From Experience to Photographs to Memories


Carol and I got hijacked in the past twenty-four hours. I was wondering if we had any pictures of a red 1984 Honda Civic Hatchback that I used to drive. It was a five-speed stick shift. No air conditioning. I loved that car. This was the first car that I bought brand new, right off the lot, and I drove it for at least six years and more than 157,000 miles. As much time as I spent in that car, and for all the memories that were made during those miles, I haven’t found a picture of it yet. I’m still digging.

But in the process of digging, Carol and I got caught up in the process of digging through old pictures and old memories. Boxes and boxes of pictures.

You know how it is. You have a camera so you take pictures. We had the best of intentions, but very few pictures ever made it into an organized photo album. We have boxes and boxes of pictures. Not the work of a professional photographer. Nothing artistic about them. Relatively few pictures of scenery. Mostly snapshots of people: the births of our children, first days of school. A priceless picture of our son—just a few weeks after he was born—with Grandpa Wright taken days before Grandpa Wright passed away. Some hilarious times with dear friends.

These photographs were taken using film that was processed into negatives and then printed on special photography paper. By the process, the images of light, captured from real life experience for a fraction of a second, were turned into a record of our experience.

These pictures might be meaningless to someone else. What makes them special to us are the memories that they bring back. The pictures are not the same thing as the experiences they depict. They are two-dimensional. There is no movement. There is no sound, no smell, and no touch. Time and subsequent experience have filtered these memories. We don’t see them in the same way.

We also found that our kids can’t actually remember some the experiences in which they are pictured. They only can get a glimpse of those experiences filtered through our photographs and memories.

Our spiritual experience takes this to another level. Without getting too theological about the nature of the human soul, there is something in our identity that is greater than the sum of its parts. We can’t see it. We can’t touch it. We can’t hear it. We can’t smell or taste it. But all of these sensory inputs contribute to how we experience life and Spirit and God.

Hearing someone else tell of their spiritual experience can inspire us or challenge us or inform us. But their spiritual experience, no matter how wonderful, vivid or meaningful, is not my experience or yours. We can learn about God through scripture, tradition, and reason, but we can know God only through our own experience.

Our spiritual journey consists of more than the memories of sight and sound. These memories can serve as portals through which we see how God has been present in our lives. Sometimes, we need to slow our lives down a bit in order to see it. The spiritual practice of contemplation invites us to awareness of God not just in past memories, but in our lives right now.

The Psalmist wrote about his experience in this way: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:7). We just have to “see” it. A Statement of Faith adopted by the United Church of Canada proclaims this truth: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”[1]

For Reflection:

What experiences of God have been meaningful to you in the past? How do you experience God right now?

[1] “A Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada,” reprinted in The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), 883.

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