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ON PAYING ATTENTION

January 3, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to United Way of the Piedmont, 203 East Main Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306 – (864) 582-7556.

Today on Epiphany Sunday, Christians recall the story of the strangers from the East who visited Bethlehem in search of a new king. The magi of ancient Persia were dreamers and stargazers. They were probably members of the Zoroastrian religion. They believed the heavens mirrored the events on earth. These sages from ancient Persia gazed into the sky and saw an unusually bright star.  They believed it was a sign that a royal person had been born. Following the star, they traveled to Bethlehem to honor the child and to offer tribute.  This is the stellar event that we commemorate on Epiphany.

In 1610, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope to the night sky and discovered the four moons of Jupiter – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. In that same year, Galileo found a strange oval surrounding Saturn, which later observations determined to be its rings. These discoveries changed how science understood the far reaches of our solar system.

Thirteen years later, in 1623, the solar system’s two giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, traveled together across the sky. Jupiter caught up to and passed Saturn in an astronomical event known as a Great Conjunction. (NASA/ Bill Ingalls) 

On the cold, windy evening of December 21, 2020, I stood in my front yard with two of our grandchildren gazing into the clear night sky. It had been nearly 400 years since the planets passed this close to each other and almost 800 years since the alignment of Saturn and Jupiter occurred at night. When this happened just four days before Christmas, many people worldwide were able to witness this Great Conjunction.

From our vantage point on Earth, the huge giant planets appeared close together, but they were still hundreds of millions of miles apart in space. That the conjunction happened on the same day as the winter solstice may have been only coincidence, but it was a special moment for an old man and two girls.

Back inside our home, enjoying the warmth of a fire on our hearth, our eight-year-old asked, how did Galileo know what to look for?”

The six-year-old answered. “He just learned to pay attention.”

That wisdom from a little professor is absolutely true. Scientific inquiry begins with observation. I can think of no better example than my longtime friend Rudy Mancke. Rudy is a naturalist who pays close attention to the world around him. To stand with Rudy by a Piedmont farm pond, to walk with him down a path through the woods, or to venture into the tall weeds of powerline cut with Rudy is to learn the meaning of the word observation.

When you think about it, all great literature, whether prose or poetry, arises from a writer who observes life closely. The same is true of those who compose music or create visual art. When our son Erik received a journalism award, he was asked where he found his stories. “All you have to do is pay attention,” he said.

As we begin a New Year, this may be a resolution worth considering. Can I learn to pay attention to the people around me, to those I love as well as to the stranger who may need help? Can I learn to be more observant of the natural world, beginning in my own backyard? Can I learn to be more attuned to the children and the elderly, to those who are alone and to people who were described by Henry David Thoreau as “those who live their lives in quiet desperation.”

In the year ahead, we are sure to experience unforgettable moments.  

 The Greeks used kairos for those special times that are non-repetitive, the occasions that occur only once.  Birthdays and anniversaries are kairos moments. The word also refers to those unpredictable experiences that happen at just the right time. Being surprised by a rainbow or a sunset are examples.

Is anything better than a sandwich made with vine-ripened tomatoes? The secret is to pick the tomato at just the right time.

Homegrown tomatoes illustrate the meaning of the Greek word kairos. Kairos means that the time is right: even better, the time is ripe.

             When his five-year-old son asked him for an appointment, Wayne Oates had a startling moment of truth. Was he so busy that his own child felt he had to have an appointment to talk with him?

Dr. Oates coined the word workaholic. In his book, Confessions of a Workaholic (Word Publishing, 1971), Oates described his own addiction to work.

The meaning of the word workaholic has been skewed in the years since my teacher first used it.  Many of us crowd our calendars and our lives with activity. Few would deny that we are a nation under stress, much of it self-imposed. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, anxiety levels have increased with fewer opportunities to reduce the pressure.  Still, there are lessons to be remembered and renewed.

Years ago, one of our Cub Scout sons needed to take a five-mile, in-town hike in order to complete the requirements for an achievement award.  I was required to hike with him, not by the Boy Scouts of America, but by Clare.  I had promised to hike with Scott, but my schedule for the week had become an avalanche of unfinished tasks.  Finally, on Friday afternoon, I threw in the towel, shucked my coat and tie, and put on khaki pants, a plaid shirt, and hiking boots for a five-mile stroll with a bright-eyed nine-year-old boy.

The sparkle in his blue eyes and the smile on his face told me I had made a good decision.  We were off together, dad and son, leaving behind mom and the four other children.  Children in large families often are treated as one member in a covey.  This was his special, private time with me and my time with him. It was a kairos moment.

We walked along the sidewalk away from our home. Just beyond the lumberyard, we came to the place where the sidewalk ends, to borrow the title of Shel Silverstein’s children’s book Where the Sidewalk Ends.

We paused at a railroad crossing to examine the once-familiar cross-buck sign lettered with the words: STOP! LOOK! LISTEN! 

It had been years since I had walked a railroad track.  My son and I followed the shiny steel rails.  The railroad ties were too close together for my steps and too far apart for his.  We both had to adjust our stride.  I kept a sharp eye and ear out for any train that might need to use our walkway.

Walking with a child is like walking with God. It requires a slower pace, and you see so much more.  A child sees things that adults miss – an old bottle cap, a shiny piece of quartz, a frog in a drainage ditch, a butterfly drinking from a wildflower.  I could soon see that this hike was more than a Cub Scout requirement.  I needed this late afternoon journey, too.

After a mile or so, we came to a place where a side track veered off the main railroad line. Together we followed the spur as it disappeared into a grove of pine trees.  As the railroad siding went further and further into the woods, pine saplings grew between the rails.  Wild daisies were blooming in the spaces between the crossties, a clear indication that no locomotive had rumbled along these rusty rails in quite some time.

Down in the grove of pines, we came upon an elderly Southern lady, an abandoned Southern Railway boxcar, one with wooden sides and a single door. We examined the vintage railroad car.  I walked around one side, and my adventurous Cub Scout went around the other side. 

When we met at the rear, he looked at me and said, “Dad, this train has been here a long time.” 

I thought, How brilliant of my Cub Scout son to recognize that this boxcar has been here a long time. 

In my daddy/teacher style, I asked, “How do you know it has been here a long time?”  I thought he would mention the plants growing between the rails or the accumulated rust on the tracks and wheels. 

Instead, he surprised me.  He pointed up to the ladder on the rear of the boxcar, “Dad, look on the ladder.  There’s a bird’s nest.  Dad, a bird can’t build a nest on a moving train.”

I was stunned! My nine-year-old had given me something profound to ponder. 

My son and I completed our hike. We walked a little more slowly. 

Later that night, I shared the story of the boxcar and the bird’s nest with Clare.  We agreed that just as a bird can’t build a nest on a moving train, neither could we build a family if we were always on the go.

The kairos moments in life may only happen once. If we miss them, they are gone forever. If we take the time to enjoy these moments, our lives are enriched forever.

When the time is ripe, we need to Stop! Look! Listen! We all need to be reminded to pay attention.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

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