“Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt. . .” Acts 7:39
What is it about memory that calls us to recount days gone by, to live and relive the hazy moments of our past?
How is it that, even now, when I close my eyes and smell a set of newly boxed crayons, I can fly across a canyon-like stretch of 50 years to drop down into a first-grade classroom in the middle of the rolling farms of Henderson County, Illinois.
It is Art Tuesday, and I am wearing (backwards) one of my dad’s old dress shirts as a smock. It hangs on me like a giant, cotton sack with sleeves. I am standing before an easel splashed and smeared with a palette of dried paint. A vast, pristine sheet of paper is held securely to the wooden frame with silver metal clips. My name is printed on it in the upper, right-hand corner. The classroom is busy with students and the quiet hum of learning, but behind the easel, there are pictures to be drawn and painted.
That moment from my past is both frozen in time and gone forever. But a box of crayons can take me back there, and I am once again five years old. The days are happy, care-free.
Tempted, I could begin to believe that these fading pictures (and others like them) are somehow better or more valuable than today’s flat tire.
And that’s the challenge, isn’t it: recalling experiences, places or people in our past can sometimes create a refuge to which we long to return.
These experiences belong in memory, but we do not.
They must stay in the silent ice of frozen time. . . They are not a replacement for today.
We are for today. This is where we are supposed to be.
The verse above from the book of Acts is one, short line from a very long story. It was being told by Steven the Martyr. He was standing before the Sanhedrin, ancient Israel’s ruling counsel, seated all around him, gathered in judgement of a man whose only claim to fame was his devotion to Jesus: the one rumored, just weeks prior, to have risen from the dead.
He was stirring their memory, recounting the history of Israel, a nation of people who routinely, it seems, stumbled in their trust of God who. . .
- released them from the slavery of Egypt’s Pharaoh.
- led them far away from their captors.
- provided food and water in the middle of a wasteland.
- worked on their behalf in battle and defeated their enemies.
- pledged this kind of care forever.
But the way for them was unfamiliar . . . different . . . hard at times.
It was unpredictable.
Each day was new. Each day required a look to God to see what was next.
Each day asked something new of them: to renew relationship of trust and obedience to Yahweh.
The unfamiliar challenges of their new freedom looked daily less and less like the predictable patterns in memory of their recent bondage.
Sadly, even in the pain, it was still, “home,” and they began to long for it.
The historical record reports that when doubt in their minds grew too high, “in their hearts, they turned to Egypt.”
- They longed for a predictable pattern of life and turned away from freedom.
- They hungered for food they knew, family recipes and turned away from the protection and provision of God.
- They said, “no” to the personal responsibilities of faith and turned away from the adventure of their destiny.
The familiar memories of the past called them back, but returning to Egypt was turning away from God.
This turning is an easy step in our own lives, too.
It begins in the heart: a subtle, even wistful consideration for the past, for things familiar, safer, more predictable. We linger with these images. Soft thinking can become a desire that grows into longing and finally into a focused source of distraction: “I wish things were not as they are but as they were.”
We divide our attention, weaken our resolve to obey, and for the sake of the past, forsake our future.
We turn our hearts to Egypt.
Where is Egypt in your life?
Where does your attention go when God’s call to move forward with Him in faith is unfamiliar, uncertain or seems to require more than we want or believe we are able to give?
What attitudes about today or choices in your thinking are keeping you from living fully present today?
I am learning that a whole-hearted obedience requires a forward-looking faith. I am learning to be grateful for the past and all of its lessons, knowing that each find its fulfillment in today’s momentum. God is present now, today: this is His moment.
We need to walk boldly with God into His calling of the hour. That is where our focus should be.
We serve a God who, healing our past, calls us to participate fully with Him today in His Kingdom work. There are few answers or careful refuge in the past. Our security and fulfillment are in God alone who is always ahead of us, leading us, calling us forward.
A new day dawns.
The sun rises on a paint-splashed easel upon which is set a blank sheet of paper.
Our name is on it.
This is where we belong.
“Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” Ecclesiastes 7:10
“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14