Marginalia of a Past Life

Formerly, I had a habit of making notes in the books that I was reading. This was a way for me to reflect on what I had read and would allow me the opportunity, in a way, to engage in a conversation with the author. It was also a time at which I was young and arrogant enough to believe that I had something to say which was valuable enough to place next to the words of the author.

It is a practice which I abandoned when I came to a realization of my own mortality.

I noticed that my marginalia tracked my intellectual development, and I realized that one day I was going to die. My library would be split up and it would go to a variety of places, hopefully to someone who could use my books. I imagined that, in the course of reading one of my books, someone would come across a rather dull margin note, wonder who would write something so uninspired, turn to the front endpaper and see my name. Thus would be my legacy. So, I stopped making margin notes.

A couple of years ago, I even went through what I refer to as “the great purge,” when I went through many of my books and erased any margin notes that existed (as I only write in pencil). Some books, however, survived the great purge, some by oversight, others because I ran out of time. I was flipping through one of these books recently, and I came across a margin note that was, in its entirety, intact.

It was in Richard Lischer’s book Open Secrets. I read this book while in seminary at a time when I was quite confident I was never going to serve a local church. At the end of the book, the author left his church after nearly three years, this was my note (complete with all of the poor sentence structure):

Sometimes the most affirmation and gratitude comes at the end of a stay. God doesn’t always make everything pleasant, but God does work [in it]. We don’t always see the effects right away — but we have to trust that God works through us to change the lives of people. Even when we don’t see it at the time.

It was quite strange to read these words, written in my hand a few years ago, although the impact of the time has been great. I was a different person then. It was more than just a voice from the past, it was a voice from a past life.

I could almost picture myself, sitting in Holland, Michigan at my favorite coffee shop grasping a bright yellow mug which contrasted well with the black of the coffee that it contained. I typically looked out the window to a white church over a century old and built in gorgeous Greek revival architectural style. Wondering what my life would look like in a few short years, I wrote this note in a moment of seeming clarity and inspiration, hoping to hold onto this insight for the future.

I began to wonder what my past self would think of my present self. What would my hopeful past self think of my despairing present self? What would my faith-filled and idealist past self think of the cold-calculating rationality of my present self? What would the tender-heartedness of my past self think of the cynicism of my present self?

I wonder if my past self would be disappointed in the person that I am now, in the fact that although I am an urban pastor, I spend more time doing budgetary calculations and financial projections than I do telling people about Jesus, in the fact that I traded in my radical hope in the providence of God for planning the future solely based upon what I can see and “realistically expect,” or the fact that I have transformed from believing that communities could be transformed into this-worldly places of hope and peace to simply resigning to the idea that things which are will likely be until the parousia.

I wonder what happened to the “me” who could see through struggles to see that God was at work, who could see through difficult situations and see that God is in the process of transforming, who could see suffering and understand that it was just a trip through the wilderness, and that the wilderness does not last forever. I feel as though I do not even know that individual that wrote those words in the margin of that book.

Perhaps I can learn something from the margin-notes of a past life, perhaps I can reclaim that past self who felt so strongly called to ministry, who wept when he would reflect on the church as the body of Christ. Perhaps I can find something of that past self that could see the spark of God within each person and tempered the doctrine of total depravity with the fact that the Holy Spirit is continually sanctifying us. Perhaps I can reclaim something of that past self that wanted nothing more than to serve the church even though he didn’t know where exactly that would take him.

Perhaps this was a gift, that a few books unintentionally survived the great purge. Perhaps my present self can learn something from my past self and shed this jaded cynicism and return to a faithful hope than in God anything and everything is possible, and that God is always forming and transforming things for the better.

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