Facing Ghosts of the Past

Romans 13:11-14
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

I would be lying to you if I said there were never moments when I wish I could journey back to my past and change things. I have this occasional dream of being able to go back in time – knowing all the things I know NOW. I would not want to go back if we were not allowed to take the knowledge I have now.  I think about what I might have done different. I think about relationships that were broken, whether my fault or someone else’s. I think about hurtful words and actions towards others. There are moments and events that we probably all wish we could change, that we wish turned out different.

Remembering the past can be a good thing – if we use those memories to learn how to move forward. After all, the philosopher George Santayana warned that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The past can teach us.  The past can form us in positive ways.  But there are some memories that don’t help. They haunt us. They enslave us and bind us.

Some of us have never been able to live fully in the present (or even have any vision for the future) because our past is so oppressive. These powerful, limiting forces come from haunting memories.  The question for us today has to do with the memories of our disappointing and even sinful actions in the past. The remembrances that form chains around us that enslave us. What chains of the past bind you? How do you need to be set free?

Paul writes in Romans 13, “you know what time it is, this is the moment to wake from sleep. The night is far gone and the day is near. Lay aside the works of the darkness and put on the armor of the light. Live honorably in the day.”  In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the light that shines on our past is reflected in the Ghost of Christmas Past.  While Paul uses the term, “the night is far gone and the day is near,” Charles Dickens uses the powerful image of the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shines light in the corners of our life.  Dickens writes, “But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
The light was so bright issuing from the spirit’s head that Scrooge immediately asked that the spirit put the extinguisher cap over its head to shield the light, to which the spirit replied, “”What!” “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those whose passions made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow!”

Dickens identified the fear in every one of us: When we are confronted with light that shines in the darkness of our lives, our first impulse is to extinguish it. We don’t want to confront the debilitating pains and mistakes of the past. Who does?
We are familiar with Scrooge’s journey into his past. He travels to his boyhood schoolhouse, to his former place of work, and to the moment on Christmas Eve when he chooses gain and success over the love of his life.  Can we imagine being forced to relive the most painful parts of our past? I wonder how we would respond. Would we be moved to act in ways that are redeeming? Or would we want to close our eyes and like Scrooge, beg to see no more?  Unfortunately for many of us, we carry our painful reminders with us all the time. We don’t really need any spirits to take us there, because we relive them regularly.

I remember a young girl in a former church who shared with me that her father had repeatedly told her throughout her childhood that she was worthless. Can you imagine the effect that had on her life? It was no wonder she struggled in so many areas. She did not want to revisit those words, but she needed to hear that her father did not define her – her father had no power over who she was or could be.

I remember a friend whose spouse had violated his trust. For many years, he was a prisoner to mistrust. He just couldn’t bring himself to fully trust another. He needed the light of truth to shine and communicate to him that what one other person does, does not define all the rest. Love is a risk, but the love of God never disappoints and is the only power that can heal.

I remember my own story, struggling with emotional connection and trust, blaming it all on my father and telling myself – this is the way I am. I can’t change this disconnected part of me because that is what my experiences have shaped me to be. I believed for many years that my own experiences defined me in such a way that I couldn’t emotionally connect to another person.

But the truth of the Gospel is we can change. I speak from experience as one who has been changed. Over the past 20 years, God has literally changed my personality. I have become more forgiving, more feeling, more intuitive, and more emotionally connected – I still have a way to go, mind you. That work was God’s work in me – but I also had to face some darkness that I didn’t want to face. It didn’t happen in one night, like Scrooge, but it happened for me – and it can happen for you.  It happened through prayer. It happened through friends who nurtured me. It happened through close friends who would listen and comfort and guide. It happened through the Church. All of these resources of healing gifts of God that help us make sense of the darkness and step into the light. These gifts of church, family, friends, and pastors helped me identify the chains and allow Christ to set this prisoner free.

Paul said to wake from our sleep and face the day. The prophet of Isaiah said it this way in Isaiah 61:1-3, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.”

If you want to be set free from your debilitating past then it is time to step into the light and connect with the resources God has given us to set us free!  Let’s not extinguish the light as Scrooge did. Scrooge sought to put out the light, to run away from the truth of who he was.  Dickens writes, “Scrooge observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head. The Spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Scrooge pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light: which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.”

“it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Live honorably in the day.”

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