"Thinking of things that will not come again."
Dear LifeSharers, March 2013
That night I asked Granny, “What do old men think about when they look off and don’t talk?”
“What old men?” she asked shrewdly.
“Lots of old men,” I said. “Lots of them just sit and look off at things, the mountains or the trees.”
Her reply – a riddle it seemed to me then – stayed on in my mind. “They think of things that will not come again.”
The lines above represent a passage in Gene Fowler’s memoir, A Solo in Tom-Toms, published in 1946. The book is a recounting of the famed journalist’s life as a boy and young man in Colorado and I’ve deeply enjoyed reading it – both for its history of the state I love and for its enlightened, sometimes inspirational, look at human life. An arresting example of this last point is his grandmother’s observation of the pensive character of old men.
With my 62nd birthday coming up this summer, I certainly identify with the old men described here. Indeed, Claire could testify that I have displayed this tendency towards mental reverie for many years already. She will, for instance, catch me looking intently (but at no object in particular) and lovingly ask, “Where are you now?”
For she understands, as Fowler’s grandma did, that old men are often seeing things which are not really there in their line of sight…but which are very much “there” in their memories. They are thinking of things that will not come again.
In my case, such moments of mellow reflection will likely find me in Colorado thinking (and feeling) of lost loves, childhood adventures, significant rites of passage, or scenes of beauty so intense that, even in memory, I am enthralled. But I might be somewhere else – “seeing” things in Belarus or Africa or other foreign fields…or friends and family that have passed away…or any one of a thousand special blessings shared with Claire. These moments may involve triumphs or tragedy, pleasure or pain, relish or regret – but like the old men in Fowler’s musings, I am often seeing things that will not come again.
As the devolution of culture worsens by the day, there is also a moral application of this look into yesteryear. For just as I’ll never again see me catching a touchdown pass or doing a double flip from the high dive at Green Mountain Swim Club, I’m pretty sure that I’ll never see an America where human life is comprehensively protected, where marriage is revered, where law is a true application of justice, where chastity and decency are pursued, and where Christianity and its powerful effects on our political and cultural heritage are praised.
If I look at the present day, I see young boys plugged into demented video games, vile rap music and sex-drenched TV shows where previous generations of boys (mine blessedly included) connected to adventure novels, dogs, sandlot baseball, bikes, model airplanes, fishing, Boy Scouts, sledding, mowing lawns for pop money, school homework and household chores, wide-area Kick the Can and Capture the Flag games, and TV shows like Leave It To Beaver, Lone Ranger, and Highway Patrol.
Oh yes; I think of an awful lot of things that will not come again. As another character in Gene Fowler’s memoirs puts it, “I do not live in the past. The past lives in me.” That’s me too. Looking back is unavoidable. I couldn’t help it even if I wanted to.
However, there is another direction in which my imagination is very active – even in these reveries that Claire so often notices. And that direction isn’t towards the past at all. It’s towards a most glorious future. It is in this direction that I’m gazing more and more as both my body and soul yearn for the freedom, the victory and the reconciliation which Jesus Christ will be bringing when He returns.
So sometimes, when Claire comes into the room where I’ve set aside my book and am staring out the window and asks, “Where are you now?” The answer isn’t backstage in the theater of Bear Creek High School, or walking through dark streets back to my hotel in Minsk or holding hands with Claire as we watch fireworks over Lake Geneva. The answer may well be, “I’m in the New Jerusalem, babe. And after enjoying a lively conversation earlier in the day with Francis Schaeffer, D.L. Moody and some martyrs who died defending the Faith in 3rd Century India and 21st Century Egypt, I took a long walk conversing with God about the splendor of the new heavens. In a little while my Mom and Dad are coming by and we’re going out to that park near the East Gate. They’re going to ride horses while I’m meeting Gene Jost, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Richardson, Billy Sunday and a few others and we’re gonna’ play a double-header. Then I thought you and I could head over to that concert by One Way and the Tabernacle Baptist Church choir. And then we will build a campfire and just sit around for a bit relishing the blessings of glorified bodies, glorified minds, the justice we enjoy now that the government is on Christ’s shoulders, and so forth.”
In response, Claire smiles and reaches over to squeeze my hand. For she also is looking in that same direction. Our hearts yearn for His righteousness to reign, for new minds and bodies, pure fellowship, release from battle, holy judgment to be unleashed, rewards graciously given to the faithful, the reconciliation of all creation to Christ, and the continual delight of His presence among us.
So, of course, we look back, even when we’re seeing things that will not come again. But, unlike the man or woman who hasn’t received Jesus Christ as their Savior, we have a forward look too. For we have a future that is more wonderful and serene and satisfying than any good thing we have ever experienced.
Now it could be considered ironic but I believe that the Christian’s present service – our obedience to His call on our lives on this sad planet – is made the most effective when both directions of our imaginative sight are used. No, we don’t live in the past or the future. But using both of these perspectives does help sharpen our focus on today. We are to be Christian activists, doers of the Word who know that our days are numbered. Therefore, we are to take great care to work for Christ’s kingdom while it is still day. But taking appropriate time to evaluate the past; that is, to appreciate the good things God has done and the gifts He has given as well as recording how far and in what ways we have deviated from His truth is a very valuable exercise. This is why my interest in history and the arts increased after my conversion. It’s why my personal Bible study, my preaching and so many aspects of our ministry have historical components. But we are visionary in a futuristic way as well. Christians anticipate, plan, pray and hope – all because we are to bring the future into the present. We are citizens of a spiritual kingdom. We seek a better country. Our true home is heaven. But all of these truths actually make us better servants of Christ right now.
“Look both ways.” That’s what our parents taught us before crossing the street. But that little maxim can be a helpful summation of this discussion also. To safely complete the demands of Christian stewardship, look both ways. Don’t neglect the lessons to be learned from the past. And don’t undervalue the strength and motivation found by thinking about our glorious future. Learning to see things not actually in our line of sight (past and future) will yield invaluable talents to better live in the present.
P.S. When it comes to specific advice about developing a better grasp of history, I’ll punt. The topic is way too big. However, I will say two things. 1) Learn to appreciate history as a key part of your Bible study. For instance, a basic tenet of proper hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) is to understand what the text meant to its original audience. That makes a knowledge of historical context indispensable. If your preacher attempts to show what the Bible means to you, without determining what it meant to the first hearers, he is doing a disservice to you and the text.
2) Learn to appreciate the history of your own family. Ask questions. Pursue relationships. Tell stories. Participate, as a family, in both educational experiences and in the creation of memories and traditions. Develop your historical perspective and understanding close to home and then work out in concentric circles from there. The guy who can tell me all about the Peloponnesian Wars or the building of the transcontinental railroad but can’t tell me anything about his own father’s life and times, I usually avoid.
It’s a much simpler thing to give advice about developing a better grasp of heaven. Here it is. Read Randy Alcorn’s Heaven. Then read Joni Eareckson-Tada’s Heaven: Your Real Home. Then re-read both books!
Until next month…or until tomorrow on Vital Signs Blog.