This weekend I was back in Auburn, Alabama, seeing friends and watching our football team be terrible. Since graduation I’ve been back a few times, mostly for short visits — a wedding or engagement party or tailgate. But they’ve always been quick trips, a stop on the way to the beach or a rushed 24 hour window between flights.
This weekend, however, was different. There was no schedule, no event we came to town for. We didn’t have to be anywhere or do anything. We just got to enjoy. Watch football, see old friends and old crushes, catch up over tailgate food, and drink beer in the middle of the day. I saw sorority sisters and old professors. Tailgated with friends from grad school and laughed about how much we all hate accounting. Ate lunch with my friends on Samford lawn and griped about football and the bar they turned into a pizzeria.
I felt a piercing mix of sweetness and nostalgia, a little bit of tragedy, and a thankfulness for what was and what no longer is. Tears sat just under my eyes all weekend.
Sunday morning, I went to church at the same Presbyterian church I attended back then. They’ve built a new sanctuary since I graduated. It’s bigger and has white walls with stained glass windows sitting reverently in a row. The pews filled quickly — some families and a few older couples that I recognized, but mostly college students. Boys that looked like they just woke up and girls that spent too much time on their hair. Little gaggles sitting together and trying to save seats for their friends. I felt sad and a little out-of-place. But grateful too, for the pews that held us all together, the pews that held me together not that long ago.
There’s a new pastor now; ours left a while back to lead a church in Chattanooga. He led us through the service — the preparation and call to worship, a few hymns and the declaration of faith, the corporate confession of sins and the promise of the gospel, a prayer, a sermon, and a final hymn in response.
As I drove out of Auburn last night, I wondered what it was that makes going back so wonderfully lovely.
I thought of myself in the church pew that morning. I saw myself sitting there quietly, standing to sing, sitting back down to listen, weaving in and out of two distinct, yet intermixing versions of myself. The one of that morning — wearing black jeans and a ponytail, feeling old and a little out-of-place — and the one from five years ago — wearing a dress borrowed from my roommate, surrounded by friends, and younger, thinner, a little less sure of myself.
And what struck me as I thought of this, as I floated between these two versions, was how easily I floated between them, how much it didn’t feel like two versions at all.
There are differences of course: I wasn’t distracted by how much I needed to study, I didn’t confess my sins while sitting with the friends I committed them with, and the boy I loved was not leading worship.
But the rest of it, the other elements of moving through the service, felt strikingly the same:
I tried to force myself to focus through the call to worship.
I sang hymns quietly and off tune, but earnestly and with closed eyes.
I declared faith, the same faith, using the same words we used to use.
I confessed sins, different sins, but rooted in the same idolatry that plagued me back then.
And I heard the promise of the gospel. The same promise. The same hope. And begged God to help me believe it.
I prayed, listened, and sang in response.
And then I fought traffic in the parking lot and cried over all of this sameness.
Going back lets you see what all has changed, but also reminds you that some things don’t. Old friends still know you, even if you’re different now. Old homes still feel like home, even if they change a good bar into a crappy pizza place. And hope remains true, even if believing it looks differently than it did at 23.
The gospel hits differently today than it did back then. But its offering is wholly the same.
And as I don’t know how to close (much like the Auburn football team), I leave you with this:
“In the Eternal…nothing passes away, but the whole is simultaneously present. But no temporal process is wholly simultaneous…all time past is forced to move on by the incoming future…all the future follows from the past; and that all, past and future, is created and issues out of that which is forever present. Who will hold the heart of man that it may stand still and see how the eternity which always stands still is itself neither future nor past but expresses itself in the times that are future and past?” Augustine.