Living Life Backward

Image credit: Amazon

One day, I’m going to die.
And so are you.

How’s that for a way to end a three-month blogging hiatus?

Actually, I borrowed it from David Gibson’s Living Life Backward, which I would have written about sooner, except I’ve been too busy…living life.

So busy, it seems, that I’m just now writing about the sleek little book I tucked into my luggage during a work trip back in January. But before I elaborate, I can’t overlook the fact that it was written by a Scottish minister, because it didn’t take long to connect the author’s heritage to Cleveland.

For example, my very first Sunday here became associated with the thick Scottish accent of Alistair Begg, senior pastor of Parkside Church. In what turned out to be an harbinger of things to come, my visit to Parkside led to the church I now call home, which happens to support two missionary families from the land of Loch Lomond.

But all that is merely tangential. The real reason for my blogging break comes down to three words: Scottish country dancing.

It all started on a Friday evening last summer when I wandered over to a local gymnasium. I’m not Scottish, but of the classes listed on the Northeast Ohio Contra Dance website, this one was close, convenient, and only cost five bucks.

[Heh. Make that five times every week I’ve gone back since.]

Contra and Scottish are not the same thing, but their circles intermingle. In fact, contra is responsible for getting me to Cleveland in the first place, since it was at a contra dance that I learned of the job that landed me here.

At the outset, dancing doesn’t have much to do with Gibson’s book. But it bears large responsibility for the fact that instead of writing, most of my spare time this winter was spent learning the program for a Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society ball.

dance notesOn the left is the list of jigs, reels, and strathspeys that absorbed my attention when I wasn’t consulting the Scottish Country Dancing Dictionary. On the right is a sampling of my handiwork, which I compiled on a weekly basis. No, flashcards weren’t required, but they helped me memorize all the steps. Unlike contra, which features a “caller,” Scottish dancing doesn’t include one.  That means when the music begins, you’d better know your choreography, or you might end up looking like Mr. Collins, as portrayed in this delightful clip from the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice. [Yes, I know this is English dancing, but as a fellow dancer explained, “contra has energy, English has elegance, and Scottish has both.”]

So, there I was, all gussied up after our final walk-through and ready for the ball to begin. As a relative newbie, I figured that the time and trouble getting to the Pittsburgh event would be worthwhile even if I danced only half the program.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dance floor: as the evening wore on, I never left. Four hours and eighteen dances later, I’d completed the entire program. I wouldn’t have called it a perfect performance (thank goodness for strong partners!), but my instructor – a spry little dynamo who insists we should all just “shut up and dance” – was beaming.

Triumphant as I felt, though, it was time for a break – and not just a visit to the after party. After months of physical and mental exertion, I was ready to get back to some other hobbies. Thus, it finally seems appropriate to address my blogging backlog and segue to Gibson’s work: an exposition on the book of Ecclesiastes.

According to Gibson, living life backward means ordering our priorities in light of the eventual outcome we all face. If death doesn’t inform the way we live, he argues, we are pretending death does not exist. The question he suggests we ask is how might our “now” be different if we lived in light of “then?”

As I was recently reminded by essayist Charles Lamb, much depends upon when and where one reads a book, and in this case, I’d passed through the Denver International Airport and was cruising eastward at about 10,000 feet when I fished Gibson out of my luggage and encountered this passage:

“Nostalgia is something that affects all of us…perhaps we get nostalgic about buildings or places; most likely, we experience nostalgia for people or an intensity of emotion we felt at a particular time. Have you ever stopped to think about the feeling of nostalgia and what it actually is?”

At that moment, I was remembering my very first trip through Colorado five years ago. After two unsuccessful attempts to win a job I’d really wanted in a place I really wanted to call home,  it’s hard to pass through the area without recalling the mixture of emotions that accompanied my initial time there.

It seemed, then, Gibson had a few more words for me:

“C.S. Lewis said that nostalgia is the special emotion of longing , and it is always bittersweet. When we feel nostalgia, we experience a feeling of something lost, and yet at the same time it is a beautiful perception of what has been lost, and so we long for it. Nostalgia is often fleeting, and yet if there is any pain, there is also a kind of satisfying longing as part of it. Now here’s what Lewis says: only children or the emotionally immature think that what they are longing for is actually what they are longing for. You think you’re longing for the past, but the past was never as good as your mind is telling you it was. And, Lewis says, God is giving you in that moment one of the most profound glimpses of the intensity of perfection and beauty that you have actually yet to see. What is in fact pulling on your heartstrings is the future: it’s heaven; it’s your sense of home and belonging that has just cracked the surface of your life, for just a moment, and then is gone.”

