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Hello, past... Goodbye, past...

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Image from @Sign_Craft
We talk about the kingdom of God as having come (Jesus declared as much), as being present, and as still to come. In the first chapter of Revelation, the Almighty One describes himself as "who is, who was, and who is to come." So closely is the kingdom of heaven related to the king of glory that when you see one, you see the other. Both king and kingdom encompass the realms of past, present, and future. If our theology emphasizes one of these aspects to the neglect of the others, we end up with some pretty lopsided doctrines such as cessationism, over-realized eschatology, or gospel escapism. I won't take time to unpack any of these (perhaps in a future blog) because my point here is that our personal spirituality, like our theology, can get a bit off-kilter if we do not invite God and God's kingdom into our past, our present, and our future.

In the context of living in the kingdom, our past refers to that which we cannot change. It is our story, how we got where we are, and what makes us the person we are today. Our present has to do with what we spend our time and resources on, what we intentionally or accidentally practice as a rule of life, our vocation. Our future deals with those things we invest in, the seeds we plant (hoping they will grow into something big and beautiful), the legacy we want to leave for generations to come.

We can see the kingdom of God touching all three realms when we take a look at the story of Zacchaeus found in Luke 19. Zacchaeus was born a Jew, a descendant of Abraham. He was also born into a time when they were under Roman rule and there were limited options for someone of Jewish descent to make a good living. Zacchaeus found a job collecting taxes for the Romans, work which alienated him from his fellow Jews. He did very well as a tax collector, adopting corrupt practices in order to become a rich man. When Zacchaeus heard about Jesus, he was curious about him. Perhaps Zacchaeus was discontent with the way his life had turned out, perhaps he desired something more. It certainly seems that Zacchaeus was ready for a change, for after his encounter with Jesus, he embarked on a new course. He pledged to give half of his money to the poor and to make things right with those he had cheated. Jesus spoke these words to those gathered in the tax collector's house: "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham." Jesus declared Zacchaeus's redemption by affirming his heritage. No longer was he to be labeled a traitor, but acknowledged as a true son of Abraham. Zacchaeus's past (Jewish heritage) was reanimated, his present (vocation) was reworked, and his future (what he invested in the community) was altered. This is what happens when one comes in contact with the kingdom of God.

On a recent walk through downtown Montreal, I noticed two large banners displayed on the side of a building. One read "Canada 150" and the other said, "Building on our past for tomorrow." The juxtaposition struck me as a bit odd. Celebrating Canada's heritage (150 years since confederation) is a bit complicated because our nation's history includes oppression of the First Nations people and mistreatment of those who were not European settlers. Given that ignoble background, it seems a bit naive to talk about building on the past for (a hopefully bright) tomorrow. We need to honestly address the past (as Zacchaeus did) in order to have any hope of building a better future. Otherwise, we will find ourselves repeating harmful and destructive patterns.

When we invite God into our personal past, we seek to do two things: 1) embrace his providence in birthing us into a particular family and a particular time and place in history and 2)  break free from those unhealthy ways of thinking and acting which were handed down to us. Our origins grant us certain opportunities and gifts, but they also carry with them some unhelpful and harmful baggage. Living in the kingdom of God means that we recognize and give thanks for the blessings and gifts bestowed on us from our past. It also means that we need to repair any faulty familial foundations and jettison any baggage which keeps us from fully and freely loving God and others (forgive the mixed metaphor).

If we look at the life of Joseph, the great grandson of Abraham, we can see both of these dynamics in action. Joseph was born into a generational covenant with God; his was a wealthy family poised to become a great nation. However, the family tree also featured generations of strained relationships, jealousy, deceit, and unhealthy competition. [1] By the time Joseph came along, the family conflicts were so out of control that his own brothers conspired to kill him. Thankfully, one of the brothers appealed to mercy, and Joseph was sold into slavery instead. When he arrived in Egypt, Joseph endured many years of trials and temptations, developing into a faithful and patient man (reminiscent of his great grandfather, Abraham). He eventually rose to become a high-ranking official in Egypt and successfully navigated the people through a period of famine (the descendants of Abraham were to be a blessing to other nations). When Joseph was reunited with his brothers many years later, he chose to offer forgiveness and act generously instead of perpetuating conflict and competition (he chose a different way forward). Joseph embraced the blessings of his heritage, but he also refused to propagate the jealousy and deceit which were part of the family dynamics.

One of the chapters in Peter Scazzero's book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, is entitled "Going Back in Order to Go Forward." In it, he lists what he calls "The Ten Commandments of Your Family." These are ten areas in which we learn attitudes and behaviours from our family context. Because we were exposed to them from an early age, these patterns of thinking and acting become imprinted on us. Some might be good and loving ways of acting in the world, but others are probably not so healthy. In order to participate fully in the kingdom of God as followers of Jesus, we must invite the Spirit of God into our past so that inadequate and harmful ways of thinking and acting can be transformed. If we fail to invite God into our past, we end up building our lives on a false foundation. We also limit our ability to bring healing and wholeness to the world when we ourselves are not being healed and made whole.

Below are the ten areas along with some examples of blessings and baggage in each. I suggest that you take some time to prayerfully invite the Spirit to highlight where there are blessings to celebrate and where there is some baggage to jettison. Let us be people who graciously pass on the blessings we have received from our past and, by the grace and work of the Spirit, willingly discard any destructive patterns we have inherited.

1. Money: What was modeled for you? Good stewardship, generosity, resourcefulness, gratitude, simplicity? Love of money, stinginess, sense of poverty, hoarding, frivolous spending?
2. Conflict: How did your family address conflict? Loving and honest dialogue? With directness and patience? Were family members passive aggressive, volatile, or silent? Was conflict constant and expected?
3. Sex: Was sex spoken about openly, were healthy attitudes and boundaries encouraged around intimacy? Were there different standards for men and women, instances of promiscuity? Was sex a taboo subject?
4. Grief and Loss: Did your family process grief well, giving space for sadness and letting go? Was grief internalized and stuffed down? Were stoicism and practicality seen as strengths and sadness and depression seen as weaknesses?
5. Expressing Anger: Was anger given a safe outlet? Was it seen an as appropriate response to injustice? Was it avoided at all cost? Was it explosive and dangerous? Was sarcasm an acceptable way to release anger?
6. Family: Was your family close or estranged? Was loyalty expected no matter what? Were there dynamics of competition, jealousy? Was your family a source of support? Were you expected to pay a debt to your parents for all they did for you? What did/does your family expect from you?
7. Relationships: Were trust and vulnerability modeled for you? Was betrayal present in your family? What type of friendships were modeled for you? Did you learn how to be there for others? How to ask for help?
8. Attitudes Towards Different Cultures: Did your family embrace outsiders? Were they willing to learn from those who were different? Was your family wary of outsiders? Did they have an attitude of superiority? Was marriage between races and cultures looked down on?
9. Success: How was success defined in your family? Were there high expectations, perfectionism? Was there an attitude of defeatism?
10. Feelings and Emotions: Was your family okay with the full spectrum of emotions? Were some emotions not allowed? Were feelings not valued? Was reactionary behaviour common? Did emotions cause conflicts and breaks in relationships?

The Lord and the Spirit are one and the same, and the Lord’s Spirit sets us free. So our faces are not covered. They show the bright glory of the Lord, as the Lord’s Spirit makes us more and more like our glorious Lord.
(2 Corinthians 3:17-18, Contemporary English Version)


[1] I am expanding on ideas found in Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).


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