Memory, Change, and Goodbye

I remember the day I decided to leave grad school. This was 1996. After charging my tuition on a set of high-interest credit cards, I suddenly had $10,000 of debt. A recruiter had matched me with a tech job, traveling the country and teaching Microsoft Windows to corporate IT admins. That job paid $25,000 a year, and at 27, that was the most money anyone had ever offered me to do anything. I remember telling my dad that I would do the job for a year or two, pay down my debt, and after that, I would — absolutely — return and finish my Ph.D.

I have no idea if my memory of that conversation with my father is real, or if it’s something I invented, but I hold on to it. That memory is a key to a set of other memories. Memories of me as a student. Of my friends. Of what I wanted my life to become. Of me, when I was clean and hopeful and full of possibility.

If I start with that memory, I tell a story about my life that is very different than if I start somewhere else. If I start with an accident, or a trip, or an acceptance letter, or an insult, or a promise, then the story changes radically. My story changes. I change.

I have a lot of other memories from my time in grad school. I remember suggesting to a dubious advisor that studying the brain was a fine idea for a philosophy student. What I had wanted to know was how “Artificial Intelligence” might be possible and I figured it might help to know how actual intelligence worked, so off to the neuroscience department I went.

Did you know that there are over one billion neurons in the average human brain? And no, more is not better – most of us start off with over a hundred billion neurons, about as many stars as there are in the Milky Way. Over those first few years, as we mature, we all lose a massive number of them. Don’t worry, I think it works out, on balance – well — I like to at least pretend that most of us are a bit smarter than a newborn.

Here’s another interesting fact – it seems that we trade those lost cells for connection. There are over one trillion connections between all of those neurons in the adult brain. Did I say we carry an “inner constellation”? Say rather that those constellations have constellations of their own! A thousand galaxies of constellations. For those of you keeping track, this makes the human brain the most complicated object in the known universe. No, really, that’s even true of our President.

Memory, as far as we can tell, is hidden within a network of neurons. I say “as far as we can tell”, because even with our latest medical imaging innovations, we’ve still never been able to isolate a single memory. There’s no “first time I ate calamari” cell. All we can really see is connection and transmission – the passing of electrochemical signals from one neuron to the next. As best we can deduce, what we would call a single memory is probably a large set of connections, spanning many sets of neurons that are scattered all across the brain.

When we remember something, what we think happens is that the act of remembering “lights up” a neural chain that resembles the same chain that “lit up” when the event we’re remembering first occurred.

“Resembles” is a good word here, because researchers have shown that separate recollections of the same memory will image differently. The path that lights up under the imager is not exactly the same each time. It’s as if sometimes an act of remembering pulls this part of the memory. Sometimes it pulls that. But here’s where it gets weird. Scientists agree that the brain doesn’t preserve everything in a memory– apparently, it’s just the highlights – and that’s why memories appear to veer this way and that. That is, in any given network of cellular memory, only parts get “recorded” in our brains as a slightly-stronger connection between some cells. The not-as-important parts of our memories, maybe some of the fine details, they get routinely lost – but we don’t even notice, because on recall, the brain “fills in” these details. Now, there’s quite a bit of research on this “fill in” that the brain does – and this is also precisely why people are terrible reporters, even of things they supposedly witnessed first-hand. The why of that is perhaps that these “little details” get at least partially written over by other memories. What was once a memory of the first time you saw your beloved’s smile runs alongside the memory of your first kiss which runs alongside the memory of the car where you had that first kiss – and now your memory of a car always seems to include a smile.

Memories are fragile things, spindly webs of physical interconnection across an impossibly deep and complex forest of connection. Vulnerable to injury, to illness, to age, to the ongoing process of life and the creation of new memories. And yet somehow memories persist, even as we change. Even as they change, we somehow persist. And as we change, we can do more than persist.

According to the Buddha, this is part of a three-fold lesson about the character of human existence: namely, that existence is marked by discontent, impermanence, and change.

