Future and past were juxtaposed in my life this weekend. Yesterday our family spent an hour or two together talking about goals for the summer. My son is hoping to gain some web design clients, my daughter has some music goals in mind, my wife wants to find ways to deepen her relationship with Christ while the kids are home (including another teenager coming for an extended stay early in the summer). I am wrestling with some very interesting opportunities that present some challenging choices. We all have other goals in mind besides these. Obviously all of this is for the future.
Which is something we really know almost nothing about. To say the future is murky, dark, foggy is to put too gray a cast on it. How else, though, can one convey its mysterious unknowability? There are only two certain things, it is said, neither of which is very welcome. James 4:13-16 (ESV) puts a realistically cautious cast on it:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
The future is a dangerous destination to travel to. Even more dangerous is going there with the assumption that we know what it will hold.
And even more dangerous yet is going there without a firm stake in the past, to give us knowledge to guide us as we travel. My reminder of that came this morning at church, where we partook of Communion together. In our church we do this once a month. This time was different in that we had a lengthy discussion in our Sunday School class about it, so we had additional time to reflect on this act of reflection.
That’s what Communion is about, in Protestant theology, at least in the theological circles in which I’ve spent my life. It is an act of remembrance, an intentional stopping of activity so that together the church can recall the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us. The bread and the cup are strong symbols of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. It’s a remembrance that has been observed uncountable times for 2,000 years. It is very much about ancient times.
So there we were in our brightly lit modern church, where I had to slip out of my seat during the sermon to help the sound tech (whom I had trained) solve an unusually difficult and technical audio problem. Family goals and decisions for the future were still strongly on my mind. And in the midst of this we paused to remember something from a far distant place and a time very long ago.
In spite of their incongruity on the surface, though, past and future very much fit with each other. I said a moment ago that our safe journey into the future depends on having a firm stake in the past. I am specifically speaking of being grounded on what Communion represents. Jesus Christ experienced everyone’s two unavoidables: he paid taxes and he died. He added another possibility to them, though: resurrection. To these two unpleasant outcomes he added hope. This is not hope after the manner of, “I hope my team wins the championship,” but rather of this sort: “whatever happens now, I have a well-grounded and certain hope that things will ultimately turn out well.” This is why “murky, dark, foggy” are too gray, for those who have their hope truly placed in Christ: the future may not follow the path that we would choose, but it leads to a good place in the end.
And what is a good ending, after all? Where should we seek to go on our trek? We are all “boldly going where no one has gone before.” What new planet will we land on? Will it be good? Who knows? Particularly in a world such as we live in today, where right and wrong, good and evil, are completely up for grabs–where it is supposedly each person’s responsibility to invent their own good. With no one to guide, we walk blindly into the dangerous dark.
In The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (p. 8), USC philosopher Dallas Willard quotes from Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession:
“The faith of the majority of educated people of our day,” Tolstoy observes, “was expressed by the word ‘progress.’ It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, ‘Live in conformity with progress,’ I was like a man in a boat who when carried along by wind and waves should reply to what for him is the chief and only question, ‘Whither to steer,’ by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere'” (p. 12).
There has been no advance beyond this position since Tolstoy’s day.
“Whither to steer?” How can we know? But Jesus Christ is not actually all about the past, for by his resurrection he still lives. He speaks wisdom from the past, and through his teaching and his continuing presence he still guides today.
I don’t know how many of our family’s goals we’ll reach. I don’t have any assurance we’ll even reach the end of the summer together: anything can happen, even tragedy. I don’t expect that, and we’re certainly taking optimistic, personally stretching steps forward. We have a strong sense of a good direction to head together. With all who follow Christ, though, we have an even stronger promise that whatever happens, the ultimate destination will be very, very good.