I'm not posting regularly right now, as I'm on sabbatical, which this past week has consisted of living without electricity, and being cut off from the world due to our highway being closed for four days. The posts I offer are about lessons learned during this unique and precious time. I'll be re-working the format of the blog and podcast with more focused and consistent content sometime in the spring. In the meantime, I hope these 'lessons learned during sabbatical' proves helpful.
This picture looks terrible at first glance. Is that a book in the fire? YES! Who’s the twisted mind behind the book burning? It’s the former senior pastor of a large church in Seattle, and this isn’t the only one going into the fire. There will be over dozen before he’s done. I’m that pastor, that pyro, and here’s why I’m burning books…
In spite of the fact that the word ”remember” occurs 253 times in the Bible, there‘s also an example and exhortation that calls us to embrace the disciplines of forgetting and letting go. It comes from Paul, the Christ follower whose world was turned upside down when he moved away from legalistic zeal, and enough religious fervor to kill those who opposed his worldview. He only moved away from the one because renunciation of the past was needed in order to move into a new realm, a deeper and more abiding reality. He couldn’t carry his old priorities, values, and ways of thinking and living into his new world. Neither can we.
In a letter to friends in Philippi he says, “forgetting what is behind, and reaching forward for what lies ahead… I press on.” The context of this exhortation is a vulnerable self-disclosure on Paul’s part. He muses on his past accomplishments and identities which, by many measures, are impressive. His resume of accomplishments made clear that he’d achieved the very things most of us want: a great reputation, a solid sphere of influence, and connections with the people in power who could elevate his status even further. He’d be called an “influencer” in today’s social media world; and it's presumed his influence also carried with it a certain measure of material wealth. He’d arrived.
Then, in a stunning sentence, he declares that this “old identity” is no more valuable than manure, and that he counts it as worthless because “something greater” had come to him. The “greater” that came to him was a person: Jesus the Christ! Suddenly, knowing Christ became far more valuable than all he’d had before and so he began the ongoing practice of intentionally “forgetting what is behind” because he Knew that without a letting go of his previous status and values, he'd never attain the real prize, which is the quality of life his Creator had in mind for him. Thus is born, ‘the art of letting go and forgetting’
Too many who read this, though, limit this forgetting to a single moment. I hear it all the time as a pastor. “There was my life before Christ, and now there’s my new life in Christ.“ Yes, but since our lives carry seasons, as we're told in Ecclesiastes 3, then there will no doubt be multiple seasons when "letting go and forgetting" will enable us to press on to the next thing. In fact, we won't be able to move forward if we insist on carrying some parts of the past with us. Think of leaving university, or moving to a new city, and letting go of the freedom of singleness when you get married. Letting go is huge, and those who can't let go end up carrying way too much baggage through life.
I’ve recently shed a senior role of leadership in the church I've lead, and am presently taking a break from any professional responsibilities in order to both rest and discern future steps. As the dust settles and I begin to clean out desks and files, I can testify to the importance of forgetting what is behind. Many of us develop certain responsibilities and contexts during the course of our lives. If we’re not careful, these things become our identities, our primary sources of meaning and esteem. “I am my parenting.” “I am my net worth.” “I am my place in the company.” “I am the business I began.” Sometimes our identities become excessively embedded in our affiliations. “I am my church’s belief system.” “I am my political party.” “I am my climbing club.”
Clinging to false identities is tempting, but the end result will inevitably disappoint because all identities are fleeting, save one.
“I’m my marriage” and then you lose your spouse.
“I’m my health”, “my sport” and then the medical report or injury steals that.
“I’m parenting” and then the children leave home.
Truth be told, you’re not any of these things. You do these things, but they’re not your deepest identity, which is very good news, because everything you do will fade away. Letting go of these things as identities is only good news, though, if you have a better identity. That’s where life “in Christ” enters the picture.
In the process of downsizing and moving from three offices to one, I’ve decided to burn my old journals. I go through them, tear out significant pages that have ideas for future books or ministry, but burn the rest, which include todo lists, notes from literally thousands of meetings, calendar events, and records of exercise. As I read, I remember, often celebrate, sometimes recall frustration, and then turn the page and move on. It's over. I’m letting go. “I’m not my sphere of influence” and that’s a good thing, because there was a day when every head in the room of church elders would turn to me to see what was next. I’m (gladly) not even in those meetings anymore. “I’m not my place on the org chart.” “I'm not my teaching gift.”
The conscious letting go and forgetting is a bit like letting the downed wood from our forest be burned to heat our house, because we periodically take the ashes and scatter them in the forest, where they become food for the next phase of forest life. In the same way, consciously letting go of my old identity is creating a sort of ‘humus’ for the soil of my soul, and this will, I’m confident, ripen into a new chapter - a chapter determined by my Creator and which, I’ve no doubt, will be far better than any chapter I’d write by hanging on.
Good bye old journals. Good bye old titles. Good bye yesterday. It was remarkable.
Here I am God, ready for what’s next.