Father's Day 1977 in Glenrock, Wyoming.
When I dig through old pictures and see one like that at the right, I never know whether to laugh or cry, feel a warm nostalgia or a sense of loss. Should I feel invigorated by the past or just feel ... well, you know ... old? That picture was nearly 40 Fathers Days ago: A lot of "past"!
All of us have a past. Some have longer pasts than others. Many of us realize our past is probably much longer than our earthly future. Sometimes that can feel warm and hopeful; other times it brings apprehension or fear.
But, our past can be more than an element of time. The past is not just "back there." It is a part of our present and future being.
Recently, while developing this Reflection, I downloaded the latest sermon by pastor and friend Steve Jones.Steve and I have a long and good "past", as do our families. Steve was pastor at Central Baptist Church in Wayne, PA, when we moved here from Wyoming in 1988. We've stayed in touch and have visited as he served in Birmingham, Michigan, Seattle, Washington, St. Louis, Missouri, and now in Kansas City, MO, where he is pastor of First Baptist Church. I couldn't believe it: It was about the past! "God Between Me and My Past." Dr. Stephen Jones is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and this sermon was one in a series, "God Between Me and ...." In his sermon, Steve talked about this other dimension of the past, the dimension that continues to influence us. It's what we mean when we ask about another person: "Wonder if she has a past?"
"When we ask, 'Do you have a past?'" Pastor Jones says, "we aren't asking how long you've lived, but, 'Does your past cast a shadow upon you today?'" I like that visual of our past casting a shadow. Most often when we think of this shadow of the past, we think in terms of trials or actions we regret, both those by others and our own acts. (Steve' sermon focuses on these more negative parts of our past: our need to heal hurts, both seek and give forgiveness, and such. [See full sermon text in Resources below.]) But, I think our shadow of the past can also have woven with it rays of good events, of feelings we cherish and would like to relive.
Thinking of my past's shadow, I feel fortunate that it doesn't seem a dark one. While I've had disappointments, challenges, a few trials, and much I wish I hadn't done and a lot I wish I had done; I have not experienced any traumatic events that left damaging scars. I know many others who have experienced serious trials, discriminations, and losses that continue to haunt and affect them today. Some pasts never find their much-needed healing.
What stimulated this look at the past was a recent visit to the Upper Ohio Valley, where my past began and grew. As a side trip of our annual Three Stooges Baseball Week in Pittsburgh (see my 10/18/2013 Reflection), my son Alan and I went a bit further West toward Wheeling, West Virginia, and visited my (and my wife Rose's) growing up haunts in that Steel Valley. Seeing my tangible past: our old homes, the steel mill where my dad worked and what was his old farm on 49 Hill, as well as the church of my youth, and my alma mater Bethany College, evoked memories of my past, which still casts both warm and chilly shadows over me.
But, this Reflection isn't only about our pasts. We all have a future. We set goals, we have hopes. Hopes for ourselves, for our families, for those we love. How difficult it would be to live today focusing only on the past, without any dreams for the future. As Christians, we dare even to hope and dream of that ultimate eternal future in the presence of our loving God.
That shadow of the past not only affects us today (both in positive and negative ways), but it has the power to influence our tomorrows. For some the past is so threatening that it is difficult to even consider having dreams for the future. For others the longing for some "good old days" past is so strong than any thought of a new future is stifled by a longing for the past.
But, this Reflection is not only about our past and our future. It's mostly about our "Today". Of the three states of our days, I think our Todays get short-changed.
Often, we can miss out on our Today because we view our Today as just a step to a Tomorrow. It's like Today isn't allowed to be an entity unto itself. The local major league baseball team, The Phillies, wasn't expected to have a good year ... and it isn't. I still enjoy watching the games on TV, though -- what a great way to spend a hot, summer evening. But, many friends say they don't pay any attention. "They aren't going anywhere," they say, "Why watch?" Yeah, I know; but, it's still baseball. Will they turn this needed double-play? That rookie at first; will he live up to expectations? Enjoy the game TODAY!
My brother Lynn and I, c1949, Beech Bottom, WV.
I played high school and college football and coached the sport. There was never a thought about making it to some future playoffs. Not that we weren't good; playoffs just didn't exist! Football is a good game in itself ... it doesn't have to take you anywhere. We hear good coaches and managers (and players) stress "Play it one game at a time!" Even though they have goals to make it to the playoffs and further, they realize that it's the Today that's critical. Playing and living our Today fully is what takes us to the Tomorrows of our dreams.
During my morning devotional time, I begin my prayer portion with, "God, I thank you for this day that you have made. Help me be thankful and rejoice in it." Sometimes, on a day that is already looking like a miserable day weather-wise, I'll laugh after praying that opening. I'll think that either God or I, or both of us, must have a sense of humor. "This is a God-created day?!" But, then I think, hey, THIS IS the day, the 24-hours I have ... the day that God has given me. This is TODAY!
Our past may cast its darker shadow as well as its warm thoughts of pleasant times; our future may loom both a bit threatening and perhaps a bit hopeful; but, Today is our now; today is what we have. Let's not short-change it. Let's live in our Today. At a Morning Prayer service I'm part of, we often end our spontaneous prayer time in silence, directed to think about our upcoming day and invite God to be a part of it. I think about all the stuff already on my plate as well as the unknowns I cannot plan for. While that may sound like a trite exercise, I find that it really does make me think about this special time, my Today. With all this day may hold, how can I take Today lightly?
In Matthew's gospel (8:25-34), Jesus tells us that worrying about the future can detract from our Today. But, it's not just worries about tomorrow that detract; our greatest hopes can diminish our Today. As Christians, we look forward to that bright future of eternity with God. However, much like an athlete looking too much toward a post season, even our hope for a future glorious eternity can become a longing that takes away from our Today.
In a segment of my Bonhoeffer daily readings titled In Step with God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes from prison about the dangers of awaiting too eagerly that day to go permanently to God.Letters and Papers from Prison, page 94. "I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and in all the good things God sends us," Bonhoeffer writes, "that when the time does come (but not before!), we may go to God with love, trust, and joy." He likens this almost obsessive yearning, as like a man in his wife's arms, but hankering after another world. He stresses the importance of Today: "We ought to find and love God in what we are actually given. ... (we should not) allow our happiness to be corrupted ... by religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives." (See Resources below for full text of this interesting selection.)
From scripture, we get a picture that our sense of time is not the same as God's sense of time. "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day." (2 Peter 3:8-9); "For you, a thousand years are as a passing day, as brief as a few night hours." (Psalm 90:4); "I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done." (Isaiah 46:9). Although we can't think like God and are constrained by our human concepts of time and how we experience it, perhaps we can think about time being a continuum that weaves our past, present, and future ... and at this moment we are in our Today.
Some might disagree with me, and I don't even know whether I'm theologically sound, but I've grown to think of this idea of Eternal Life not as something "out there", in the future. I think we are in it today, as we have been, and as we will be. In the Book of Common Prayer's absolution after we have confessed our sins, I've found the final phrase to be very meaningful as I reflect on this view of us already in eternal life:
Have a good TODAY! And may God's peace come and God's will be done in our Todays on earth, as indeed it will be for all our Todays in heaven.