Each of these is a sermon, but it’s the one about change that I want to home in on. According to the philosopher John Locke, we humans are our memories. That is, the self – the thing which I am at root, my essence – that is nothing more or less than the sum total of my memories. We are memory! This is a compelling idea – and one that many of us would intuitively agree with. What are we but the record of the life that we’ve lived? Change my memories and you change the ‘me’ that is having them. Rob me of my memories and am I still me?

I find it interesting that both the Buddha and modern neuroscience reject this identification. We are not our memories – like everything in the universe, our memories are constantly changing and evolving. While our memories endure for a time, that time is brief. And while many of us can recollect at least some of our past, recollecting all of it is something our brains just don’t bother with. They don’t work that way.

And that’s a very good thing for those of us that are trauma survivors. Soldiers coming back from war are more than their memories of war. Victims of abuse are more than their memories of abuse. Survivors of catastrophe, those of us who have lost loved ones, people that live with great injury to body and mind and soul – all us, all of us are more than our wounds. Or, perhaps better said, we can – at least potentially — transcend our wounds.

This is good news, and even if the process isn’t simple or straightforward or guaranteed, it is something of a miracle. As the Buddha says, nothing is permanent. Not our hopes and dreams, not our injuries and scars. We will change. Perhaps certain change is only possible through great personal effort – but we have within that galaxy that sits between our ears the potential to lay down new pathways alongside and overtop the old, to write new stories on top of old wounds.

And for those of us that have made bad choices, those of us stuck in a rut, those of us that have made our beds and now feel we have to lie in them, for those of us that gave up on our dreams and settled, those of us that no longer feel we’re young enough or smart enough or good enough to deserve another chance, well now. We get to play too. Not only can we change, not only are we obligated to try to change, EVEN IF we’re desperately clinging to a mistake that we spent a lifetime making, change is inevitable. It is literally something we cannot avoid.

The suggestion I’d make to you, to anyone really, is that Octavia Butler frames this as a challenge. In her book, Parable of the Sower, she writes: “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is Change.”

We are all shapers. Shapers of change, changers of God and self. Despite our history, despite our wounds, despite our broken promises, despite the chains we never thought we’d leave behind. We – you and I — can shape God herself. Can and do. Because that’s the job. That’s what being human is all about.

Which brings me to today, and you.

If you asked me to start my story five years ago, I might tell you that my job was draining the life out of me. That every day meant sacrificing little bits of myself. The worst part was that I didn’t even know what those parts were anymore. I couldn’t remember. The dreams and memories of an earlier me had been overwritten by fatigue, by fear, by family. Five years ago, I was a man who defined himself by the hours I worked, by how far up the ladder I climbed, by the commas that were on my bonus check, by the size of the team I led, by whether or not I got to keep doing my job. I was a successful business leader. But I had this dream. A dream that, once upon a time, I used to be more. Once upon a time, I used to be happy, curious, and funny. Once upon a time, I had hair.

But one day, a minister asked me to imagine something. And, no, it wasn’t about my hair. I remember we were in church, because back then, that was unusual. My wife and I were trying to make friends and set down some roots in our new town. She had suggested we go to church. This was problematic as I was a zealot in the Church of the Holy Comforter. The only book I wanted to hear about was the Book of Zzzzzz. But there we were, that Sunday, and the minister asked us to close our eyes. In fact, let’s recollect together. If you’re comfortable and willing, just close your eyes a moment. Take a deep breath and let it out. Now, with your eyes closed, repeat after me: “What if things didn’t have to be this way?”

Mmmm. You can open your eyes. An interesting question, no? To me, it was as if that question had suddenly run out of the room, rounded up all of its friend-questions, some rowdy bunch that I had abandoned when I left grad school, and together they rushed back into the room and mugged me.

I wasn’t planning to become a minister. I really wasn’t. I just wanted to know if my life had to be this way, or if, maybe, there could be something more for me. And what I came to realize is that while church is not the only way to truth and meaning, it might just be my way.

