I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes, but the Lord blessed me with this one.
I’m not sure how our conversation got going, but when it did, the gracious and warm woman next to me began her story that spans almost 90 years. When it started, I wondered if she had some sort of speech impediment, but as she began to tell me about her trip, her family, and then her life, things began to come together like a jigsaw puzzle.
The daughter of an old guard, conservative shop owner (she was not allowed to see movies or listen to the radio, and she wore her hair in pig tails even into teenage years because she wasn’t allowed to cut it) and his wife, she was born in Munich, Germany in the mid 1920s. Her extended family owned a farm somewhere in the Swiss Alps. “Have you ever seen the Sound of Music?” she asked. Not only had I been mesmerized by Julie Andrews and the gang singly loudly through the snow-frosted mountains as a child, but I had seen the Alps up close when, in high school, my family visited my uncle who was stationed in Heidelberg. They are absolutely stunning. “The hills are bright green, and you are surrounded by mountains,” she told me as her eyes lit up. “And oh, on a Sunday morning when you opened the shutters: sunshine and church bells!” Her whole countenance lifted as she reached across the chair arm in joy and took my forearm. “Sunshine, church bells, and lilacs!” Her family has owned that farm for more than five hundred years. They purchased it sometime in the 1500s. I can’t get over that fact. In a world of such rapid and constant change, here was a woman whose family had lived in the same region for over five hundred years. “The nearest town,” she said, “is three miles away, but you can hardly call it a town. We’re all related anyways!” These were fond memories for her. Roasted pork and potato dumplings, the farm, and simple life were her joys in the years before the war.
We talked about how the Lord revealed Himself in the little things, the simple joys and the simple pleasures of life. These are the moments that linger.
During the war, however, Munich was a prime target for Allied bombing. She remembers those bombing raids and wearing multiple layers of clothing just in case a bomb wiped out significant portions of their possessions. “But, you know, the walls of the houses over there are this thick,” she showed me with a span of her arms. “You fixed things back then, you see. You didn’t simply get rid of the old, tear it down, and start again like you do now.” Houses were built to last. They were built to endure. “My father used to say that if you could hear the bombs whistling, they weren’t going to hit you but were going some place else. I don’t know if that’s true, “ she laughed. “But maybe he said it just to comfort us.”
Like her picturesque farm and her Munich residence, here was a woman in front of me who had endured. Her features were those of a person who had experienced a lifetime of joy and sorrow, of pain and deep understanding. In a world of instant gratification, of Snap Chat and the like, where most things cultural are fleeting, in this moment above the clouds, I encountered endurance.
We don’t have a mindset of mending anymore. You can now get divorced for under a hundred bucks, and in the presence of five hundred year old farms and houses with thick walls, our attitude of constant change and obsession with the latest and greatest seems a bit shallow. We are not a people with an attitude of endurance. We don’t try to mend things. We are constantly producing new things while constantly trashing the old, and we are quick to move on to the next and best thing. If something doesn’t suit us, we travel onwards. If a relationship is damaged, we would rather–and often do–walk away.
But we all admire those things that are mended and endure, don’t we? We esteem the couple who makes it 50 years married to each other. We praise the person who presses on through difficulty and doesn’t simply give up. It’s because, deep down inside, we know that endurance and permanence are supposed to be the norm. Somehow, in some way, we know that the principles of endurance and permanence are built into the very fabric of our universe. But something has gone drastically wrong. And yet, here beside me on the plane, was a living representation of the timeless truth of the worthwhile-ness of mending things, of the beauty and glory of Endurance.
Things were meant to endure. That’s what the Bible says. But we messed things up. Creation was meant to reflect the Enduring and Permanent character of God. But we threw it into change and decay. Malachi 3:6 reads, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Because we no longer reflect our God in the same way we were meant to, we are in danger of destruction. But He never falters. He never waivers. His promises are certain, steadfast, and sure, ensuring that, though we are ever in flux, His people are never consumed by His anger and wrath. What of Hebrews 13:8? It says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” That’s good news for us. He is an anchor in the midst of our storm of death and a lighthouse in the darkness of our sin and its novelty.
All creation will one day again reflect that enduring and permanent character of God, but until then, He allows us little glimmers and teasers of Himself and what’s to come. A little glimmer came in the form of my neighbor seating next to me on this flight. We talked for the duration, but the rest of that conversation will have to wait until next time…