September 26, 2017

Reunions Are Not Enough

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Reunions make me sad. I enjoy them, but in the end, they do not satisfy.

As I wrote last week, we are spending this weekend with friends in the congregation of our first church, where we served from 1978-1983. A Friday evening service, Saturday breakfast and evening music night with ice cream social, Sunday worship and dinner on the grounds — it will be a delight to see everyone and participate.

But it’s not enough. This weekend will provide yet another example of Qoheleth’s maxim:

Smoke, nothing but smoke. . . .
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old planet earth.

• Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, MSG

Eugene Peterson’s translation catches the thought much better than many translations, which render the Hebrew word hebel in philosophical terms: vanity, meaninglessness, pointlessness, uselessness, etc. The word carries the thought of transiency rather than absence of meaning. I like his rendering: Smoke. Like a fragile bubble which is easily pricked and which dissipates immediately, so is life. It is a vapor, a breath, a puff of smoke that appears and then vanishes into thin air.

There are certainly philosophical and psychological implications that grow out of this: for example, if life is so ephemeral, what’s the use? What’s the point of trying to build anything that lasts if this is the nature of our existence? In the end, as EP renders it, “What’s there to show for a lifetime of work?”

Another observation that accompanies the realization of life’s fleeting nature is that life moves relentlessly forward. You can’t go back. Like a river whose waters flow continuously to the sea, nothing is actually the same when we return to our favorite spot along its banks.

I am in the season of life now when reunions beckon. This weekend we’ll enjoy one of those. But reunions are bittersweet. The dear friends we’ll see are people with whom we once shared a moment in time. Though it feels like we pick up right where we left off, that is not really the case. I am a different person today, and they too have changed in ways I will never understand.

I can tell you about leaving the church and becoming a chaplain, and you can tell me about caring for your husband day by day with his debilitating disease, but since we didn’t share those experiences it’s not the same as talking with Leonard about the time I had to wake him up in the middle of the night to get the gas pump from the volunteer fire department and haul it up to my place in waist-deep snow so I could keep my furnace from being flooded in the spring thaw.

Those memories stick with you and it’s a good thing they do, because Leonard’s in his 90’s now and I live in the Midwest and haven’t had to worry about a flooded cellar in thirty years.  But after laughing together for a few moments, the former fire chief and I fidget a bit and I say, “Gee it’s good to see you, Leonard,” and we walk off to the next conversation. The river that once ran under my house has moved on.

This is one reason I am uncomfortable when people talk about the life to come as a reunion.

I can’t imagine that for a second, though I know what they’re getting at. They have this vision of a long missed embrace, the sound of a voice that’s been silent for years, that characteristic expression and unique greeting they’ve been waiting to receive.

But I’m afraid when most of us anticipate that reunion, our next thought is, “Then, at long last, things will be like they were before.”

Not a chance. Things will be like they’ve never been before. And after we visit, and reminisce, and catch up on lost time, two strangers who look like old friends will have to learn to get to know each other all over again.

What I hate about reunions, what makes me sad about them, is that they make me realize these friends and I only truly share the past, a past that is gone like Qoheleth’s smoke. Thankfully, as it vanished into thin air, a story took root in unseen places that keeps those memories vital. We all know what a precious thing that is.

However, I can’t picture the life to come as the continual rehearsing of old stories. Eternity is not a scrapbook, but a blank book waiting to be filled.

The river of life still flows in the new creation, I’m told.

Comments

  1. Danielle says:

    “Things will be like they’ve never been before.”

    As nostalgic as we get for what has been, this is very good news.

    It’s better to have, “Spring after winter, and sun on the leaves,” than always more winter.

  2. Rick Ro. says:

    Interesting thoughts, CM. At first I found your take on “the life to come” a bit depressing, as I like meeting with long-time friends and have envisioned all sorts of “reunions” when I get to heaven. But if eternity is NOT a scrapbook…well, there are a lot more friendships to come. The river of life still flows in the new creation, eh? I’ll be mulling on that this next week.

    Thanks for sharing this meditation.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      It also just struck me that this is VERY good news for infants and young people who’ve died early, as their scrapbook is either very thin or non-existent. They get to live out what they didn’t live out here on THIS earth.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Slacktivist has done a couple essays on this, using the most extreme example of aborted/miscarried fetuses for those “who’ve died early”. His thesis is that such “early entries” with little or no mortal experience would be so different from those who lived out their lives in terms of experience and development that they might as well be complete aliens.

    • Looking forward to meeting Michael Spencer.

