Looking Backward

By JIM NICHOLS

Apparently, the man’s car got stuck in reverse gear. When he arrived at the small local auto repair shop in Arkansas, he had backed his car several miles into town and to this shop. Since this was a place I used (the only shop in town brave enough to work on VWs in the early 1970s), I was there to hear this firsthand. Besides wondering where the police had been during that trip, I was struck at the skill of driving using only a rearview mirror and a strained neck looking backward. Modern cars have backup cameras, but even they are not designed for driving backwards.

I had occasion recently to dig through material looking for reprints of scientific articles that I had written or contributed to. This spanned decades of laboratory work and was like driving backward through a portion of my academic life. Appearing were not only data and graphs, but the names of colleagues and coworkers. I was pulled back into specific laboratory rooms with the accompanying sounds, temperatures, and odors. 

That retrospective caused me to remember how I am a different person now compared to then. My interests and abilities have changed; what I deemed as important then has been altered significantly. Yet what I did then became a part of me, and it is impossible and unnecessary to try to forget it. Your life would have different specifics, but I suspect you feel the same way. 

A question I am asking myself is, “As I accumulate memories in my rearview mirror, will that help me or impede me in the future?” This becomes more important as we make a spiritual application. What is the role of my spiritual past as I look to my spiritual future?

Some aid comes from scripture. The preacher pointed out the fascinating contrast of comments in the book of Isaiah. In chapter 43 he tells the people to forget the former things because he (God) is about to do a “new thing”. Three chapters later he tells the same people to remember God’s works in the past. So, which is it?

This is a classic illustration of avoiding “either/or” thinking and substituting “both/and” thinking. God wants us both to remember the past and to anticipate a new future. “Both/and” is often the pattern we see in scripture. It is not always a comforting approach for us because we prefer things to be more definite, but, then again, when have we ever found God to be definite about anything except his love, grace, and care for us?

God is not suggesting some sort of spiritual amnesia for us. He wants us to treasure our past experiences and the manifestations of his love. Those experiences, however, have come within a context of circumstances, people, and places and those items are all gone now. The teaching it seems to me is to take our history seriously and with appreciation, but to avoid using it as necessarily predictive of the future. Both scripture and church history are full of unexpected and unpredicted activities by people trying to follow God. They displayed both a dependence on their history and bravery to move on where they felt God was leading them.

The applications here are both communal and individual. For example, church congregations each have local histories that have shaped the group. Those histories were appropriate and healthy for that time, but not necessarily for this time. Perhaps God has a “new thing” on the horizon. 

Individually, you and I face the same situation. God has acted in our lives in the past, but he has not stopped acting today or tomorrow. We treasure our past blessings, trials, and forgiveness; God has used them to craft us to be the people we are today. The challenge is to avoid being stuck in them.

This is a significant challenge for us; we must navigate the future by looking to the past. This will involve selectivity and grace. What are we to do with God and history?

It will probably help if we remember that our car windshield is much larger than the rearview mirror. 

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

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