Just a disclaimer, this post is a little more out there than some of my others.
An Old Thing
The other day I had lunch at my parents house. Even though I very much appreciated the sausages and wine, the culinary exploits were not the primary reason I stopped by. My main purpose that day was to sift through some family photos from my grandmothers house. In recent years we’ve said goodbye to a couple family members and my parents were now distributing the remaining pictures and artifacts.
As my Dad and I went through a few different bags my eyes clumsily surveyed hundred of snapshots from my own chronology as well as generations of family members’. It’s always a bizarre, surprisingly emotional (either because the feelings are less or more than expected), and foreign thing to think about people you once knew who are no longer alive. Something about death just never sits right. I’m pretty sure you can relate.
Buried inside one of the reusable grocery bags of glossy memory squares I stumbled upon something that I’ve been thinking about all week, something that has seemed to thematically intersect with a few different moments I’ve experienced since then. Ok, this time I’m a little less sure, but still somewhat confident you can relate to this too- have you ever noticed that sometimes certain themes, ideas, lessons, or words seem to pop up around one another at the same time? Like from multiple fronts it’s as if you’re meant to consider, ponder, or question something very specific?
This time around the universe seemed to be poking my consciousness through a small leather book filled with handwritten names, sermon notes, and prayers. As I opened this vintage looking journal I scanned the pages to discover that it was my great grandfathers funeral book.
I guess marking important life or death moments through ritualistic artifacts is still kind of a thing (I’ll get to that), but this book struck me as decidedly from another time. Flipping through the pages I noticed signatures from each of the people who held the coffin, each funeral attendee, selected passages of scripture, and even the notes from the pastors homily complete with delineated bullet points. Each of those names represented some one specific that my father’s, father’s, father most likely knew, and at the time it was important to note that they were there. They were present in that moment, alive, breathing, and apparently they were proficient in cursive. The impulse captured in that book was in part to mark in space and time the existence of each personality penned on those pages and most prominently the existence of my great, great grandfather.
A New Thing
I mentioned how it felt like some of these ideas were surfacing in my life on multiple fronts, the other one was a familiar voice, Benjamin Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie. On their most recent album, Kintsugi, there is a song called Binary Sea which explores some of these notions. Many of the lyrics touch on the same impulses which drove the creation of that funeral book, and which still drive us today:
“Oh come my love and swim with me
Out in this vast Binary Sea
Zeros and ones patterns appear
They’ll prove to all that we were here
For if there is no document
We cannot build our monument
So look into the lens and I’ll
Make sure this moment never dies”
My interpretation of this verse is that it portrays a couple, either literal or metaphor, that longs to prove that they were here. However, instead of a signature on a page, they take digital photos to ‘document’ their memory. Inside those words you can sense the fear of being forgotten, and the longing for immortality though some sort of monument.
This is what we do. We as humans are desperately trying to prove that we were here. We’re terrified of being forgotten, haunted by the fear that we might live our lives and not leave a mark, a legacy, or even a memory. Time is furiously moving us forward, faster and faster still, and we sense the temporal nature of each moment, and so we become creatures that are frantically trying capture and seize the hours at hand before they fade into the past. We need our lives to mean something and so we transfuse our meaning into things. Whether it’s photo albums, street names, inheritances, songs, buildings, or accomplishments, we often put our hope in things to capture something about us. Nowadays we tell our story through facebook timelines and instagram feeds, but the heart is still the same.
So Many Things
Back to my parents house. As my Dad and I continued scavenging though the stacks of photos, I began to wonder, what do we do with all this stuff? Can we throw it away? Would that dishonor the memory of the people who were posing in those pictures? Should we just hold onto all those newspaper clippings and vacation photos forever, even if we don’t know the significance of their existence as their creators did?
Not only are we driven to mark our existence so that we’re not forgotten, but we do this at an increasing rate, creating a plethora of sentimental items. Most of these items serve a purpose for a generation, or maybe two, but after that how many of them still carry meaning?
