An Unremarkable Life

An Unremarkable Life

If all I knew about my grandfather was what I read in his 1952 diary I might think he was a man whose life was a monotonous string of colorless days.

My grandfather, Bunyan Smith, was a pastor in one of the poorest sections of Nashville, and I knew enough about his life as a preacher to expect that his diary would not likely be thrilling. However, I was completely unprepared for how unremarkable it would be.

His first entry on January 1 begins with, “Up about 7:00 a.m. Family worship at breakfast. Dressed for the day. Went to church to pray. Studied. Visited the sick. Wrote letters. Ate supper. Retired.”

His last entry on December 31: “Up about 7:00 a.m. Family worship at breakfast. Went to church to pray.”

The pages in between are filled with uneventful days of prayer, study, visiting the sick, meetings with deacons, dinner and retiring to bed.

Perhaps that is how he saw his life as a pastor? Perhaps that is how many pastors see their lives? The routine kills the reality.

In Working The Angles, Eugene Peterson writes what a congregation expects of a pastor:

“We are going to ordain you to this ministry, and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment, but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you.

“We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it.”

I know my grandfather had no idea of the influence he had on thousands of people by the time he died. I think there are many pastors who have the same experience. They cannot imagine the lives they have shaped and changed through their steady faithfulness,which must often feel like drudgery and repetitious, invisible activity.

My father wrote this when my grandfather died:

“If he had two suits, he looked for someone who needed one. He never graduated from college or held a degree. There were no honors significant enough to mention in his obituary. He never held an office of any responsibility within his profession. Dad walked the slums like a padre, carrying home the drunks, feeding the bums until Mother hid the food, visiting convicts, riding ambulances with fighting and feuding families, visiting the sick, marrying lovers, and burying the dead.

When his neighbors were hungry, he couldn’t eat. When they were sad, he cried, and when they laughed, he out-laughed them.

Through the funeral parlor poured people of all stations and status—the poor, those energized by poverty to move out and up, from the wealthy president whom Dad saw converted from a young infidel in a charity TB hospital to the widow who asked to sit alone with him and to relive his great comfort in her past sorrows. In the line were the reclaimed of the rough stuff of life, recounting their experiences with him, and those who felt his great Irish temper he self-indulgently termed ‘righteous indignation.’ They all came and sat for hours. No tears were there…just victory. Vicariously they felt victorious over death. Because he lived, they knew heaven exists. Where else could he be? A spirit so big could not vanish.”

I believe Annie Dillard was right when she wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” My grandfather didn’t really record the substance of his life in this diary, which to me says more about him than I first realized. There is a self-forgetting in how he wrote – and lived – that is simply not possible when we focus on ourselves and ask, “For what will I be remembered?  What difference did I make?”

One of the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is Sarah Smith of Golders Green. She was of no importance on earth but one of the “great ones” in heaven because “fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

My grandfather was ordinary in his own eyes and that is what makes him remarkable in mine.

33 Comments

  1. Thank you Fred. My father was a pastor. If he had kept a diary it would have read the same. I think Eugene Peterson’s other words also speak well of pastors, “A long obedience in the same direction.”

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    • Absolutely, Dwight. The notes my grandfather made in the fly leaf of his diary use the word “resolve” several times.

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  2. Well done Fred. Having served as a pastor, I often reflect upon the question as to what difference I’ve made in the lives of others. I’m sure I won’t know until eternity. To all pastors, “Remain faithful to the call.”

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    • Thank you, Stephen. I know from experience the question of making a difference can take anyone down the wrong path. It’s not a bad question and perhaps there is a time to be asking it but the older I get the less I think it matters.

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  3. How true… some of the most influential people over the course of my life have been pastors. I should probably tell them about the insignificant (to them) conversations that changed the course of my life.

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    • I was a middle school teacher for eight years and I tried to tell myself every day that I was put in the life of that student for a very short and specific amount of time. I could not stay with them over their whole life. Others would come and replace me and speak into their lives for a “moment”. That was our role. I wonder, along with you, how many of my teachers realize what some of those moments meant to us? I hope they do.

