ABOUT FAITH: Living in the Present
The beginning of January always carries with it certain rituals for me. I clean out my files, both paper and electronic, and replace the batteries in the smoke detectors. I review my insurance policies and start preparing my annual report to the IRS.
As dull as this may sound, these tasks help me reflect on the past and prepare for the future. The new year is a traditional time for reflection and anticipation, but this should be undertaken with great care. Focus on the past or the future can be hazardous departures from our true given state, the present. Worry and remorse can steal our joy as surely as any catastrophe. As Fulton Oursler observed, “ We crucify ourselves between two thieves: regret for yesterday and fear of tomorrow.”
Many of the teachings of Jesus can be studied through the lens of living in the moment. His ministry began with a 40-day fast, during which he reflected on his calling. Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus confronted the Tempter, who offered him bread, wealth and power. His response was to consider the present moment in light of future events revealed to him. “ I am not sustained by bread, but by God’s word. I am not made powerful or rich by things of this world.”
In these deliberations, he was not bound by his carpentry past nor frozen with fear for his turbulent future. But everything he would do from that moment on was clarified by his understanding of who he was in that moment. And in that moment he was fresh from the waters of his baptism, God’s beloved son, with whom God was pleased.
Jesus met many people along the way who were bound to the past to their detriment. The liberating news of the kingdom was that they were now free from what held them before. Matthew could walk away from the tax booth. The Samaritan woman at the well could no longer be defined by the husbands of her past, but by the living water she drank. Mary Magdalene could say goodbye to the demons who had tormented her. Simon the fisherman could become Peter the fisher-of-men. When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom was coming, he replied “ The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed … in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” ( Luke 17: 20-21). All who accepted the invitation could live in the moment. At least, that is the invitation.
The problem is, we cling to the past like a mean old friend. We continue to drink the bitter water. We not only hold fast to our demons, but invite them in for tea and crumpets. It is a very un-kingdom-like thing to do. When Jesus told the would-be disciple “ Let the dead bury the dead”, he was not instructing us to be indifferent or cruel to our parents. He was urging us to let go of the past and live in the present moment, with all its possibilities and demands. “ For no one who puts his hand to the plow ( present) and looks back ( past) is fit for the kingdom of heaven ( Luke 9: 5762).”
As for the future, Jesus taught us to be mindful of what lies ahead, but not be consumed by it at the expense of the present. He warned us to consider the cost before any undertaking, like a king preparing for war, or a man building a tower ( Luke 14: 28-32). But he also warned us against futile worry that does nothing to improve the present or prepare us for the future. “ Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own ( Matthew 6: 25-34).” So the present moment is well spent in preparation for the future, but only if our actions and attitudes leave the future in God’s hands.
I will continue to clean out my files and replace my batteries. But it is a tightrope I walk, with nostalgia and worry my pitfalls. God’s gift to me is the present, and that is enough for me.