 

In seminary, I learned a lot of things about ritual, history, and theology. I also learned that the human half of me was still alive. Any Star Trek fans out there? I was Spock. Logical. Removed. In my head. You know, like a Unitarian. These last few years have been me, attempting to Brené-Brown myself into a more vulnerable, more heart-centered, more human being, someone following the advice of Pericles of Athens, who said: “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

I’ve been with you all now for two church years — that’s the weird calendar portion that spans Labor Day to Memorial Day. Over that time, I have had the extreme honor and pleasure of being your intern minister, which means I’ve gotten to do a lot of things. I have stacked a lot of chairs. I have washed dishes, swept floors, made coffee, drank coffee, replaced batteries, taken out the trash, and moved more than a few tables. There’s more: I have also liberated one snake, two wasps, and five spiders, to the safety of the out-of-doors. In return, I have had my office windows dive-bombed by an uncounted number of cardinals. I’m pretty sure those things are not related.

I have driven over 20,000 miles to be with you over these 2 years, which means hundreds of hours in the car listening to college courses from The Teaching Company, dozens of them, on theology, history, and religion. Because I’m a nerd.

I’ve shared meals with you. Played Pokémon Go with you. Walked with you. Talked with you. And in our monthly God Talk roundtables, even did some theology with you.

Best of all, I got to know some of you and I have been privileged to hear your stories. The stories of your kids, your jobs, your loved ones, your failures and your hopes, your losses and your triumphs, your fears and your plans for taking over the world. You know who you are. Out of all my experiences, the memories of those conversations may be my favorite part.

I was here couple of months when I was able to visit one of our friends, Diane Breakiron, at a local hospice. I wrote her eulogy. We had a Racial Justice workshop a few weeks later that gave me inspiration for my Focused Initiative project. That December, I protested at the NRA with you. And after that, Reston PRIDE planning began, and that consumed the rest of that first year and culminated in the largest rainbow-colored party that this building has ever seen.

Coming back from our summer break – and me, coming back from summer classes — our congregation launched Beloved Conversations, a six-month long exploration of race. 20 of you signed up to take that journey with me, and of you all, I am profoundly proud. But before I go farther, I want to single out Meredith Kimball, my co-facilitator, for her wit and wisdom, her patience and her hard work, in making that event possible, much less, successful.

That past winter, I was honored to officiate my first memorial service. This Spring, I was grateful to spend some time with Ed, and say goodbye to someone who has been a friend to many of us. And also, this Spring, I was greatly blessed to help with the wedding of our dear Amelia and Nonnie.

I’ve also gotten to lead the Sunday morning service here at UUCR at least a dozen times over, and also lead the Time for All Ages about that many times, too. I like to think I’m no longer quite so terrible at either, though I know I can do better. You make me want to be better.

Last week, I graduated from Meadville Lombard Theological School, a huge step forward on my path …. But as some of you have asked, no, I am not a minister yet. I go to Boston in September to face the Ministerial Fellowship Committee for my final interview – and that’s very much like “taking my boards”. If I pass, I get to explore ordination and begin the search for jobs. And yes, you all have talked me into it — it is my plan to look for jobs in parish ministry. I have no idea where I may end up, but my family is pretty flexible. I will offer this: if Hawaii calls … well, Aloha! You’ll know where to find me.

So. Those are my experiences. Each memory is a key to a set of other memories. Networks of memories, and they are alive in me. They are the pathways that will shape and inform and affect and change my ministry for years to come. You did that to me. With me. For me. And now, like it or not, you’re a part of me. You are all stars in the constellation of my formation. Of my change. Of my becoming something more.

I need to tell you how thankful I am for your friendship. For your kindness and welcome. For letting me struggle, and stretch, and learn. To learn to tell my story differently. To remember that I am more than what it was that I was becoming. Thank you, for letting me start my story, again.

I am, and will remain, forever grateful.

May the gift of memory be kind to you, and may your memory of me grow ever more golden! Know that I will cherish my memories of this time, of your words and your beautiful faces. Know that I love you, and that even as I go forth, that a piece of my heart will remain with you here, always.

Amen.

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