I’ve lived in many places – thirteen different locations over nearly fifty years. Before now when I’ve thought about my past, I’ve always conceived of it in linear terms – as though it were a timeline posted on a wall. Time I’ve lived through, like a car driving through mist.
Last week I had a walking tour of central Bristol with a man who’d grown up in the city and watched it metamorphose through many decades into its present-day state. We peered down through a glass-topped structure in a pedestrianised square to the medieval city walls beneath, and noted where the river Frome runs through the city under a length main road and out into the Avon bearing bloated plastic wrappings floundering in the brown water.
At lunch we talked about our own histories, and for the first time I saw my past in terms of geological strata – a thin grey deposit here, sandwiched between a broad band of rich life ore below and a crumbly red clay ready for moulding above. I thought of the person I’d been in each stratum, the people I’d known and the things I’d learnt, the everyday environment I’d been part of, the sights I’d seen. And I felt high up, topsoil or even turf on a hillside… And promised myself the opportunity to drill down into the layers more often.
Taking funerals, as I do frequently at the moment, I think a lot about the sum total of a person’s life, and how to help people reflect on it in a meaningful way. There’s an aspect of being a pioneer that demands you find a way of taking funerals that breaks out of Victorian moulds and connects with the 21st century search for meaning. I’m still trying to find my own voice in this sensitive and traditional territory. But somehow seeing life in vertical rather than linear terms seems a bit of a breakthrough. It makes me feel rich in life lived, since time isn’t some ephemeral thing passed through and left behind, it’s something laid down in you. Something solid that holds you in place now.
Later in the day it struck me what a generous helping of life I’ve had, and how full every day can be of tiny moments of great richness. I’ve been reflecting on Jesus’ promise to bring us ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10) and wondering if this is in some ways what he means: not necessarily that a person’s life will be favoured or particularly enriched (although it may be), but that his followers will have eyes to appreciate the amazing geology and archeology of their lives, to trace God’s hand at work in it even as it is being laid down grain by grain, and to feel wealthy beyond measure.