  3. I’m with you, Mike.

    As good as the best of times have been for us, the future promises to make them pale in comparison. But in this life, it is nice to look back once in a while. We just can’t let the past hinder what must be done today.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      But since “the future” hasn’t happened yet, there is no certainty that “the future promises to make them pale in comparison”.

  4. Story is the key. Story represents shared experiences, even if vicarious. No, it’s not the same thing, but it is a tool in the arsenal. Reunions are the time when we sit and listen (with our children) to the tried and true Family Lore. There is confirmation in hearing the same stories that mom and dad tell being told by aunts and uncles and cousins. We open our hearts and minds at the phrase, “Remember that time when…?”

    And our children who have never lived through these times hear the stories and learn not just from the lessons, but also learn how relatives interact in a healthy family and how others view one another. These common, shared stories give way to individual stories, the ones that begin, “Let me tell you about the time I…” Then we are drawn in, we are included in the memory, we are sharing an experience that makes reunions what they need to be – a catching up, a touching base, a reaffirmation that even though separated by geography, we are still experiencing life together with one another.

  5. Robert F says:

    “Like a river whose waters flow continuously to the sea, nothing is actually the same when we return to our favorite spot along its banks.”

    For a time, the river will remain a river, no matter how its features may change. And such identity of the river with itself may even last an entire lifetime. But in our presence or in our absence, the river itself will some day cease to be, as will all rivers as they follow the route of entropy, the route of all smoke.

  6. Robert F says:

    ““Then, at long last, things will be like they were before.””

    Maybe things were never really the way we remember them. Maybe it’s just that our memory plays tricks on us.

    • I’m with you on this one Robert. Our memory of “the way things were” is only our perception of events and times, not a true reflection of facts on the ground. It will be revealing to be able to see the full scope of our historical lives and how they interlaced and affected the lives and times of others.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Go too far down that road and you end up with madness. As Oliver Stone said once about his immersion in JFK Conspiracy Theory, “Did WW2 actually happen? Do I even exist? Or is that what THEY want me to think?”

      • Robert F says:

        “It will be revealing to be able to see the full scope of our historical lives and how they interlaced and affected the lives and times of others.”

        oscar, perhaps it will not be given to us to see this. I often find myself thinking that part of inheriting eternal life must mean that all my questions will be answered, and all my confusions dispelled, to my satisfaction; but it’s not necessarily so. Maybe the questions, and the felt need to have answers, will fall away and become unimportant in face of a new and eternal life to live.

      • Oscar, I think you’re onto something. There are a few people in my life that I think about from time to time, and over the years I’ve come to assign increasing significance to their roles in my life. It didn’t seem that way then; they were just some of the many people around me, although they were certainly important. However, the growth of my memories of them may in fact be a true interpretation.

        You used the word “perception.” It’s also “interpretation,” a key ingredient in the study of history, if not THE key ingredient. I had a professor who refused to consider the study of events less than 50 years ago history, preferring to call them political science. Not enough time had passed for them to be digested and interpreted and for their significance to be understood in relation to other events and trends. “All history is interpretation,” he would say in his German accent. He would also say, “There NEFFER were any ‘good old days!'” And he would make strange noises when anyone suggested that history repeats itself, but that’s another story.

  7. T.S.Gay says:

    Philosophically, I really believe everyone should google Neo-Scholasticism and read the key principles it seeks to restore. Especially the Aristotelean solution to the problem of universals. I quote…..”nothing is further from the spirit of Scholasticism than the theory of evolution which would regard even the essence of things as products of change”. To scholastics, whatsoever changes is, just for that reason, limited.
    Sorry, but I have to agree with Prigogene that this type of determinism is a denial of the arrow of time. Now the truth be told that many a man like Prigogene become humanists(…….”the responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone”). This is unfortunate, but for many who perceive that you can’t step in the same river twice, the doctrines of the scholastics make the church a relic of a fading thought system.
    Why people traditionally have vied with each other in scorn of the knowledge of the particular and in adoration of the general(scholasticism) is hard to understand, because the adorable is concrete and singular. The only value of universal characters is they help us by reasoning to know new truths about individual things. Put the word God in the place of concrete, singular, and individual and know this is true.
    “Life moves relentlessly forward” is recognition of the arrow of time. Christ as all in all is a goal, not determined. There once was a time when people lived with the same people their whole lives. Paternalism was appropriate in that situation. That is not most of our reality. Today friends, co-workers, even relatives are often for a season. It changes what is appropriate. Church today should be more maternalistic in many situations.

