Monday, January 19, 2015

Room in My Heart

What do we mean when we talk about “living on” in one another’s hearts?

We certainly say it enough.

Thomas Campbell said, “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die”. If the content of our eulogies and obituaries indicates anything at all, then it seems we believe him.

Taken literally, Campbell’s statement is categorically untrue. Even if we firmly believe in Christian resurrection or some kind of afterlife, we recognize that death creates a disconnect between us and those we love that cannot be bridged this side of eternity. In the physical sense, dead is dead. But that is neither what Campbell means nor what we mean when we mourn using similar language.

Memory and the Heart

For some, Campbell’s aphorism is no more than a platitude, forgotten before the end of the funeral. For others it means that they hope to always continue to remember their loved ones regularly or even daily, rather than to think less frequently of them as time passes and other concerns and people crowd out the limited attention we are able to devote to each other.

We might call memory more of a mental activity than an activity of the heart, though affection can certainly be involved. For instance, I cannot eat ribs or watch the Cincinnati Bengals without thinking fondly of a friend — I’ll call him John — who went to be with the Lord a couple of years ago.

It’s probably the sort of thing Eddie Money meant when he wrote:
“Save a little room in your heart for me
Save my pictures with your memories
Save a little room in your heart for me
And I’ll be there ...

The Non-Persistence of Memory

But contra Salvador Dali, memory does not persist. It is also horribly malleable and vaporous.

Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus identifies four ways memory can let us down:

(1)  retrieval failure, in which memories exists but cannot be accessed;
(2)  interference, in which memories compete for limited short-term space;
(3)  failure to store, in which minor details fail to encode; and
(4)  motivated forgetting, in which trauma causes the brain to repress memories.

As much as I may love you or you may love me, for one of the above reasons, once we part ways via death or physical distance I will inevitably think about you less and less as time goes by. So if my memories are the only place in which you expect to live on when we are no longer together, both death and distance should be bleak prospects indeed, and the validation of much human grief.

Making Room in Our Hearts

When the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians, “Make room in your hearts for us”, he does not seem to be anticipating his own death, nor is he simply wishing that he and his co-writer Timothy would be remembered — even fondly remembered — by the Christians in Corinth.

He’s talking about something more important and enduring than “living on” in the memories of others. His appeal to “make room” comes as part of a lengthy, emotional argument by which he hopes to convince the Corinthians to see both the will of God and circumstances about which they may disagree in the same light as he does. He is hoping to persuade them to embrace his view of things, and to live their lives the way he has taught them both by word and example. He begs them to carry on in the faith; to avoid uniting themselves with unbelievers who think and live differently; and by purifying themselves from evil influences, to become a dwelling place for God.

So “make room in your hearts for us” means a whole lot more than simply, “Don’t you forget about me”. It means think like the apostle, act like the apostle, live like the apostle, and most importantly, love like the apostle, with affections wide open and unreserved.

Living On in Your Heart

This is the key to really living on in the hearts of others, isn’t it? Think about it: Your friends and family live on in your heart only to the extent that they have forever changed your way of thinking and your ongoing daily conduct.

Let’s go back to my friend John. As much as I might feel a rush of affectionate sadness when I eat his favourite meal or watch his sports team, such passing sentiments pale into insignificance compared to the things he taught me by the way he lived. John had a hunger for the truth. He clung to what he believed loyally but was willing to change his mind when confronted with overwhelming evidence from scripture. He could see the other person’s side of an argument, keep a big-picture perspective on the church when I was fuming about some soon-to-be-forgotten detail, and he could even play devil’s advocate when necessary to make me think something all the way through. In whatever way he acted and thought like the Lord Jesus in these things, they have become part of who I am and how I try to behave every day.

As a result, my friend lives on in my heart whether I am specifically thinking of him or not. He lives on even as time goes by and even as my memory deteriorates. To the extent that he built the house of God with gold, silver and precious stones, he is just as alive as if he were standing beside me and whispering in my ear when I serve the Lord.

What do we mean when we talk about “living on” in one another’s hearts? I don’t know what you mean, and I don’t know what others mean.

But Here’s What I Mean

Does it matter whether my children remember my musical taste, lame jokes or the way I parted my hair? Not really. I will not live on in their hearts if that’s all they do. But if they learn how to work hard, show love freely instead of worrying about appearances, pray honestly, tell the truth when it hurts, seek the answer to every question in life in the word of God and see Christ as the centre of everything that matters — that is, if they take to heart who I was many days (and hopefully most days) and model their lives accordingly, then I will certainly live on.

That’s what I mean.

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