Friday, January 8, 2016

Forgetting and Anticipating (Phil.3:12-16) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today is the first Sunday of a brand new year.  Welcome 2016.   What does this mean?  One meaning is this – its time for something new, different, it's time for a fresh start?  On March 28, 1947, Bronx bus driver William Cimillo climbed aboard his bus, as he had for years, to start his daily route.  But something happened.  Cimillo decided he'd had enough.  Instead of driving his normal route, he headed his bus south, going nowhere in particular. He stopped in New Jersey for a bite to eat, and parked in front of the White House and walked around D.C.

Three days later, he was in Hollywood, Florida, where he stopped for a nighttime swim. Cimillo was totally free and strapped for cash. He telegrammed his boss in New York, asking for $50, and that's when the cops showed up. Two New York detectives and a mechanic were sent to fetch the runaway driver and his bright red bus, but the mechanic couldn't drive the bus, so they had Cimillo drive them back to New York.   Upon arrival, Cimillo discovered he'd become a legend. People across the country sent him fan mail, newspapers portrayed him as a working-class hero, and his bus-driving buddies raised enough cash to cover his legal expenses.

The New York city transportation system decided not to prosecute.  In fact, they gave Cimillo his job back. For the rest of his life, Cimillo never pulled any more wild stunts.  Instead, he kept on driving  the bus for 16 more years before finally passing away in 1975.  Asked why he did it, he said: “This New York traffic gets you.  It's like driving in a squirrel cage. Everybody is constantly complaining.  I needed a change.  I just wanted to get away and do something new."  I think most of us can relate to that feeling, though I'm not sure he chose the best way.  But maybe that's just me.

A new year means many things: new beginnings, new opportunities, second chances and questions:  What are my priorities for this year?  What changes should I make in my life?   What does God want me to do with my life this year?

Our first word in this new year is that Jesus cares deeply about our lives, yours and mine.   And that includes every aspect of your life –  intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational.   Jesus cares about your values, choices and priorities.  Jesus said:  “I have come that you might have life and life abundant.”    Jesus earnestly desires that we live with a sense of purpose and joy and power, and not simply exist, not merely endure, not merely get by.  How might you discover that abundant life?

Our second word comes from the letter of Philippians.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:  Forgetting what lies behind!   I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ my lord.”

Paul called upon the grace of God to help him forget things about his past.  And Paul had reason to forget.   Before becoming a Christian, Paul, formerly Saul, was an agent of the Sanhedrin, the governing body in Jerusalem, tasked with persecuting the first Christians, arresting them and putting them in jail.  He watched as the apostle Stephen was stoned to death.  Because of his background, after his Christian conversion, he regarded himself as the least of the apostles.

God is saying in this passage that some things in our past need to be forgotten.  We live in the tension between our past and our future, between what we have been and done and what we aspire to be and do.  Now it's not always easy to forget certain things, is it?  I’m sure you’ve tried so have I.  Sometimes you can will yourself to forget.  Sometimes it takes the support of someone else to help you move past it.   But other times you find you just cannot get past it.  No its not always easy to forget.

What do you want to forget about last year or in previous years?   Is there something that haunts you or wears you down or is sapping your strength?   Is there something that is robbing you of joy?

I personally believe, based upon the truth of scripture, that it's all-important to at times exert the energy that's required to stop thinking about something in your past.

An abundant life is difficult unless we learn to throw the past into the past and free ourselves from its shackles.  Without the power to do this, the prospects of a healthy life are slim; the capacity to move toward the future is limited at best and virtually impossible at worst.  Experiencing joy is nearly impossible if you are burdened and weighed down by hurtful memories, sins, shame, regrets, grudges, worries, missed opportunities, disappointments, resentments, failures and defeats.

Now there are different levels of forgetting.  We forget things for a moment like the name of our best friend, or our address or where you put your cell phone or what you had for breakfast.   Sometimes I will think of something and go into another room to get it.  But once I'm in the other room I have forgotten what I went there to get.  I have to go back to the first room to remember what it was. We might forget our spouse’s birthday or anniversary or our child’s or grandchild’s soccer game. I don't recommend these by the way.

