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But What Do I Do With the Old?
January 4, 1976

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

PHILIPPIANS 3 :12-14, 4:4-13

The bulletin cover answers my question—What shall we do with the old? Redeem it! Most of the admonitions we hear at this time of the year are future oriented, directed towards 1976. We make our resolutions. We hear that we are entering into the new year, and how good it is. But my question this morning is prior to that. Before we can really enter into the new, before we can really appropriate the new and live successfully and creatively within it, something must be done with the past. It must be redeemed. If the past is not properly handled, it will interfere with the present. It will interfere with the future. 

The tentacles of the past reach into our present, manipulating us, creating chaos or creating success. The past if not properly handled, interferes with our present. Psychiatry is a profession spent on untangling the unresolved messes that we’ve got into in our past. Psychiatry is very popular today, indicating just how prevalent it is among us. People are not properly handling their pasts so if it comes to us unresolved, it interferes with our present. The unresolved past can cause neuroses, depression, physical diseases, heart trouble, ulcers, even death. The unresolved past can cause problems in our relationships with other people— family relationships, marital relationships, relationships with friends. The past comes to us, if unresolved, like tentacles, interfering in our present. 

To be more specific, take grief. Grief is one of those processes that we go through over the death of a loved one. It’s a long involved, detailed process. If we do not go through it, if we do not work through it all the way, grief will come in undisguised forms and cause all kinds of difficulty. The death of a loved one, the death of a person important to us stirs up within us intense feelings, such as guilt. Oh, what I should have done? Or, why did I do that?  The guilt we experienced at the time of the death if it’s not resolved, if it’s not worked through will haunt us clear into the future. Or, take a strong emotion like fear. How many people are afraid of animals because once in their childhood, they were frightened by an animal and they didn’t work through the fear? And it still has an influence on the present. 

Or, problems in our relationships with other people. When we get hurt, or we hurt someone else, if we have grudges, hard feelings, anger, temper, arguments, and these feelings are not worked through, they will haunt our present and will manipulate us. To go into the future, to go into 1976 we must first of all deal properly with the past. 

And what do we do with it? There are popular methods, ineffective methods, even harmful methods that you and I use, such as trying to erase. We’d love to take an eraser and blot out something in the past, cover it all over, pretend it never happened. Or, we’d like to forget. Or, we repress it, push it down out of our conscious mind, push it down into our unconscious where it can really cause insidious damage to us. These methods do not work— trying to forget, trying to pretend something never happened, trying to erase for the memory lingers on. 

What do we do with the old? Our bulletin cover says, “Redeem it.” Ephesians 5:16, in the Revised Standard Version says, “Make the most of the time.” Applying that not to the future, not to the present, but applying that to the past, what does that mean? First of all, expect to learn something from the past. Whatever unpleasant event, whatever crisis, whatever failure, whatever mistake, whatever we did, learn from it. Stop, analyze it. Calmly, coolly, unemotionally, analyze it. Decide what can be learned from it. Honor the past. Give it meaning. Give it significance. Give the past the respect of being listened to, of being paid attention to. There’s always something to learn. Take  the guilt that we feel at the death of a loved one. The loved one is now gone. We can never redo. We can’t take back any words we said. We can’t do any deeds we didn’t do. It’s gone, it’s past but we can learn from that event. We can learn to be a little kinder to our loved ones. We can learn to be a little more thoughtful, a little more courteous, a little more respectful, a little more patient, a little more generous. From that event, properly learning our lesson, we can be a much better person in our relationships with those around us. Coolly, calmly, unemotionally, look at the past, look at this past year and learn from it. 

Secondly, repent. Repent is a good biblical word which means that the past cannot be forgotten, the past cannot be erased, but the past can be repented. Repent means to look squarely, honestly in the face of whatever we’ve done, whatever act we’ve done, whatever we’ve said, whatever harm, whatever hurt. Look squarely in the face and put into practice what we’ve learned. Put into practice is the meaning of repent—turn from, turn around and go in another direction. Put into action what you’ve learned from the event. 

Thirdly, make restitution where necessary. Whatever you need to say, whatever you need to do, whatever is bothering you, face it, analyze it, listen to it, repent of it, and make restitution. It takes a big person to say, “I’m sorry. I apologize. Please forgive me.” Sometimes even years later, someone will finally get to the point of saying to a loved one or to a friend, “I was wrong and I apologize.” That’s restitution. Sometimes a larger act is required. 

