Listen To Article

The most memorable Easter sermon I can recall (it wasn’t mine by the way) used that old chestnut of a song, On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever! The preacher said that Easter was the clearest day ever.

In the resurrection of Jesus we catch a glimpse of forever. Easter brings to mind the future, completion, the resurrection of the dead, everlasting life.

James Alison

Because we associate Easter with the future, I was struck when I heard one of my favorite theologians, James Alison, say, “We tend to think of our past as fixed and the future as open. But the resurrection of Jesus means that our future is now fixed and sealed. And it is our past that is still open to reunderstanding and reordering.”

Wow! That hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. And quite honestly, I’ve been processing it and chewing on that line ever since.

Easter means the future is fixed and sealed. I guess that is true. We now know that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death. We proclaim it. We sing it so that we will continue to believe it.

When Alison says, “the future is fixed,” he knows that there will still be plenty of highs and lows, twists, turns, and tragedies down the road. He isn’t saying we can or should just sit around dreaming and snoozing until this great future arrives. We have parts to play and responsibilities to take care of.

* * *

But it’s not Allison’s comments about the future that stunned me. It is what he said about the past. “Our past is still open to reunderstanding and reordering.”

Our past is open. How can that be?

We are very practical, brass-tacks kind of people. We are used to hearing and saying things like, “Don’t cry over spilled milk” or “Focus on your future, not your past.” or “Let it go. You can’t change yesterday.”

There is no way your team can go back and win in the 1974 state playoffs. There is no way that cute guy doesn’t break your heart in 1996. Much more seriously, we all realize that terrible accident, that brutal divorce, that aggressive cancer cannot be undone, whether it was decades ago or just last week.

You can’t change the past.

But the power of Jesus’s resurrection is so vast, has such reach, so great of implications that it can allow us to reframe and reorder our pasts. Jesus brings reconciliation to all things. And that includes our pasts.

Because Jesus has set us free, we may do this work of reframing our pasts with courage and hope. Jesus gives us an opportunity, an invitation, to reorder our our pasts, not from a position of fear or obligation, but because the resurrection of Jesus is that big.

Reframing and reordering the past. What does that really mean? It sounds odd and unfamiliar. We wish there was some simple way, a single-word to explain it.

Couldn’t we say that this is the basic project of the Bible? Mix together a little time, some space, the work of the Holy Spirit, and then start to wonder, “What significance did that event have? Where was God in it? What was really going on?”

Let’s use Easter as an example. It began as an idle tale, hysterical women, frightening, even freaky. It was reframed as Good News, amazing, universe-altering.

Whatever you do, do not hear this as a claim that everything in your past is now honky-dory, that all the pieces in your puzzle will easily fit. No, not at all.

 * * *

When we think of Easter, Monica Lewinsky definitely isn’t the first person who comes to mind. Remember her? White House intern? Bill Clinton’s folly and shame? The blue dress?

Lewinsky is now 45 years old. I recently read an interview with her and was impressed by how she has reframed and reordered her past. More than twenty years later she says, “I wish I could erase my years in D.C. from memory. But I can’t. And in order to move forward in life, I must take risks. An important part of moving forward is excavating, sometimes painfully, what has gone before. It is easy to say ‘that’s in the past.’ But that’s exactly where we need to start to heal.”

Lewinsky goes on to say how at various times she feels shame, regret, sadness, and even wistfulness, a desire to go back to the girl she was before the scandal. Lewinsky tells how she has written many letters of apology, some to those who hurt her deeply “I believe unless we are able to humbly reexamine our past, we will remain victims of it.”

* * *

Thirty years ago, Sophie and I were in an especially hectic stage of life. We sought out a therapist simply to keep us in balance and relatively healthy.

We would laugh because anytime we brought up a stressful or painful situation, the therapist’s go-to question was “When have you felt this way before?” At first we were puzzled, maybe even annoyed by that question. “I don’t know! What does that matter?!!”

But when we patiently and gently dug around a bit, often we could find a memory, a story, from earlier in life that felt somehow the same. When we re-examined that experience from our past, held it and looked at it from many, many angles, not necessarily liking or accepting it, we could see how we had unfinished business in our past. And we discovered a little more confidence and peace about the situations we were facing in the present.

* * *

We wrongly think we can take our past and seal it up in an airtight tupperware of the heart. Move on. Forget. But the truth is, those tupperwares in our hearts always leak. Our pasts–both the good and the bad, the wonderful and the tragic–leak and flow directly into the way we live and react each day. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even really past.”

And how will we know that we are really doing this work of reframing our past, that the resurrection of Jesus is beginning to reorder our experiences?

One of the biggest indicators is when what was originally anger gradually becomes sadness. Another sign is that our desire to lay blame and point fingers of accusation gradually gives way to mercy, including mercy for ourselves. The aim isn’t to say that everything in our past was “good.” We don’t have to like it, but we begin to understand it–the complexities and circumstances, the knots and tangles, the personalities that shaped our past. And then begin to explore how it shapes us today.

No doubt, the risen Jesus gives us a glimpse of forever–Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the first, the last, and the living one.

Yet the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so mighty, so deep, so all-encompassing, it invites us to go into our pasts, there to wonder and to grieve, to sort and to polish, to let go and to reclaim, to move toward wholeness and new life.

Christ is risen, indeed!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

8 Comments

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Thank you Steve. That is a useful way to understand the resurrection and how it transforms us past and present.
    I have found the work if reflecting on the past and owning how it influences the present some of the best spiritual work of my life. You have described well some of the values and work we do in FaithWalking.
    Thank you

  • Mike Weber says:

    Wow! Just wow! I’ll be digesting this for a long time.

  • Mark William Ennis says:

    Well done, well said.

  • Claudia Beversluis says:

    Thanks Steve. I am taking this one to the prison with me. I teach a course on memory, and another on pastoral care. This fits both of them.

  • Ann says:

    What a gift this reflection is! Simply phenomenal. Do you know where the James Alison quote is from? So much to unpack in there.

  • JoAnne Zoller Wagner says:

    Yet the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so mighty, so deep, so all-encompassing, it invites us to go into our pasts, there to wonder and to grieve, to sort and to polish, to let go and to reclaim, to move toward wholeness and new life. Christ is risen, indeed!

    Steve, I can’t help noticing how beautifully you write as well as what you are writing about. Just wish I could have heard you preach this. I think the Gospel can help people particularly when dealing with past hurts and suffering, both of which weigh one down in the present. The Gospel has power to heal with grace and love.

    What a wonderful thought, that the future is fixed (in both senses), and our past can be transformed by love and forgiveness. This is enough “food for thought” for an entire year!

  • Jan Hoffman says:

    Thanks, Steve, for helpful thinking. I wonder how this understanding could help us as a denomination move into the coming years. Good wondering for Eastertide.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This was very good, thank you, and you have given me my sermon for this Sunday, when the resurrected Jesus tells the disciples to start forgiving sins. By the way, for my reading this summer, which Alison should I start with?

Leave a Reply