  8. pamela wood says:

    Thank you, Chaplain Mike for a tender, thoughtful article. It blessed me!

  9. Used To Be A Jackass says:

    But if you would know, I am turning aside soon. I am going to have a long talk with Bombadil: such a talk as I have not had in all my time. He is a moss-gatherer, and I have been a stone doomed to rolling. But my rolling days are ending, and now we shall have much to say to one another.

    • This.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      +1

      Another Tolkien quote that comes to mind, and means more and more to may as the year’s past is Gimli’s explanation of his grief: “Memory is not what the heart desires”.

      Speaking for myself I find nostalgia / reminiscing can be a dangerous practice, it can be a debilitating – or at least extremely distracting – practice as it is often so hard to leave the past behind [again!] when it is revisited. Forgetfulness can be a great blessing; how can one imagine entering into a new world without first being immersed in the waters of Lethe?

      • Robert F says:

        And yet, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body seems to strongly imply that continuity, including the body’s memory of itself and its field of relations (the communion of saints), must somehow be part of that new world. This is a truth that must be held in paradoxical tension with what you say about forgetfulness sometimes being a great blessing.

        Forgetfulness may also sometimes be dementia.

        • Rick Ro. says:

          Indeed, there is a lot built into Jewish and Christian community that is very much about the past. A lot of the Seder is built around the idea, “Remember what God did for us.” For those of us who practice the taking of sacred elements during communion do so “in remembrance me.” As you say then, there is a semi- or seeming paradoxical tension between “remembering the past” and “moving on to the future.”

          • Robert F says:

            If I am not merely an autonomous monad, but only exist in dynamic relation with others, how can I be or know myself without remembering both myself and them?

            “Time present and time past
            Are both perhaps present in time future,
            And time future contained in time past.
            If all time is eternally present
            All time is unredeemable.
            What might have been is an abstraction
            Remaining a perpetual possibility
            Only in a world of speculation.
            What might have been and what has been
            Point to one end, which is always present….”

            T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

          • Rick Ro and Robert F.:

            Yeah, this is the sort of thing that my aforementioned history prof, Dr. Kolz, used to say. He and T.S. Eliot would have got along just fine.

            “Remembering the past” and “moving on to the future.” He would say stuff, like, “What PROPELS history???” and “Does the present even EXIST??? Or is there only the past, and the future, with our perception of a present moving from one to the other???”

            Then I graduated and it was all over.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          > Forgetfulness may also sometimes be dementia.

          No, occasionally symptomatically similar perhaps, but very different things.

          There is a forgetfulness that does not preclude the ability for something to be recalled, but a disposition where something no longer comes to mind. This plays itself out in many ways – but ask a victim of grievous violence and they can likely [hopefully] tell you the day when they realized a day had passed – and they had not remembered. It is when the evil became the past, that is when its power began to unravel. [who would so curse the victim with the charge to “always remember!”?] Or on the other hand – the hand which makes us uncomfortable, but is also the hand holding hope – the perpetrator of some predation, or simple misjudgment with calamitous effect, who comes also at last to that day. [and all of us are, ultimately, both predator and victim]

          You are right, of course, as these two hands portray – there is tension between memory and forgetting. We must have both.

          Whatever may be remembered and forgotten in the life to come – memory and reunion in this life is always at the risk of nursing wounds into grievances, slights into injustices, errors into attacks, anxiety and insecurity into malice, idle comment into conspiracy, …. I’ve seen this play out often enough; and I have indulged such `memory` for myself as well [who has not?].

          Memory also has the more subtle danger of becoming a kind of mire from which a soul cannot extricate itself; all things measured against The Great Then, causing the fruits of The Now to be left to spoil upon the table. I’ve seen this as well, frequently but not exclusively, among older members of the community. It is tragic to hear comparisons to The Great Then from someone in their late twenties.

          • Robert F says:

            Much wisdom in what you say.

            For victims of severe childhood familial sexual abuse, the inability to forget, and the fear that the future may hold recapitulation of the past, is a terrible prison from which it’s very hard, sometimes impossible, to escape. For some Christians who’ve experienced such abuse, there is also the fear of having to share an eternity with those who victimized them, and a consequent ambivalence about the afterlife. The ability to truly forget in such cases would indeed be a blessing.

          • Robert F says:

            Adam, btw, I think the T. S. Eliot quote above is saying substantially the same thing you are. Thanks for helping me understand a piece of poetry that I’ve always loved but never quite understood until today.

