In the past few weeks, I’ve talked to several friends from other places and times of my life, including two close friends from Regent who’ve been to visit me, one after another. We talked about much: vocation, biscuits, classes, dating, creativity, brick churches, teaching, weddings, travel, houses, memories, cocktails, and, of course, the world and its problems and how we would solve them if we were in charge but how we’re really glad we’re not.
And something struck me after a few days of long conversation. We spent plenty of time talking about mutual friends, but it’s been a few years, and I noticed that with the ones we’d fallen out of touch with, we referred to the relationship in the past tense. “She always told me…” “I always thought he…” “That was why I liked…” That sort of thing. We spoke of these people with deep affection and even loyalty—we still clearly cared—and yet there was this assumption that some of these relationships were past. If not exactly over, they were permanently dormant, frozen in time at the moment we’d last interacted.
Regula and I decorated the tree I bought on Black Friday, hanging it with ornaments I’d had packed away for years while I was off in Other Places, and I thought about the past and whether it was over or not.
I live now in the neighborhood I grew up in. And from my bedroom, I can hear the trains as they go past. These aren’t passenger trains—this isn’t Europe—but instead cargo trains, almost interminably long. So when they come through, they take a quarter hour doing it and I lie in bed, blocks away, hearing them continually passing and passing and passing, both here and long gone, all at the same time.
This is the best image I’ve found in all my scrambling for how it is, that the then and the now, the past and the present can be separate pieces, but all a part of the same vast eternity with its overlapping waves.
For how it is that every year we unbox the ornaments at my parents’ house to decorate, and there are all the ones we’d forgotten: Shakespeare and the Korean masks and the washing board and the fragile construction paper Santa made by small hands that are now large ones. But despite their age here they are again, waiting for us patiently, the same as always, just a little more loved.
Or how it is that, after a very long week, in church this morning we began to sing that Sandra McCracken song, “Come Light Our Hearts,” that always used to close the Advent service at Regent. And I closed my eyes, and time folded right in on itself back to 2019 and a crowded carpeted chapel, my soul remembering for the umpteenth how to “for him in stillness wait.” That memory and reality of those words woke up again, just like those friendships may one day.
Because the passing of time doesn’t matter much more than the passing of trains. Love will return again and again to reassert himself.
The week after Thanksgiving I read “The Second Shepherd’s Play” with my freshmen. It’s a one act play about Christ’s nativity which used to be performed for groups of illiterate medieval peasants who were eager for a show. In it the shepherds bumble around before meeting Jesus, complaining about the cold and their bosses and stealing each other’s sheep, and all the while keep using oaths their Catholic audience would have been familiar with: “Deus” “Our Lady” “By Him Who Died for Us!” till any sense of historical timeline gets scrambled up in literary irony and slapstick comedy. And then the angels bust onto the scene right at the end, surprising the audience just as genuinely as they did those shepherds: “God is made you friend now at this morn!”
This play was performed every year. Unto them a child was born, just as he is to us, every year, here and now: the truth resurrected from its sleep in a cardboard box to announce itself just the same, time repeatedly folding back on itself to a single night thousands of years ago.