Borne Back Ceaselessly

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I returned to a hospital corridor a few weeks ago. It was like wrapping in a favorite garment, its thread familiar to your contours, your own scent lingering in its weave. . . only to discover it no longer belongs to you.

I was there to work not as a clinician, but as a friend, bearing conversation and original recipe chicken. Yet as my gaze flitted across the room numbers, I saw faces. Names. The expressions and voices of thousands whose lives intertwined with my own in brief bursts over the course of a decade, whose circumstances collided with mine in moments paradoxically intimate and aloof. Treasured, yet buried in the synthetic trappings of plastic mattresses and intravenous lines, distant from the sparks of life.

Memories tangled in my mind on the drive home, then further knotted when I saw my alma mater’s magazine on the foyer table. With a weathered finger I traced the brick edifices that once so awed me, the corners and avenues that cloistered me in my youth.  Images washed over me like foamy surf. Again I saw the cherry and dogwood blossoms afire against the Hudson River in April.  I could feel my feet pounding the pathway still darkened with dew, during one of those long morning runs when my heart, bursting, yearned for Christ, for the savior whose name I did not yet know.

I know that park remains. Those trees still bloom. That river still slides in rippling steel beyond the stacked concrete and brick of the metropolitan horizon.

But just as with the hospital corridors I loved, my footfalls no longer echo there. I am no longer a part of the hum of the place, of its endlessly churning energy. I used to walk those pathways in the park, and marvel about the hundreds of people whose steps had preceded my own, whose weight had changed the pavement. I wondered about the stories that had alighted there like a monarch before lifting into tomorrow.

Now, I am one of those forgotten names. When I walk through a hospital hallway, I am mom with kids fidgeting at her wrists, her memories, thick and graphic, invisible to those who pass.

This sense of displacement is what happens when you look to the past to determine who you are. The past is ephemeral, as we are. Our bodies wither and break. Our skin showers dust into the air with each askance brush.  Likewise each day we inch closer to an end, and as our moments recede, the places that shaped us evolve, break down, and move on without us.

Memory turned inward has the capacity to crush. . . as does all idolatry. But our power to remember was made for more than this, for more than the nomadic wanderings into lost shadows. Memory turned inward fails us, because memory was made for worship. Our minds compile snapshots in vivid sparks to remember the one who fashioned each resplendent petal spiraling from those dogwoods. To remember Him, who gave His life for us. So that when we look into the past, we do not grieve, but instead marvel at our identity in the One who loves us beyond place, beyond time. In the One who created time itself.

“I will remember the deeds of the Lord,” praises Asaph, pulling himself from despondence. “Yes I will remember your wonders of old.” (Ps 77:11) We are to remember the days of old, and the Sabbath day. (Exo 20:8, Deut 32:7)  In remembering God’s works for his people in Israel, as well as his providence in our own lives, we peer through the murk and envision who God is: our sovereign Lord, steadfast, loving, forgiving, faithful to all generations, a stronghold for the oppressed, our rock and fortress and deliverer (Psalm 9:9–10; 18:2; 36:5; 86:5; 100:5). And when we gaze back along our own shadowy corridors, we can perceive His work. The moments He sped us forward, or gently restrained us. The moments He intervened against our own wishes or intentions, for what would later reveal itself to be abundant good. His mercy. His sovereign goodness orchestrating grace in every hallway, along every path tapestried with sunlight on an April morning.

One of my favorite quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald expresses our captivity to our memories: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Yet when we consider God’s divine work in our moments, and His goodness that surpasses our meager ability to understand, that undulating current streams crystalline and lovely. It glistens, bearing us back to His embrace. It chases us toward remembrances of the God who is there, who pursues us with a love that exceeds the depth, the sweetness, and the hope of our most cherished memories.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. ajyoder says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts in writing. I experienced some of those feelings you expressed when retiring from active pastoring a church. Al Yoder

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      I can only imagine how hard that transition was, Pastor Yoder. Thank you for your work.

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  2. Julie Breuninger says:

    Oh Katie- I love this! So timely as we prepare for my father’s memorial service this weekend. He was a missionary surgeon who suffered with Alzheimers for the past 10 years or so – and as we his family and friends gather this weekend, the temptation is great to try and validate his life and ministry……especially these last years of his life. I love your statement, “Memory turned inward has the capacity to crush. . . as does all idolatry.” Yes it can so easy for memories to change to idolatry!

    I love your last paragraph – and I will quote it again because it is so beautifully said….”Yet when we consider God’s divine work in our moments, and His goodness that surpasses our meager ability to understand, that undulating current streams crystalline and lovely. It glistens, bearing us back to His embrace. It chases us toward remembrances of the God who is there, who pursues us with a love that surpasses the depth, the sweetness, and the hope of our most cherished memories.”

    This is our desire for this coming Saturday. May God be glorified! Thank you for the poignant reminder which helps us to keep our focus on HIM!

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      Julie, I”m saddened to hear about your father, but am so honored that these thoughts helped bring some solace. I will be lifting you and your family up to our Father this Saturday.

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  3. Dr. G says:

    Wondering if you have any resources/ thoughts / appropriateness on how to connect with patients on a spiritual level – (sharing gospel) – as a health care provider?

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    1. Katie Butler says:

      Hi Dr. G! This is such a tricky question, and one I’ve struggled with a lot. Most of the books I’ve seen on ministering in a medical setting are focused on chaplaincy. I know that John Dunlop, the author of Finishing Well to the Glory of God, openly prays with his patients — that book, and his other writings, might be a good place to start. I personally found it very challenging in my setting, which was all acute scenarios, often in patients who were critically ill. If they broached the topic, I would pray with them, but it was hard to otherwise within that urgent context. The Christian Medical and Dental Association, however, might have some more resources on this. God bless!

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