Life in all its tenses

He was an outstanding musician. He loved music and thrilled everyone with his talents. He had so much sunshine to offer. It was a joy to be around him.

But no more.

At first it seemed like a routine headache. But it got more intense. Soon a steady fever came on. With it a loss of memory—at first, of small things, then bigger things. Soon he could not recall his daughter’s name.

By now everyone knew Clive was in serious trouble. A virus seemed to have destroyed his hippocampus—that part of the brain vital for processing memories. Clive was not dying—at least, not then. But he was losing his memory.

How does memory work? You remember the food you ate yesterday, the people you were with, the things you talked about. You are able to do all that because the hippocampus helps you to file the information away in your memory. Later you can reconstruct those events. That little area in your brain about the size of your thumb provides you with a link to the past, and therefore meaning in the present, and a purpose for the future.

Clive lost that capacity completely. He could no longer remember his past. He lives in the present, adrift. His consciousness is from moment to moment, without any great significance. He sits in his room, with a deck of cards and a diary. He plays alone an endless game of solitaire. Occasionally he looks at his watch and records the time in his diary and writes “I am now awake for the first time.” Whenever his wife walks into the room, he greets her as a long-lost love, with hugs and kisses, and says to her: “I’ve never seen you before. This is the first time I am seeing anybody at all.”

His friends from his days as a choral conductor come to visit. His wife leads him to the music room. He protests that he has never played any music, and has no knowledge of how to read music. But she reassures him as he enters the room, greets his friends, sits at the piano, and leads them as he plays, sings and conducts Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. As the strains of the great music ends, Clive retreats fitfully into his world of hopelessness. For even as the music ends, he cannot remember what he just did.

The past

Now, consider your own past and your own walk with God. Is your spiritual memory intact? What makes your past relevant? What makes your present meaningful? What makes your future hopeful?

Can you remember when you decided to follow Jesus? Or when you decided not to? Can you remember why you did? Can you remember the last time you had a real talk with Jesus? Or is your past experience with Him a distant, forgotten memory?

Clive had done significant things in his past, but he could not remember them anymore. He could still do things he had learned. He knew how to write and spell and play the piano, but he had no awareness that he had learned them. They had no lasting impact on his life.

Those significant things that God has done for us in the past can be forgotten, or they can be taken for granted. Those promises we have made to God can fade into the past and cease to influence our lives. Those things you have done for the Lord in the past may not thrill you any more. In short, is Christ as real to you as when you first believed? Do you still have what the risen Jesus demands of the church at Ephesus—that first love (Revelation 2:4)?

The present

Turn to your present. Is your relationship with God a growing experience in your life? How meaningful is your present walk with Jesus? Is it a vital and living friendship, one in which you are constantly building on the past?

Clive’s present is a round of activities that may have meaning in themselves, but because his experiences are unconnected by memory they are, in effect, meaningless. Much of what he does is just ritual. Could it be that your spiritual life has turned into a ritual—a meaningless cycle of religious activities, enjoyable while they last, but nothing to be missed when they are over? They do not contribute to growth. Peter admonishes us: “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18, NIV). Growing requires connection with our roots, renewing the decisions we made for Christ. If we live without this connection, we become frozen in the past. Our lives become an absurdity.

The future

And what of the future? Clive has no future because he has neither present nor past. He is, as it were, doomed to repeat his limited present. But for us it can be different. Whatever our past has been, whatever our present, in Christ there is hope for the future. Paul summarizes this well:

“Therefore, since we have been [past] justified through faith, we have [present] peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand [present]. And we rejoice in the hope [future] of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1, NIV).

Salvation claimed in the past is worthwhile only as it is continuously renewed in the present. We must keep our commitment current. Then, and only then, do we have a present that is meaningful and full of growth, and a future filled with infinite possibilities.

Stay connected to Christ. The past, the present, and the future will then forge together to make your life whole, meaningful, and hopeful.

Born in Tobago, Austin C. Archer (Ph.D., Indiana University) teaches psychology at Walla Walla College. His address: Walla Walla College; 204 South College Ave.; College Place, Washington 99325-1198; U.S.A. E-mail: