Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Out with the old?

I guess New Year is the time when 'out with the old' is much on people's minds, the New Year being a useful metaphor for the opportunities presented by 'new beginnings'. In this sense 'out with the old' can be a very powerful and positive driver, although only of real use if our theoretical commitment to the sentiment is actually matched by our practical completion of it. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth about their desire to do a particular thing says:
"Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it....." 2 Corinthians 8:11 (NIV)
This is great advice for anyone, especially at a time of commitment to new beginnings, when we have mentally resolved to take action.
However, the 'out with the old' bandwagon can also be very damaging if it is misunderstood, wrongly applied or used simply as a mechanism to achieve one's personal agenda.

There are a great couple of verses in Isaiah 43 that can, and should, be both an inspiration and a spiritual driving force. When we allow the Spirit to write them onto our heart and we seek to understand them in the light of both the original and our own current context they will be liberating and empowering.
Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV)
"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland."
How full of hope and promise is that for those at the point of 'personal resolution', for those at the doorway of a fresh start, for those conscious of past failures but with a determination to 'move on in righteousness', for those who know about God's saving acts of the past and are looking for his salvation in the present?

And yet so often it is read or heard and the first reaction is to rip it out of its context and immediately apply it to a specific church or denominational situation something along these lines: 'great, we can forget all the traditions and activities of the past, the 'old stuff' and move on with everything modern and contemporary. It is then usually wielded 'weapon like' to trample on those whose view of how the past relates to the present and the future differs from ours! I know this because I have wielded that 'weapon' many times. On many of those occasions I could not have been more wrong.
It isn't that these verses don't have application to church or denominational situations,they do, they're just not the place to start!
American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (from "Life of Reason I") and this is a wise saying to remember when seeking to understand and apply Isaiah 43:18-20. There are many occasions where scripture positively exhorts us to remember things of the past:
Psalm 42:4 (NIV)
These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.

Psalm 77:11-12 (NIV)
I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.

Isaiah 46:8-9 (NIV)
"Remember this, fix it in mind, take it to heart, you rebels. Remember the former things, those of long ago; I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me.

Isaiah 64:5 (NIV)
You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.

Ezekiel 16:43 (NIV)
" `Because you did not remember the days of your youth but enraged me with all these things, I will surely bring down on your head what you have done, declares the Sovereign Lord. Did you not add lewdness to all your other detestable practices?

These are just a few of the many..... and there are some common and important themes running through these samples and the others you may want to check for yourself.
It is god to remember actions and activities,failures and successes, salvation and judgement, with a view to leading us closer to God in the present. This 'leading us closer' can be brought about through shame or repentance, encouragement or worship or a myriad other triggers that are used by the Holy Spirit as we remember. I am often taken by surprise as I hear clear and powerful echoes in much of our modern worship from Wesley or Watts or Faber, old and important truths given new life - not because we have forgotten, but because the songwriter has remembered! I am often thrilled to remember how God has worked in the past, not because I want to revisit it or try and slavishly copy what God 'did then' but to feed my vision of the greater things He wants to do now.
So what are we to 'forget' in the Isaiah 43 sense?
Forget those sins for which you have repented and received forgiveness - which means do not let them exert any further influence in your life, because as Wesley reminds us 'He breaks the power of cancelled sin'.
Forget the ways that God did things in the past - not in the sense of 'not remembering' them at all, but rather in not assuming He will do things the same way now.
Don't even remember those activities or 'traditions' and so on that bound and didn't liberate - but be honest with God and ourselves as we do this so that we aren't using scripture in a self serving and shallow way.

On an individual and corporate level the important questions to ask prayerfully are:

'what do we need to forget, because to remember will tie us to the past rather than release us in the present?'

'what do we need to remember, and learn from the past, in order to prepare and equip us for the present and the future?'

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