An Unremarkable Life
If all I knew about my grandfather was what I read in his 1952 diary I might think he was a man whose life was a monotonous string of colorless days.
My grandfather, Bunyan Smith, was a pastor in one of the poorest sections of Nashville, and I knew enough about his life as a preacher to expect that his diary would not likely be thrilling. However, I was completely unprepared for how unremarkable it would be.
His first entry on January 1 begins with, “Up about 7:00 a.m. Family worship at breakfast. Dressed for the day. Went to church to pray. Studied. Visited the sick. Wrote letters. Ate supper. Retired.”
His last entry on December 31: “Up about 7:00 a.m. Family worship at breakfast. Went to church to pray.”
The pages in between are filled with uneventful days of prayer, study, visiting the sick, meetings with deacons, dinner, and retiring to bed.
Perhaps that is how he saw his life as a pastor? Perhaps that is how many pastors see their lives? The routine kills the reality.
In Working The Angles, Eugene Peterson writes what a congregation expects of a pastor:
“We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you.
“We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.”
I know my grandfather had no idea of the influence he had on thousands of people by the time he died. I think there are many pastors who have the same experience. They cannot imagine the lives they have shaped and changed through their steady faithfulness, which must often feel like drudgery and repetitious, invisible activity.
My father wrote this when my grandfather died:
“If he had two suits, he looked for someone who needed one. He never graduated from college or held a degree. There were no honors significant enough to mention in his obituary. He never held an office of any responsibility within his profession. Dad walked the slums like a padre, carrying home the drunks, feeding the bums until Mother hid the food, visiting convicts, riding ambulances with fighting and feuding families, visiting the sick, marrying lovers, and burying the dead.
When his neighbors were hungry, he couldn’t eat. When they were sad, he cried, and when they laughed, he out-laughed them.
Through the funeral parlor poured people of all stations and status—the poor, those energized by poverty to move out and up, from the wealthy president whom Dad saw converted from a young infidel in a charity TB hospital to the widow who asked to sit alone with him and to relive his great comfort in her past sorrows. In the line were the reclaimed of the rough stuff of life, recounting their experiences with him, and those who felt his great Irish temper he self-indulgently termed ‘righteous indignation.’ They all came and sat for hours. No tears were there…just victory. Vicariously they felt victorious over death. Because he lived, they knew heaven exists. Where else could he be? A spirit so big could not vanish.”
I believe Annie Dillard was right when she wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” My grandfather didn’t really record the substance of his life in this diary, which to me says more about him than I first realized. There is a self-forgetting in how he wrote – and lived – that is simply not possible when we focus on ourselves and ask, “For what will I be remembered? What difference did I make?”
One of the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is Sarah Smith of Golders Green. She was of no importance on earth but one of the “great ones” in heaven because “fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
My grandfather was ordinary in his own eyes and that is what makes him remarkable in mine.