All That Lies in the Background

Good morning,

British author Israel Zangwill once said, “The Past: Our cradle, not our prison; there is a danger as well as appeal in its glamour. The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition”[1]. These are great words to live by but, think of the implications, each of us has a history some are more tarnished than others and some more glorious yet, all of it is simply “the past” or, a wisp of a memory. We can learn from our past and that of others or, we can repeat the same mistake even if we never heard the story. When we read about great men and women of history, it is not uncommon for the material to glorify the subject and overlook the mess they left behind in their deaths.

As a child, I read all about General George Armstrong Custer and even wrote a fair to middling book report about him. I thought he was a tremendously courageous man. While in college I studied American History and read about this man and me was appalled because, he was not as courageous as he was foolhardy; his actions cost the lives of not only his family but of many others; in fact, by all accounts, he would have been court-martialed if he had survived Little Big Horn. In a way, my view was tarnished by reviewing the books. The problem is, I have no right to judge him because, I have no idea what he was on his mind, what the mitigating circumstances were, and my judgment is purely based on 21st-century thinking. All that lies in the background of this historic figure made him who he was.  For the past two years, historical landmarks have been summarily destroyed because of charges of “racism”. Those very landmarks, however, disagreeable to the world, also speak a silent witness that needs to be heeded. We can rewrite history but, it will never go away. We can ban every statue, book, movie, and an art piece that would remind us of our past yet, the damage is done, and the pains will always be there. If we ban the past or scourge it because it offends us, we must also ban our present and do nothing for our future. We need to embrace our past and learn from it. As I present a few points, I would like you to consider your past and how it has made you, broken you, and more likely failed you; equally, I want you to consider your successes as they occurred and how it exalted you.

Point 1 – Our past serves a purpose. In scripture beginning with the words of Moses, the command was given for the people to write down the account of their life to include the ups and the downs, the successes and the failures, the hurts, and the joys and tell their children all about it (Psalms 78). The reason for doing so was to prepare the youth who were not born in Egypt and had not felt the sting of the taskmaster’s whip to walk in the ways of God and not turn from him. The young generation had always lived in the good land and could not truly appreciate the struggles, so they took the good land for granted. Today, we have the very same problem. We have had our autonomy so long that we forget where we came from and by it have become arrogant in our ways. The past will never go away even if shred every single piece of physical proof because the incidents will be repeated or as George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”.

It is a funny thing about our background it hides the mess of our past, the pains of our mistakes, and let’s not forget the triumphs. The past is not just for a “trip down memory lane”, it is a vivid reminder for the present and a roadmap for our future. It is the past errors of life that teach us how to overcome failure if we let them. Look at the history of the US, over the past two hundred years we have dealt with bigotry, hatred, illness, destruction, financial implosion, housing bubbles, war, and political failures. From this mess, federal and state laws have been established to prevent an act from being repeated. Consider the financial collapse that led to the Great Depression 1929 – 1941. From the fall out of the collapse, laws were enacted to protect the customer’s money by establishing the Federal Deposit Investment Corporation (FDIC). While these laws and acts of congress are great in theory, they will never stop people from transgressing them; only our past can do that. The problem is that if we conveniently forget about our past, have not been told about it, and/or we did not listen to the stories we will never know why the laws exist and will fight to overturn the laws as we perceive them to be “archaic”.

Point 2 – The illusion of a Perfect People. Now, there are people in every setting that seem to live “charmed lives” as nothing bad ever happens, they are always at the top never at the bottom, and seem to always be happy; or, so it may appear at 10,000’ level. The truth is, no one is exempt from the pain, sorrow, loss, mistakes, misgivings, etc. If you were to casually look into the lives of the “perfect people”, one would find that that person’s life is not all that glamorous. It is a truth that with enough money, one can buy himself/herself or their prodigy out of trouble (Ecclesiastes 10:19). As a child, I watched the jocks, the cheerleaders, and the popular students doing great things, getting their pictures in the yearbooks doing funny things and I envied them. I wanted so desperately to be popular because in my mind’s set I was a failure by comparison. What I never took into consideration is that each of us has a “dark place” that we would rather never be brought to the light of day because it would shatter our illusion. If you look into scripture, you will notice one glaring problem and that is, “there are no perfect people”. Only in storybooks will you see “Perfect people” and the story will always end with, “They lived happily ever after”.

Point 3 – The Ever Present Past. Our past, however, broken, hurtful, and/or glorious, does not go away simply because we chose to ignore it any more than it becomes glorious just because we gloss it over or stretch it out to be bigger than it was. When we come to the cross and our sins are forgiven and we can walk in the newness of life; yet, our past is not wiped away rather, the power it held over us is gone; It will always be right where we left it and exact way, we left it. Just as it is with any fish story, the size of the fish grows only in the mind of the storyteller it doesn’t make the fish bigger nor a better fighter it is the same size and is probably still in the lake. King David’s spiraling downfall was forgiven, and he tried to warn his sons about it so that they wouldn’t fall into the same trap. In accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation, we derive many benefits among them, peace in our soul, peace in our homes, and peace with our enemies. As great as the aforementioned items are, coming to Jesus does not make our past magically disappear and nor should we seek to eradicate it; we need to learn from it and teach our children about it so that we nor they will repeat it. Our past will answer the Devil’s nagging question, “why go to the Lord” and it will be the conclusive evidence of why we will remain in Jesus’ camp despite the challenges, the struggles, and the setbacks. The Psalmist put it this way, “I would rather spend one day in your courts than 1000’s elsewhere. I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God than live the good life in the homes of the wicked” (Psalms 84:10 NLT).

Conclusion: Our past is “our past” and it need never hold us back from living life today nor tomorrow. The reason for remembering it is so that we do not forget where we came from, the pains it took to get where we are, and our actions that brought us to where we are. Doubtless, we may not want to talk about our past because it is too painful, or we may not want our children to know how “ungodly” we were or the things we did in our youth. Yet, we are doing ourselves and our children a great disservice because, it is from the bad points that we understand our undying need for Jesus; from the good points, we can be encouraged in future endeavors and we can give our children “hope”. The problem is, the pains of our past become the pains our children will face in time.  It was for this reason the nation was admonished to tell the story of Israel’s failures that led up to the fall of the nation (Joel 1). If we do not tell the unabridged story of our past, they will hear about it from the Devil and the world. The world will tell of our failures and make light of them; for example, “you want to know how righteous your mother/father is”? The Devil will tell the story about our foolishness for giving up such a grand party to go to a drab party. Telling our children, the unabridged story of our past will not always alleviate the events from being rebirthed in our children but, it will give them insight as to what will happen if they persist so that they will be without an excuse (Romans 1:20).


[1] Israel Zangwill. Brainy quotes. Accessed https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/israel_zangwill_143141