“From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention. Pay attention to the frog. Pay attention to the west wind. Pay attention to the boy on the raft, the lady in the tower, the old man on the train. In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.”

– Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary

tim-elofson-story2.pngI’ve found myself walking the campus of Emory University at night recently. It’s become a bit of a habit for me actually. After spending time in the library or at home reading or writing something for a class, I would, whenever the urge hit me, pull myself away from the table, and go for a stroll.

There’s something about walking Emory’s campus at night that comforts me. This place, usually bustling with life and energy throughout the day, still needs to find time to rest. It’s as though the entire university is sleeping. The only sound, apart from the occasional car that drives by on the roads surrounding campus, might be the wind rustling some of the branches of the many trees that dot the campus. After walking for an hour or two, I’ve found myself looking for a nearby bench.

There, I would sit, close my eyes, and listen for a while.

I came to Candler a year ago right out of undergrad. After spending my last four years outside of Los Angeles, the move to Atlanta might have been a jarring one had I not made it a tradition to not set down roots anywhere. Before college, I had hopped around a bit just outside of Boston, never quite settling down in a single neighborhood long enough to call it home.

Whenever the breeze blows, it seems, I am taken up into it and carried along like chaff. Little wonder then, that the lesson I’m taking away from my first year in seminary is how to remain. How to pay attention. How to listen, not just to my neighbor, but the world around me as well.

The problem with story based on a hypermobility like mine is that there is never enough time to put down roots. To get a feel for a place. To let the soil of the place sink into the soles of my feet as much as it sinks into my soul. The  theologian Soong-Chan Rah notes that “contemporary life is characterized by movement, oftentimes at high speeds, with the absence of any real connection to the world around us.”[1] With a story like mine, it’s easier to see the world as something to exploit—here’s a place to get a degree, here’s a resource to mine, here’s a skill to acquire—instead of something with which to see as being in relationship to me, and I it.

Dr. Kyle Lambelet brought this to my attention within a class he taught this past semester—Eco-Apocalypse. As we sat around a cluster of tables on the first day of class, he glanced up from the course syllabus before simply stating, “The point of this course is to wrestle with the question of whether there is hope in the midst of the eco-apocalypse.” It’s hard to see hope anywhere when we don’t slow down enough to listen whether to our sisters and brothers in the faith, our neighbors, or the world entire. Before speaking about good news, we need to know why in fact there needs to be good news in the first place before we get to the how of it.

I came to Candler wanting to know how to speak a good word to others. A word filled with hope. A word that can bring healing. A word that might just bless another person, and God willing, maybe even me in the process.

But I’ve learned that before hope can be uttered, I need to learn how to listen. To stay with the trouble a community is experiencing. Not always to offer a cheap solution or simply crying forth “‘Peace, peace,’ […] when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). Before the person of faith can say anything, first she or he must listen.

I need to listen.

“Listen to your life,” states Frederick Buechner in his book Now and Then: A Memoir on Vocation. “See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

On those nights when I wander the university campus, watching the clouds pass by overhead and listening to the sound of the night fill the air, I find it easier to remind myself to listen. If every moment is a key moment, how might I then best partner with the work that God is doing here and now? Where might there be good news for our time?

It seems, from what I’ve gathered from my first year, that the best way to find that out is to find someplace to invest, listen to their story, live alongside of them, and eventually, maybe, hopefully, speak.

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 148.