On Passing Helloes and Oak Trees

The blessing and the curse of looking strangers in the eye is that they’ll talk to you.

At Sewanee, where I went to college (all hail!), there is a tradition of the “passing hello.” This means that no matter who you walk by, friend, foe, or stranger, you acknowledge them. I got into the habit, you see, and now this habit gets me into trouble. I end up talking to a lot of crazy people.

Case in point: The other day I was scurrying about trying to get groceries while late for yet another meeting. I drove through the parking lot, dodging pedestrians and shopping carts, found a far off spot, and parked. I fought my way through the store muttering under my breath “this is water, this is water” (for all you David Foster Wallace fans) as I went.

I then got through the slowest line, burst out the door, dodged some cars and headed for my four wheeled haven o’ metal. As I closed in on my goal, I walked past a disheveled man leaning on an old, rusting car. He looked up at me, right into my eyes.

“Hello,” I said. Couldn’t just keep going. “Passing hello,” and all that.

“Why doesn’t He just destroy it all?” he responded.

Oh boy, I thought. Here we go.

“I’m sorry?” I questioned.

“You know. Like he did with Noah. He should do it again.” He gestured with his arm across the expanse of concrete and shopping carts and car fumes and people hurrying to get in and out as fast as they could because they were late for meetings.

He continued, “When I was a kid, this area was beautiful. All farmland. Big old oak trees, here. And now this. So why doesn’t He just destroy it and start over again?”

Now, I’m a third year seminarian. And I should have launched into something about covenant, and rainbows, and God’s love for us. I really should have. I’m being honest when I say that I regret that I didn’t. But looking at the scene as he laid it out for me, tracing the direction of his arm and gazing at the concrete and windswept plastic bags and the zombie-like people shuffling—people like myself—I couldn’t. I tried to picture hundred year old oak trees, instead.

I said, “Man. I don’t know.”

The Gospel proclaimed? Not quite. We stood there for an awkward moment.

I got in my car and rushed off to my next meeting.

I’ve been wondering who the crazy one was.

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