April 11, 2014


When I neared the end of my master’s thesis, I carefully placed it into a plastic bag and stored it in my freezer. The thought that I might lose months of research, hours of editing, and pages of my deepest thoughts bothered me—until I came up with my ingenious solution. My basement apartment might burn down, but my master’s thesis would be safe.

The writing of a master’s thesis, I decided during that crisp fall of 1980, was almost as much an exercise in typing as it was in anything else. It was all about getting the margins right, centering the titles, making sure the footnotes didn’t offset the spacing at the bottom of the page. Unless you had your own private secretary or could afford to pay a typist (I didn’t), you were destined to hours of checking your margins with rulers, blowing on globs of correction fluid, and praying that you wouldn’t be knocked out of the ballpark just because your final product didn’t meet the specifications of a committee that had way too much time on its hands.

In short, your master’s thesis was that physical document. If, after all your hard work, it became lost or damaged, you were left with nothing.31 1 7 6

Fifteen years later I found myself once again facing a scholarly challenge. But when I began to work on my dissertation at Boston University, a whole new world had just begun to open. This time it was all about backing up work, saving thoughts to hard drives and floppy disks, making sure interview notes were transcribed and preserved.

The physical document was no longer synonymous with the dissertation. Reflections, hypotheses, conclusions—all could be printed out. But the genius of it all was not the paper and ink that revealed the heart of the matter. The printed copy was simply the physical manifestation of the thoughts preserved in a more permanent place.

Scroll ahead almost two decades. Last week a friend cornered me when I was eating my lunch. “I don’t know what to tell my husband,” she said. “After his father’s funeral, he has been wrestling with how God can preserve the essence of who he was; I really don’t know what to tell him.”

“If you had asked me that question before the day and age of computers, it probably would have been harder to explain,” I said. “Now, it’s actually crystal clear to me.”

I told her about my master’s thesis, the freezer, the 65 finished pages. “That physical manifestation of my thoughts was my thesis,” I told her. “If it ‘died,’ there would be no evidence of my work.”

I moved on to my dissertation: 456 pages of crafted profiles, stories of brothers and sisters of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. “The printed version of their stories is just that,” I concluded. “A printed copy. The real essence of my work is still preserved on the hard drive of that old computer. The bound copy is simply a manifestation of what is stored in the memory. If my house burns down and I lose every copy of my dissertation, the work is still saved on the hard drive in my office.”

Yesterday, just five months after my own father’s funeral, I took a folding chair to the cemetery on what would have been his ninetieth birthday. My sister, her husband, and I sat there for more than an hour remembering our parents, crying, sharing, and thanking God for the legacy of James and Gloria Finley. Their physical bodies may be gone, but preserved in the hard drive of God’s memory is the essence of who they were.

When the time comes, God will fire up the printer, and on the very finest of paper begin again the manifestation of their story.