In my work as a hospice chaplain, I am blessed to be able to spend time talking with people about the best—and sometimes the hardest—times of their lives. Folks often enjoy looking back, savoring the wonderful things they were able to do and enjoy and feeling some sense of accomplishment that they made it through the difficult times. The patients I visit often share favorite memories, special vacations, moments that are etched in their memories forever and still bring a smile to their faces decades later. Just this week, a 105-year-old patient laughed as she told me how mad her mom had been—I think disgusted was the word she used–when her dad brought home a new gadget—a player piano he purchased for $600 in 1925. None of them had a clue what to do with it. Another 90-year-old patient shared with me the sweet moment she met her husband; that chance meeting changed her life forever, and she never looked back, even though at the time she had been dating James Dean.
People also share their hard times—the experiences they weren’t sure they would make it through. The man whose life was completely changed by a stroke in his 40s. His faith helped him find his way and he became a great contributor to the community he loved. The person who made it through a heroin addiction but lost a number of friends and siblings along the way. She attributes her healing to God and says God still helps her every single day. One patient I visit often said to me this week, “I’ve been thinking about why God let this illness come into my life at this point.” And then he stopped and smiled and said, “I figure He just wanted to slow me down a little, to give me a chance to read the bible again and spend some time with Him.”
I’m sure you’ve noticed this about your own memories—they are like living stories in our minds, and they continue to bless us with insight, humor, and maybe heartache, long after they happened. I remember when I was younger, in my 20s, I thought, Gosh it must be sad to get older, when all you have is your memories. Back in that super busy, still unfolding part of my life, I thought memories were like snapshots, little two-dimension pictures of a moment in time, and that old age would be like sitting in a chair looking through a picture album in my mind. But I now know what I didn’t understand then. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized—thankfully—that memories are so much more than snapshots.
A memory is a vibrant experience that continues to live on in our minds, inviting us back to a time where we can feel the feelings, see the sights, hear the sounds, and even smell the scents once again. We don’t just see a snapshot of the state fair. We hear the calliope music and the tractor pull over by the grandstand. We smell the caramel corn and taste the taffy. We catch a whiff of the hog barn and feel what it felt like to hurry out of the way when the fair train comes by. Maybe in our memories we can feel ourselves holding someone’s hand or smiling at them over a lemon shake-up. Those are memories. Living, feelable blessings, well-indexed and held safe and protected in our hearts until something calls them to mind.
Another thing about memories is that they all are interconnected. You can pull on one thread—say for example, the memory my patient had of her mom’s dismay when dad brought home a player piano—and it leads to other memories, all linked right there together. After recalling the funny piano incident, she talked more about her dad, how he loved music, and how she never saw him angry at anyone, ever. She talked about how good he was at running his business, and how upset she was when he was sick and dying and no one, not her mother, not her older sisters, would tell her what was happening or let her go in to see him before he died. She’s still mad about that, 92 years later. A memory is so much more than a snapshot. They are gifts and blessings, jewels of a long life. And even those memories that still hurt, the ones that are still unfinished, can be healed and put to rest when we look back at them with Christ’s Light as our guide to understanding and wholeness.
Our memories, because they are linked, can carry us on a journey through all kinds of emotions, all types of mental pictures and sensations, hopes and disappointments. We discover, with a closer look, that inside what might have seemed like the best time of our lives, there was also struggle and maybe anxiety and perhaps grief. And similarly, beneath the surface of our most painful memories—a loss, a death, a betrayal, an injustice—we may also find God at work, bringing things that blessed us, giving us insight and understanding, teaching us important things about love and forgiveness that we might not have found any other way.
Exploring our memories—wherever we are in life’s journey—enables us to more deeply understand many things about our lives. We can look back on our past choices with more self-acceptance and compassion. We can recognize how tough the tough times really were and feel grateful to those who helped us get through them. We can come to deeper insight about all we’ve faced in our lives, and we can also—with God’s help—let go of hurts and fears and resentments that have held us back for a long time, maybe decades. Perhaps the best thing we see, when we look back over the various chapters we’ve lived so far, is how God was truly present with us through it all, bringing about the circumstances we needed in order to grow, protecting us from disaster when it drew close, nudging us to make decisions that were good for us, and good for others, and maybe helpful to the world.
In our Old Testament reading, Jeremiah paints a lovely picture of what it means to live with that kind of trust in God:
“…blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord whose confidence is in him. They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”
The tree’s great blessing, Jeremiah shows, is not due to the type of tree it is or whether it is planted in the right time of the year. There is no landscaper who comes by to prune its branches or fertilize it season by season. The important thing—the thing that guarantees the tree’s comfort and survival, even in times of drought, is its location. It has been planted close to its source so that season in and season out, it draws the nourishment it needs without fail. As the years come and go, there might be terrible storms, lightning strikes, high winds. The branches may be pelted by hail or frozen by ice. But no matter. The tree’s roots are deep, and it knows its source. Come what may on the surface of its life, it holds steady and continues to grow and flourish and bear fruit.