The apostle Paul is speaking about something deeper.  The forgetting that comes with forgiving someone which opens the door to reconciliation, the forgetting that brings healing, the forgetting of not a memory per se, but finding freedom from a memory's emotional power, the destructive and crippling hold which memories can have on us.   The late theologian Paul Tillich said: “It is forgetting in spite of remembering.”  You may retain a memory of some hurtful incident, but its power over you is broken; it can no longer bring you down.  Because our hope is in Christ, we can turn to Him, pray for the power to let go of past guilt and look forward to what God will help us become.

Someone said:  “Don’t water yesterday with today’s tears of regret and don’t blacken today with yesterday’s burning resentments.”   Re-living a failure, harboring pent-up anger toward ourselves or someone else, makes us miserable and robs us of the power of our faith for tomorrow.   Don’t let it diminish your relationships and the joy and energy of your life and faith.

Please don’t misunderstand.  The past carries many uplifting, energizing and inspiring memories.   Remembering them brings joy, comfort and a richness to our lives.  We can learn from past mistakes, we can bring lessons learned from our past into our future.  But there are also times when we need to rise above our past, to transcend it, to be free from our past, if we are going to enjoy a meaningful and joyful and productive future.

Let's take a moment and turn to the lord in prayer.  Remember that you may need to repeat this prayer at times.  Let us pray: “Dear Lord, I praise you for the promise that we can turn to your grace and power.  I pray for your power to help me forget, to help me overcome, to set me free from this thing that's holding me back as I begin a new year.”    

Our third and final word also comes from Philippians:  “Straining forward to what lies ahead.  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.   I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”  Strain forward, press on, focus on tomorrow, reach toward the life God has in mind for you.

Anticipating the future, looking ahead is God’s will for us as well.  Concentrate on where you are going and imagine the victory that lies ahead.  Set a goal.   Are you growing spiritually?  Do you need to strengthen your moral compass?  Are there skills you need for the workplace?  Is there one relationship you wish to concentrate on?  Where is God calling you to serve?  If you want this New Year to count for something, strain forward to what lies ahead.

A good goal is to honor and glorify God each and every day.  It is to know Christ, to be like Christ, to follow Christ.   Why?  Because you belong to Christ.  Jesus bids us to greet life and the future with expectation, reverence and courage.  Jesus wants us to wonder as we wander, to touch and savor, to find the uncommon in the common, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Eighty-six year old Joy Johnson, a veteran of 25 New York City marathons, died in 2013 with her running shoes on.  Johnson was the oldest runner in the marathon.  She fell at the 20 mile marker.  She crossed the finish line at about eight hours.   After the race she returned to her hotel room, lay down with her shoes on, and never woke up.

Johnson didn't run her first marathon until she was sixty-one years old.  The only hint of the sport was the verse from Isaiah 40:31 which hung on the kitchen wall in her family farm home in rural Minnesota: "But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

Johnson was a stranger to personal exercise until she took a three-mile walk in 1986. Then she started jogging and competing in 10-K races.  By 1988 she had competed in her first New York City Marathon. Three years later she recorded her best time at age sixty-four with a time of three hours and 55 minutes.

A few years ago she told a reporter about her exercise regimen.  She would wake up at 4 A.M., drink her coffee while reading her Bible, and then set out on an eight mile pre-dawn run. "When you wake up it can either be a good day or a bad day," Ms. Johnson said. "I always say, 'It's going to be a good day.'"

The devout Christian ran every day except Sunday so she could attend church.   Johnson sang hymns to herself to pass the time while running.  According to Johnson's daughter, "She was always a happy runner and besides her faith and family, this was something she loved the most."

Jesus said:  “I have come that you might have life abundant.”  No, it's never too late to change, it’s never too late for a new beginning, you're never too old to start a new journey with God.  Something to think about on this first Sunday of a new year.  Amen!

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