Goodnight Table and Chair

By JIM NICHOLS

You have probably had this same experience in one form or another. That is, we realize that we are in familiar territory, but something seems oddly and disturbingly different. We recognize most of the pieces, but they are put in different positions and result in some new or different meaning.

I was challenging myself by living a brief while in a foreign country to get better at another language. By day, I walked with other students down streets lined with stores bearing signs I could somewhat read, but not exactly. We were attending school.  At night, I slept in a single room in a large house that three other students occupied with me in other rooms. A local family lived there in another part of the house; we all ate meals together. The family was generating some income from us students. Living there together was part of the learning experience for students, all of whom were much younger than I. I suspect they were learning faster than I was. 

My room was quite different than my room in my home. It was small with plaster walls and a concrete floor. There might have been one wall picture as the room decoration. The second story window looked out to a deeply green tree and other vegetation and at night the sound of the rain falling was loud and, frankly, comforting. I believe it rained hard nearly every night, the cause for the green background to the world there.

There was a poor single bed, more like a cot. Additional furniture was a diminutive set of bookshelves serving as a place to put extra clothes, a similarly small wooden table, and an uncomfortable straight-backed wooden chair. This was slightly before our heavily electronic way of life, so I was cut off from communication with others unless I left the room, primarily to use the community bathroom. After supper I retired to my room, sat in the uncomfortable chair at the little table, listened to the rain, and studied my school lessons. It was not like my own home, but I got used to it and was glad to return each evening for respite from challenging days. Besides supplying us with meals and a roof shielding us from the rain, the family entered the room sometime during the day to sweep the concrete floor.

As I settled into the sagging corner bed each night it was earlier than my usual bedtime at home. I had nothing else to do besides my lessons, the other students were in their rooms, and I was tired from living in another language all day. Gazing around the room, I thought of the children’s book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. “Goodnight Moon, goodnight cow jumping over the moon, goodnight mouse . . . “ “Goodnight table, goodnight chair, goodnight shelf, goodnight thunder and lightning.” The little room had become my temporary home and I was used to it. 

Arriving back late one afternoon, I climbed the stairs, unlocked the door, and entered a room that seemed both familiar and different. My hunch is that whoever entered the room to sweep had pushed all the furniture to one side and then the other side; this would make sweeping easier. However, she had forgotten where the pieces were originally positioned and put them in new places. It took me several seconds to understand what must have happened and it mildly disturbed me. The bed, table, chair, and shelf were all there, but the overall effect of the room was changed. 

Is that not what happens in our faith walk? We have items that are comfortable to us, that bring us meaning, give us stability. We generally know how we are supposed to respond in most situations. Our assumptions are clear, our preferences well-founded.

And then—we encounter someone that is unexpected, someone who runs counter to our assumptions. They bring a meaning to our lives that takes our theological furniture and rearranges it. What we believed was questionable becomes entirely reasonable. What we believed was off limits for us becomes incorporated into our faith. We become more compassionate and understanding. We see through some different eyes of faith. 

It happens regularly to me; I suspect you have the same experiences.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain

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