One fascinating aspect of Paul’s letters are his silences, what he leaves unspoken between the lines. We know, for example, that he loved the Philippian church; and they loved him. Yet even in this love letter to them there is that jarring phrase that says, “It is a great joy that after so long a time you have revived your concern for me.” Scholars have wondered, ‘Had there been some sort of rupture between Paul and the church at Philippi? Despite their historically close relationship, did he do something that angered them? Did they do something to anger him?’ If so, Paul glosses over his reference to the rift: “Of course,” he says, “you were always concerned — you just didn’t have sufficient opportunity to show it.” Some have taken that statement at face value. Others have suspected that it took the occasion of Paul’s imprisonment and impending death to move the church at Philippi to resolve that they wouldn’t let some disagreement obscure their affection for Paul. So they sent Epaphroditus with a love offering to Paul in his extremity. The warmth of Paul’s letter back to the church suggests that in this instance, as in so many others, Paul chose to forget whatever rift with the Philippian church lay behind him and to press on toward the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
I think of a Rhodes Scholar who had carved out a brilliant academic career at Yale and Oxford. He founded a literary magazine that enjoyed great critical success – but was a financial disaster. This young scholar, who had never known anything but triumph, became regarded as a failure. He responded by becoming a recluse in his New York City apartment, depressed, even suicidal. He finally had sense enough to unburden himself to a therapist, an old friend recruited by his family. The young man chronicled his errors, laid bare his humiliation: “I trusted the wrong people; I took the wrong advice; I made the wrong investments.” The therapist responded, “Your story reminds me of so many other people’s stories. If you don’t mind, I’d like toplay you a few interviews I have held with other people. I have their permission to use these stories, and they might give your own story a context.” The young man agreed to listen to the tapes.
The first tape was of a father who had made many damaging mistakes in his relationship to his son, mistakes
that were now causing his son great pain. The remorseful father hated himself for his parental foolishness.
The second was a woman who had just begun to realize the role she had played in the demise of her marriage. She had always blamed her spouse for their break-up, but she had come to see that their love was neither created nor destroyed alone. She was filled with deep regret. The third voice was that of a highly-placed business executive who had cavalierly handled a business operation in which his company was engaged. He hadn’t given the matter the attention it deserved. As a result, the company wound up losing millions of dollars. The executive was filled with self-loathing for his carelessness.
The therapist asked the young man, “Do you see a common thread in these stories?” The scholar said, “Sure; each was saying in his or her own way, ‘If only . . . If only I had made different decisions I would be at a different place in my life. If only I had done this instead of that I wouldn’t be where I am.’ ” The therapist said, “Exactly right. Do you know how I was able to help restore them to productivity? I convinced them to substitute two words for that recurring phrase, ‘If only.’ Instead of the words, ‘If only,’ I was able to get them to say the words, ‘Next time . . .’ ” “Think about it,” says the therapist. “The words ‘if only’ point to what cannot be altered. You cannot go back and redo or undo the past. So energy spent fretting on ‘if only’ is largely wasted. But the words ‘next time’ point to that sector of human experience that remains open, that is still fluid, still out there to be shaped.” There is a tremendous difference in attitude and vision between the words, ‘next time’ and ‘if only.’ To move from the words ‘if only’ to ‘next time’ requires developing the skill of forgetting. It requires developing the skill of knowing what and how to forget your past mistakes.
Of course, forgetting the mistakes that we have made is only one facet of the necessary skill of forgetting. We must not dwell on the harm we have caused others; we also must forget the harm that others have caused us. After forty years in this profession, I am rightly considered a dinosaur by younger colleagues. Occasionally, some of these young pastors encounter me at a gathering and ask, “Dr. Kremer, how do we survive our profession?” I remind them of three things. First, to never lose sight of their original sense of God’s calling — it is their bedrock anchor in all storms. Second, I encourage them to seek succor each day in the strength of the Spirit – our own strength and wisdom is insufficient for the challenges we face. Third, I urge them to commit Paul’s advice to heart: “One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.” I tell young ministers they will not survive their profession unless they develop the facility of a bad memory. When they look at me quizzically, I explain, “You must forget what people say to you, forget what people do to you, forget what people write to you, forget what people demand of you and how they demand it. You must forget the calls that come on Christmas Day or at 7 a.m. on Saturday morning, or at 3 a.m. on Thursday night. You must develop the skill of having a bad memory about all that, because if you can’t forget the hurts that others cause you and recommend those people to serve on the next committee or be the next Sunday School teacher, you cannot function in your job. Developing a bad memory is the hardest skill you’ll learn as a minister, the hardest skill you’ll develop as a human being. And the most necessary.”
Not even Paul could do it easily. When John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas on a missionary journey, Paul couldn’t easily forget his betrayal. When Barnabas wanted to give John Mark a second chance, Paul refused. Paul declared, “Hey, he wimped out on us once, he’ll wimp out on us again.” His response drove a wedge between those good friends and sundered their partnership. But the next time Paul referred to John Mark, he called him, “his fellow worker in the Lord.” Between his sense of betrayal and those words of affirmation lies a silence that speaks of reconciliation, a silence of forgetting. Forgetting what lay behind, pressing forward to what lay ahead, Paul once again incorporated John Mark into their mutual pursuit of the high calling of Christ.
