Tag Archives: Past

Lessons of the Past

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
    and who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were cut
    and to the quarry from which you were hewn;
look to Abraham, your father,
    and to Sarah, who gave you birth.
When I called him he was only one man,
    and I blessed him and made him many.”
Isaiah 51:1-2 (NIV)

I’ve always been a lover of history. I love learning about the past, and I love it for a host of reasons. Among those reasons are the lessons found in one of life’s paradoxical mysteries. Things do change, yet we often use the adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” There are some things about human nature and society that remain amazingly static and simply get reinterpreted with each subsequent generation within the context of the times they find themselves. I find this a perpetually helpful reminder.

I can’t help but think of the current circumstances we find ourselves in here in the States. We feel acutely the tumultuous election in the United States and the deep division that’s being felt and expressed among our fellow citizens.

What has changed is that social media has allowed for unprecedented exchange and dissemination of immediate thoughts and feelings from POTUS to the lowliest citizen in real time. This has highlighted the stark differences of thought and opinion across hundreds of millions of people in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a decade or two ago. We are quick to stake our claim that we’re “more divided than ever” and we are this or that “of all time.” Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that we as humans like to lay claim to being wholly unique and exclusive in our human experiences.

It’s another thing I love about the past. It teaches us lessons of comparison that put our present circumstances in context. I’ve seen snarkiness, sarcasm, rage, and vitriol across the entire spectrum from extreme right to extreme left and back again. We are living in divisive times. Nevertheless, we haven’t killed a half-million of each other as we did in 1860-1865 (the featured photo of this post is that of Civil War dead). I haven’t seen in recent months the attack dogs and fire hoses of Bloody Sunday. I haven’t seen news stories of entire neighborhoods on fire. I pray we can learn from those lessons and keep ourselves from returning to such insanities.

In today’s chapter, God through the prophet Isaiah hearkens the Hebrew people to learn a lesson from their history. He tells them to look back and remember the story of Abraham and Sara. He tells them to recall the promises made and kept to Abraham. They were encouraged to trust the promises of the past. As God was faithful in His promises to Abraham, He would be faithful to His promises to Abraham’s children.

This morning I’m thinking about the past. I’m recalling my own relatively short life journey and the difficult times I’ve witnessed and experienced. I’m recalling some extraordinary good times I’ve experienced as well. The things we feel so acutely in this moment will pass. They will give way to other experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Time will march on.

One of the things my faith has given me is a broader eternal context in which to place my present circumstances. I do believe there is a reason for all of this. I believe it’s all connected and part of a larger narrative. The past has moved us to this point int he story. We will propel the story forward in our lifetime. Just as Isaiah encouraged the Babylonian refugees to take comfort in the promises of Abraham, I can hearken back to the eternal promises given through Jesus, the prophets, and apostles and take comfort in them.

The Recurring Theme of “Old and New”

theoden-transformation-gif

On this last weekday of 2016 it seems to me a bit of divine synchronicity that I should read these words from the ancient prophet, Isaiah:

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!”
Isaiah 43:18-19a (NIV)

Old gives way to new. Growth. Metamorphosis. Transformation. As I have journeyed through God’s Message these many years I find this to be one of the basic, recurring themes in all of God’s Message to us. In fact, it’s a recurring theme in all that God has created. God is all about transformation:

“Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
– Jesus (Matthew 9:17)

 “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
– Jesus (Matthew 13:52)

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.”
– Jesus (Mark 2:21)

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
Romans 7:6

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
2 Corinthians 5:17

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Revelation 21:1,4

Another year draws to a close. Once again I am prompted to reflect on where I’ve been, recognize where I am, and set course for where I’m going. I can’t do anything about yesterday. I am not guaranteed tomorrow. But I can choose what I think, say, and do today. I will set my trajectory. I can make a course correction. I can let go of that which has brought death. I can reach out and choose Life.

This morning, I find my spirit whispering (once again):

God,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

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Pondering the Prophetic

Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
    the pride and glory of the Babylonians,
will be overthrown by God
    like Sodom and Gomorrah.
She will never be inhabited
    or lived in through all generations;
there no nomads will pitch their tents,
    there no shepherds will rest their flocks.
Isaiah 13:19-20 (NIV)

Prophecy is a part of the human experience. It is a mysterious thing, yet even our great stories are filled with it:

  • The weird sisters prophesy that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland.
  • The otherwise prophetically inept Professor Trelawney utters the  prophetic words that speak of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort’s  connected fate.
  • Aragorn cites the words of Malbeth the Seer in making his fateful decision to traverse the Paths of the Dead.

