Forgetting the Past with a Purpose

Rodger NishiokaGod's New Things: See it! Hear it! Live it!

Forgetting the Past with a Purpose

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.”  Isaiah 43:18

In a recent lecture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus here at Columbia Theological Seminary, said that most people deal with the past in one of two ways: amnesia or nostalgia. Neither one is helpful.

In amnesia, we have no memory of the past or, in some cases, such as in “selective amnesia,” we conveniently deny some portions of our past. Amnesia, Brueggemann said, leaves a people without an identity. We live only in the moment, drifting obliviously but contentedly and without any sense of rootedness on that great river in Egypt (denial, get it?). Persons who choose to forget the past are surely in denial. They are aimless and without purpose. It was for those with amnesia that American philosopher George Santayana wrote the often-quoted wisdom: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But, Brueggemann argued, the people of Israel did not seem to be engaged in amnesia. Instead, they were engaged in nostalgia.

While those with amnesia choose to not remember the past, people who dwell in nostalgia can ONLY remember the past. They cannot see the present or think about the future. Their day-to-day is filled with memories, often romanticized and reconceived memories that paint the past as they would like to remember it. It seems that the people of Israel were far too focused on and even captured and captivated by their past. Writing to the Hebrew people living in exile in Babylon, Second Isaiah demands that the people not focus on the past (the former things) or “consider the things of old.” In these words, Second Isaiah signals that the Hebrews were spending too much of their energy longing for what had been. Their nostalgia was consuming them.

We must not judge these Hebrews too harshly. Here they were, after all, a people who were exiled in a strange land with a strange people and strange customs. It is little wonder they chose to venerate what had been—the “glory days” if you will, when they had power and prestige and control.

Does this sound familiar?  It should. Many of our congregations are teetering between amnesia and nostalgia with most, I would wager, leaning toward nostalgia. They yearn for the “good old days” (neglecting the fact that those days were not all that good for everyone). They remember the days when every time we opened our church doors, people just came to us without much effort. They remember Sunday school classrooms bursting at the seams, and legions of talented and gifted stay-at-home women, who had energy galore, volunteering hours upon hours. They remember denominational leaders and church school curriculum that truly inspired and obedient, well-mannered children who were eager to memorize Bible verses and catechisms. They remember vacation Bible schools and elaborate Christmas pageants with ever increasing attendance. They remember greeting one another in grocery stores, talking about the latest sermon, and they remember offering plates that were full. They remember every family they knew sitting down together for the evening daily ritual of father sharing prayer and leading devotions before partaking of a delicious home-cooked meal. They remember and their hearts are full and God was so faithful back then and . . . .

Second Isaiah bursts our proverbial bubble and says to us all, STOP IT! Stop your ridiculous nostalgia. Stop venerating and worshipping the past. Stop being held captive by memories that in all actuality were not all that true or truthful. Just as amnesia does not serve the ministry of the church because it leaves us drifting without an identity, neither does nostalgia serve the ministry of the church. Nostalgia leaves us paralyzed and blind to what is happening around us now and unable to comprehend the future into which the God of the universe is calling us as the body of Jesus Christ.

In a few months time, participants in the Annual Event for the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators will gather around the theme: God’s New Thing: See it!  Hear it!  Live it!  As the Christian educators of the church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century seek to see, hear, and live the new things that God is doing, it is important that we adhere to Second Isaiah’s prerequisite.  We will not be able to see and hear, let alone live, the new things that God is doing unless we first cease our amnesia and nostalgia about our past. We DO carry all that been with us. But we DO NOT worship what has been. As we gather, we must enact what Second Isaiah demands. We must forget the past so that we can see, hear, and live the new things that God is doing around us, through us, for us, and yes, even some times in spite of us. Friends, I look forward to forgetting the past with a purpose—to see, hear, and live into the new things that God is doing!

Note

Our single book of Isaiah is generally agreed upon to be a composite of several authors, each of whom wrote at a particular time in the history of Israel.  The book is most often divided into three parts: chapters 1-39 attributed to the eighth-century Judean prophet named Isaiah, chapters 40-55 referred to in biblical scholarship as Second Isaiah or “Deutero-Isaiah,” an unnamed prophet who lived in Babylon with the Hebrew people in exile, and chapters 56-66 referred to as third Isaiah or “Trito-Isaiah”  attributed to a prophet or, even more likely, several prophets who lived in Judah after the return from the Babylonian exile in 539, B.C.E.

Rodger Nishioka Rodger Nishioka holds the Benton Family Chair in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary.