Read the latest update from Eric Miller, Pennsylvania boy now living in Pingding, China. He shares his reflections from the friendships and connections he has made there.
If the world is indeed created, then I suspect that the reason has something to do with the passage of time. Impermanence, the preciousness of a fleeting moment, this is the stuff of life, mortality, and death. What does an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal being lack, except for this?
I made my way back to Shandong Province to visit a man I had met over fifteen years earlier, Mr. Yan Shengqin. The train arrived very early in the morning, but one of his sons insisted on picking us up at the station. We made the drive to town, checked into the hotel, had some breakfast at KFC, and went to the hospital.
The scene at the hospital would be familiar to most, with variations in the particulars. Mr. Yan, only sixty-three, looked much older. He greeted visitors happily with a handshake, but soon weariness overtook him and he would rest his eyes, though he would speak up if someone was struggling to recall a name or date. Family members had come to keep vigil, some looking worn, others barely holding in emotion. Some looking away during medical procedures while others paid close attention. Friends came and went, and later there were many conversations about their own closeness in age, how healthy and youthful Mr. Yan had been until just a few months ago, how he had frequent physical exams. For me, it was good to have a chance to say hello and goodbye once more for me. I got to know some of his family better. It is a time first and foremost for family, and I hope I didn’t add too much to their burden.
I also returned to the villages where I lived in 1997-1998. Under Mr. Yan’s leadership, his village has been so successful that it will soon be torn down and replaced with modern high-rises. I wonder how Mr. Yan feels about this. I imagine it is bittersweet, but did not have an opportunity to ask.
Since I had interviewed elders in the village, I was greeted by the happy faces of old men and women who stood up and reached for my hand when they recognized me. It was good to see people still in good health in their eighties and nineties, with bright smiles on their faces. (Though they do not usually smile for the posed photographs). Other familiar faces are gone, though, and the group of old men that used to huddle under the trees and swap World War II stories has dwindled to just one. Enough time has passed now that those who were children during my first visit are now adults and starting families of their own. The village leaders have all entered early retirement.
Soon after returning to Shanxi from Shandong Province, I received the news that Norm Yeater, aged fifty was in a fatal car accident. I worked with Norm at Camp Swatara. He was chaplain and friend to my Great Aunt at the Lebanon Valley Home in Pennsylvania. He preached at her funeral as well that of my father. I had just been facing an untimely death, and now another, even more so. Again tragic, shocking, and undeserved. Norm was still working, and still had children at home. There was no chance, here, to say goodbye. Those few moments we spoke last summer in Charlotte were our unknown goodbye. There is nothing for me to do but cry out, and to remember his gentleness, humor, and song. For so many, his absence will be a real presence at home, on the campus of the Lebanon Valley home, in the pulpit, and so on. My prayers go out for them. I am confident in the support the community will offer.
Faith doesn’t prevent any of this. What does it give us? Hope in a reunion? A sense that there is permanence beyond unending change? Strength to face pain instead of to turn away? Or maybe it just gives us each other? I don’t know, but won’t deny any comfort, however small or uncertain.
Faith urges us to see life and death, reminds us how little we can count on what we have, and calls us away from treasures on earth. We cannot keep these things we have. Death will come to us all, in the fullness of time, or too soon, or much, much too soon. In the meantime, our task is to live.