As I turned from watching the Rockies fade into twilight, Gibson drove it home:

“Wise people who understand how God has made us to long for Him and for heaven don’t look backward when they get nostalgic. They allow the feeling to point forward. They look up to heaven and to home.”

02A1661C-2ED1-487E-8F5E-945737C20EA5Unlike Colorado, where I spent many an hour swooning at the landscape, my initial impression of Cleveland – thanks to those “hastily-made” fake tourism videos – was one of scorn. During a drive along I-90 two summers ago, I distinctly remember pulling out my phone to snicker along with YouTube while the friend who was driving simply smirked and shook his head.
Alas, I should have known better than to tempt fate.  God has a sense of humor, and two years later, even my boarding pass was in on the joke: instead of Colorado, I got Cleveland.

[Don’t think it hasn’t crossed my mind to send up a few more suggestions to the throne room of heaven.  After all, why would anyone want to move to a mile-high desert with 300 days of sunshine a year?]

Nonetheless, when I haven’t been seeking manifest destiny, I’ve also been thinking about the implications of Gibson’s book toward another project on my plate, one that reflects redemption in this life and the one to come. The Christian life is – or ought to be – a reminder that following Christ means facing a future that far outlasts the disappointments we suffer here. Life can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be wasted, even if it’s sometimes hard to connect all the dots.

My “project” involves renovating a library that hasn’t seen renewal in a long time. It’s a miracle I wasn’t scared away by its appearance during my interview, because frankly, I was horrified. The previous librarian had been a well-respected bibliographer, but after twenty-five years in the same building, the scenery went unnoticed.

Nonetheless, I sensed an opportunity to become – to borrow a phrase from church – an “agent of restoration.”  And, just as the earth has once again burst into bloom, a renaissance has begun. Last week we closed for summer as the building undergoes construction and hidden portions of the collection begin to see the light of day. Like the gardens beginning to proliferate at this time of year, libraries must be weeded, and judging by the trails of book dust, this garden has been waiting a long time.

In a tragic and uncanny turn of events, one of our contractors unexpectedly died just as summer work was about to begin. We suspect it was a heart attack but regardless, his passing reminded me that life is fragile, uncertain, and too short to waste pining after what-if’s and might-have-been’s [including even my woebegone comparison of Cleveland to Colorado.]

There’s a custom in Scottish dancing where participants will point toward the sky in a circular motion to indicate they’d like to repeat the dance they’ve just finished. If the musicians acquiesce, the leader will call out “Once, to the bottom,” and everyone resumes their places to dance one more time. I had the pleasure of experiencing this tradition several times in Pittsburgh, particularly after we finished one of my favorite dances on the program, the Rutland Reel.

But I can’t help thinking that “once to the bottom” is simply another form of nostalgia. If we’d spent the entire night “reeling” across the dance floor, we wouldn’t have taken our Trip to Bavaria or held hands at the stroke of midnight to sing Auld Lang Syne (another nostalgic pastime). The end of one dance must lead to another, much like the end of this life will lead to the next.

For Gibson, that means living the life you have now instead of longing for a life on earth you think you’d like to have. Time, he claims, “apprentices us,” and true wisdom is learning to joyfully redeem the time God gives us while accepting its limits. In a sense, we must live “backward” with a perspective looking “forward.” We shouldn’t mistake our longing for eternity with poor substitutes on earth.

As my trip to the periodontist reminded me yesterday morning, life in this world – to borrow a phrase from another pastor – is a steady march toward degradation. Instead of joining my friends last night for another Friday class, I stayed home with an ice pack on my jaw after enduring a subepithelial connective tissue graft. That’s when a piece of your upper palate is sutured into your lower gums to rebuild recessive tissue. Fun.

So, Gibson says, remember that life is short. You’re going to die. Enjoy what God gives you, but hold it with an open hand and invest your resources in this life toward the next. Joyfully accept the limitations of earthly time because that’s the best way to live in light of the way God created the world and created us.

And speaking of limits, it’s time to wrap this up, because I can’t type and hold an ice pack at the same time. Our Pittsburgh friends are coming to visit next weekend, and I need to recover. Because even if I’m going to die someday, there’s plenty of dancing I intend to do until then.