I was standing in the line with the other staff, clapping as the graduates from the high school made their way between us. It was perhaps my favourite Gloucester tradition, and I smiled at some of the students who strutted towards the auditorium, with their hats and gowns and awkward smiles. They all knew, from either their older peers or their parents or their teachers or the media that the end of high school meant the end of many things. University or college or work, wherever they went from here, from now on it would be forever different.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead as the last of the graduates walked into the auditorium. There was little breeze in the school foyer, and the summer had come early this year, bringing with it a damp, clinging heat. For the next two hours I watched as the students, many of whom I’d come to know these past four years, strolled across the front of the stage ready to set out on a new course. Optimism lingered within the ceremony, as tangible for those who had suffered traumatic years as for those who had participated in every school activity. A sense of newness and hope filtered through the speeches and moods of both the graduates and staff.
I spent some time talking to the students as they lingered after the ceremony and finally headed home. Little did I realize that in four weeks I too, would be moving, headed back to school, towards a new life with new dreams and new hopes. For now, it was enough to have shared the day with my students.
As far back as I can remember, I have always loved inspirational movies and books, stories that caused me to dream about the future and all that life could bring. Like most kids, I was a dreamer, and whether it was Rocky or Hoosiers or some other fairy tale, hope of a new life remained at the forefront of my thoughts. When I rededicated my life to God at nineteen, I went through my second graduation, into another life filled with a loving Creator and thoughts of a wife and family and grandkids and home and everything the stories promised. Happily ever after was just around the corner, just as I’d always imagined.
When my life first started to go wrong, I didn’t know what to do. In the stories that I’d held close to my heart, the troubles of life were little more than a plot change to add poignancy. I held onto my belief that life would be better. I dreamed my dreams even as the world I’d drawn in my imagination caved in around me, even as I withdrew into my basement apartment, lonely and hurting and desperate.
It was there I first began to realize that life wasn’t a story. That I would never become the knight in my modern fairy tale. Perhaps it was that realization more than any other of which I could not let go. And so, I cried out to God. Where are you?! What have you done to my life?!
The stories to which I’d once held fast I viewed with an ever-increasing scorn and cynicism. Hope was the tax for the poor, a lottery ticket for the weak. Stories were just that, stories. Life, for all its earlier magic, was just another trick with a little old man and a megaphone behind the curtain. It'd be years before that changed.
I’d been home for a few hours, enjoying the cool of my air-conditioned apartment after the morning heat of the graduation ceremony. I’d been reading more lately, especially on this rising new popularity of reincarnation. It was a fatuous belief, and while I didn’t doubt the statistic, I doubted that people truly understood what they were saying. Most people who posited this belief assured themselves that in their former lives they’d been princes or queens or warriors. The true teaching of reincarnation was more likely to place you as a bug. Still, I found this interesting. It seemed to me as if we were all still looking for another chance, as if we’d accepted the difficulty of life, but were still searching for a better story. Something to give us hope. Something to replace the barren ideology of a rationalistic society, a society that promised technology and education and… what?
I moved onto my balcony, enjoying the cool breeze rustling the trees, and leaned across the wooden deck. I too, believed in reincarnation. I’d seen it so many times in my life. Every day, every year, every decade, we moved from one lifetime to another. Our society made a ritual out of high school graduation, but we were always graduating from one life to another, whether it was the birth of a child or a change in jobs or a move to another city. Sometimes the change was positive, our choice, but often it was tragedy and heartache. And when the change occurred, it was easy to question God, to question our faith, to look into the heavens and scream about the injustice in our life. I know. I spent years doing it.
These days I see the changes differently. Reincarnation occurs nearly every day in our own lifetime. Each day we awake with a new opportunity to decide who we will be, how we will treat others, and who God is to us. Change is not as easy as the stories would have us believe, and sometimes just making it through the day is a product of courage and fortitude, but that too, is important. That strength, when we feel so discouraged, is what truly changes our character. Years down the road, we may not be able to point to a single event, but we can look over all the times we experienced reincarnation, all those days when life was at its toughest, that forged the character and life God has for us.
Every one of us will go through times when life is incomprehensible, when the stress seems more than we can bear. And every one of us will go through times when God seems absent, when we will scream to the heavens to forget it, that we'll get it right in the next life. That next life however, is probably tomorrow. And while it may not seem fair, I believe that God has in store for us all of the hope and promises for which we dream, if only we are willing to be patient, to be humble and to learn what He is trying to teach us.
Rest assured, God has not forgotten you, and even if your next life is not tomorrow, it will come. In the meantime, my prayer is that like the high school graduates we remember to form the lines applauding and encouraging those around us, so that when we do go through all the changes and struggles of life, we will be there to hold one another up.
May God encourage you this week to pursue your dreams, to take hold of your life, and remember that no matter how many lifetimes we have experienced, God’s love will never be far.