I find it fascinating that our greatest stories quite regularly contain an element of the prophetic. Good stories are a reflection of the Great Story. The prophetic is a mysterious part of our human experience.

Reading and interpreting the prophetic writings of the ancient Hebrews requires knowledge, context, and discernment. The writing of the ancient prophets like Isaiah point to things that were, things that are, and things that yet will be. They are often woven together in a stream of poetic imagery that can be, and often is, misunderstood as we try to separate the strands.

As I attempt to understand the weave of prophetic strands in today’s chapter, there are two themes on which I find myself meditating this morning.

First, God was not opposed to utilizing kingdoms like Babylon and Assyria, to accomplish His purposes. This is not an isolated to occurrence. In fact, it is a recurring theme in the Great Story. From Balaam’s donkey, to the mysterious Melchizedek, to Rahab the prostitute, to the evil King Herod whose tax-raising census brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy, God uses a diverse and motley cast of characters and nations to drive the story line of history. This raises a number of fascinating questions. This morning, however, I find myself reminded not to try to put God in a box that He has not defined.

Second, I’m thinking about the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, which are very visible today. While God used the Babylonian kingdom (despite their wickedness) and wove them into narrative in interesting ways, Isaiah’s prophecy is quite clear about the ultimate end (see the verses above). The ancient city of Babylon was, by all accounts, an amazing city. During two periods of history it was the largest city in the world. The hanging gardens there were among the “seven wonders of the ancient world.” But, within a few hundred years of Isaiah’s writing, the words of his prophecy would be fulfilled.

The ruins of Babylon are located just outside of Baghdad in Iraq, and can still be seen today. Despite Saddam Hussein’s failed attempt to resurrect the glory old city, Babylon remains “a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris.” (Wikipedia)

In a time of political upheaval and present uncertainty, I find myself this morning taking quiet solace in the larger narrative of the Great Story, in the realization that God weaves many diverse Peoples and political regimes into that narrative, in the mystery of the prophetic, and in the present evidence of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic words.

 

The Importance of the Backstory

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
Leviticus 20:10 (NRSV)

Over recent months I have been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is not an easy read. Rather than a simple and continuous narrative, The Silmarillion is a collection of stories that, together, create the cosmology of Tolkien’s fictional universe from its creation.  Having a lot of excellent on-line reference material has been extremely helpful.

Slogging my way through The Silmarillion I am constantly inspired as I make connections and gain a broader understanding of the backstory of The Lord of the Rings. Knowing the backstory makes the story I know so well even more colorful and thought provoking. I better understand why the elves are leaving Middle Earth and where they are going. I better understand exactly what the “Three rings of elven kings” really are and represent. I learn the skinny on Shelob the giant spider and the evil Sauron, the scary faces in the Dead Marshes, all the obscure references made by the hobbits and about hoard they find with the barrow wights in the Old Forest, and the song Aragorn sings as he and the hobbits camp on the road to Rivendell.

In many ways The Silmarillion parallels the loose collection of history, poetry, prophecy, and legal text that make up what is commonly known as the Old Testament. For many people these ancient writings are difficult to wade through and understand. Nevertheless, I’ve always found that without them I have an incomplete view of who Jesus is, what His message was about, and why things happened the way they did. The stories of Jesus suddenly gain more color and depth in context with the backstory.

One such example struck me this morning. According to Levitical law in today’s chapter, those who committed adultery were to be put to death – both the man and the woman who committed the deed. I then thought about the story in John’s biography in which the religious leaders, seeking to trap Jesus and discredit him, bring a woman to Him. She had been caught “in the act” of adultery and deserved the death penalty. They wanted Jesus to render the verdict. If He let them kill her then it would be unpopular with the crowds, but if He let her off then they could accuse Him of being a lawbreaker.

But Jesus knew today’s chapter as well as they did. If she was caught “in the act” then where was the man who was committing adultery with her? He was to be put to death as well. The story said that Jesus sat doodling in the dirt as the religious leaders were making their case. Perhaps Jesus was symbolically writing the name of the woman’s lover into “the record.” Knowing the law, I begin to understand how hypocritical, misogynistic, and crooked these religious leaders proved themselves to be with their accusations. Without even saying a word, Jesus’ brilliant response called the leaders to a legal point-of-order. His gracious forgiveness of the woman means even more to me in light of this context. [Note: you can read the brief story in John 8]

This morning I’m thinking about backstories. Beyond The Silmarillion and the Old Testament, there are also backstories to our lives, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world. I realize, once again, this morning why I love history. Knowing backstories helps me better perceive and understand things in the present. With that, I can made better decisions and judgements in the present just as Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery.

