I came back from school one day in early September and went to my grandparent's house. I didn't go to our house because my parents were shuttling between home and University Hospital, where my older brother was being treated. The leukemia had been in remission for months, and he had been doing better. But when it came back, it was overwhelming.
My grandmother called, "Your mom and dad are here," so I came out to the "sitting room" to meet them. One look at their haggard faces and weary eyes told me that something had happened. My dad explained that my older brother - my protector, example and closest friend - had died. I still remember the chair I was sitting in, and how I couldn't stop crying.
Fast-forward thirty years. Our family had visited my mother in my home town, and before we returned to southern Michigan we stopped at a used video game and music store so my sons could buy a used Nintendo system. While they were shopping, I was browsing the used recordings and saw a James Taylor's Greatest Hits CD. I hadn't listened to J. T. in two decades, so I bought the CD and played it on the way home.
I sang along with the first three tracks, but when Fire and Rain played, I was surprised by the emotion that welled up at the words, "...but I always thought I'd see you again." I was back in that chair in my grandparents' sitting room, unable to stop the tears.
I had not thought of that day for many years, yet it was a part of me. All my experiences, good and bad, the ones I remember, the ones I do not, and the ones I've tried to forget are a part of me. Humans do not outgrow what they've been, any more than a tree outgrows its trunk. We grow from what we've been and, in many ways, still are.
In his insightful book, "What Does God Do from 9 to 5?" Ronald R. Johnson makes the point that "...we are who we are because of the entire story of all that we've experienced so far, even though we cannot retrieve most of it from memory." Johnson's "all that we've experienced" includes big things like the death of a brother, but also small things like the look someone gave us on the bus, and the word we once looked up in a dictionary, and the hazy thought we had twelve years ago as we drifted off to sleep. These experiences, the vast majority of which are unremembered, are still a part of us.
There is more to a human being, every human being, than we know or have ever imagined. But God knows, and he does not forget. God was there when we looked up that word and when that hazy thought lodged in our brain, and knows how it has shaped us. What Johnson calls "the immensity of it" is staggering.
Think of it. God has been and will be present and aware of every experience I have ever had or will have, from the awful presentation I made in speech class to the first kiss I gave my wife, to the last breath I shall haltingly take. He has been present at every beat of my heart, as each neuron in my brain has fired, and every time a nerve ending has pulsed.
If this is true, God has been present for all of my experiences (the vast percentage of which I know nothing about), and has been with billions of other people in their billions of experiences. Does this then mean that God has formed us in a certain way, for good or bad, and we bear no responsibility for who we've become?
Not at all. Within this astonishingly complex human development process, God has provided a remarkably powerful instrument by which humans can exercise some control over their own formation. He has given them the power of choice. Each adult has made untold numbers - perhaps millions - of choices, and these are what make a person uniquely his or her self. And God is present and available in the choices too, not to compel but to aid, to encourage and to help.