When I was 16, my family and I lived in a small village in southern Germany. In the large house next to ours, surrounded by a huge garden of various flowers and vegetables, lived an older gentleman named Johann. As we chatted one day, across the fence that separated our yards, he told me that as a young man, he had worked as a city planner in Nuremberg, Germany.
A city planner for the Third Reich.
His job was to review the blueprints for the massive buildings that Hitler planned to build. He then was a part of the crew who laid the foundations. He silently worked while horrors raged in the war. Chaos reigned around him, yet he simply continued to lay each brick over the other with a thick layer of cement mortar in between them.
He sought continuity. He wanted stability. He craved normalcy. So, he practiced putting his head down, ignoring the horror, and pretending everything was okay.
I’m not sure it worked.
He had seen things. His voice stayed quiet and reflective, as he told me his story. Nazi parades, high-powered speeches by the Fuehrer, frenzied crowds pressed in the area to listen to the propaganda. Soldiers lined the streets, rigidly practicing war drills. Neighbors fought against neighbors – no one trusted anyone else. Fear invaded every movement.
He later married, had two kids, retired from city work, and planted his large garden. A life of routine and predictability.
After our one conversation, he never spoke of his work for the Third Reich ever again.
Nor did I ask.
If he could go back to his younger self, would he make different choices? Would he stand up to the injustice of his time? Would he secretly find the Resistance and partner with them? Would he find a way to shed some light on a dark time?
What would have happened to him if he had? Would he have ended up gunned down as a traitor? Would he have suffered in a concentration camp too, as had so many others had who had resisted? Would he have survived the brutalities of a War that tore apart countries, families, and soldiers?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, nor am I sure that Johann did either.
It makes me think of Moses.
Most people know the story of the man who led his people to freedom. The one who called down multiple plagues upon the land of Egypt—everything from blood to frogs to insects. A terrifying, hair-raising tale of destruction and hope, faith, and defiance. Moses was center stage for the whole episode.
But he didn’t want it. Before the plagues and the power and the purpose, was a man who had run away from it all. He hung out in the desert, shepherding sheep that belong to his father-in-law. He was married, had two kids, and a mini-donkey. He was set. When the Divine approached him, he presented more arguments as to why he wasn’t interested in doing the job than thinking about becoming the hero of the story. Reluctance and resistance crowded around him.
There is a thread in these stories that is common. Johann, Moses – they wanted to be ordinary. I want to be angry at them for their passive resistance to greatness. I want to rail at them for not caring about humanity’s biggest issues, for not wanting to make a difference, for ignoring all the signs of evil.
I get it.
I, too, crave the ordinary. I desire the familiar comforts of a beautiful home, a healthy family, steady income, and fulfilling work. It’s so easy to shut out noise around me – the evils that haunt me – the challenges that face my world, my country, my neighborhood. I can get up every day, go to my straight-forward, no-nonsense office job to complete long lists of tasks, climb into my 4-wheel drive Jeep, pick up my kid from preschool, pop a pizza in for dinner, and end the night on a cozy couch while the TV entertains me.
I understand why Johann wanted it. I get why Moses resisted leaving it.
Scattered throughout the routine of my days are small opportunities. I could put my head down, focused on my next layer of bricks to build my life. Or, I could notice the burning bush in my backyard and approach it.
The moms fighting for safer gun laws need my signature.
My elderly neighbor needs me to shovel his sidewalk after a heavy snow.
My local library needs me to deliver books to home-bound patrons.
The homeless shelter needs the extra winter coats that are hanging in my closet.
The Syrian refugee women who have started their own businesses in a refugee camp, making soap and selling it online request me to make a purchase.
My local farmer is asking me to buy his fruits and vegetables to support his business.
These are not overtly extraordinary actions. They may not lead to an entire people being freed, as in the case of Moses. Yet, they poke me out of my comfort zone. A movement to see what the blazing bush represents, knowing that my small action may be a catalyst in the life of someone else. Mother Theresa said, “When we ultimately go home to God, we are going to be judged on what we were to each other. It’s not how much we give but how much we put in the doing, that’s compassion in action.”
What we see as insignificant might mean the world to someone else.
That is our calling. That is our purpose.
After our conversation, Johann gave me fresh tomatoes and zucchini. “For your dinner table, he said.
My family enjoyed delicious, freshly harvested food that evening. I think we were kinder, more respectful to each other, because of this simple gesture. As I watched Johann meander around his giant garden, my gratitude extended to him because his life inspired mine.
That inspiration, to me, was extraordinary.