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Thinking Out Loud

The Privilege of Being Here

by Michael Jinkins | May 23, 2017

OxfordThe loneliness went so deep, it felt like a physical ache.

I had been away from Debbie and the kids for months. At that time she was a researcher on childhood literacy in a federal think tank, our children were both in high school, and the opportunity came for me to take a sabbatical at Oxford University on a fellowship. There was simply no way we could afford for them to be with me on sabbatical. And there was no way I could pass up an Oxford fellowship. So I went alone.

A confirmed creature of habit, I thrive on routine. And I like to work. Each day began early with a breakfast at the faculty club where I had a room. Then I went right to work researching and writing until six in the evening, either in the Bodleian Library or with colleagues at one of several colleges.

The days were much like days back home, just a different location. So nothing much felt different from being in Austin.

However, I came to dread six o'clock p.m. when work for the day ended and the loneliness began to set in. Ordinarily I would walk to a favorite restaurant or pub and have dinner. Once a week, a Manchurian physicist and I watched a ridiculous slapstick British comedy in the senior common room together. It became a regular event for both of us far away from home. But most nights, after dinner, I just wandered around Oxford to avoid going to my room.

The particular night I am thinking about was toward the end of my sabbatical. Within a few days I would be traveling north to Scotland to visit with friends in Edinburgh, before wrapping up my sabbatical by serving as the external evaluator on a Ph.D. Viva Voce at Aberdeen University.

My mind, typical I suppose of all of us, was swirling around what was coming up (especially dreading the oral examination in Aberdeen because the dissertation I was examining was not up to snuff). And, of course, I longed simply to be home with my family.

I remember the moment distinctly when I came to the realization on that evening walk: "You idiot! You selfish, selfish idiot! Debbie and the children, and some very nice people at a foundation and at Oxford, and my colleagues at the seminary, are all making it possible for me to have the incredible privilege to be here to do the research and writing I want to do. Then, for goodness sake, I need to BE HERE NOW! Soak it up! Enjoy it fully! To do otherwise is to heap selfishness on selfishness."

Walking along, my head down, I stopped dead in my tracks and lifted my eyes to see where I was. At that moment I was on the turn in the lane that runs from Merton College past Oriel College back toward the center of Oxford and St. Mary's Cathedral. I had been walking along until that moment utterly unmindful of the path I was walking, unconscious that I was walking along a path trodden for hundreds of years by some of the people I most admired in the world. J.H. Newman and J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers and W.H. Auden had all walked right here. The great John Locke was memorialized a few steps away in Christ Church Cathedral. The whole time I had been in Oxford, day after glorious day, I had been able to attend Evensong sung by some of the finest choirs in the world in some of the most beautiful college chapels, and I had heard concerts at the Sheldonian, including an unforgettable performance of Verdi's Requiem.

Suddenly I felt so ashamed of myself for taking the opportunity, the moment, the place and the sacrifice of others for granted, and I realized that one way I could value what they were doing for me was to take in as fully as possible being there. This great undeserved opportunity was mine as a gift from others. And the gratitude I needed to show them was in the form of joy.

This lesson has stayed with me for years now; when I have forgotten it, it has thundered back into my consciousness.

Somehow this lesson has touched even the most mundane family and work chores. Being here is a privilege, wherever "here" happens to be.

What a privilege it is to be able to wash the family breakfast plates. What a privilege to vacuum the living room floor. What a privilege to sit with a group of colleagues trying to figure out the best way to provide an education for our students. What a privilege to sit with a potential friend of the seminary asking them to consider supporting theological education.

The awareness has turned many a task from drudgery (washing the dishes comes immediately to mind) to a moment of grace and enlightenment. And the lesson has only become more profound the older I have become.

Life is so fragile, so tenuous, so brief. We hang like spiders from a silken thread over eternity at every moment (apologies to Jonathan Edwards for the theft of his image).

Death is not a destination at the end of a long road for any of us, not really. The grave is a reality yawning beneath us all the time.

What a privilege to be here, wherever here is. What a privilege to be here now, whenever now happens to be.

As I made my way back to my room that night, I felt pretty humbled. But I also felt a new sense of joy.

I stopped in at a favorite pub for a pint. And before I turned in, I wrote my wife a postcard, as I did every day while I was away, this time just to say, "thank you."

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