dreams and thoughts of what could have been

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.

The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:1-14

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Life makes philosophers of us all? Well, at least for those who take it seriously, though actually everyone has some philosophy meaning outlook on life. We can look back and see better, but mainly how God saw us through in spite of ourselves. And how hopefully we’ve come to see that what really matters is simple faith in and obedience to God. And to understand that our faith rests in the faithfulness of Christ, so that we follow together because of that. That can surely make all the difference in the long run.

If in your stronger more youthful decades you can put your all into following Christ in a community of followers of Christ, and seek to simply live in and from that reality, you will be truly blessed. Toward the end, the strength just isn’t the same, and the heart is often burdened down with the weight of other’s struggles, not to mention the inevitable troubles of life. And for most of us there’s regret and a wish that we could undo something or some things, and do other things all over again.

Lean on community in Jesus, and seek to be a follower of Jesus along with other followers of Jesus. Seek humility, above all just seek God’s love and will in Jesus by the Spirit, and with the desire to love God supremely and our neighbor as ourselves. We’re in this primarily not for ourselves, but for others. Together, Christ’s body for each other and to be light in the world. God will take care of things. And in the end will bring a good end, weaving everything somehow in that for good. Far beyond us, and I doubt we’ll ever fully understand it, but all will end well.

In and through Jesus.

accepting one’s lot in life

Moreover, when God gives someone…the ability…to accept their lot…—this is a gift of God.

Ecclesiastes 5:19

It may seem strange to read that someone in their 60’s, approaching retirement age struggles over accepting their lot in life, just how it turned out. But that’s me. After all, I have two academic degrees. Yet it turns out that I worked in a factory setting, for decades now, and where I’ll end Lord willing, albeit in a wonderful ministry until “retirement.”

I have struggled with “what ifs?” and “if onlys?” off and on. Those thoughts will probably hit me at least now and then the rest of my life, but hopefully they’ll ebb and become less and less as I learn more and more to simply accept and learn to embrace where my life is today.

There are some things that I can understand from my past, even important things to remember both in what became not helpful attitudes and actions. It’s not like I’m immune to such now. Not at all. But I believe by God’s grace that the Lord has helped me to come a long way, and in some respects 180 degrees from the worst or critically bad of that. And that wasn’t easy and took time. It’s one thing to confess one’s sin, it’s another to become a person who never would do such a thing as a rule, because their character has changed (1 Peter 4:1-2).

But there’s much of my past I don’t really understand. What comes to mind now is what some evangelical theologians have termed as “middle knowledge,” the idea, whether it has much merit or not, that God knows the entire range of possibilities in the life of the world, and specifically in an individual’s life, and moves accordingly. On the face of it, that makes plenty of sense to me, but in the end I want to remain in the testimony of Scripture along with what the church by the Spirit holds as truth. So when it comes to some theology, I just don’t know. But I have so many thoughts and questions, along with regrets. I have my own ideas, not that far removed from what they’ve been for many years, but I hold them more tentatively now. And I know in an important sense for me, none of that probably matters anymore. At best it’s water over the dam, or it could even be a mistaken notion on my part.

As my wife has told me time and again, there’s no sense rehashing the past, all the mistakes I’ve made, many the kind which most everyone makes. Do we trust God for the present as well as the future, even in spite of the past? That’s an apt question to ask.

We all have our limitations, along with the gifts God has given us. We might be able to get some help in this life to overcome or do better with illnesses we have, be they physical, or even in some measure mental. Such help should be considered a gift from God, to what extent it’s God-given. And above that, the blessing that is ours in Christ through the gospel. We find helpful for us the words of Scripture as we read it, prayerfully meditate on it, and study it.

The bottom line is to accept one’s lot in life as given from God. I think we can argue in the context of the passage quoted from Ecclesiastes above (click link to see NIV paragraph) that it’s about learning to live as humans, the humans God created us to be. And we learn from the gospels and the rest of the New Testament that we are restored into the fullness of humanity through the God-Human, Jesus (Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 John 3:2).

Despite my past failures and above all, lack of faith, or thoughts that I wish I would have done this or that differently, I have to learn to let go of all of that entirely, and learn to accept and thankfully appreciate where I’m at, seeing the good in the present circumstances as God’s provision for us, for my wife and I, along with our ongoing natural concern for our family. And seek to be faithful in serving Christ in the place and with the service he has given me. In and through Jesus.

regrets

To regret something means that we should have known better and done something different. Surely everyone has regrets. Some of them can be so painful that we don’t want to go there, or we deal with it, and it’s something we can’t dwell on if we’re to remain Christian. But such matters can involve consequences that call it to mind. Other matters we can continue to be hammered on, because they can involve something which seems threatening to us, or has consequences to this day on a different, what people might call more practical level.