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Recounting

“The following are the kings of the land whom Joshua and the Israelites defeated….”
Joshua 12:7a (NRSV)

In the fall of this year, Wendy is scheduled to direct a musical for our local community theatre called The Christmas Post. She’s directed it twice before. It’s been ten years since the last time. Yesterday Wendy was putting together some of the required paperwork and she handed me a list of all the shows she’s been involved in over the past 11 years. It filled the better part of a page, single-spaced.

Oh my gosh,” she exclaimed as she held up the list for me to look at. “This is a lot of shows! You don’t think about it until you really write it all down and see the whole list!”

She is right, of course. Along life’s journey I’ve discovered that it’s good to recount things. Just think about the word: re-count. Count it again. Make a list. Go over the list. Think about it. I have always had a bent towards history and nostalgia, so perhaps it comes a bit more naturally to me. Nevertheless, I’ve found it worthwhile. Recounting things reminds you of where you’ve been, which gives you perspective of where you are, which then helps you make informed decisions about where you’re going, which helps you choose the next step.

Recounting can also remind you of what God has done in the past, which strengthens the faith you need in the moment, so that you can press on in the journey to which He has called you. It is a repetitive theme throughout God’s Message: Remember these things. Teach them to your children. Don’t forget this story. Feast each year and recount what happened. Count your blessings and name them one-by-one.  “As often as you do this, remember me.”

Today’s chapter is not exactly full of inspiration. It’s simply a recounting of the kings who Josh and the 12 Tribes defeated. But it serves as a reminder that sometimes it’s good to re-count. Recount the good times. Recount the times God answered a prayer. Recount what got me to this place. Recount the lessons I’ve learned.

Happy recounting.

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Backward Glance

But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead….

Philippians 3:13b (NIV)

Anyone who has regularly read my blog, listened to me speak, or who knows me for any length of time comes to realize that I am a lover of history and one who appreciates the past. I have this freaky brain that remembers all the names of the kids in my 1st grade class but can’t recall the name of the guy I met this morning. I have an appreciation for the way our past has shaped us and has led us to where we are today.

I have equally come to appreciate this reality: While the past has shaped my present I am not bound to it. I am free, in the present, to choose this day what I will do and how I will act. The past may have ushered me to this place, but I choose where I go from here. The only power that the past has over me is that which I choose to give it.

Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back, is fit for service in the kingdom of heaven.” If I’m looking backwards then the row I’m hoeing will be crooked. I can’t move productively forward in life if my mind, will and emotions are fixed on what happened to me, or what I did and chose to do, in the past.

A glance backwards can be beneficial as a point of reference. Where have I been? How far have I come? How did I get here? What can I glean from where I have been? I cannot, however, truly progress in my life journey until I willingly choose to turn away from the past, look at where I am, give thought to where I am going, and move.

 

photo:  madelinetosh via flickr

Everyone Has a Past; Everyone Has a Story

An illuminated manuscript showing Dr. Luke at his writing desk.
An illuminated manuscript showing Dr. Luke at his writing desk.

And Saul approved of their killing [Stephen]. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison. Acts 8:1, 3 (NSRV)

Sometimes there is meaning not only in the text itself, but in the context of the writing. Dr. Luke is writing this historic account of the events surrounding the early days of Jesus’ followers after the resurrection. He not only investigated the events but was a primary source. He knew these people. He spoke with them, travelled with them, and observed many of these events first hand. Three of Paul’s letters (Colossians, 2 Timothy, and Philemon) reference Luke specifically.

So, today as I read Luke’s account of Stephen’s execution and the bloody persecution of Jesus’ followers, it was not lost on me that Luke is not shy about naming the responsible party: Saul. In tomorrow’s chapter, Saul will be blinded by the Light and transformed into Paul. Paul, Luke’s friend and traveling companion. Paul, the author of most of the texts we find in the New Testament. Paul, who would be transformed from executioner into the  early Jesus followers greatest champion.

I wonder what it was like for Luke to write these things about Saul, even as he knew Paul.

This morning I am reminded:

  • Everybody has a past. I wonder how many of Paul’s later converts knew that he was responsible for the killing, torture, and imprisonment of many fellow believers. No time for shame. It’s not about who we’ve been, but who we are and who we are becoming.
  • God can transform lives. Saul became Paul. God can and does transform lives. Light shines in darkness. Love conquers hate. Old things pass away, and new things come.
  • Every person has a story to tell. I love hearing people’s stories. I find it fascinating to hear people talk about what they’ve experienced, what they’ve learned, and where they are purposing to go in life. So, what’s your story?