In a similar way, when we trust in God deeply enough that we have real confidence in God to guide our steps, we have put down roots close to our Source. When we have learned to stay close to God, we know where to turn in all the times of our lives, whatever comes. We turn toward God with grateful hearts in wonderful moments, and we turn to God with hurting hearts and confused minds in difficult moments. God is faithful in it all, never failing to provide the insight, understanding, comfort, and guidance we need to find a sense of peace and listen for our next step forward.
Early Friends considered an inward leading, defined as, “an inner conviction that impels one to follow a certain course under a sense of divine guidance,” as an indication that they were being led by Christ’s light. It’s a way we know we are staying close to our Source, when we get those inner nudges and ideas that seems to point us in a good, open, loving, forgiving direction. In his Journal, John Woolman wrote that after he spoke out against slavery, some Friends were “uneasy” with him. He wasn’t sure what to do about that. He wrote,
“I had an inclination to acquaint some with the manner of my being led into these things;” (in other words, he thought maybe he should explain himself), “yet upon a deeper thought I was for a time most easy to omit it, believing the present dispensation was profitable, and trusting that if I kept my place, the Lord in his own time would open the hearts of Friends towards me. I have since had cause to admire his goodness and loving-kindness in leading about and instructing me, and in opening and enlarging my heart in some of our meetings.”
Woolman was looking for some kind of clarity about what to do when others were made uncomfortable by his actions. He wanted to ease their discomfort and repair the relationships. But something—the leading of Spirit—told him to wait, suggesting that God would unfold things in the proper way and time. And God did just that, not only in this instance but throughout Woolman’s life. And God does the same for us, if we’re staying close enough to listen.
In the first letter of Peter, the once impetuous apostle writes to encourage the early church in Rome as they bump up against Roman culture in uncomfortable ways. Roman citizens were largely suspicious of this new growing Christian group and as a result, early Christians were often rejected and persecuted. In fact, just a few years after Peter wrote this letter, the Emperor Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on Christians to further incite hatred and violence against them.
Peter tells those hearing his letter that it is important to live with Christly love, even in the midst of a struggling and divisive time. He writes,
“…be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened. But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
You can hear that Peter is concerned first and foremost with the spiritual lives of those in the young church; and he is also thinking of all those in Rome who are observing the behaviors of these early Christians. If the new church responds to judgment with judgment, they would not be showing the world what it means to know and love Christ. If they are deceitful or threatening or attack other traditions in order to defend themselves, they would be breaking God’s law and demonstrating the opposite of Christly love and compassion. Do good for God’s sake and for your own, Peter tells them, even when times are hard and feel unfair.
Whatever kind of struggle we may be dealing with—old hurts, current fears, worries about the future or about people we love—we can find the blessing in it if we look deeply enough to see God. Somewhere in there, God has an intention, a learning, a gift for us—like a valentine inside an envelope—if only we’ll keep looking for it until we see it. We can be sure that God is using our current situation—wherever we’re stuck and struggling–to help us identify and release whatever we mistakenly believed was stronger than God’s love.
As soon as we find even a splinter of blessing, we should begin thanking God for it. Even if nothing has changed outwardly, just seeing what God is pointing out to us is evidence of Christ’s light working in our lives. Sharing our gratitude all along the way helps us remember that none of the progress we make is ours alone; God is inspiring, guiding, and leading us, and God continually brings loving others—and sometimes difficult others!—to help us see what we need to see so we can move forward, stronger in faith, mind, and body.
Over time God will expand our learning and bring experiences and synchronicities that confirm what we’re beginning to see. We need to pay attention. As our understanding grows, we can help it along by sharing it. This doesn’t mean cornering everyone we know and making them listen to the story of what God is teaching us; it means putting the learning into action whenever we can. For example, if God is teaching us not to worry about money and helping us see that God provides whatever we need, one way we can extend that blessing we’re learning is to be more generous with others. That doesn’t mean money, necessarily. It might mean being generous with our time or with our forgiveness—letting others or ourselves off the hook rather than being demanding or critical and perfectionistic. Practicing grace.
And that is a great reason we can give for our hope, as Peter suggested: The light of Christ leads us step by step, helping us grow in grace and understanding every single day, in every single experience, if we’re paying attention. The better we see, the more certain we are of God’s love, God’s care, God’s goodness. Our roots grow deep. The leaves grow green. And come what may—whatever the happens on the surface of our lives—the fruits of peace and kindness, gentleness and grace flourish abundantly.
Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
When we have learned to let God show us the blessing in the circumstances of our lives, we’ll know that God is truly at the center of it all and that nothing can ever divide us from our Source. What a miraculous blessing that is—worth finding, worth keeping, worth sharing.
- OT Jeremiah 17: 7-8
- NT 1 Peter 3: 8-16