Author and historian Thomas Cahill's sparkling prose is what animates his series of history books known as "Hinges of History." Cahill has a wonderful way of bringing to life the habitations and byways and ideas of places like Medieval Ireland, the Palestine of Jesus, or Ancient Greece. To the point, Cahill says that the "hinges" refer to "those essential moments when everything was at stake, when the mighty stream that was Western history was in ultimate danger and might have been divided into a hundred useless tributaries or frozen in death or evaporated altogether." Then, in this narative of grace, he points to the arrival of great "gift-givers" who "provided for transition, for transformation, even for transfiguration, leaving us a world more varied and complex, more awesome and delightful, more beautiful and strong than the one they had found." What he really recounts is how history is providentially undergirded, luminous from within if we only observe.
What is true of the great history of cultures is also true of you, and of me. Our own personal histories are not just some long tragi-comic narrative, a purposeless muddling through of life, but histories framed by turning points, "hinges' if you will, moments in time when critical decisions were made, new life trajectories were set, and blessing or curse followed. Inauspicious moments and seemingly small decisions can have long consequences, and while the results are not irredeemable (when they go bad) they often do force us into certain paths. Like taking the wrong path at a fork in the road, we may not be able to go back but, rather, may have to make the best of the path we are on. On the other hand, the blessings that can flow from seemingly insignificant decisions or events can also be portentous.
We all have our own hinges. I recall one. In 1976 I graduated from high school. I had become a Christian in high school though I had no fellowship, no discipleship in the faith other than that provided by books (good though they were). I was outside the main social circles of my large suburban high school, uncomfortable with high school fellowships like Young Life which seemed filled with kids who already had everything, already had plenty of friends. I was painfully shy and insecure. The social hurdle posed by a mass of popular kids was too much for me. So I remained an alone Christian.
At the same time I knew that I needed fellowship. I had read about it. I wanted things to be different. I wrote letters to all the campus student fellowships at N.C. State, where I was admitted, something I now look back upon as a somewhat surprising initiative from someone who lacked initiative. All of them wrote back and let me know of their campus activities. However, three students in leadership with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship wrote long handwritten letters to me --- Sam, Rich, and Buck. They told me there was a vollyball and ice cream social on registration day. I made up my mind to go.
When registration day came, I joined the crush of students and did what I had to do. Then I walked through campus and down the sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive. There was a grassy area where a vollyball net was set up. Three guys were sitting on a slight hill, their backs to me. And this is the hinge: Every natural impulse in me told me not to go over to them, that I could always go later. And yet I did. I did the unnatural. I recall it was like watching my feet move without willing them to move.
One of the guys I met there that day, David, is a friend I still have lunch with monthly. Another guy I met that day, Bruce, became my roommate for three years and is still a fellow church member. I was welcomed into that fellowship, went to retreats, was in a small group Bible study, attended the Urbana Missions Conference, met my wife of 29 years, became a leader, and grew in faith (as well as graduated from college). Blessing upon blessing followed from that one decision to talk to those guys sitting on the hill.
I'm not presumptuous enough to think that it all came down to me. My "hinge" was secured, fastened to the One who providentially guides all events. In the mystery of God's sovereignty and my choice, the door could have swung the other way and I could have walked on by. Thank God it did not.
The guys who reached out to me, who wrote me letters and spent many hours with me, were Cahill's "gift-givers," instruments of God's grace in my life who took part in His transformation of my life. The "hinge" was that essential moment on a stretch of sidewalk on Dan Allen Drive when my feet took an unnatural path and the door opened in on a world of rich blessing I could just as easily have missed. Even today, I drive that way, look at that sidewalk, imagine that field, remember, and give thanks to the One who pulled me in.
And that's just one "hinge of history," one seemingly insignificant moment in one life among billions. But it matters. They all do.