We have to forget how we’ve harmed others. We must forget how others have harmed us. And we must understand that many of our failures are failures of circumstance beyond our control. Norman Vincent Peale’s wife once attended a big conference in North Dakota and found herself trying to engage a taciturn farmer from that area in conversation. Failing in all efforts she said, ”How were the crops this past year?” Warn’t none,” said the farmer. “Grasshoppers et most of them, and then came the dust storms. I managed to save 5% of my crop. I was lucky. My brother lost all of his.” She asked, “How do you deal with such a tragedy?” The old farmer responded, “I aim to forget it. I aim to forget it and go on.” This unlettered famer understood the same principle of survival grasped by that brilliant therapist in New York City. In the face of devastating loss you have to discipline the mind to forget, in the face of devastating circumstances, you aim to forget – and go on! Think, ‘Next time!’ You can thereby lose a crop and save your soul.
We think of Paul as a great success. The old apostle must chuckle in heaven at this irony. No one failed more than Paul. No one failed to start more churches, alienated more people, was run out of more towns. His great ambition was to preach the Gospel successfully to his own people, and in that ambition he utterly failed. He became, by default, an apostle to the Gentiles. But we regard Paul as a success because he practiced his own advice, “One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The late great Braves pitcher Phil Niekro once coached a professional women’s baseball team. He noted that the difference between coaching men and women was that women became mortified when they made an error. They would come to him and say, almost weeping, “I’m so sorry.” Finally, Niekro called the team together and said, “Do any of you mean to make mistakes?” “Well, no,” they replied. “Then forget about saying ‘I’m sorry,’ ” said Niekro, “and go on.” None of us mean to fail. None of us mean to fail others. None of us mean to fail ourselves. None of us mean to fail God. None of us mean to fail life. None of us mean to fail love. None of us mean to fail faith. Yet at one time or another, we do all of those things. We can remain imprisoned by memory of our failures, or we can resolve to forget them and press on! How can we do that? We have to resolve, ‘Next time! Next time will be different!’ And we can only accomplish a different ‘next time’ by forgetting and replacing thoughts of failure with more powerful and positive thoughts. Thomas Edison’s laboratory burned to the ground, consuming years of research. Reporters interviewed him the next morning, expecting him to be devastated. “Devastated?” said Edison. “I am delighted. That fire burned up every one of my mistakes. I am that much closer to achieving our goal.” I sometimes think that every church might be improved if a great, sanctifying fire came through and burned up our collective memories of all our mistakes, so that no longer would anyone say, ‘Oh, we tried that and it didn’t work,’ or, ‘I taught that group once and won’t ever do it again,’ or, ‘I invited them once and they didn’t come,’ or ‘We implemented that innovation and it failed.’ What if a consuming, sanctifying fire burned up our collective memory of all programs and initiatives that didn’t work, so that one morning every congregation awoke fresh and alive, concentrating on the words, “Next time!” What if every congregation forgot what lay behind them and looked with enthusiasm to what lay ahead, summoned by the upward call of God in Christ Jesus?
God is so much more interested in our future than our past. The Scriptures say that God will not deal with us according to our failures, not according to our iniquities. Rather, God’s mercies are “fresh each morning.” God is more concerned with who we will become than who we have been. Think about the words we collectively prayed this very morning: “Lord, forgive and forget our trespasses, even as we forgive and forget those who have trespassed against us.” Do we really believe those words? Do we really claim those words? Paul was able to weather his many failures because he was utterly captivated by the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. When we allow ourselves to become captivated by the upward call of God in Christ Jesus then our failures don’t matter, our shortcomings are irrelevant. Our faults and frailties are not the focus, for we know ourselves to be summoned by a higher call that draws us out of ourselves, out of our past and into the pursuit of helping implement God’s unknown future. All that matters is that we direct our being toward the furtherance of God’s Kingdom. Always remember that both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus in the midst of crisis, but the great difference between them was that one focused only upon his failure, while the other became caught up afresh in the upward call of God. One heard Christ command anew, “Peter, feed my sheep! Feed my sheep!” Peter realized, if Christ was willing to forget his denial, then he was free to do so, too.
Many of you know that I have an Alabama barnyard mutt named Jack. But prior to owning Jack, our family was blessed mostly with golden retrievers. I have always been fascinated by golden retrievers’ ability to focus on one thing – retrieving. Throw a stick in the river, and they will disregard the brambles between them and the river’s edge. They will pay no attention to the river’s current or the temperature of the water. All they will see is the stick. Throw the stick as far as you will, and they will forget all other circumstances and leap in the river and pursue their goal with single-minded devotion until they clamp down upon that stick and return it to you. My question to you this morning is, What is your ‘stick?’ What is the upward call that draws you? What is the upward call of God in your life? What is the upward call of God in your mind that dispels all lower thoughts? We must ask ourselves, what is the upward call of God that draws us out of ourselves to answer God’s summons to grow in faith and service? For in forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, may we individually and collectively press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Individually and collectively, may we be ultimately defined by our ability to say, “Next time! Next time!”