While looking at the names in the funeral book, I wondered what my great grandkids would think of my 1,400 tweets, and seemingly endless feed of instagram and facebook pictures. Would they even bother to examine all the artifacts I’ve created and collected that prove my existence?
Probably not. My guess is that in the same way I don’t know what to do so many of the items that I looked through the other day, my descendants probably won’t know what to do with everything I leave behind, even though part of the reason those things were left behind was so that we wouldn’t be forgotten.
The Wrong Things
So if who we are cannot possibly be captured in the things we leave behind, is there something that does? Yes. And let me explain by sharing a quick story.
This past Summer we had the chance to travel to Palestine and Israel with my seminary to study and tour the Holy Land. Dotted across the countryside are countless ruins from bygone eras. Most notably you’ll find dozens and dozens of complexes built by Herod and his sons. These buildings were large and in charge, and after a while you get the sense that Herod really wanted to be remembered. Shoot, he named a bunch of cities after himself too.
At one point my professor took us to a location where Jesus may have been. It was a small pile of rocks, nothing to write home about. After explaining the significance of the site, she had us then recount all of the massive structures we’d come across built by Herod. Then she contrasted these two men by the legacy they left. She pointed out that though Herod had was a massive builder and loved to place his name on everything, his lasting impact is minuscule compared to that of Jesus, who built nothing, was never published, and never held office. Jesus’ legacy was passed on through relationships with people, not things. Which leads me to half of my point.
Relationships are the cradle of meaning for our lives, not things. They are the space in which we are actually known, and where we can offer meaning to others by knowing them. Relationships are the space where we matter, and in relationships we mark that we were here. But relationships don’t last forever, right?
At some point in time each of the names in that funeral book meant something more than they did to me in that moment. Each one of those signatures represented a human being, whom, no matter what kind theistic or non-theistic persuasion you might maintain, is universally considered sacred. And each of those names was an attempt to transfuse our existence into a physical object, thereby creating something from us that will last. But to me, the other day, they were just names on a page. They all wrote down their names and notes so that they would not be forgotten, but that’s exactly what has happened, isn’t it? Or is it?
Here is where things get weird. In addition to thinking that our meaning comes from relationships, I’ve also got this conviction that reality isn’t an accident and that behind the miracle of life and existence is this thing we’ve come to call God. One of the claims of this conviction is that God exists outside of time. And in God time itself collapses and all things are reconciled back to God. This space is often best described by artistic expression and has been known as the eternal shores, hereafter, heaven, or the great beyond. Which leads me to the rest of my point.
If relationships are the vessel of meaning for our lives and God exists out of time, than a relationship with God also exists outside of time and is therefore eternal. See, I can’t prove it, but I lean towards a hope that there exists a space where matter and memories are one and forever. The language of my faith tradition would call this heaven or communion with God. The claim of this faith is that no one is actually forgotten and that our value and worth do not come from our accomplishments or the artifacts we create in search of immortality, but rather in relationship to others and to God. If relationships are the locale of actual meaning in our lives, than what does it mean to be in relationship with a God?
I think it means that every moment and memory we experience while alive is not lost to history after our bodies wear out, but actually lives on forever because God is beyond time. The sheer joy of hearing your child laugh for the first time, it’s still happening in God. That time we watched in awe as the sun set over the ocean, God is there, and we will soon be too. The first kiss on your wedding day that was captured by a photographer and now lives in an album on your IKEA bookshelf, God’s still there, and we will be back there someday. All of the memories and experiences, both high and low, are redeemed and brought to communion with the eternal. Each of those names in that funeral book is some one loved by God and though forgotten by most of us, potentially now in a space more alive than ever before.
So there you have it, some thoughts on immortality, God, and things. I know that all might sound a little abstract, overly hopeful, and maybe even a little mystical, but that’s what’s been marinating in my mind thanks to that funeral book and that song lyric. What strange ideas or life lessons seem to be surrounding you?