During my tenure as a high school chemistry teacher, one of my first tasks each year was to learn students’ names.
On the first day of school, I asked each student what he or she would like to be called and made a note of it on my seating chart. Peter or Pete? Melissa or Missy? Daniel or Dan? I wanted to know each student’s preference.
One year, I had a Joshua in class. “Josh?” I asked him.
“Garth,” he replied.
I didn’t think much of the disparity. People are sometimes known by their middle names, which were not included in my class roster.
Garth, as it turned out, was a charismatic and outgoing student, a backslapper, a joker, and a character. He had a personality as sizeable as the big black cowboy hat he wore on Hat Day. Students were typically not allowed to wear hats to class. On Hat Day, that rule was suspended. Most students wore baseball caps or knitted beanies, but not Garth.
Chemistry is not a subject that lends itself to the instructor standing in front of the classroom and spouting forth wisdom for students to absorb. Chemistry is a subject that requires doing.
Most classes began with me briefly describing the assignment of the day. The rest of the period consisted of students performing a lab, working through calculations, or completing an activity. Time spent with students sitting quietly at their desks was at a minimum.
Garth and his lab partner liked to work at a lab table. When circulating around the room answering questions, I could often hear him singing quietly, “I’ve got friends in low places…” as they performed their tasks.
One day, several months into the school year, Garth was missing from class but not listed on the absentee sheet. “Where’s Garth?” I asked his lab partner.
“Mrs. Hess, why do you call him Garth?” his partner responded.
“Isn’t that his name? Doesn’t everyone call him that?“
“No. You’re the only one who does. We call him Josh.“
Just then, “Garth” walked into the room with a late pass. I fixed him with a one-raised-eyebrow stare. “Why did you tell me your name was Garth?“
“I didn’t tell you my name was Garth,” he replied. “You asked what I would like to be called, and I told you.“
Not a fan of country music, I didn’t put together the song, the black cowboy hat, and the name. Josh idolized Garth Brooks. He loved everything about him – his music, his persona, his business acumen. He loved Garth so much, in fact, he appropriated his name.
I have been thinking lately about the scandal of particularity.
This is what one of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard, has to say on the subject:
That Christ’s incarnation occurred improbably, ridiculously, at such-and-such a time, into such-and-such a place, is referred to—with great sincerity even among believers—as “the scandal of particularity.” Well, the “scandal of particularity” is the only world that I, in particular, know. What use has eternity for light? We’re all up to our necks in this particular scandal.
Why, theologians ask, was Christ born, specifically in the town of Bethlehem, precisely during the reign of Caesar Augustus?
I have never known any time or place that was not a specific time and place, nor a man who was not a specific man.
God is love. It’s too hard for us to love the abstract. Love always begins and ends with specifics. I love this man, these children, this slant of light, this dog, this friend, this Jesus.
Falling in love with an idea, a concept, is challenging. We are human. We need the concrete, the specific, the particular to focus our love. We love individuals. Our hearts open to the substantial, the corporeal.
God knows this. That’s why we have a friend here in our low place, why we wait at Advent for Love to come into the world.
I called him Josh for the rest of the year. Most of the time. Sometimes I accidentally reverted to the name I learned in September.
Occasionally, I called him Garth on purpose.
“Garth,” I would say to him, “sing ‘Friends in Low Places’ for us“. And he would, quietly, his heart full of love and admiration.
I think this year, rather than singing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, I am going to sing a different hymn to celebrate God with us.
It goes something like this:
You can find the places I link up here.