I didn’t realize then in ’65 when I left for college that the years would show changes that were an eraser on my past—even though God alerted me through a well-known prophecy for Israel which must have relevance for all believers:
“See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; …” – Isaiah 42:9.
As I stepped into my future there could be no going back. In a sense like our Lord’s disciple, Matthew, when he left the receipt of custom [Matthew 9:9], he forsook his Roman commission to guarantee the government so much tax return. This was not a job to lightly dismiss. He could not go back. Like Matthew, but in a slightly varied way, the bridge, as the analogy goes, was burnt down behind me making a return to a former time or a former life impossible.
Nothing here sounds unusual, I suppose, because as the history of anyone’s life is written the story unfolds always forward. No one can really return to their childhood. No one can return to college or even the old homestead and expect things to be as they were. But the change was even more obvious for me. Starting in August 1965 with the death of my closest uncle (on my mother’s side and a second father to me) each visit to the city of my birth, each school vacation and each summer, for the next two years, would accompany the death of someone close, someone who was part of my childhood, ending in June ’67 with the death of my own father.
[And dare I note that the city was in the process of retiring the old neighborhood concept. We knew our home town as “the city of good neighbors” (which now through a renewal project they are seeking to return to) but when I left the neighborhood stores were closing, the big malls were all the rage if you had a car to get there. It simply wasn’t what it was.]
In time I would pastor four churches. Two would dismiss me on vague theological grounds. One I was encouraged to resign on Mother’s day (everyone who was there then is now either moved away or called to their final reward. Maybe, there might be one or two ladies still living locally). Our first church was purchase by a local entrepreneur who turned it into a restaurant.
In between I taught at two small Bible schools. One encouraged my leaving for reasons that suggested I was incompetent or perhaps a risk regarding future plans. (The school eventually moved out of state and no longer exists today.) The other ministry went bankrupt and dissolved the corporation.
A few years later the home I was raised in was set on fire by a young tenant playing with matches. It burnt to the ground and today is a grassy field.
And the college campus out in the country where I studied the Bible is now state owned as a nature walk and overgrown with various local flora. The buildings are gone except for a couple small edifices of no treasured memory, The college is a university relocated closer to the city and culturally unknown to me.
Even the church culture has changed—as expected. No church appears to replicate those parts of worship and service that so vividly now grace my memory. I feel spiritually homeless.
Perhaps, every septuagenarian can make this claim. We all eventually outlive our past and experience culture shock when society moves beyond us: morally, ethically, and in every other way imaginable. But maybe some of us have old homesteads still out there, or a church home that showed a keen sensitivity to the pain of adjustment their older members were going through when times changed around them. A few ministers still have church families from past ministries that welcome a return visit. But all those former ministries for me are either gone, the hurt is too fresh to venture back, or, in the case of one, the church has outgrown my memory. It has enlarged its borders—which is a very good thing—but a return visit loses us in a crowd of unfamiliar faces. It is as if we were never there.
Pastor appreciation day (celebrated in some denominations) passed me by in all 25 years of my ministry as a pastor/teacher. No offerings were collected for me or gifts given to me in recognition of my service. And just after the celebrated 25th wedding anniversary (with cake and all) of an honored couple in one church, on our 25th wedding anniversary, the congregation voted us out. Nothing unusual here, I suppose. (But I must quickly say, I have received gifts from colleagues and students over the years which I have cherished.)
I have no complaint, although it sounds like I do. But I would be complaining if I failed to recognize the good things that accompanied us over these years: the friendships we knew, the undeniable abiding presence of God and His grace when we were down to our last “jar of oil,” [2 Kings 4:2] or when with no insurance my hospital bill and the doctor’s charges were paid in full from outside sources. And we have three sons which is more than my share of blessings. Now in old age, my bride and I have all we need to live comfortably. God has been good to us.
How much of the hard times was occasioned by bad personal choices? It has to be asked because it is human to ask. I, for instance, was totally at fault when I lost the appointment as the college yearbook Editor-in-Chief. (long story) This wasn’t God’s doing.
I use to think that my life took a path through the deep waters because I failed to pray enough or because I stepped off the path God prepared in the shallows. I now doubt that bad times meant I was always at some fault. We are never sure, even in retrospect, what part God played or we played in the circumstances of life. Nor do we need to assume that all the “good” (on a human scale) that happens should be credited to God. Even though ball players like to thank God for a 9th inning home run, I think it is accredited more to their skill set and a lifetime of practice. Nick Foles, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles football team, is a believer but I do not imagine God answered His prayers to defeat the Patriots in Super bowl LII.
Certainly, Romans 8:28 is relevant:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Life’s choices are the work of a joint effort between God and a believer. [Galatians 6:7 “A man reaps what he sows” is still a principle in scripture as relevant as gravity.] So, things happened to me that were in part my personal choices but, I believe, ultimately God’s. There is a union between God’s providence and me. There is a sense in which all things are not pre-determined but the major direction of a believer’s faith and “calling” is. Could life be, for some of us, a bit like a GPS governed ride in which God has to recalculate the direction we are heading in!?
It is worth asking, then, while we are living such a pronounced and persistent hard life, is this in fact the way God chose for us!? Nothing here, in and of itself, suggests a wasted life. It is simply the record of change. It is the record of hard times—not uncommon for God’s followers. The Bible is the record of such unsought adventures. In my childhood’s wildest imagination, ministry never suggested anything like we experienced over the years, but I have since looked back on the lives of colleagues and learned through their faithfulness to God that the way of the Cross is not a well-paved interstate to wealth and leisure.
I now actually cherish the possibility that God was doing things through our ministries that required the sacrifice we were called to make. We often think such a possibility when the missionary is overseas, hacking their way through the jungle to find some lost tribe of souls that need to hear of Jesus, but we do not imagine this is required in a civilize state. Yet we preach sacrifice and commitment while we dream of a calling that only envisions miracles and instant answers to faith.
All those tears we shed, the—granted, needless—worries and fears, were all part of the ministry we were called to, though, grant it, we might have had second thoughts if God had shared too much with us in advance.
And what about the bridges set on fire behind us? Let them burn! Do we really want to go back!? We live with a serious hope that all those saints of God from former years will be waiting for us when we meet the Savior after this journey ends. The only bridge that was consumed in the flames is a cherished memory of a day now gone by. The day that awaits us is brighter.
“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 and streams in the wasteland.” Isaiah 43:14-15