Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Presence of Absence

Joe Namath was number twelve when he played for the New York Jets. There has not been a number twelve on that team since.

When a player does an outstanding job, or has a large following, his team does not replace him with anyone else. His place remains because his team acknowledges his absence.

Joe Namath’s presence remains. The acknowledgment of his absence maintains a presence. That presence affects everyone who remains aware of it.

That is because absence is not a nothing. It is an awareness of something that is, at least for the moment, and in some sense, inaccessible.

Last week Trish and I enjoyed the physical presence of my family. My Dad and Mom, sisters and brother, their children and grandchildren, our two daughters and all of our grandchildren were physically assembled, in one room.

We enjoyed it.

We also took some time to acknowledge some who were absent. My elder brother, who lived for only a short time, was remembered. Our grandparents, great-grandparents and others, some who died more than a century ago, were remembered. We were acknowledging that none of the living has taken the place of any who has died. Their places in our family remains secure.

Next Thanksgiving, I will recall, several times during the day, that my grandfather ought to be preparing the turkey and dressing. He can’t because nearly forty years ago he left for worlds unknown. But my acknowledgement of his absence creates a presence. He will only be gone when his face and name no longer appears in our thoughts. Until then, he continues to influence the present members of the family, whether they knew him personally or not.

To remember is to re-member. The living members of our family gathered to enjoy ourselves and that’s what we did. But we also took time to re-member our entire family by telling stories, showing pictures and calling names. The young ones, who never met my grandfather, saw his face and heard his name.

That’s how I came to know my great-grandfather, although he died before I was born. All four of my grandparents and my great-grandmother told me stories about him. They called his name in family gatherings. They told me Joseph Jarrell was a good model to follow.

That’s how my great grandfather has been a continual part of my life. That's how he has always encouraged me to become a good man, though he has been dead for sixty-five years; because his family remembered to re-member him.

Our family even names some of our babies after those who we remember. We don't do it to replace our ancestors, but to keep their names alive and to give the young children a heritage to build upon.

Our faith does the same thing.

Jesus told us to do a several things. For example, we are to share the gospel with everyone in the world and are to forgive others as we have been forgiven. But Jesus only asked us to do one thing that serves no other purpose except, to re-member Him.

“As often as you do this, do in remembrance of me.”

I wonder; if we fail to do that one thing are we breaking a pattern of remembrance that has effectively kept his presence real among us for two thousand years? Will we be shifting from a presence of absence to an absence of presence?

I thought about this today because my children and grandchildren are no longer physically present in our house. For nine years, I have been living away from my daughter and granddaughter, who live in Phoenix. That has been tough. But last week, I and watched my other daughter, my son-in-law, and my other three granddaughters walk through security and then fade from view. That means none of my children or grandchildren are physically present.

I find this terribly difficult to accept.

I think of my children as I rise in the morning and as I go to sleep at night. I find myself listening for their voice but they are not here. On the other hand, they are not gone. I have been finding dry cheerios that my grand baby left behind the chairs. I had been discovering pictures the other ones drew. My Phoenix granddaughter left a paper cross that hangs on the wall. There are pictures and other remembrances all over this house that acknowledge an absence, and those acknowledgments creates a presence.

As a missionary kid, I recall when letters took a month. Phone calls were expensive and unreliable. Thanks to technology, I can see my loved one’s faces. I can write notes, which will usually get answered within hours.

I do many things to  turn their absence into a presence. I read things they like to read. I am studying some of the things Austin is studying  in Ireland. I have become even more interested that I was before in classical education because my daughter is involved in classical education. I keep doing these things to remain connected to their world -- not in an intrusive or creepy way I hope, but simply to stay connected.

I do things things to re-member; to hold together our connections, so that even though we are, at least for the moment, physically absent from one another, we are not separated.

In my last blog ( Is There Room for an Altar?) I asked some questions about church décor. I wanted to know whether the way we decorate our churches is spiritually important. The answer surely depends on whether we want keep the attention on us – the living and our present needs --  or are willing to share that attention with those we wish to re-member (and whom we wish our children and new converts to remember.)

It would be a great loss to our family if no one ever again thought about Joseph Jarrell. If he were forgotten, his saintly life would no longer influence his descendants. He would no longer be merely an absence – he would be nonexistent. Even characters in novels influence the reader, so they exist, at least in some sense. However something that does not exist in any sense cannot influence me.

People whom we do not mention and do not acknowledge will cease to exist, at least on this earth. To keep their influence among us, we must look for ways to acknowledge their absence.

Fortunately, our Lord has a book of remembrance. He knows the names of people we forgot centuries ago. They are all in his book. Their angel's faces are before him continually, day and night. They are remembered. But some day they will be literally re-membered. Their memories will transform into present, living beings.

Our Lord told us to look forward to that day. He told us that the entire family will sit down at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of God. Until then, He has a request: “as often as you do this, remember me.” Until the entire family is physically reassembled at the table, we must recall their presence at the table by being mindful of their physical absence.

So we use art, prayer, songs; habits of piety; conversation peppered with things our Lord said and did. We remember him. And, he remembers us. We remember all the saints we can recall. We remember the best we can for now. Our Lord promises us that one day our hands touch the faces that we can now only conjure in our hearts. We will once again hear the voices that for now only faintly haunt our dreams.

Our loved ones are all safe because they are all remembered. The circle will not be broken. This family, scattered though it is through the nations of the earth and in heaven above, is kept whole by God’s remembrance until time shall be no more and the morning breaks eternal bright and fair. And we, imitating the Giver of Life, do all we can to mark the presence of all that is absent until that absence has once and for all been transformed into the eternal presence.

1 comment:

the beam team said...

So beautiful, Pastor Dan. I have been at a family wedding today. Usually, this isn't something that would make me especially excited. But, as I heard the vows, sang the hymns, recited the prayers, and looked into the eyes of my great aunts and uncles, I was reminded of the ancestors that have gone before this generation.
I thought about my great grandparents and grandparents and parents, who have all gone before us and set an example of love, faith, service, and family. I believe it is because of your words and example that I am even sensitive to re-membering.
Thank you for helping me see the importance of setting a "place" in my life for my loved ones that I now build my family upon. I want Bentley to have a firm foundation to stand on.