Past, Present, Future: problems, opportunities & Christian Faith

I’ve been listening to conversations and articles about how many people are trapped in their past, preventing them from living into the present or anticipating a future of new possibilities. There are others who appear to be consumed with the idea that one can live so fully in the present that past and future are of no consequence. There are yet others who live in the world of a desired future seemingly expecting it to come to them from a source of total fantasy. The past does not exist. The present is an inconvenient obstacle delaying the fantasy future from arriving.

In some measure, I suppose we’re all guilty but not to the degree that we allow the past or fantasy future to control our lives. It seems to me that a healthy life must be distributed in an appropriate way while anchored in tradition handed down through generations.  The present cannot be fully known and appreciated unless we know how we got to where we are.  A little nostalgia is not a bad thing but historical reality must always have the upper hand. It’s needed to challenge our prejudices and to point a better way.  Living fully in the present is needed to pause from mere busyness to appreciate grace, abundance, gratitude, and time for reflection. It’s needed to take new bearings, make course corrections, and check old habits interfering with new and improved direction. No one can know for certain what tomorrow will bring but it’s reasonable to anticipate, plan, and act in pursuit of one’s goals. The future is always an adventure. Well made plans take detours, go down dead ends, discover surprising opportunities, but the adventure comes to little without some planning.

As these thoughts rumbled about in my head I wondered how all of that fit into the Christian faith. From where has Christ led us, where are we now, and where are we to go?  It’s a difficult question because to live into its answer we must subordinate self interest to following Jesus.  Self interest is here now, tangible.  We have real matters to deal with in real time. Living into past, present and future by following where Jesus leads is not tangible, it lacks hard reality, and eternity is  farther beyond the demand of today than winning the billion dollar lotto – at least someone actually gets that now and then. It’s more difficult to grasp the concrete reality of living now into eternal life with God not fully realized until the gates of death are behind us.

Jesus commended the ancient words of prophets, instructing his followers to preserve what is old for its wisdom but to not be defined by it or by misleading interpretations and made up rules claiming to have biblical authority (Matt. 9).  You cannot understand the new if you don’t know the history of the old but it must be understood through the lens of the laws of love Jesus commanded us to observe.

No one, as far as I know, exemplified living in the presence better than Jesus.  He was fully present to each person he encountered, listening, understanding and responding with God’s grace, which, in some cases, involved appropriate chastisement.  He had only three years to complete his earthly ministry but took his time with frequent hours alone to commune with The Father. With divine authority he instructed us to trust God and not worry so much about material things. Material things are needed of course and God knows that, but look at the abundance and beauty of creation and we are of more value than that.  So trust God, follow in the way of love and what you have will be what you need (Matt. 6).  It’s a hard lesson. All of us know about the desperate needs of others and some have personal experience of extraordinary needs.  Failure and lack of security in the basics of life are real. Yet those who trust in God seem to have the resources needed to get through when others do not.

With trust in God and following Jesus in the way of love, the future will always be an adventure.  Like any adventure, it will come with risks, even danger, but it will also come with rewards of satisfaction and gratitude in spite of self doubt and the knowledge that good enough is as close as we can get to getting it right.  Planning with great expectations is not excluded.  Jesus made plans and was disciplined in pursuing them.  So did Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and every other generation of Christian disciples. Life always intervenes through chance, unforeseen conditions, and unintended consequences.  Mistakes are made, dead ends encountered, rabbit holes dived into. Life is always filled with the need to recalculate, and recalculating to keep things the way they are without change is the deadest dead end of all. 

The Christian life is a life of balance. It learns from and treasures tradition. It is as fully present as possible in the events of each day. It lays ordinary human plans for the future and works toward them but its ultimate end is a new and fuller life in God’s eternal presence.  It doesn’t deceive itself with magical thinking, unwarranted skepticism, naive trust in human goodness, or pride in self.  It trusts in God’s grace made known to us through Jesus Christ and it faces the unknown with courage.  It’s an ideal we fail to live up to yet it remains our certain hope that with God’s help we will make it. We are already walking into our eternal life, unsteadily, not yet there, but guided by its light.  Our obligation is to let that light shine into the lives of others in whatever way we can.

2 thoughts on “Past, Present, Future: problems, opportunities & Christian Faith”

  1. I collect quotations, and even have some of them made into posters. Your essay today reminds me of the one that now hangs on my office wall. I wish I could deliver the poster as it is, but here is the quote: “There is no distance on this earth as far away as yesterday.” –Robert Nathan, novelist, 1894-1985.

  2. I was struck in reading your new post by the contrast between two phrases you use in regard to love in the Christian life: “the laws of love” and then “the way of love.”

    The “laws of love” refers, as you immediately indicate, to Jesus’ modification of the Mosaic 10 Commandments to two, loving God and your neighbor as yourself.

    The second, “the way of love” could then be understood as the day by day practice of those two forms of love where the second follows from the first.

    The difficulty, however, arises by way of asking, Can love be commanded? Can I turn to another person and command that person to love me? —Well, no. Is there, then, something misleading in the whole notion of a “commandment” in regard to love as such?

    Here reconsider the phrase “the way of love” as itself articulating a way of life. The Christian way of life is the way of love enacted day-by-day face-to-face with this person in this situation, then that person in this next situation, etc.

    What would such a way of life intrinsically call for in the very moment of your facing this person in this situation, etc.? —Well, this is what the day-by-day life of Jesus shows us if we can read its presentation as given in Scripture.

    Assuming that we can so read, the issue then becomes living up to, so to speak, the gift presented to us through that reading. How does that take place? In how we read this person we are facing within how we read this situation in which we face them. What keeps on striking me here in regard to Jesus is his remarkably fresh openness to the very present specifics of this person in this situation.

    Of course, that radical openness does not take place in a vacuum. It takes place rather within Jesus’ equally remarkable reading of the Jewish tradition not to mention his remarkably open relation with his Father (e.g. the intimate form of address with “Abba”, etc).

    The above then locates, at least for me, the overall topic of your latest post. For it keeps on striking me that today there is an ever-multiplying and ever-deepening resistance and distortion of simply paying attention to receiving the gift of Jesus’ day-by-day life. As shown, for example, by the virtual elimination of reading Christian Scripture at Whitman in pretty much any course offered by the faculty (there may be one or two such courses in this coming year).

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