People of Memory, Presence, and Hope
So about a week ago I posted on Facebook a thought attributed to Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu (better rendered, Laozi, a title rather than a name for the author of one book Tao Teh Ching that doesn’t include anything like the following quote- that is, he never said it. Its a misattribution to get you to think it must be true) . The quotation was, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” I think there is some truth and wisdom to the quote. However…. I also don’t entirely agree that the conclusion to be drawn is that we are therefore to live fully in the present as people of peace. Even as I posted it, fully agreeing that its message is one that might help us at times to diagnose our depression and anxiety, there was more to be said, not only about anxiety and depression, but also about our orientation to time: past, present, and future.
As I began to reflect on this, the title that I eventually used for this blog post came to mind. As a follower of Jesus Christ I feel called to be a person who stands equally in all three times, and even – to some extent – in all three emotions. The challenge is to maintain the tension and balance of our position. We can become stuck in the past. We can be fixated on the future. We can be aimless in the present. Living oriented in on only one, or excluding one, of these is problematic for our sense of who we are and where we are going.
Christianity has a journey focus – we are going somewhere. It also has a sense of discontent with what is now. I hear Jeremiah remind us not to cry “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14) While the future may hold anxiety, it also holds hope. We yearn and seek that which lies over the horizon… we discern the work of God, “who is doing a new thing.” And we do this with a sense that it keeps us from stagnation, it keeps us from accepting a status quo that is not fully justice or peace or love. We are moving towards Promised Land, towards rivers flowing with justice, towards Jerusalem (and the cross… and the resurrection), towards New Jerusalem. We must be people of the future.
Christianity has a strong sense of presence. I think of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter and yet so aware of the moment that he is able to stop and acknowledge the hemorrhaging woman offering her healing not only of body but of mind and spirit as well – something that would not likely have happened if Jesus was so fixated on where he was going that he couldn’t stop be truly available to unexpected ministry in the moment. (Mark 5) We are to see Christ in the neighbor, love strangers, seek to know one another, travel together…. all of these require us to be present in the moment. Not just physically present but emotionally, spiritually, and mentally available to those around us. We cannot be so fixated on the future we yearn for that we aren’t actually living in the present reality. We cannot be so tied to the past that we aren’t even aware that what we recall is no longer the state of our world. If we are living in a memory of what was (what used to be) it is much harder to be present to those around us.
And yet, we are people of memory – of the past. There may be no greater moment of this than Jesus saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The Table where we break bread and poor cup is likely the best example of having a foot in the past, present, and future. (Okay so we don’t have three feet – I didn’t say it was easy, following in the way of Jesus is hardly ever easy.) Our Jewish roots are a wonderful example of being rooted in key narratives of the past. Remember we were slaves in Egypt… remember when God rescued us… remember when we sojourned… remember these stones, when God brought across the river Jordan… remember exile, estrangement, alienation, rescue, healing, and promises – always remember promises. We are not simply are own people – we got here because someone else journied, helped us, carried and pushed us, we are here because God formed us in the womb, loved us, and sent us out into the world – the present, and the future. We do not wish to be tied, tethered, or anchored in the past. But we are rooted in it. In Paul Ricoeur’s great work on symbols he reminds us that symbols exist embedded in narratives that give them life, without such narrative the symbols have little meaning. And I’m reminded of Abraham Heschel’s great thought that it’s not so much that the Jews have kept the Sabbath but that the Sabbath has kept the Jews. Placing oneself in a story that is rooted in the past (but not stuck there) gives life and meaning to our own stories. We do not live in a vacuum – we are people of the past, of memory.
Any orientation to the exclusion of any other way of making meaning and finding purpose is a problem. Jesus calls us to a way that is ripe with paradox, and tensions that try to hold us in a place of faithfulness. Grace is paramount… but must not become cheap. We are to love all people… but not at the cost of forgetting to love our self or God. We are to yearn for God’s coming Kingdom… but not miss the wonderful blessings already all around us. We are to remember who we are… but not miss the God who is doing a new thing. Not just a new thing, “Out there.” A new thing in you – and in me.
So how balanced are you in orientation? How balanced is your community, and God’s creation? Be people of the past… of the moment… of the future. People of memory, presence, and hope. Thanks be to God, so be it.
(I’m not entirely sure who the photo credits go to, photo was shared by wimp.com on Facebook on 9/6)