Christ is the one who redeems your past in the present, for his name’s sake and for your future’s sake. In him, the past, present, and future cohere. In him, and him alone, all this mess and muck generates a sweetness for the life of the world. The traits that make us a gift to the world are a direct result of our past experiences. Antoine Saint Exupery wrote, “Your whole past was but a birth and a becoming” (The Wisdom of the Sands). God does not bless you despite your past, but through your past. He uses it to draw you toward himself and to equip you to draw others toward him. He uses the past to nourish you. He uses the past to feed a starving world. I do not know how, dear friends, but I know it is true.
Unbelief prompts us to run from or manage the past, but belief calls us to remember the past. All of the past. In Pilgrim’s Progress, once Christian reached the other side of the Valley of the Shadow of Death which he traversed during the night, he stopped for a moment and looked back. In the morning light, he could discern his footsteps through that valley and could see all the places along the way that terrified him. He did not look back with rose-colored glasses and a sense of nostalgia. No, he looked back with Jesus-colored glasses that enabled him to clearly see and catalogue the steps in the dark and count their cost. Rose-colored lenses are never enough to redeem the past; they can only discolor the past. God, however, offers us Jesus-colored lenses instead of rose-colored ones. Jesus-colored lenses render everything, especially the past, meaningful and rich.
My grandfather was a tree farmer. I still remember when he showed me a tree trunk and taught me that the rings marked the tree’s age. The thickness, shape, and movement of each ring indicates the rate of change for that particular tree. A severe winter, for example, creates a dark growth ring. Pleasant seasons, insect infestations, likewise have their impact on the rings of the tree and people who know how to read those rings can tell you the life story of a tree. You do not notice the growth rings when you are standing in a forest, but they are there, hidden, active, very real. Here’s an interesting revelation: when you cut a tree vertically to create boards, tree rings form the grain of the wood. We judge a table’s beauty and strength by its grain; in fact, we varnish that table to accentuate the wood grain. Slice a tree however you want, horizontally or vertically, and its story will beautify. Look at your kitchen table, at wooden frames, or the back of a cello. Notice the story of that wood. A whole new world opened for me when I learned about tree rings from my grandfather. It was as if he gave me new eyes with which to see what I had overlooked or dismissed.
It seems fitting, then, that in Isaiah 61:3, God’s people are called oaks of righteousness be- cause we have growth rings, too. Layer upon layer upon layer of meaning and richness, the storied testimony of God’s work in our lives. We do not notice those growth rings in ourselves or in others when we are eating dinner or driving to work or standing by the lockers at school, but they are definitely there, hidden, active, and very real. No matter how you slice a life, horizontally or vertically, the rings of life, the marks of our past, add meaning and richness and beauty to the world and to us.
It is good for us to pause periodically and read those growth rings, notice how the past has marked your life and how those marks make your story beautiful. Ceremonies like graduation and weddings are just such an opportunity, but we can do so at any time: bed time, evening walks, dinner dates. But without Jesus-colored lenses, it is difficult to see all the growth rings, all the meaning and richness that God continues to pack into a person’s life. God sings his creation, weaving all of it into a harmony we will know clearly only after we cross Jordan and enter Emanuel’s land. Pain or no pain, shame or no shame, God packs our history with richness worthy of singing, worthy of poetry.
Horatio Spafford had a family much like my own: four daughters and one son. He was a prominent lawyer and real estate investor in Chicago, but the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed the city and wiped out Spafford’s wealth. Shortly thereafter, scarlet fever took his four-year-old son from him. A couple of years after these calamities, the family decided to vacation in England for the fall. You can imagine the anticipation, excitement, and planning involved. Unfortunately, Horatio was delayed by business and sent his family ahead without him, his wife and four daughters–eleven-year-old Annie, nine-year-old Maggie, five-year-old Bessie, and two-year-old Tanetta. On November 22, their ship was accidentally struck by another ship and sank. Two hundred twenty-six people died that day, including all four of his remaining children. Only his wife, Anna, survived. When she arrived in England, having traveled the rest of the way in lonely grief, she sent home one of the shortest and saddest telegrams in history. It said, simply, “Saved alone.” Horatio boarded a ship immediately. Days later, passing over the very location where his daughters drowned, he wrote a song that is still beloved across the world: “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Whatever my lot,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
Is nailed to the cross,
The trump shall resound,
His life and convictions have plenty to critique, but God used him to write something that is beautiful, moving, and true–despite himself. This hymn, like the psalms, reminds us that a soul’s health is not measured by how little trouble it experiences or how free it is of darkness. Nor is it defined by what has come before or what is happening now in a person’s story. A soul’s health is defined by the competency, attentiveness, affection, intimacy, and care of the one who is writing the story. God is the one who not only knows your story, but tells it moment by little moment. He is the one who understands the story’s meaning, the purpose of your life, and how everything weaves together.
Maybe your life will be relatively easy. Maybe it will be remarkably troubled. In either case, I know that nothing in your life will be wasted by the master story-teller, a God who values you and values your story and will resolve all your pain and shame and longings and gladness when you finally cross Jordan and enter Emanuel’s land. In the meantime, you will need as much courage to face the past as to face the future, but in that courage you will find God present and active, whispering into your soul the good news that neither death nor life, nor angels nor the clash of powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor that time in 7th grade, nor your broken family, nor what will happen next year, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). These are God’s promises and, therefore, mine.
I see a bright new day dawning. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow, but it will come and it will subsume our past. I know this because the apostle John heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’ Then he who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ And he said to me, ‘Write, for these words are true and faithful.’ And he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End’” (Revelation 21:3-6).
Wherever you are, whatever looms on the horizon or leers at you from the past, you must still take a moment to remember the past.
Remember so that you are equipped to step into the future as God’s ambassador to preach good tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, to rebuild the ruins, to condemn what God condemns, to love what God loves, to see what God sees, to raise up the former desolations of many generations. You are, after all, God’s child, an oak tree of righteousness. He delights to send broken and heavy-hearted people to heal and beautify the broken and heavy-hearted. Who better to empathize with them? Who better to encourage them? Who better to serve a waiting world than you, dear friend? Who better prepared and sent than those who remember their past?
Go with God.
Go with God and remember!
[read more in Honey from the Lion’s Mouth: available at a bookstore near you]