut
down for me that year. Nothing would ever
be the same again. I looked at the world
through dark sunglassesall the
contours of friendships, school, and play
were tinted in gray. Looking back now,
with the eyes of experience, I recognize
all the symptoms of childhood clinical
depression. I had no idea at the time
what to call what I was feeling.
Over lunch I played
back to Mom and Dad some of that wretched
year. They had heard the story before,
but memory was refreshed and feelings
brought to the surface. I paused.
Dad spoke up quietly.
"Mark," he said, "we would
do it differently now. We would keep you
at home and teach you there. We hope you
can forgive us." Kairos.
Ive not blamed my
parents for sending me to boarding school
as a youngster. Its what virtually
every missionary family with children
did. Parents who home-schooled were
considered eccentric, risking both their
missions assignment and the well-being of
their children. So, forgiveness
didnt seem right. There had been no
malice or intentional mistreatment. And
truth be told, my parents expended more
effort and money than most to get us
children home as often as possible.
quite seem to fit, but Dads words
of acknowledgementand wishing
something had been differentwere
nonetheless balm for my soul. I thanked
him. "That means a lot to hear you
say that," I said. Then before too
long I got up to go, needing to get some
tasks off my desk at the office. But it
had been quite a lunch, unexpectedly
grace-filled. And I carried the book Chameleon
Days with me to the car.
In less than
forty-eight hours Id read the book
from cover to cover; time and again I was
carried back to scenes of my childhood.
Donkeys bouncing along under mountains of
straw; boarding school adventures under
the woodpile; climbing trees for escape;
the spicy food of injera and wat;
wild animals as pets; the sounds and
smells of long ago. But somehow, as I
devoured the book, I read it with more
freedom and joy for having shared lunch
with Mom and Dad on Tuesday. You
dont turn fifty without feeling the
preciousness of time.
Wenger, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is
Director of Pastoral Studies for Eastern
Mennonite Seminary at Lancaster.