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Begin With the Past
January 1, 2023

First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto


Before we enter into the new year, before we can live successfully and creatively in 2023, something must be done with the past. 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 the present, manipulating us, creating chaos or creating success.

The unresolved past can cause neuroses, depression, physical diseases, heart trouble, ulcers, even death. The unresolved past can cause problems in family relationships, marital relationships, relationships with friends.

What do we do with an unresolved event of the past? 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, repress it, push it down out of our conscious mind, push it down into our unconscious where it can really cause insidious damage. These methods do not work.

What do we do with the past? Five suggestions. First, learn from the past. Whatever unpleasant event, whatever crisis, failure, mistake, learn from 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.

Consider the guilt we feel at the death of a loved one. The loved one is gone. We can’t take back any words we said. We can’t redo any actions. We can’t do any act we wish we had done. The past is gone, but we can learn to be kinder to our loved ones. We more thoughtful, courteous, respectful, patient, generous. We each can become a much better person in our relationships with those around us. Coolly, calmly, unemotionally, look at the past, look at 2022 and learn from it. 

Secondly, repent. Repent is a biblical word. The past cannot be forgotten, the past cannot be erased, but the past can be repented. Repent means to look squarely in the face of whatever we’ve done, whatever we’ve said, whatever harm, whatever hurt, learn a lesson, and 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 past.

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. 

And, sometimes an act of restitution is required. Emery, who was Best Man in our wedding, became a Christian when he was in college. He turned his life over to the Lord was dramatically changed. I t was a conversion experience. 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 when one afternoon 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 Emery needed to act. He needed to make restitution for the wrong he had done. Emery eventually became a United Methodist minister and was my pastor when I was in high school.

Fourth, accept the past. Oh, how we love to rant and rave, moan, groan, mumble, complain and gripe over something that cannot be changed. The past can never be redone. Nothing can be relived. Accept it.

The apostle Paul had this attitude. In his letter to the Philippians, a portion we heard read, he 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.” You can do it. You can endure. You can learn to be content.

How? Give it to God. Give God the past, offer it up, let it go. Cast your burdens on the Lord. Cast your anxieties on God. Let the past go. Give it to God. 

Learn, put what you’ve learned into practice, make restitution, accept it, and then, fifth, rejoice. Rejoice in the past. Praise the Lord for the past. Give thanks 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.

Let’s enter 2023 remembering that old axiom—don’t cry over spilled milk. When you spill milk, assess the accident and learn from it. Look at the situation calmly 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 put your glass away from the edge of the table. Make restitution, pay for the milk.

And then accept the situation. Don’t cry over spilled milk Why get all worked up over it? Accept it. You can’t pick the milk up and put it back in the glass. Accept it. Be content.

And offer the whole incident to God in praise, thanksgiving, rejoicing that you have learned another lesson. 

Come to the table this morning with your church family in the knowledge that God loves you. Come in the confidence that you can live successfully and creatively in 2023 because you can do all things in Christ who strengthens you. Rejoice!

© 2023 Douglas I. Norris