"Except ye become as little children, except you can wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, "ye cannot enter the kingdom of God." One must not only die daily, but every day we must be born again.” (Dorothy L. Sayers)
There's not much in a birthday, I have often said. After all, you're just one day older than the day before. Any yet that's not necessarily true about my fiftieth birthday.
Since turning fifty, I've become aware of how often I refer to the past. There are, after all, likely many more years behind me than in front of me, more stories to tell than new memories to make. Part of growing older is remembering well and learning from those memories. If I'm wise at all (and I have no comment on that), it is because of a discernment and prudence shaped by experience, that vast reservoir of past choices, both good and bad. In hindsight, many of the results of the bad choices seem humorous, while they may have been devastating at the time.
For example, I learned early on that you don't anticipate when your traffic light will turn green by watching the yellow and then red light of cross-traffic. I'm 16, you see, and I have a carload of teenage guys with me, and I'm stopped at a traffic light next to a similar carload of teenage girls. (Can you imagine the conversation?) I'm thinking I'll put rubber on the road when my light changes to green, goaded on by a backseat of professional stock car driver wannabes, and I do. . . only my light is not green. Realizing this in the middle of the intersection, I slam on the brakes, put my steaming Camaro muscle car in reverse, and sheepishly back up next to the carload of teenage girls, now quaking with laughter. Everyone in the backseat disappeared into the floorboards. Even my car seemed to shrink beneath me, its embarassment palpable.
That was a dark day in my short teenage life. But I did learn something about friends, about the foolishness of trying to impress women, and, of course, about traffic lights. Like I said, it seems funny now, a story I tell my kids for the moral lesson it offers as well as to allow them to believe, if for a moment, the incredible idea that once their father existed as a teenager.
Another thing about the past is that the more distance I put between the present me and the former me, the closer it seems, as if time is a malleable piece of tin foil that can be bent back upon itself, present touching past. If I say I graduated from high school 33 years ago, it seems difficult to believe, and yet some of the memories of my senior year are crystal clear. I easily summon up images, sounds, and smells of my school --- remembering the snapping- tapping sound of the flagpole rope in the wind outside the open window of my geometry class, the high-pitched voice of the fearsome-little-man-who-still-lived-with-his-mother teacher who ruled trigonometry class, and the embarrassment when my girlfriend at the end of a crowded hallway called to me at the other end of the hall and all eyes turned my way. That me and this me are not so far apart, really.
And yet, while remembering is good to the extent it offers wisdom and thankfulness as we see God's providential ordering of our lives, today is where I live and tomorrow is where I'm going. That present focus is evident when Jesus says that "sufficient for the day is its own trouble" (Matt. 6:34) or when Paul exhorts us to forget what lies behind and press on toward what lies ahead (Phil. 3:13-14). Just as the past is not so far behind, eternity is with us even now. As we bend forward we even touch it at times, sensing that something timeless has happened, something that is not just now but a part of a coming greater reality --- the real Real, if you will. Everything that has happened to me is really a part of everything that will happen, a part of who I am and will remain in eternity. It's comforting to me to know that all that I am, all the memories that make up the person that I am, will stay with me, redeemed, somehow seen through new eyes, but that in eternity I'm still me --- the awkward high schooler and the (God willing) elderly curmudgeon.
I'm the kid who failed at impressing girls. I get to carry that memory with me. What was devastatingly embarrassing then is funny now. What is funny now will be deeply meaningful in some larger context God may reveal in eternity. I can't wait.