The other day, as we were traveling to a wedding, I asked my wife Liz to pull off the interstate so I could get a cup of coffee.
Liz stayed in the car while I went into a Starbucks and ordered my usual decaf Americano.
As I waited for my coffee, a young woman walked up to the counter and stood near me, waiting for her drink.
I glanced at her and was hurtled more than 40 years back in time.
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She wore a T-shirt, cutoff denim shorts rolled up, and old-fashioned white canvas women’s sneakers.
It was an outfit I hadn’t noticed on anyone or even thought of in decades, I guess — but it was exactly the combination an early girlfriend of mine wore when we were teenagers, back in the dinosaur days.
Suddenly, as an old man standing in an air-conditioned Starbucks, I felt the muggy heat of some August in south-central Kentucky in the 1970s, caught a whiff of my old girlfriend’s perfume and heard the Eagles playing in the background on a tinny radio.
The episode lasted no more than five seconds. And then I was 60 again and standing in a strange town next to a girl a third my age who I didn’t know.
The experience was so intense I told Liz about it when I returned to the car.
“What was that about?” I said as we merged onto the interstate. “For a second, the last 40-some years never occurred. It didn’t feel like a memory. It was like I was there. Like the past was actually going on. Does that make any sense?”
“I know exactly,” she said.
Oddly enough, she said, she’d recently had a similar experience.
She’d been in Lexington, driving down a street on her way from point A to point B, her mind more or less disengaged. She passed a street where her older sister once lived briefly, nearly 30 years ago, with Liz’s two young nieces, who now are adults.
“I thought if I turned down that street, pulled into Mary’s old driveway and knocked on the door, she’d be there. Ashley and Emily would be little kids rolling on the floor. Nothing would have changed.”
In a moment she realized, with sadness, that it wasn’t 1988 after all, and that she couldn’t revisit those days.
The obvious conclusion would be that our minds were playing tricks on us. Human brains do really weird things, that’s for sure. These flashbacks might in fact have been nothing but especially powerful memories.
But what if such experiences aren’t always tricks?
I wonder often where time goes when it passes. I don’t mean, why does time seem to pass so quickly? I mean, literally, where does it go?
Is time only linear? When a moment is gone, has it vanished forever?
Or do past events in fact continue to live on somewhere?
In the Bible’s telling, at least in my reading of it, history repeats itself like a DVD playing on an endless loop.
The writer of Ecclesiastes says nothing takes place that hasn’t already occurred before, and that everything happening now not only happened in the past but will happen again.
Jesus says dead people aren’t really dead; they’re still alive. Paul says Christians simultaneously are present here on this planet, were resurrected with Jesus before they were born and already are seated in heaven with him in the eternal future.
In the Bible, history bobs and zigs and departs and returns. The past, present and future occur simultaneously. Every once in a while, some prophet or apostle steps into a warp and sees across the cosmic dimensions.
This concept might not be just ancient pre-scientific religion. It may be cutting-edge 21st-century physics.
A few years ago, I wrote a column about a couple of radio interviews I’d heard featuring Brian Greene, a prominent theoretical physicist and string theorist.
Greene talked about the multiverse, an arena of scientific research that theorizes that our universe might in fact be only one among multiple universes.
One idea about multiverses, he said, is that parallel universes exist — that you, I and everything we see may live elsewhere, too, more or less exactly as we exist here. When a moment has passed here on Earth, it might be occurring somewhere else, too, or it might occur in the future, and may reoccur again. And again. And again.
So, who knows? Maybe in an alternate dimension, in another identical universe, I’m still 18, blasting down country highways in my 1970 Mustang Fastback, the windows down, my girlfriend in the seat next to me.
And somewhere Liz’s nieces are rolling around giggling on her sister’s floor in Lexington.
Maybe once in a while, like some Old Testament seer, we step into a warp and truly revisit the past.
Maybe when we move for good into eternity, we’ll be able to cross those boundaries whenever we wish.
Maybe none of this is true.
But I like to hope it is. I like to hope the past isn’t lost.
I not only want to live forever. I’d like to live again.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.