Look Back, But Don't Even Try to Go Back: Old First E-pistle 10.07.10

Look Back, But Don't Even Try to Go Back: Old First E-pistle 10.07.10

Is it that I’m repeating for the first time the Fall season at Old First (as I begin my second year)? Or is it because, having attained a certain age, I notice that the number of life’s possible variations is limited? Like having seen enough human faces, one encounters new people only to be reminded of someone already seen or known. Life itself risks feeling repetitive!

But I believe, with both anxiety and relief, life does not actually repeat itself. More to my point: nothing can ever be quite so good the second time around. Perhaps, it’s part of the human condition, the “set-up” of life–  to keep us from resting on our laurels… falling into a rut… failing to preserve some wonder and an openness.

Only repeating earlier successes sentences us to live in the past. I pray most of us have had, somewhere along the line, great moments of accomplishment. Understandably, we find solace in remembering the triumphs. We should take pleasure in what we have done well. But it’s not sufficient to try and repeat it, if ever you could.

The scientific method insists a researcher can reliably replicate the results of an experiment. A certain method proves successful, and scientists need, sticking to that exact strategy, to be able to do the same thing over again, and end up with the same results.

All our lives, and life itself, may be an experiment. But it’s hardly conducted in the sterile, constant conditions of a laboratory.  To try and repeat past successes is to overlook the infinite numbers of variables in life. In life, we never get the same combination of circumstances twice. Experiences over time may provide haunting echoes, but life never repeats itself.

Even if the same thing could magically happen twice, we’d experience it differently on the second go-round. Not only would we be older and bring to it everything that had happened since the first time, we’d inevitably experience it differently– as the mirror of our first perceptions of it.

For this reason, living is not as easy as deducing, developing, following any formulas or recipes for success. “What worked before” is an important historical question. But the pressing, existential question is always, “What is demanded by circumstances now?”

There’s a danger in worshiping one’s past successes. The threat grows with the more success one has had. The past can be inspiration, can be mined for patterns that provide guidance. But the past, by itself, is never sufficient for the present.

In the hymn “Abide with Me” (which we will be singing in worship in two weeks), there’s the verse “Change and decay in all around I see.” A more prescient re-writing of that line might be: Change or decay in all around I see. Unless a individual– any living organism– changes, it necessarily dies. Myths of changelessness abound in human culture (the church being a primary purveyor!), because we are constantly vulnerable to change. But only fossils don’t change– and a fossil has been dead for a very long time.

Learn from the past we must, but repeat past success is impossible.

Imagining how true this can be for us individually, consider how true it is also for our church. We have had great ministries. We tell of them, give thanks for them.  But we can never repeat them. It’s impossible. Anyway, God wants us to do something else.

Knowing how much, how deeply change can be experienced as threatening, fear of change is understandable. But attempts to replicate past successes or to resist change result in failure. Survival, abundant living are found in a fearlessness, an expectation of, even wonder about the change that is yet to occur and already happening among us.

Faithfully yours,

Michael