New Beginnings - Forget

Philippians 3:12-13  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.

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Graham Greene was a great English novelist, and among the many wonderful books he wrote was a little story called Monsignor Quixote.  It’s about a priest who is traveling with a companion with whom he does not always agree.  They have very different beliefs and somewhat different values, and after a night of heated disagreement, his companion comes to the priest sheepishly, somewhat apologetically, about last night.  Father Quixote says he has no idea what he is concerned about, for he hasn’t any recollection of whatever they discussed the night before.  “I am trained to forget what I am told,” he says.  Even when it’s not in the confessional?  “It’s much easier for a priest to treat everything as a confession.  I make a habit of never repeating anything to anyone – even to myself, if possible.”

Most people, including his bishop, seem to find Father Quixote to be rather simple – simpleminded.  You know, not too bright.  He certainly is unsophisticated, having lived in the same poor village his whole life, except for the time he attended seminary. 

I don’t believe I know anyone who makes a practice of forgetting.  Most of us are preoccupied, even obsessed with remembering.  When we are younger remembering is easier – but the bar is set pretty high, with all the things we are expected to learn.  As we get older the expectations are lower, which is a good thing.  Our ability to remember things is increasingly challenged, as our mental filing cabinets get overly full and disorganized. 

Last week as we began our series on New Beginnings we focused on remembering – a worthy goal, I’m sure you agree.  Remember the successes, and even remember the failures for the sake of knowing what we did wrong and trying to avoid that particular wrong in the future.  Remembering where we have been, with hearts of gratitude, will surely help us determine where we are going.  But is there also a place, as we move forward, for forgetting?

The Apostle Paul seems to think so.  In his letter to the Philippian church he speaks of forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.  One thing we should know about this:  it was probably one of the last letters Paul wrote.  This was a letter written late in his life.  There was a great deal behind him, which he was choosing to forget for the sake of what lies ahead.

For everything we remember there is also a way in which we would be better off to forget it.  Allow me to suggest three things.

Forgetting the ways in which we were wronged.  It is a temptation to remember every slight, every offense, every abuse we have suffered.  Some of us are very good at holding grudges.  We seem to think remembering these things will somehow bring balance to the universe – or at least, maybe, protect us from ever suffering such an insult again.  There’s that old saying: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. 

And it is not altogether wrong that we should remember the offenses, for the sake of being aware of how we may be hurt.  Jesus advised his disciples to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves when he sent them out into the world.  Be wise to the sinfulness of the world in which we live, and the ways we may be hurt.  But at the same time, remember what is good and pure and worthy of our time and effort.  It is too easy for thoughts of past wrongs to poison our minds and hearts.  To the extent that you are able, forget the wrongs of the past.  It will free you to live in the present and move into the future.

I always remembered those words of Monsignor Quixote more than anything else in the story, because it explains so much about the Father – why he walks around so sublimely happy so much of the time!  Happy are those who don’t remember the ways they have been slighted, cheated, or offended by others, for they shall be content.  They shall have the gift of living in the moment.

Forget the ways in which you have been wronged and be at peace.

Forget, also, the way things are supposed to be.  We all know how things are supposed to be, and this will cause us more grief than we care to deal with.  More arguments are caused by people who know how things are supposed to go than anyone or anything else.  I haven’t actually researched this, but I’m saying it anyway because it feels true.

I don’t think I need to remind you of the seven most exalted words in the life of the church:  We’ve never done it that way before.  Or its close cousin:  This is how we’ve always done it.  I would bet that every one of us has said these words at least once.  And while it can sometimes be helpful to know how we have always done it before – especially for a new pastor trying to figure things out – it’s also a way of closing off imagination, conversation, even possibility.  The problem with doing things the way they are supposed to be done is that things actually change. The world changes – everything in it changes.  And the truth is we don’t know how the Spirit will be at work in our lives; we don’t know what God has in store for us.  When you think you know how things are supposed to happen, you close your mind to the possibility of how things might unfold.

Forget how things are supposed to be, and look for the way things are.

Finally, let’s forget our successes.  I know what you are thinking.  Forget our successes?  Why in the name of all that is good would we want to do that?  This can be a harder thing to make sense of.

Last week we talked about remembering that we have been through hard times in the past, that we have weathered storms and survived to tell the tales.  Remembering can help us to believe that the hardships we are experiencing will pass.  Remembering can give us assurance that because we have made our way through storms in the past we can make our way through it again.  Remembering the past can give us strength for the present and hope for the future.

While all that is true, remembering can also get in the way.  I used to work at a church that was seeing a drop-off in attendance, especially among younger people.  We were having a hard time getting youth involved in the church, and there was some growing anxiety about the situation.  We weren’t just sitting around doing nothing – we were trying to do faithful ministry for all ages, but not seeing a lot of results.  And I began to notice something happening.  I was hearing the same sentiment expressed by many people:  If we could just have SALT again! 

SALT was the name of a youth choir that had been active in this church about 20 years earlier.  SALT was a great program.  The choir had attracted youth from all over the community – not just church members. They had traveled all over the region, bringing the good news in song and bringing fame to themselves and the church.  SALT had been a phenomenal success – at least as it lived in people’s memories.  And the darker our current situation looked, the brighter SALT shone in people’s memories.  “If we could just have SALT again” became a sort of mantra.

But we would never have it again.  It was a different time in the church and our culture.  We could have hired a director and designated some funds and resurrected the name, but we still would not have had SALT again.

Sometimes we need to forget the things of the past for the sake of living – really living.

Recently, I heard someone say, “It seems like the more I let go of, the more I get.”  And I have been considering just how true that might be.  We spend so much of our time and energy in the past, holding on to good memories we wish to return to, or bad memories we wish to protect ourselves from or even avenge ourselves for.  We spend too much effort trying to maintain control of things, keeping them the way we like and feel comfortable with.

Imagine all these things as stones you are holding in your hands.  They’re attractive stones, sure, and they seem worthy of our efforts to hold on to them.  But one day you might get a glimpse of a stone of such beauty as you haven’t seen before – just a brief glimpse, really, because you are mostly preoccupied with keeping your grip on the stones in your hands.  But when you happen to glance up and see this new stone, you immediately know that it is worthy of taking hold of.  Yet, you can’t.  Your hands are too full already.

Sometimes you need to let go for the sake of something better.  As we begin a new year, let us consider forgetting those things that lie behind and strain forward for the sake of what Christ is opening before us.

Verses

"God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

John 3:16