A Not-So-Perfect Past

Happy Monday to you. We have passed halfway through Lent, leaving behind the distinctions of culture, personality and denomination to take our place among the disciples following the lead of our Lord and Savior. Our Lenten Journey is an exercise in Christian discipleship; it is both demanding and challenging. But the course is well-traveled and well-marked. Followers of Jesus have traveled together along this path since the early fourth century.

PRAYER: (from the Lectionary)

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

SCRIPTURES: (from the Lectionary)

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

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 wilderness… (Is. 43:18-19).

Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves (Ps. 126:6-7).

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14).

QUOTE:

“But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in Him but in myself and His other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.” —St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), from Confessions, 397 A.D.

PRAYER FOCUS: A Not-So-Perfect Past

Today we pray—sincerely and with fervor—that with God’s help, we may overcome our “unruly wills and affections,” that we might love God’s ways more than our own, that our wandering hearts might be “fixed where true joys are to be found.”

Why?

Because, one of the greatest sources of human suffering is wishing that something in our past was not so.

We’re not talking just about our mistakes and shortcomings—all of us have done things we regret (and our personal list seems to grow longer with each passing day). We’re not talking about lessons in living with (or overcoming) the consequences of our errors. We are talking about the long-term inability to get over a hurt, failure or disappointment, having our attentions so fixed in the past that the pain remains alive. We are talking about a persistent, willful, highly painful, very human tendency to return to past ways, sins, and patterns. Such a backwards focus can become a crippling and disruptive force that wreaks great havoc in our lives. God doesn’t want that for His beloved children.

The clear and strong theme in this week’s Lectionary scriptures is: Leaving your past behind.

Robert Robinson lived and died in the 18th Century. Like so many of us today, Robert had a wandering heart and a past he couldn’t quite let go of.

Robert’s father died when was he was eight. As a teenager, Robert was sent to London as a barber’s apprentice. Before long he became a juvenile delinquent. He especially liked to harass preachers, until the day he met George Whitefield, a contemporary of John Wesley. Robert’s salvation and conversion were actually quite profound. He himself became a Methodist preacher and a lettered theologian. He wrote music and hymns. In his early 20s he composed the Christian classic “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

Then Robert’s faith began to waver and his heart began to wander. He lapsed into the softer “feel good” theology of Unitarianism. Success left him. He slid into a lifestyle of self-destructive behaviors and sin. Years passed.

In this “spiritually backslidden condition” Robert found himself one day traveling in a stagecoach with a young woman who was humming the tune to his most famous hymn, which he himself had written many years before. She became quite enthusiastic, bubbling on about what an encouragement this song had been to her. Robert politely tried to get her to change the subject. But the woman wouldn’t leave it alone. Turning to him, she asked if he knew the hymn that had meant so much to her.

Robert Robinson broke down in sobs. He confessed, through flowing tears, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who composed that hymn, many years ago. And I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I then had!”

The young woman replied, gently, “Sir, the ‘streams of mercy’ are still flowing.” And they were.

How do you go from writing such powerful and soul-stirring words as in this hymn to a place where you would give a thousand worlds to know and experience what you once had in the Lord? The authors of The Monday Prayer imagine that many, if not most of us can testify to that answer in very personal terms. Perhaps a more important question is: How do we overcome the unruly wills and affections that caused our hearts to wander in the first place?

The answer is–not by accident, and not without effort.

Robert Robinson’s story ends well. His fellowship with the Lord was restored through the ministry of his own hymn, and through a fellow Christian’s willing witness. But he had to put his past behind him. And thereafter he had to keep a tighter rein on the wandering heart we still sing about.

St. Augustine (quoted above) wrote about living incurvatus in se (Latin for living “bent in” on ourselves). Such is the sad state of our natural human condition. In order to be bent away from our human selfishness and back to our Father-God we need to be discipled.

This is not a one-time event, but a long-term intentional process requiring deliberate and repeated corrections, much like learning to fly an airplane. You see, we are not born knowing how to fly, either. But it is not impossible to learn, and the freedom gained is worth all the investment cost of the lessons.

God very much wants us to be free. Perchance you’ve noticed He’s deeply invested in our freedom. None of us can change what’s happened to us. But we can receive healing in “streams of mercy.” And we can—indeed we must—learn to master our unruly wills and affections.

So let us pray. (Repeat Lectionary Prayer above…)

It’s Monday Morning. Isn’t this a good week to let go of your not-so-perfect past?

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

[Fourth stanza to Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, by Robert Robinson (1735-1790).

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