          • Robert, I once heard a radio documentary on a type of mental condition that was the polar opposite of dementia. These people were incapable of forgetting the most insignificant of details. They could tell you exactly what they (and you, if you were there) word on this calendar date for each of the last 15 years. They know exactly what they ate (and how many bites) for each meal of the last 300 Tuesdays. These people are extremely guilt stricken and weighed down by anxiety. That we fail to remember a small fraction of what their memory contains is a blessing. To some extent, to forget is indeed a wonderful thing.

            In the spiritual sense, the things we truly forget has in a sense been erased from our past. Part of God’s work in the world is the forgetting of all evil, especially the sins of believers. They shall soon be so permanently divorced form us, I do not believe we will remember our sins in eternity. We will look back only to see where the love of Christ shone through us. Memory then becomes sheer bliss, and the voices in the night are permanently silenced. That, imo, is paradise.

          • Robert F says:

            Miguel, I can imagine that Satan is subject to that particular mental condition, since it sounds like hell.

            Welcome back from Japan. Hope you had a great time.

          • Thx, Robert. …but how can you tell where I’m posting from?

            Japan was amazing and beautiful, as always. You should see the photos.

            I think that not only does Satan have this condition, his primary mission is to inflict it on all men. This is why he is called the accuser. He constantly brings to our memories our failures and weaknesses, to bury us in guilt, that we might forget and fail to enjoy the peace of forgiveness. I think I just had an epiphany.

          • Robert F says:

            No magic, Miguel. I remembered that a couple of Fridays ago you mentioned you were going to Japan for two weeks in a comment, and here it is about two weeks later.

            A great vacation followed by an epiphany; does it get any better than that?

          • Danielle says:

            Idol speculation, from a historian, so I’m thinking along the same lines as Ted: Individual people and societies do a lot of remembering and forgetting. Anytime I write history, I am deciding what in the past to pass over, and what to emphasize. What I recall and recount, I interpret. Likewise, the memoir writer never remembers events accurately – not even those matters on which she ought to be authority. So we’re forever retelling the past, and this creative remembering helps inform who we are.

            If history (collectively) or experience (personally) matters in eternity, then perhaps it’s not so much that we remember all things or forget all things, so much as we remember them newly.

            On a related note, it used to miff me that the entire Bible was not written like Pauline letter. Or even better, as a systematic theology. Or a treastise, like Summa Theologica. I want answers; what’s the deal with all these Stories and riddles? But it makes sense. You need a Story inside of which the other stories live.

      • Radagast says:

        Adam,

        “Speaking for myself I find nostalgia / reminiscing can be a dangerous practice, it can be a debilitating – or at least extremely distracting – practice as it is often so hard to leave the past behind [again!] when it is revisited.”

        And yet, as you grow older you will find yourself doing it more and more. I had a lot of pretty colorful experiences when I was young and when I get together with my one buddy who made it out as well, we have a great time. There is a danger of making those times seem better than they were, or to forget a lot of what was going on in our heads at the time. I can safely make the statement that I would never trade what I have now for what we experienced back then, because in retrospect I am a very different person today (although I might go back and right some wrongs….

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      From a favorite album of my first D&D group:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40MUlo08PmA

    • Hah! Just getting into re-reading this over the summer.

  10. I believe it’s a sin to try and make things last forever
    Everything that exists in time runs out of time, some day
    Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
    Take your place with grace and then be on your way

    -Bruce Cockburn, Mighty Trucks of Midnight

  11. I like to remember the past. I’m the kind of person who stops at my old high school (several decades past) and thinks about the teachers, the experiences and mourns the passing of the years. I call up old friends, on occasion, out of the blue to see what they’re up too.
    *
    I’m a sentimentalist; possibly to a pathological degree. I enjoyed so much of my life; it trouble me to see the years simply whoosh by so rapidly.
    *
    One of my favorite Biblical ironies; King Solomon talked about how one’s life is like a vapor; soon forgot. Only, it didn’t apply to him. He will be forever remembered on this earth thought he died 2,500 years ago or so?
    *
    And then, we are forever in the memory of God. That’s good news.

  12. Christiane says:

    part of ‘getting older’ is letting go of things . . . not memories, no, but things that belong to another time in your life . . .

    that term ‘down-sizing’ doesn’t even begin to cover this bitter-sweet process . . . but there is a sense of meaning and freedom in doing it . . . and that sense of freedom comes like an unexpected gift 🙂

  13. BruceCockburn:
    “…no footprints when we go, only where we’ve been, a faint and fading glow.”