Paul’s well known words most people would pull out at first blush seem appropriate, then on further thought not, but when all is said and done, I think these words can help us:

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh.For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: 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.

Philippians 3:1-14

I know, I know. There are things after the time we put our faith in Christ that we might well regret. Both commissions, as well as omissions. And rightfully so. I’m not so sure it’s wrong to regret; it can’t be regarding certain matters.

But what Paul is getting at here is our mindset, the one thing we do. And what he is pressing toward, as if a runner, involves all in the Christian life given to us in Jesus to which we’re both to aspire to and begin to live out.

Paul’s past was of the flesh, even though it seemed so good to him and to many others at the time. Whatever is of the flesh is what we leave behind. We live in the new way of the Spirit, of God’s calling, yes his heavenward calling to us in Jesus.

Are we going to get everything right through being committed and following through in the pursuit of this call? Of course not. It is both an individual and group endeavor focused on a Person, the Person of Christ. We will fail along the way, and will have to keep applying this truth of forgetting what is behind, and pressing forward. In the large and the small. Day after day, whatever the kind of day we face, whether a work day, a day of rest, or of relaxation and fun. We continue on toward the mark that God has set for us in and through Jesus.

making peace with one’s past

Awhile back I had to laugh even out loud when I heard a friend around my age say that looking back on his life, he had absolutely no regrets. I think if he would have explained it further, I would have been able to connect the dots to make sense of what he was saying, but given the fact that others were present and time was limited, I understood (or misunderstood) it to mean, no regrets about past decisions, period.

Of course hindsight is closer to 20/20 and we’ll always be learning more later, which will put some decisions which seemed right at the time in doubt. Life is complicated. As scripture says, we don’t know why we do the things we do at times, but the Lord can direct us in spite of that, or lead us on a path that is good and brings glory to him.

I have plenty of regrets, things I wish I would have done differently. I could have done better in most things simply by adhering to what I knew scripture said which in most cases would have helped me make a better decision. More times than not, I was moved by fear. Only a mature understanding of scripture and God’s way revealed in it could have helped me prevent some of the mistakes of the past. Other errors were over matters which I surely rationalized, but deep down I knew better. These are more like the obvious in your face actual sins.

Of course there’s always grace and forgiveness available in and through Jesus. The fallout from some past sins for some of us may well remain the rest of our lives. But God’s presence and peace can come and be ours in spite of what we may have to go through. I can’t help but think of the aftermath of David’s sin. When he repented, God forgave, but the consequence of his sin was grave for years to come. Even so, he died in peace, “a man after God’s own heart.” That was grace, grace, and more grace. That is the God who is, who we know and serve in and through Jesus.

And so we want to learn from our past, seek to do better in the present, and above all cast ourselves and our loved ones, indeed all of life on God and his mercy. Believing that the future is bright, that there is indeed hope for us and yes, for the world, in and through Jesus.

avoiding the “if onlys”

Life seems replete enough with regrets, sometimes over things we had little or no control in. Of course there are those matters in which we knew better. Or because of much weakness, we didn’t do well enough in. The “if onlys” hit us because we are left with the consequences of what happened or what we did or failed to do.

In the first place we don’t live in a fool proof existence. Invariably trouble will hit us; it’s just a matter of what the trouble is. We will avoid one problem if we could, only to discover another problem.

This is not to say that we can’t learn from others, especially those who are older, and  do better in some ways than they did thanks to their wise counsel. And we should take very literally the meaning of scripture. If scripture says don’t touch that or even go near it, because it’s hot and you’ll get burned, then it is foolhardy to think or act otherwise, even a little bit. I also can’t help but think that I would have avoided some dumb decisions and made better ones if I would have been more in God’s written word, scripture. I have always been in scripture for the most part in my Christian journey. But I could have done better, and want to continue to grow in that.

When it comes right down to it, the “if onlys” don’t help at all, but take away from the attention and energy we need to give to the Lord and God’s will, and life before us. Sure we can learn from mistakes, moral as well as the details of living. Of course provided that we confess our sins and by grace actually are in the process of change. Not that we can get beyond sinning in this life; it’s just that we learn to nip in the bud any sin rising up in us. Nor that we won’t keep making mistakes along the way. Sometimes it does seem that things are a crap shoot, that we simply, hopefully after prayer, even much prayer, make the best decision we can and then let it go at that, working with it.