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  4. And his son, my father, was that same kind of pastor. And my son is that kind of pastor. He left such a legacy!

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    • Yes, his son, my uncle, is that same kind of pastor.

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  5. Very touching. Thank you for reminding me to let my pastor know how important he is to me.

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    • He might just stare at you for a moment! That would be a good thing.

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  6. Beautifully written about a beautiful life well-lived! Oh for more pastors with those passions and commitments!

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    • And, of course, not just pastors. All of us are under so much pressure to be important, influential, impactful and difference makers. I do believe Lewis was right when he said fame on earth is different from fame in heaven.

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  7. Your grandfather’s life illustrates one way I believe the Parable of the Sower is lived out. Humble people faithfully touch people they encounter for Christ. Then those people touch others, and so forth down the line. Before long, the seed of faith has spread a hundredfold–and more. Just as Christ promises. All from modest, but faithful beginnings

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    • Jeff, I agree. It is so important to just begin sowing and not try to overthink how much yield there will be. By the way, the yield of your life in mine is substantial!

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  8. This reminds me of a GK Chesterton quote I just read last week:
    The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children.
    Perhaps we could add, in the same spirit, “an ordinary Pastor, loving ordinary people in an ordinary community.”

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    • Well, anyone who quotes Chesterton gets a free pass in my book. Are we going to be together in Los Angeles next week?

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  9. wow

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    • Terry – That’s pretty brief for an attorney.

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  10. A very helpful reminder of what is real and important, Fred . . . and those two Lewis and Chesterton comments really nail the points.

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    • John, thank you. If you could get Lewis and Chesterton to come to Veritas in September I would be very impressed!

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  11. Wow Fred – that is a wonderful story. I absolutely aspire to be more like your grandfather. What an amazing life that impacted more than any of us will ever know.

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    • Thank you, Jean. It’s hard to be self-forgetful when everything around us encourages us to be self-referenced!

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  12. Fuel for my faith, Fred….thank you :0)

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    • Thank you, Lisa. We are all looking forward to seeing you and Ellie in Florida. You are fuel for us!

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  13. Thanks for posting this. Great-grandfather’s commitment to his calling is a beacon for me. Despite my mother’s assertion, I cannot claim to be the man my great-grandfather was and grandfather is. The connection to Eugene Peterson’s words is spot on and both convicting and encouraging.
    Your words, “…grandfather didn’t really record the substance of his life in this diary, which to me says more about him than I first realized” is also very telling of the man. Opa has shared with me some of the struggles great-grandfather Bunyan endured in that church. It puts me in mind of the Ben Franklin quote, “Speak ill of no man, but speak all the good you know of everybody.” Even in his own diary he refused to speak ill of people. Truly a “self-forgetting” which bespeaks a humble servant living his call.
    Thank you, again, for this post.

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    • Dear Jason – What a remarkable response! I have no doubt your great grandfather would be as proud of you as he was of your grandfather and your grandfather is of you. I remember your grandfather telling me once that each of the five boys had a different experience growing up in their home in Nashville and I know that is true – for all of us. It is a privilege to be related to you.

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  14. When I read the story of your grandfather I realized what a perfect illustration I had for my lesson Sunday on Humility. He epitomized what Jesus said to his disciples about what true greatness looks like in His kingdom. And that legacy has been passed down to several generations.
    Thank you for encouragement.

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    • I have a whole lesson on true greatness if you want me to send it to you. No charge!

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  15. Reminds me of the poem about the importance of the “dash” on the tombstone between birth and death. It sounds like your grandfather made his dash count for Christ. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thank you, Jerry. Yes, he did.

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  16. Just getting to this, Fred. Reminds me of a discussion we had once about Significance: “If you think you are significant, you probably are not. If you have stopped worrying about it, you probably are.”

    Reply

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