It’s a Trap!
“But one thing I do: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us (Philippians 3:13–14).”
Memory can be a tricky thing. Case in point: a family reunion, when relatives reminisce about childhood memories.
It starts so innocently. A warm summer’s day in the backyard, a pleasant breeze, enticing aromas wafting from the BBQ, cold drinks in hand, and the familiar buzz of conversation and laughter. If you’re lucky, someone has managed to find a musical playlist that straddles generational tastes.
And then ... without warning or fanfare, it happens. A voice rises slightly above the happy din, waxing cheerful and nostalgic over a cherished story that the raconteur recalls “like it happened only yesterday.”
Conversation abruptly ceases. The breeze dies; a random cloud may obscure the sun. The BBQ flares; blue-tinged smoke and charred hamburger fumes settle like a clinging fog. A profound hush – fraught with apprehension – holds the gathering in breathless thrall.
The calm before the inevitable storm breaks.
Another relative raises a skeptical eyebrow and corrects the storyteller’s flawed recollection — based on their pristine memory of the tale. And, depending on how competitive your family is, a vigorous debate erupts over whose version is correct. Battle lines are drawn, allies are gathered, foes identified, and the backyard morphs into a jousting field.
Pretty much spoiling the nostalgic vibe. Whenever I see the tsunami approaching, I’m reminded of Admiral Akbar in Star Wars IV: “It’s a trap!”
Church memories are no different – memories of church-inflicted wounds, even more so. The further we get from “ground zero,” the less trustworthy our memories become. We don’t need a skeptical uncle to challenge our recollection – revisiting a shifting memory is its own unique prison. A spiritual/emotional ball-and-chain.
That’s why re-hashing old church wounds is counter-productive, to put it mildly. Hence St. Paul’s admonition to the Philippians: Forget the past and press on.
In the original context, Paul’s talking about the good things in his spiritual pilgrimage. He’s neither lamenting his sinful past nor his current trials (he was in prison at the time). He focuses on “forgetting” his mountaintop experiences in order to reach for something better, something as yet unattained.
Something on the road ahead, not the road behind.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that if Paul was willing – eager, even – to “forget” the great things God had already done in exchange for something better, how much more appropriate would it be for Jesus-followers today to “forget” our negative church experiences?
Yes, I know; I’ve been there. We can’t just flip a switch in our heads and/or hearts. Our brains aren’t wired like computers: “reformat: synapses 141–184; [bad church memories] = <erase>.” Recovery takes time, nurture, and wise counsel. But as the years go by – remember the family BBQ – we should curate a healthy skepticism toward our memories of the Bad Church Experience (BCE).
That’s not the same as second-guessing yourself, or wondering whether or not you’ve made a mountain out of a molehill. It’s just another way of saying we won’t find the path forward by obsessing over the rearview mirror.
In other words, stop re-hashing everything. That’s more or less like ripping the bandage off an open wound to check on its healing progress. It’s worse than unproductive — it’s a soul-sucking addiction that steals our joy and turns recovery into a long, slow slog (or derails it).
Admiral Akbar: It’s a trap!
St. Paul: Don’t rest on your spiritual laurels. Press on.
Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews adds this helpful admonition: “Let us strip off every weight that slows us down ... and run with endurance the race God has set before us (Hebrews 12:1, NLT).”
What is yet ahead – the “undiscovered country” – will be more than worth it.