In the end we have to believe that God is behind us and before us, all around us, to help us in this life in every way needed until he calls us from it. We have to learn to rest in that. The Spirit will confirm God’s word from scripture to us, that God cares for us. It is good to hold to this truth by faith as we read the scriptures, and it is good to pray and get God’s peace over whatever matter we’re praying about. I am referring not to issues which already have a clearcut answer in scripture, such as the necessity of being faithful to one’s spouse in heart and body. I am referring to difficult matters which we’re invariably faced with by simply living in the world, in this existence. God is faithful.

And so our “if onlys” can turn into prayers and remind us to turn our attention to the One who is our help and salvation in this life and beyond.

dreams of what could have been, or what could be?

Sometimes I start thinking about what might have been if this or that would have been true, maybe if we would have taken one certain course or opportunity opened to us, as opposed to another. And if one gets off on that track, then they might think of all the differences that may have been if they would have done this or that, starting from way back when. Of course one would very much like to take back and scuttle any major mistake or sin, which impacted life with likely lasting consequences.

Of course the thing is, we can’t take back a thing. We can’t change a thing. We are people in process and we are who, what and where we are due to all kinds of factors somehow worked together, or a part of the whole. It may not be a waste to take dream thoughts to God in prayer, but other than that, it seems to me to be a waste entirely, though only too human of us to do so.

Imagination can be quite fruitful within the context in which we live, but apart from that, it may even be harmful and certainly a waste of time. I can’t change even what I did yesterday, much less what was done years and years ago, my past orientation to life and the decisions which proceeded from that.

What might be fruitful in terms of dreams are dreams of what could be. If we can easily figure something out, then it’s hardly a dream. Dream, of course I use in a metaphorical sense here, though we might actually have a literal dream along the way which addresses this. Imagination can certainly be at play here, what has been called a “sanctified imagination,” simply thinking of what specifically God could bring about in days to come. This may be God’s way of leading us to see what he has for us to do, and to be.

Usually, and probably one could well say, always, the outcome will differ from what we dream, unless we have a literal dream which has something of the real future in it in some way that might be understood through interpretation in the realm of a certain kind of prophetic insight from God. But by and large we may have inklings which serve a good purpose along the way, even though what falls out ahead will likely be beyond or at least more than we could have possibly imagined.

And so, let us dream. For the purposes of prayer, for the good of others and of the world, our own world and the world at large. Let us see life through hope, yes the hope of the resurrection to come, but of resurrection in a certain, true sense in this life as well. But let the dreams be those which are hopefully the work of the Spirit, even if somehow, in some mysterious way our spirits are involved in that as well. For God’s good will to be worked out in and through Jesus.

living in the now

All too often I get caught up either in the past or the future. What is past is past. We can learn from it, and surely must, and hopefully we have repented of many things. And the future is beyond us. While there is nothing wrong with planning, in fact we want to invest well, especially in that which is spiritual, we don’t know what a day may bring. We don’t know the future. What God calls us to and Jesus taught us is to learn to live in the now.

Of course we do so with thanksgiving for the past and future salvation that is ours in Jesus. But we do so as those who live in the present, even the present salvation we are receiving in and through Jesus. With all of our weakness and sins we must confess. And yet we go on, finding God’s forgiveness and new life in Christ.

We share this ongoing life with others in Jesus. It is a life of developing and maturing together into the image of the one we follow. We grow up together in and through Jesus. That is not done well by ourselves. We need each other in this shared life. Even to work through our differences and the bumps and metaphorical bruises that come in any relationship. To love and listen and pray for each other. To offer words of encouragement as well as heartfelt counsel, when need be.

There is plenty to batter one’s self about when considering the past. And there is plenty to keep us awake at night when considering the future. But none of that will help us one iota. Instead we need to learn to live well in the present. Learning to keep our eyes on Jesus as we live together in him as a witness of God’s love for the world.

Nicholas Wolterstorff on what to do with regrets

I believe that God forgives me. I do not doubt that. The matter between God and me is closed. But what about the matter between Eric and me? For my regrets remain. What do I do with my God-forgiven regrets? Maybe some of what I regret doesn’t even need forgiving; maybe sometimes I did as well as I could. Full love isn’t always possible in this fallen world of ours. Still, I regret.

I shall live with them. I shall accept my regrets as part of my life, to be numbered among my self-inflicted wounds. But I will not endlessly gaze at them. I shall allow the memories to prod me into doing better with those still living. And I shall allow them to sharpen the vision and intensify the hope for that Great Day coming when we can all throw ourselves into each other’s arms and say, “I’m sorry.”

The God of love will surely grant us such a day. Love needs that.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, 65.