One of the most energetic people I’ve ever met was a man named Doug. A friend of my wife’s family, he had the ability to single-handedly motivate you just by telling you about his morning, “Well, I went out for a quick 25-mile bike ride, then a short 7-mile run, and I finished things up with a 30-minute swim and a short sail around the lake.” He would tell you all this by 10 a.m.! One of my favorite things was when you’d casually ask him, “How’s it going, Doug?” He would always respond the exact same way: “Today is the best day of my life!”
One day, Doug went out for a run. As he finished, he stopped to chat with some neighbors when he collapsed and passed away. Doug had an amazing ability to live in the present, and he relished it like few people I’ve ever encountered. He was never blind to the past nor was he dismissive of the future; but it was his perspective to see each day as an opportunity to do better—to be better—that was and is an inspiration to me.
Churches could learn a thing or two from Doug’s perspective, as they often suffer from a “rear-view” mentality. This is the tendency to filter the present because we see things through the lens of the past: “Remember the good old days, when the pews were packed and all we had to do was open our doors and the families would just pour in? That was the best!” Or, “Remember when Pastor _________ was here? What a wonderful time in the life of our church! Now, it’s just not the same.”
In Isaiah 43, God reminds the Israelites how he powerfully and miraculously saved the Hebrew people from Pharaoh as they were escaping Egypt. You know the story: God’s people were trapped between the Red Sea on one side and Pharaoh’s army pressing in from the other. Moses held his staff over the water and God pushed back the waters to create a path on dry ground through the sea. Once safely on the other side, Moses again held his staff over the sea, and the water that had been held back fell down, smothering Pharaoh’s army that had been in hot pursuit.
After God reminds the Israelites of this awesome story in Isaiah, He then gives this perplexing imperative: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.” Isaiah 43:18
What?!? Why would anyone want to forget that? I think it’s because God knows the danger of living in the past. We put ourselves at risk, not only when we have trouble letting go of our bad experiences, but when we struggle to appropriately remember the good ones as well.
Nostalgia is dangerous for a few reasons:
- It is a highlight reel of the past.When we look back fondly at an experience or season of life, our minds tend to amplify the good and filter out the bad. Nostalgia inhibits a realistic picture of what truly happened. Remember: what happened to the Israelites AFTER they crossed the Red Sea? They wandered around in the desert for 40 years because they couldn’t get their act together! Nostalgia remembers the good and forgets the bad, which in a church can be toxic to the current leadership and their ability to serve the church in the present.
- It implies the way things were back then is the way things should be right now.When we glorify the past in an unhealthy way we dismiss the present as not how things should be. The reality is we live in a broken world, and nothing is as it should be. The more we glorify the past, the more we demean the present. In church life, when we glorify a season of ministry or a former pastor or leader, we are implicitly claiming that things are not how they should be, and the current pastor, leader, or season of ministry is not nearly as good as the past version of things whether it’s true or not. When we take this approach, we undercut any effort to move ministry forward in the life of our church.
- It limits our perspective on how God will work.The Israelites were guilty of claiming, “That is how God saved us then, so that is how he will save us now.” In looking at the story of the Red Sea, and expecting God to work in the same manner, they revealed something about their heart: they worshiped the action and not the One who acted. Their focus was on what was done for them, and they had disregarded the One who had done it.
Biblical scholar Dr. John Oswalt has this to say as to why God does things in new ways:
“God wants us to learn things about his character and nature from the past but not to enshrine the methods of the past. Tragically, we are prone to do the opposite: enshrine the methods while forgetting the truths they were first devised to teach.”
God doesn’t want you to focus on the old thing, because if you do, you’ll stop focusing on the main thing: a relationship with Him.
Are you stuck in the past? It’s time to get unstuck. How? By seeing today the way Doug saw everyday: an opportunity to be great. Every day is a blessing, and may we thank God for every single one. We should approach ministry the same way.