Eighteen years ago today my Mom passed away after suffering a massive stroke. I will never forget the sense of dread that swept over me when the president of the college where I was teaching came to my classroom and told me I needed to call my Granny. My worst fear had always been that something would happen to my Mom, and then Granny would die shortly after, and I would be all alone. On April 11, 2000, that nightmare seemed to be coming true.
As it turned out, I was wrong (as is often the case with the anxious worries we experience). Granny lived ten years after Mom passed away, and I can’t imagine any grandson having a closer bond that I did with the woman I talked to every day for a decade. And the same year that Granny’s body began to slowly wear out, I reconnected with a friend from my college days and started dating. Granny never got to meet Kristi, but I told her about my new love, and Granny was very happy.
By the spring of 2011 I knew that I was going to ask Kristi to marry me – I just needed to pick the right time. And then it hit me – April 11. That had been such a sad date for so long, but I could choose to give it new significance. And so, the evening of April 11, 2011, I popped the question, and Kristi said, “Of course.”
There are things in life that we cannot control and cannot change (like my Mom’s passing). Sometimes these events are the result of choices other people make that we have no influence on at all (like my father’s decision to abandon Mom when she became pregnant). Sometimes we make bad choices or let good opportunities slip away (why didn’t I pursue Kristi in college?!?!?!). But whatever has happened in the past, we have the freedom to make better choices in the present and create a better future.
Is there a clearer example of this in the Bible than the apostle Paul?
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4b-11)
Paul’s encounter with Christ forced him to dramatically reevaluate his past and chart a different course for the future. Paul’s history was not Paul’s destiny! And Christ can make the same difference in your life.
Perhaps there is a date in your life that marks a heartbreaking loss. Grief and remembrance are an important part of life, but this may also be a great opportunity to give that date new significance by serving someone else. During one of our trips to Moffitt Cancer Center for Kristi’s treatments we ran into the husband and daughters of one of our church members who had passed away. They were marking the anniversary of her death by passing out flowers at the clinic. What a beautiful gesture!
Or, maybe there is a day seared into your conscience because of a moral failure. That date on the calendar might become a reminder to get away and spend time alone with the Lord – or to spend a day sharing the gospel with others. Or, perhaps it could be a time to seek out the fellowship of Christians who will encourage and reassure you.
And there may be a day that is memorable because of something good that happened that you can reassign an even greater spiritual significance. This is what the Lord did with the sabbath command, which was first given as a day of rest from toil (Exodus 20:8-11) but invested with additional meaning as a celebration of the deliverance from the toil of slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). And it is what Jesus did in taking the Passover and (in musical terms) raising it to a higher key through the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29).
The point is that we should not ignore the past, but neither should we feel imprisoned by it. Christ enables us to put the past in its proper perspective because of what he has in store for us in the future, and that gives us the guidance we need to live in the present.
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)