Saturday, July 09, 2011

Looking back and looking forward

Don't say, ‘Life was better in the “good old days.” What happened?'
Wisdom does not lead us to ask that question.
Ecclesiastes 7.10 (ERV)

I am a huge believer in learning from history. Context is a key word in my life, and I wholeheartedly agree that we can avoid repeating errors or reinventing the wheel if we take time to study the historical context of a given situation. We can build on past successes and learn from past failures. The problem is that, as in so many other things, we tend to extremes. We either shun the past as archaic and only teaching us what not to do - or we glorify it and make it an ideal to which we must strive to return. I see this tendency in the political realm, in the educational realm, and even in the church realm. 

A deeper look at a couple of examples from "the good old days" underscore the wisdom of Solomon's words. We often imagine homesteading and the westward expansion as times of vibrant growth and  incredible opportunity. We wonder if we could have had our own "Little House on the Prairie" - failing to realize that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books to champion the very opposite of "free land" but instead to show through a child's eyes the hardships that homesteading brought and the power of family and faith to overcome those hardships. 

Similarly, you may have heard your parents say, like mine, that "life was better in the 50's" and if we could just return to those days when "everyone" was publicly Christian and there was prayer in schools, life would be idyllic. The reality is that life in the 50's brought its own set of problems and challenges - its own rights and wrongs. The same public acceptance of faith that supported Christian prayer in schools also, in many cases, turned its back on civil rights and allowed segregation to continue. There was a strong "us vs. them" mindset that is memorialized forever in pictures out of Little Rock Central High School. Things needed to change.

Unfortunately we make the same mistake in looking at God's global purposes. As we awaken to the reality that He is up to something far bigger than our corner of the world, we sometimes glorify believers in other cultures, or persecuted believers, or missionaries throughout history. We speak in awed tones about those who awaken at 4 a.m. to pray; who are in prison today; those who packed their belongings in a casket; who persevered despite a spouse with mental illness -- we begin to think that there is no way we can serve Him well and effectively where we are. Missions becomes an ideal rather than a daily reality. We forget the words of Paul: 
From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
God CHOSE when and where we live. All the "nations" (literally people groups) are divinely placed to maximize the likelihood they will reach out to Him. We each have a very definite role to play in that process, and much to learn (both good and bad) from those who have gone before, but we err when we elevate anything to a level God never intended. We really err when we let it become a stumbling block to our own effectiveness in His kingdom purposes. 
What does the Bible say we are to learn from these past heroes? Hebrews 13:7 tells us to "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." Their FAITH - not necessarily every decision or method. 

Looking back is helpful to help us learn instruction (1 Corinthians 10), gain encouragement and be reminded of God's character, or be strengthened by others' faith. Looking around at other expressions of worship or persecuted believers likewise brings important lessons. C.S. Lewis noted that reading old books serves as a corrective to the blind spots of our own era. Likewise, looking at believers in other contexts can help us better discern those elements of our faith that are cultural and not biblical. But from Genesis to Revelation, God's word is forward-focused-- moving toward a culmination of all things in Christ. Keep pressing on for that upward call!

Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philipians 3:13-14 (NASB)

1 comment:

Stacy said...

aptly put. this blog entry was very timely for me, as you will see in my update soon to come. thank you for tirelessly sharing His very truths with us out there. I, for one, am very grateful for the gifts you exhibit. You bless me :).