meeting frank: practical theology

we bought a car shortly after arriving in durham, and shortly after we bought our car, we realized something was not quite right.

it struggled to start. not just in the mornings, but always. i assumed it was the battery. i hoped it was the battery.

so i found a local shop online with a string of good reviews and made an appointment to get it checked out.

when i walked into the small shop on wednesday afternoon, i was greeted by an older man sitting behind a desk in a cramped, hot and stuffy office / waiting room.

frank was his name. his silver hair was clean cut, and he wore a red polo with a pair of black ray-bans around his neck.

it came out in conversation that i had recently moved to the area to start school. a woman waiting for her car’s oil to be changed–the only other person in the room–asked what I was studying, and i told her i was studying theology.

“geology?” frank asked, from his swivel chair behind the desk.

“oh, no. sorry, theology,” i said, noticing the hearing aid behind his ear.

“oh, I see,” he said. “well that’s abstract!”

“you think so?” I asked. “i think it’s incredibly practical.”

“you know, i’m sorry, but i just decided at a very early age that it’s made up,” he told me. “i think people believe it because they need to believe it.”

our conversation was interrupted when his mechanic entered the office to hand in the keys for the woman’s car. her oil change was now complete.

later on in the conversation, it came out that frank had lost his wife just three months earlier.

“she had a bad heart,” he told me. “and then, one day, she was shopping…” his words slowed, “…and she fell. she hit her head . . . and the next day she was gone.”

there was a moment of silence. a long one. and then i told him i was so, so sorry for his loss.

“what was your wife’s name, frank?”

“pamela.”

“how long were you and pamela married,” I asked him.

“51 years,” he told me proudly.

“shooo…” I mouthed. “frank, I am so terribly sorry. i cannot even imagine…”

we were disrupted again, when his mechanic came in to let me know my battery was seven years old and hardly holding a charge. he told me it looked like my alternator was running fine, so i’d just need a new battery.

i thanked him, and i told him i’d like to have that taken care of. he smiled, nodded and returned to the shop.

frank and I talked about a lot of other things that afternoon. about farming in eastern washington–he grew up in a small town in the same state i was from–, about joining the airforce, about being a fighter pilot, and about meeting his wife while he was stationed in england for four years, where i had only just returned to the states from.

i laughed at the parallels between our stories. and then i told him about hayley.

i told him how it still hurts, even two and a half years later, and how i could not imagine the pain he was now feeling.

he told me it did hurt. he told me he was constantly reminded of her absence. by things he’d remember. by things he know she’d say, if she were still around. and how those reminders made it even worse.

i nodded, and i told him i didn’t know how he was hanging in there as well as he was, in light of his loss.

“well i’m here,” he told me, looking around the office. “if i weren’t, i’m sure I’d be a vegetable.”

i nodded, again.

frank continued to tell me about pamela.

“she was an incredible woman,” he said with a smile. “everyone loved her. she used to be a secretary at an episcopalian church here in town, until she retired. everyone loved her.”

then, turning to me, he asked me if i believed in the after-life.

“yeah, absolutely,” i told him. “i don’t think I could do theology if i didn’t.”

“yeah, I suppose so,” he said.

he thought for a moment, and then asked me another question.

“when we die,” he continued, “does our spirit… go up?”

i could tell, from his question, frank had not much experience with the church. and i appreciated his honest question.

i told him it probably depends on who you ask, but that i believe that things do not end when we die. i told him i believe things continue on for us after we die.

he nodded, slowly, and sat back in his chair. i could tell he was thinking.

the mechanic returned, to tell me my car was now ready for me, but that I’d need to replace the two rear tires, as winter was coming up, and they were too worn.

i asked frank if he could help me with that, so he did a search online while i waited and gave me a quote.

we talked for a bit longer, and then he said something that took me completely off-guard.

“it’s really been a pleasure to meet you,” he told me, voicing something i had been thinking about him. “you’re really easy to talk to. it’s like i’ve known you for some time.”

then he asked me a question i often get, and that i often struggle to answer.

“what are your plans for your theology? are you going to be a minister?”

“oh, yeah. well, i’m not sure yet,” i confessed. “i am on the academic track, to teach, but i’m not sure. i’ll probably end up somewhere in the middle.”

he looked confused.

“in the middle?” he asked. “what does that mean?”

“well, maybe doing some teaching in a church,” i continued, “and maybe some in academics.”

again, frank looked at me with a face of confusion.

“well you should be a minister,” he told me, matter-of-factly, which surprised me, given that he had just told me he thought religion was “made up.”

“you’d make an excellent minister.”

“wow… well thank you,” i told frank. “i really appreciate you saying that.”

frank finished my paperwork and handed it to me, from his spot behind the desk. and then i spoke up again.

“i’m not sure what you think of this, frank,” i told him, “but for what it’s worth, i’d like you to know i’ll be praying for you. i really can’t imagine how difficult this must be…”

his face suddenly became very serious, which made me nervous. i wasn’t sure how he was going to react.

but then he began to nod. and his eyes welled up with tears.

“thank you,” he said, sniffling. “i really need some help.”

i reminded him that he had my phone number, and i told him it would be a pleasure to talk with him some more, anytime he was interested. he thanked me again, and i smiled to him as i made my way out of his hot, stuffy office, into the refreshing afternoon air outside.

and as i walked to my car, i began to pray for frank, with tears now welling up in the corners of my own eyes. i struggled to imagine the depth of frank’s pain after losing his wife of 51 years.

and then, as i prayed, i began to smile, slightly. as something cs lewis once wrote came to my mind.

“i warned you that theology is practical.”

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