Time can seem like an enemy to us sometimes. Our lives flow away from us into the past. And as they do, they seem to slip through our fingers like sand. We can especially feel that way as we watch our children and then our grandchildren grow up and move on or as one by one the friends of our youth pass away before us.
In “Pastor Note #46,” I wrote about the role of time in the life of faith, and, in particular, I wrote about how God wants us to
relate to our past. Faith has tenses – past, present, and future. The past tense of faith is thankfulness or gratitude. Keep in mind that faith is the spiritual attitude or disposition that moves us toward deeper relatedness to God. Gratitude is the frame of mind that looks with appreciation at the things that God has done for us and for our world in the past. Gratitude is the result of recognizing God’s hand at work in the past events of our lives.
After having re-read “Pastor Note #46,” I want to revise it slightly. I still affirm that the past tense of faith is thankfulness or gratitude. But there is another aspect of the past tense of faith, and we might call that repentance. Both gratitude and repentance are important ways in which the Christian can faithfully and fruitfully relate to the past. Both gratitude and repentance can be acts of faithful remembering. In gratitude, we focus our attention on God’s acts of faithful redemption in the past. In repentance, we focus our attention on our own acts of unfaithfulness in light of God’s holiness and mercy. And again as I said, those are both forms of faithful remembering.
In both of these senses – gratitude and repentance – remembering is a kind of Christian discipline. I don’t know how you feel about the idea of discipline. Most of us have a certain ambivalence toward the idea. Most of us approve of discipline in principle but struggle with it in practice. And there is no denying the fact that discipline requires mental and spiritual effort.
I think it’s best to understand Christian disciplines as progressive affairs. Just as the physical discipline of exercise should be started slowly at first and then built upon, so also in the disciplines of the Christian life, we should start gently and build up. To start with too much intensity will more likely discourage us than build our faith.
It may seem strange to think of remembering as a discipline. Remembering seems to come to us so naturally. It’s almost a kind of daydreaming. That kind of remembering isn’t necessarily bad, but the Christian discipline of remembering requires a bit more intentionality. The Christian discipline of remembering is generally something that we should do on purpose.
The simplest form of Christian remembering is to devote some portion of your regular times of prayer to casting your mind back over the past. As we do that we should be looking for two types of memories 1) events or circumstances in which God can be seen working out his good and perfect will in our lives and in the world and 2) times in which we have acted unfaithfully or disobediently toward God or unlovingly toward our neighbor.
Now, I want to warn you that there is an important difference in the way we treat those two types of memories. We can return with gratitude over and over and over again to memories of an event in which we see God’s goodness being worked out in our lives. We can thank God repeatedly for the same act of goodness toward us in the past. He doesn’t mind the repetition. And, indeed, the more often we revisit our gratefulness for God’s goodness, the more deeply ingrained the attitude of thankfulness becomes in our hearts and minds. Our goal is to reach a state of continuous thankfulness toward God.
On the other hand, memories of our own unfaithfulness, disobedience, or lack of love, must be treated quite differently. God wants us to remember those things that we have done wrong. He wants us to confess them, repent of them, and then leave them with him. It is not good for us to dwell upon – stew on – our particular acts of sin. One of my favorite writers, Corrie ten Boom, frequently offers this piece of wisdom, “God cast our sins into the depths of the sea, and then he posts a sign that says, ‘No Fishing’.” I like that. [Three of her books that are particularly helpful are:The Hiding Place,Tramp for the Lord, andIn My Father’s House.]
When we deal with our sins in that way – when we confess them, repent of them, and give them to God, he gives us his forgiveness and grace. In that way, God even converts our memories of sin into occasions for gratitude. That’s redemption – the conversion of guilt into gratitude! And so over time, gratitude should come more and more to dominate over guilt, as we exercise the Christian discipline of remembering.
But memory can be a fleeting thing. Details fade. Entire events can be forgotten. And so we’re wise to give memory some help. I want to suggest some tools that can be very helpful in keeping memories alive and fresh: a diary and the journal. Now I realize that in common speech those two terms can often be used to refer to the same thing. But here I want to use these words to refer to two different things. One thing, they both have in common is that neither should be used to keep the catalog of your sins. Confess your sins to God and leave them there.
So, both a diary and a journal are places to record acts of God’s goodness in your life, so that you can remember them in the future. By “diary” I have in mind, a kind of notebook in which, each day, you might take a few moments to jot down a brief description of any particular acts of God’s goodness in your life that have come to your attention during the day. As I envision it, entries in this diary would be brief and would be written down the same day or at most the day after the events they describe.
By “journal”I have in mind something more in-depth, something more reflective, and something more time-consuming.
Now I realize that not everyone finds keeping a journal to be easy or an enjoyable. But it can be of great benefit to you, even if you only do it occasionally. Entries in this journal might deal with things that happened a long time ago. Writing in this journal will allow you to reflect on important events in your past, in order to think about them more deeply and to search out God’s hand and purposes in what took place. We all know that sometimes when something important happens in our lives, we often don’t understand it very well at first. It’s only later, after some time has passed, and we’ve had opportunity to think about things, that we really come to understand what God has done.
Again, I realize that writing does not come easily to everyone. But in this context, writing has at least two important benefits for us. First, it gives us a written, that is, a durable record of what has happened. That allows us to go back to the record again later and think about it more. Second, writing out our thoughts about what has happened in our lives tends to slow us down and allow us to think more carefully and prayerfully about some of the events of our lives. Wisdom and understanding comes slowly and require patience and persistence. But the benefits are worth the effort.
Another activity that can help with this discipline of Christian remembering might be called holy conversation. What I mean by that is the simple act of spending time talking with a close friend about what God has been doing in your life. Most of us spend a good bit of time talking with our friends, but how much of that time is actually spent in talking with each other about what God is doing in our lives – talking about it specifically and concretely? Although a conversation does not leave a permanent record for us to refer to later, conversation with a friend about what God has been doing in our lives does have the benefit of building relationships with other Christians and allowing us to celebrate the goodness of God in other people’s lives as well as in our own. Also, conversation makes our remembering more concrete and objective. It takes the remembering outside of our own heads and lays it into the space between us and our conversation partner, where we can see it more objectively and tangibly.
In days gone by, Christians sometimes combined holy conversation and writing in a practice called letter writing. Do any of you remember that? I myself still write letters and often find it to be a wonderful blend of journal keeping and holy conversation, a wonderful way to share what God is doing in my life with another person and to carefully reflect on it in writing. I have sometimes done the same thing with the e-mail.
Time is not our enemy. God wants us to live out our faith in the past, in the present, and in the future. Repentance and gratitude are the past tense expressions of faith. Remember, what God has done in your life. Don’t forget. Nurture that holy memory through the disciplines of Christian remembering. If you’d like to work on this more, let me know. Helping people grow in their faith is why I’m here.
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
- Pastor Note #46 – Living in Time, Living with God, Part 2: The Past Tense of Faith (gachorpenning.wordpress.com)
- Pastor Note #45 – Living in Time, Living with God: Part 1 – Introduction (gachorpenning.wordpress.com)