My friend Emery, who was Best Man at our wedding, became a Christian when he was in college. Becoming a Christian for him was a very dramatic event. He very consciously and overtly turned his life over to the Lord. Living for the Lord was such a dramatic change for him, it really was a conversion experience. When he became a Christian, things from the past began to bother him, bug him and make him feel guilty. One day he went to the house of his high school hockey coach.  Imagine the surprise of his coach that late one afternoon when he heard the doorbell ring, opened the door, and there was Emery with his arms loaded with stuff he’d stolen from the Athletic Department. Many athletes consider it their patriotic duty to rip off from the school. But it bothered Emery. He explained to the coach, “I’m now a Christian, and I want to return all these things that I took.” What a witness he made to the coach! It had been many years and the school probably didn’t need that stuff, but Emory’s soul needed to make an act. He needed to do something physical, some token of restitution for wrong that he had done in the past. That past event, if not properly handled, would have interfered with his present. After you have learned from an event and repented of it, put the learning into practice, making restitution where necessary 

Then accept the past. Oh, how we love to rant and rave, how we love to moan, groan, mumble, complain and gripe over something that cannot be changed. The past can never be redone, the past can never be changed. Nothing can be relived over, but we go over and over, get all agitated, all stewed up. Accept it. Like the guy who says if it hadn’t been for that rain in July of 1942, I’d be rich today. Ridiculous. Accept the past. The Japanese have much to teach us at this point. The Japanese have such a composure and serenity in their attitude towards life. It amazed us Americans how quickly they adjusted to their defeat of World War Two. It amazed us how quickly they turned it over, changed. They figured it’s done. It’s happened. Now we make the best of it. “Shikataganai”, they say. Shikataganai—the will of the Lord. That’s fate and there’s nothing you can do about it. So why get all stewed and upset? 

When I was in Japan as a missionary teacher, we went on a school trip, lining up 300 boys all in their uniforms. We marched them onto the train and took a week trip. The Japanese love to travel. We were going to go by Mount Fuji, the revered mountain. One rarely sees Mount Fuji. It’s usually raining or the clouds are covering the top of the mountain. Very few times are you privileged to see Mount Fuji. For some of the boys, this may have been their only chance to see Mount Fuji. As we neared Mount Fuji on the train, it was raining so we knew we could not see Mount Fuji. Well, I stewed and I fretted, “Why does it have to rain today? Of all the days, why did it rain today? Some of these kids probably will never get a chance to see Mount Fuji and it has to rain!” I went on and on like a “good” American. The students played cards; they love to play cards. They talked to one another and ignored the whole thing. It didn’t seem to bother them at all that it was raining, but my ranting and raving bothered them. Finally one student said to me, “Sensei (Sensei means teacher), Sensei.” He said it in half Japanese and half English, but I got the point. He said, “Sensei, the rain doesn’t come from the ground and goes up. The rain comes from the sky and comes down and we can’t do anything about it.” Isn’t that beautiful? You didn’t like it. Shikatagani! Some stories you like, some stories you don’t. 

The apostle Paul had this attitude. In his letter to the Philippians, a portion of which was read in the New Testament lesson, Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” I can do. I can endure. I have learned to be content. The best way to be content, the best way to learn how to accept is to give it to God. Give him the past, offer it up to him and let it go. Just let it go. Cast your burdens on the Lord. Cast your anxieties on him. Cast your past on him. Let it go. Let go of all those gripes, complaints, stewing, fretting, yelling, hollering, screaming, let it go. Let go of all those feelings that stir us up and get us all tangled up. Let them go; give them to God. And fill your mind then with the things that Paul said in this passage, “Fill your mind then with whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, lovely, gracious. Think on these things.” 

And then rejoice. Rejoice in the past, even give thanks for it. Praise the Lord for it. Give him thanksgiving for all that has happened for it has brought you to this day. It has made you who you are, what you are and where you are. Be thankful. The passage we read began with Paul saying, “I press on.”  Let us press on into this new year remembering that old axiom—don’t cry over spilled milk. Stop, assess the situation and learn from it. Look at the situation calmly and objectively and decide, “Well, I wouldn’t have spilled the milk if I hadn’t had my glass so close to the edge of the table.” That’s a great lesson to learn. So repent. Decide to always after this, put your glass away from the edge of the table. Make restitution, pay for the milk. 

And then accept the situation. Why cry about it? Why get all stewed up about it? Why get all worked up over it. Accept the situation. Shikataganai. There goes the milk, what of it. I’ve learned something from it. I paid for it. There it is. You can’t pick the milk up and put it back in the glass and drink it, no matter how worked up you get over it. Accept it. And offer the whole incident to God in praise, thanksgiving, rejoicing that you have learned another lesson and you are further along on the road of life. Offered it all to God in the confidence, I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.

© 1976 Douglas I. Norris