And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)
We humans love to capture the moment.
I saw a woman in a restaurant a couple weekends ago, taking a picture of a plate of pasta with her cell phone. How funny is that, when you think about it? To assign physical bytes of data the mission of capturing the essence of a thing meant to be fleeting- something designed to be eaten, and enjoyed with friends- fuel for a moment of joy, and yes, eventually converted into nutrients to keep us going. We invent ways to stretch out our favorite moments as long as they can last.
It’s also nothing new. In the Gospel of Matthew, there’s one story in which Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain, and they have an amazing experience. Jesus becomes this figure of white light, and Moses and Elijah appear and start talking to him. It’s practically THE textbook definition of an inexplicable, otherworldly, literally peak experience for Peter, James, and John- something they cannot possibly reproduce or perhaps even put into words to share with others. What’s Peter’s response? “Lord, this is great! Can I build some tents so you guys can stick around a while and we can keep this going?”
But Life IS Impermanence.
We’ll never be able to capture the moments of our life. Not to the point we have them in our grasp, anyway. We never have and we never will. In his book A Brief History of Time, physicist Stephen Hawking talks about how the matter of our universe itself is formed in such a way it can only continue moving forward in time. If time stopped or reversed, the universe would simply cease to exist. To paraphrase pastor Rob Bell, the only way our universe works is forward. And yet we spend so much time and energy trying to recapture mythologized pasts which probably never existed in the first place.
No amount of selfies will be able to transport us back, no steel trap brains will give us literal pathways back to our memories, and no political party membership drive will enlist enough supporters to take us back to the golden days we seek. Life… is… change. That’s the (sometimes) bad news.
The great news is, we have this moment. And we have each other. And our pasts and futures can make us better people for this moment, while we have it.
Let’s have a quick thought experiment. Ready? Hold your arms out by your side, palms straight ahead, as if you are skydiving. Are you holding them out?
Good. Now imagine everything behind you- the plane, the sky, the sun- is the past. Everything in front of you is your future. You are free falling through the timeline of your life- effortlessly, turbulently, without any stops or interruptions. You are zooming from what was to what will be. Yes, eventually your parachute will open and the ride will come gracefully to an end. But until then, you are being carried at terminal velocity through the fabric of time itself. Now- This analogy isn’t to say life is a downward fall to the ground. That’s not the point at all. The point is, a skydive is about equal to how much control you have over time. It has as powerful an impact on you as gravity.
When you wake up and find yourself in the middle of a sky dive, you cannot go back to the safety of the plane, and you cannot go ahead and land. You simply must inhabit the ride. Whether that part is joyful or full of dread is up to you.
So… what do we do with the past? It’s important to who we are…
Philosopher Peter Rollins, borrowing from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, says we are ourselves haunted houses. As we move through life, people and events pass away but drag along with us still as ghosts, reminders of who and what we once were. My stepmother Pam passed away a few months ago, and sometimes she’ll catch me napping. Even in times I’m not consciously thinking about her, sometimes my mood will suddenly change; I’ll connect with something at a subconscious level. And a memory will rise to the surface, like a whale unseen beneath the waves.
All of these parts of us- memories, friends and family we’ve lost, dramatic episodes, triumphs, regrets, achievements, arguments, broken friendships, music, special places- they are metaphorical ghosts, haunting us from the past. Our goal should be to make peace with them, not fight them.
It’s like this old scene from Ghostbusters 2, in which the guys encounter a ghost train while investigating a subway tunnel. Winston is “run over” by the train, and has to endure the terror of dozens of ghosts passing through him. In our lives, we go through this all the time. If we fight the memories, resisting the truths about ourselves they can bless us with, it can have a serious, painful effect on us. How much easier would our journeys through life be if we could make peace with the ghosts of our pasts, and let them come and go through us as easily as possible?
My goal and prayer is to become the kind of person who is better equipped to enjoy this moment because of the relationships and experiences I’ve been blessed to carry with me from the past.
james and the pacific
James is scared of nearly everything. (Sometimes I think about myself in the third person to help remember I have no control over some things. I’ve got this meat suit I’m stuck inside that deals with high blood pressure and sometimes chemically-induced worry. My doctor calls it anxiety. I don’t choose to activate it, so let’s just crouch back here and observe, for now.)
James is scared of nearly everything.
And so there he was one Wednesday morning in June, wading out into the cold Pacific waves he’d never known, nervous.
Toes nuzzling California sand beneath the water, belly bobbing in the waves, legs wading deeper and deeper into the ocean, he felt anxiety creeping onto his shoulders. His eyes darted from wave crest to wave crest, scanning for shark fins. Bull kelp nipped constantly at his ankles. He spotted black bulbous ink blots in the water, meters across and threatening.
Then, in an instant, the fear was all gone. A wave caught him, gently lifted his feet off the sea shelf, and cradled him like a toddler. There was only the cool, peaceful weightlessness of enjoying the wave.
I couldn’t enjoy the ocean by scanning the surface ahead of me for shark fins- the worries- the future. I couldn’t enjoy the ocean by struggling to stay anchored in the sand below- the regrets- the past.
I had to let it all go, take a deep breath, and swim straight to the middle of the wave.