Tuesday, February 26, 2008

To Begin Again

Many years ago Louisa Fletcher Tarkington wrote a perceptive poem entitled, "The Land of Beginning Again." It begins and ends with a verse which is almost a universal wish.
I wish there were some wonderful place
Called the land of beginning again
Where all our mistakes,
And all our heartaches,
And all of our poor selfish grief,
Could be dropped like a shabby
Old coat at the door,
And never be put on again.

Do we not all, periodically, wish that could happen to us? We would do it at once if we just knew how. But, one does not live long without learning that this is not easy, even when it feels necessary.

There is something about the past which troubles all of us, even if it is nothing more than the nagging belief that we could do better if we had another go at it. Burdens and baggage of the past constitute such a terrible load for so many people! Until we can get rid of some of what we are carrying, we cannot take on more.

Admittedly, some of the burdens of the past are real. They cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand. They represent the residue of old errors that have left scars and, sometimes, open wounds. Some of them are unfulfilled obligations that, whether they were wise or unwise, must still be met. Not all of the baggage of the past is imaginary, but much of it is.

All of us carry some baggage from the past which could be laid aside and never picked up again because it does not exist in reality. Our unwillingness to let go of the past hurts; our ignorance about how we may be forgiven and our blindness and insensitivity to the joys we could experience when we put unnecessary baggage aside keeps us a prisoner of the past. Only God knows how we hurt as the result of unresolved aspects of the past! Only God knows what we may become if we could be free of our unresolved and unredeemed past that we cannot change!

We can lay aside the anchors we have been dragging and gain dominion over the obstacles and burdens in life. I do not mean to be casual about your past, for who would be insensitive enough to be casual with people about the places where they hurt, the emotional "hot spots" of life? Our emotional and spiritual pain is serious business and should not be treated in a cavalier fashion. I cannot forgive sins or redeem the past for you. I cannot even do that for myself. I can only tell you where it can be done. The Bible teaches us that we do not have to be a victim of our past – unless we want to.

The Bible is filled with the idea of beginning life over again. Early on the concept of a new beginning became necessary in the life of God’s creation. When we were bounced out of the Garden of Eden we did not fall into the front pew of First Methodist or First Baptist Church! We fell into a world where we had to make choices which were more complicated than whether or not to take a bite of the apple. And we have never been the same since. Ever since Eden we have been building up a past that has to be dealt with. Jesus came into our sin-stricken world to tell us how to deal with our past.

When Nicodemus, that gentle and learned Pharisee, came to inquire of Jesus, the Master told him that he would have to be born again. Nicodemus tried so hard to intellectualize the process. He pointed out to Jesus that it is impossible to be born again. He raised anatomical problems with the process. He literalized what was spiritual and, therefore missed the point – a mistake from which we still find it difficult to learn a lesson. The marvelous thing about what Jesus taught was not so much that you must be born again, but that you can be born again.

Whatever loose ends may be lying out there in the past, God can help us gather them into new beginnings. Forgiveness is for the asking. "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). "As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12).
While some people are haunted by the past, there are others who are lured to it, like a moth to the flame. The past is used as a place of comfort and security in a world of chaos and change. Some psychologists say that people who are threatened in ways they cannot handle tend to return to earlier levels of development (the past) for security. Those who constantly return to the past for security are in as much danger as those who flee from it and are haunted by it. Sometimes people keep going back to their past hoping it will improve. There is nothing more futile than trying to create a better past. There is a country song that has a very sad line in it about the past: "It looks like looking back is all I have to look forward to." If all our happiness is in the past, we are not likely to be happy again. You cannot live with the past when it is gone. Don’t try! Your story will be too sad to tell. It is better to trust the uncertain future.

No person need stay the way they are. The good news is that you can change.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Explaining God by Dr. Thoms Lane Butts

Explaining God

When my grandson, T.L., was about 6 years old he had just finished a class in the Catholic Church preparing him for his First Communion. He was very proud of what he had learned about God and Jesus, and so were we all. T.L. had come with his parents and his little sister, Winslow, to spend the weekend. As we sat down for the first meal after their arrival, I looked around the table and asked who would like to say the blessing. T.L. quickly volunteered. His 5 year old sister spoke up in support of T.L. by saying: "My brother knows everything about God!" I asked T.L. if this were true. He said: "Grandfather, I know all about God. It is in a book I had to read, but I have lost the book." Guess who said the blessing! There was something strikingly symbolic about losing the book that explained everything about God. I thought of mentioning that "losing the book with all the answers" would be a problem all his life, but he was too young and too confident of what he knew to have his grandfather disturb that wonderful but temporary state of being. He would learn the truth soon enough.

It is 57 years now that I have been in the business of "explaining God"; embarrassingly often to people who were better acquainted with God than I. I used to be good at it! I was as confident of my complete knowledge of God as my six year old grandson. Now I have learned too much to have even the faintest shadow of an idea that I know very much at all about the Almighty. When I was young God was small enough to be encompassed in my descriptions. After all these years God has grown far beyond my feeble explanations.

Some days I reflect on what happened to the God of my youth, the God who was well within the range of my verbal skills. That nice comfortable God disappeared somewhere in the study of astronomy, physics, cosmology, and the Bible. When I learned that the earth was not the center of the cosmos, not the center of the "Milky Way," or even the solar system, God began to get bigger than my explanations. When I learned that our little solar system is in a remote corner of our unremarkable galaxy which is 100,000 light years across and contains a billion or more stars like the star we call the sun, and that the visible universe contains billions of galaxies like our own, and that even with the Hubble Telescope we have not yet found the edge of the universe, the God of my youth disappeared and there appeared a God too large to explain. This became a humbling experience for a person who is in the business of explaining God.

As a child I prayed to a God who was "good and great," but in adulthood I learned that this God who is indeed "good and great" is also subtle, elusive, and even strange. If I had read the Bible with greater care when I was young I might have suspected that God was different from (as in more than) what I thought. Isaiah 55:8-9 reminds us: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways says the Lord. For as high as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." Now I cannot speak of God quite completely. I can only point at Jesus and the universe, both of which are beyond my explanation, but they refer to an even larger reality that we call God.

I miss the God of my youth who was so easy to explain. I feel like Thomas Hood who in the last verse of "I Remember, I Remember" wrote:
I remember, I remember
The fir-trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ‘tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from Heaven
Than when I was a boy.

When I speak of God these days I have to qualify my explanations with: "There is more, much more." I realize most of you want someone to tell you everything about God. Sorry about that. Not now. Perhaps later, in another dimension, in "an older place than Eden and a taller town than Rome." "Now we see through a glass darkly," said an old friend a couple of thousand years ago.

AN ENCOURAGING WORD for September 6, 2007 - written by Dr. Thoms Lane Butts, Pastor Emeritus, Monroeville First United Methodist Church