“Time is an enormous long river,” says old-time storyteller Utah Phillips. The practice of reading and interpreting scripture gives us a glimpse upstream, a way to stand in the river and notice how we are changed by who and what has gone before. We should not be surprised that each of us receives these stories differently. According to one midrash, or commentary on the Jewish Torah, if there were six hundred thousand Jews present at Mount Sinai, there were also six hundred thousand versions of what happened.
Do you have a family historian? A person who tries to set the record straight, and resists any creative changes or artistic license in their retelling of family stories? There’s a story my mom loves to tell, and for many years I always corrected her, assuming the only right way to tell the story was the way I remembered it happening. I noticed that every time she told the story, she painted herself as less embarrassed, less the victim of a silly situation, and more mischievous and creative. I always thought this was blasphemy!
But what is setting the record straight, anyway? My version of the story was not the only one; maybe her memory of the day had changed. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in his recent novel Kabbalah, tells about a man who notices his memory changing, and revealing new possibilities for his life. The man tells a friend, “A few weeks ago, I was recounting the story and I realized that some things might have happened differently. I’m sure if there had been a videocamera on the ceiling, like they have in banks, the tape would be the same each time it was played. But what those gestures and shadows mean changes with each new viewing. I’ll go farther: The holier the event, the more ways it can be retold.” (Kabbalah, 106)
St. John’s version of the holy Christmas event is very different from the one we read on Christmas eve, and much more difficult to act out. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In our pageant this year, the Paschal candle appeared on the stage at the moment of Jesus’ birth, the light of Christ. The gospel of John was the last of the four canonical gospels to be written, many years after Matthew and Luke, which were themselves many years after Mark. Each successive story starts further back in time, further upstream in the enormous long river: Mark begins with the baptism of a thirtysomething Jesus, Matthew and Luke with a baby in a stable, and John way back at the beginning of the world.
Phillips described time as a river to say that our attempts to divide time are basically false. How were “the 60s” different from “the 70s” if the Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975? Is January 1, 2008 really going to be all that different from December 31, 2007? It is certainly true that each day is the first day of the rest of your life, but it’s also true you that you need a healthy relationship with the past in order to accept the gift of the future, of the world that is coming.
Since we each have a part in the world that is coming, it can be fine thing to set goals or make resolutions for our own growth. I tend, when making resolutions, to judge myself harshly for the habit I want to change. I try desperately to get away from a “bad old” self to a “good new” self, I guess because I’ve decided “bad old” self is uncool and unloveable. It is this habit of beating ourselves up that St. Paul is referring to in Galatians. “Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.” The disciplinarian is the judge within us who tries to get us to grow by force and rules. Christ has come to encourage our faith that God’s love is not conditional on our successfully meeting our goals. I have a bedtime prayer from New Zealand near my bed. It says, “God our judge and teacher, let us not waste time when day is done in guilt or self-reproach. Give us rather the courage to face whatever has been, accept forgiveness, and move on to something better.” We cannot grow from fear, only from love.
One response to the fear of not being good enough, of being unworthy of even God’s love, is to try to start over. I have always been tempted by offers of fresh starts, where I’m offered chances to go somewhere new, with new people, doing new things. I almost went to live and work on a boat instead of going back for my last year of college. And this year, I almost left you all and this community I love, to move to Kansas City. These offers are like chances to make-your-own New Years, a shiny new start within which you can pretend to be able to erase your past mistakes. And then, of course, wherever you go, there you are. Healing is important precisely because we can’t erase the past.
Looking back at those months when I was talking about moving, I’m reminded of another New Years ritual, a flipside to making resolutions. It’s done on the Jewish New Year, the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. The ceremony is called tashlikh, which means casting off. You stand on the banks of a river or other body of water, and throw pieces of bread in the water to represent the sins you’re carrying with you from the past year.
Moving to Kansas City would not have been a sin. What I want to throw in the river, though, is the way I acted for awhile there as if I were already gone.
I went to lunch with my sister one day this spring. She was worried about my plans,
and asked, “What would you do if you changed your mind and came back?"
“Go back to St. Mark’s.”
“Why would they want to take you back?”
“Because they love me.”
“Do you love them?”
“Then why are you leaving them?”
I sighed. I said, “Good question. The only good answer is, because it’s time.”
It wasn’t time. I’m very glad I’m still here. I’m glad because here is home; not just because Palo Alto is my hometown, but St. Mark’s too is now part of me and there’s a lot we can be and do together yet. And because you’re teaching me how to forgive and love like Christ.
A holy relationship with the past, then, is a paradox. On the one hand you hold your sins with compassion, without judgement, and on the other hand you cast them off. You let them be food for fish. You stand in the river but you don’t let it drown you. Brian Taylor says, “We tend to think that we’re supposed to get rid of our dark side, our spiritual failure, our annoyingly habitual faults, and then present ourselves as pure and proper before God. But the Spirit needs us to be real. The manure of our lives should not be hidden from God; it should be dug into our souls so that its nutrients can help produce needed growth.” We don’t become righteous because we are perfect (or hiding something!), but rather salvation sets us free to be our best selves.
As you look back over 2007, what things are you holding onto? What things are holding onto you? What might you do to accept them and accept forgiveness? Would it help to ask for forgiveness, or ask for support?
What are you called to grow into this next year? How might you nurture that growth? How can we move forward together as a healthy and healing community?
May we learn to see the light of hope, the promise of healing, in all the stories of our lives this year. May we trust that God’s enormous long river is flowing towards the kingdom And may we come with joy to meet our Lord, forgiven, loved, and free. Amen.