From the 2011 ForeWords archive:
The local daily newspaper (well, except it no longer publishes on Sunday or Monday, and the rest of the days’ pages, and editorial content, have recently been reduced dramatically–but I digress) carried what was billed as a “Guest Column” yesterday. I think, though, that’s just a term for a longer-than-usual letter to the editor and/or rant about whatever is the topic for the day. Anyway, the woman from my hometown started out with this:
“Does your heart grieve for the America we knew as we grew up? We could go shopping and leave the doors to our homes and cars unlocked. We felt safe because we had the blessings of the Lord God in our country.”
You can probably guess where she was headed for the remaining paragraphs. My initial thought was, “Yeah, I remember those days back in the fifties and sixties when I was growing up here in this town. Back when, next door in Independence and Kansas City, little black children weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountains or use the same public restrooms that little white kids (like me!) could use. Of course, we didn’t have that problem here in my hometown, because there was a municipal ordinance that prohibited African Americans from living here, or even visiting beyond sunset. (And, no, they were not referred to as African Americans.)
Or maybe I just grew up in a parallel universe from the newspaper’s guest columnist.
Psychologists and other social scientists tells us that people tend to remember things the way they want to remember them and not necessarily the way those events actually occurred. Furthermore, no amount of persuasion will change many minds or memories. Yes, the decade of the 1950s was a relatively placid period for some people. And in the sixty years since, the United States of America has become considerably more urban, congested, aggressive, violent, secular, pluralistic, materialistic, technologically oriented, suspicious of “the other”–should I go on with this list?
We can agree on one thing, I think: our world in the early years of the 21st century is a whole lot different from the 1950s. In some ways we’re probably worse off, yet in many others we’re far better off. Everybody’s got an opinion as to which it is (and maybe that’s part of our problem, too).
Just this morning I came across a CNN commentary blaming us baby boomers for the sad state of American political and governmental affairs. My generation is the one pretty much in charge of those things right now, so there’s probably at least some (or a lot of) truth to that.
But to get back to that original newspaper guest columnist, what troubles me most is the desire to shape our future primarily by a perception of the past. Certainly there’s a vast difference between history and shared story on the one hand and what I’ll charitably call rose-colored-glasses memories on the other.
This week’s lectionary epistle offers us the viewpoint of the apostle Paul, who recalls his previous life as Saul of Tarsus. But he doesn’t dwell just on his past (and being Paul, this is not just any old story but a first-century equivalent to “Extreme Life Makeover”) but puts it in the context of both present and future:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ [alternate: “faithfulness of Christ”], the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 3:4b-14 NRSV
By the way, when Paul says he now regards his wonderful, faithful life as an observant, “tribe of Benjamin” Jew as rubbish, keep in mind that Bible translators have cleaned that term up for publication (this is the Bible, after all!). What Paul actually wrote was the Greek equivalent to our four-letter S-word for excrement.
For Paul, life was all about looking ahead with anticipation and hope because of the new life he’d encountered in Christ Jesus. And he desperately wanted the same for others. Yes, he’d been blessed by an excellent childhood and upbringing, presumably within a stable and enriching religious environment. But compared to his vision of where he was headed, well it might as well have been…you know. Paul was not a perfect man, minister, or apostle (how’s that for understatement?), but his words can speak clearly to us two thousand years later.
We all see and hear it a lot these days: people claiming that God punishes individuals and/or nations by sending hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, epidemics, and economic recessions; and rewards/blesses others by providing wealth, security, and political success. Granted, there are instances in the Old Testament where God apparently did just that for (and against) the Israelites over the course of several hundred years. But, as I often point out, a basic rule of Bible study is in order here: You can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can’t do both. Obviously, not everybody (including in this instance, the aforementioned newspaper guest columnist) agrees with me on that. Maybe they should, however.
I keep coming back to one key part of Paul’s letter to the saints in Philippi: “…because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Note that Paul didn’t make Christ Jesus his own (in other words, his “personal savior”), but the other way around. That is what makes all the difference in how we understand our past, engage the present, and press on into the future.