In the early days of my ministry, I was speaking at a very modest sized church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The church was celebrating a major anniversary. That church also had the distinction of having turned Billy Graham down when he candidated as a young man to enter the pastorate. They probably did him the greatest favor in recognizing the difference between a pastor and an evangelist. What I remember on the occasion that I spoke was another young man sitting next to me, thoroughly bored by the proceedings. So I leaned over and inquired, “Are you okay?” He muttered quietly, “I simply cannot stand these occasions when all they speak about is their memories of what happened years ago.” I paused, granting him a little understanding, but then added, “The only thing worse than nostalgia is amnesia.” He stared with a vacant look, hoping I would interpret what I said. I did that after the service was over.
We enter another year. There is a strange mix of the past and the future. Time inexorably moves on and the older we get, the more we struggle with its incredible speed. We know with every sunset there are fewer sunrises ahead. With every memory, there are greater emotions that come to the fore. In youth, even a thirty year old seems an antique. When one gets to thirty, it is the next decade that signals decline. So it goes. But what is the greatest heartache for me now as I look at the last few years is to watch the decline of our culture. With the ebb and flow of time there is a staggering discarding of values once held and a brazen confidence that overturning the past means moral progress. Evolutionary ethics is no less red in tooth and claw. Ironically, just as Viktor Frankl reminded us that the Holocaust was spawned behind lecture halls of intellectuals, the same source now legitimizes the overthrow of the sacred. Moral Alzheimer’s is deadly for any culture. Yes, that’s what is happening. We are suddenly at a stage where everything is upside down. All values once cherished are mocked and a brazen pronouncement declaring anything that conserves the past as anathema. Take a look at the language of political debate. It’s a sham and a shame. It seems impossible to disagree without being disagreeable. It is just another symptom of decay and destruction. What example does this set for the future to our young? Everywhere I go, people live in fear of where we are headed. It makes terrific newsworthy stories but so do obituaries. Tragedy can make news but it also spells death.
Then there is another trend. Responsibility for wrongdoing has little or no consequence. Just a few short weeks ago, a young teen who killed four people while driving under the influence was all but excused by a judge who claimed “affluenza” as the cause. “He came from a very rich home and therefore didn’t know right from wrong the judge opined.” I can assume the judge had a similar upbringing, if impaired judgment has wealth as its precursor. This week, teenagers ran amok in a mall forcing stores to shut down; their excuse according to some was that they came from deprived conditions and didn’t know any better. So evidently both wealth and poverty produce the same amoral Homo sapiens. On a lighter note (by comparison), the host of the Miss Universe contest awarded the wrong person the crown and then had to correct himself. His summary: “I take full responsibility.” That phrase is a euphemism for “Okay, okay, let’s not talk about it anymore. Enough already.”
An upside down world in which taking responsibility means nothing brings the dawn of another year when the most prosperous nation in the world will express its judgment at the polls. Prosperity without moral reasoning and without responsibility makes a fearsome year ahead.
There is an old adage that says, “The faster you are moving, the farther ahead we need to be able to see.” Someone quipped that even nostalgia is not what it used to be. We are moving at a pace that is terrifying.
But I still believe that hope is not a lost sentiment. As a Christian I have hope, albeit through a winding path. Hope is the most needed posture in spite of the darkness. A virtuoso can make melody even with one string. I believe politics and culture will always be like the proverbial drunk reeling from one wall to the other, knocking himself senseless with every hit. Our hope cannot be placed in that. Our hope must always be placed in a living and sovereign God who watches over all that happens and at the right time brings a person of his choosing to change the course for the better. When that will happen is not for us to know. Our responsibility is to honor and love Him through the valley and across the distance. Solomon reminded us to remember the creator in the days of our youth and to forget not his benefits. As I write this, I am preparing to speak to an audience of over 40,000 young men and women between the ages of 18 to 24. The Passion Conference led by Louie Giglio has a huge impact on the young. They open their hearts to the Lord and give generously to the needs of the world. Who says all is lost? There are scores of young people we meet who desire to change the world and with God on their side, they will.
It is our responsibility to help them remember the past and to lay hold of the future. Memory and foresight go hand in hand.
Some years ago, when we were living in Cambridge, England, I remember reading a story that was so powerful. The story in the local newspaper had a woman in her senior years kneeling beside a plant, gloves in hand, and a smile as wide as could be imagined. In her hand, between her thumb and index finger, she held a golden ring. It was her wedding ring that she had lost fourteen years before; she had searched everywhere but couldn’t find it. This day as she was digging the soil to plant new flowers, her little trowel picked up some dirt and as she saw a glitter, her heart skipped a beat and she grasped at it to find her long lost ring. She was now widowed, but the ring as a symbol of unending love had done its work. She basked for several minutes in the nostalgia of bygone days and a love that would never die. With a twinkle in her eye she told the reporter she had always hoped that she would find it one day. Planting new flowers to bloom brought back a love that was never lost but had once again found its symbol.
We look to another year. Let’s carry the joys and the lessons of the past. Let’s plant new flowers of hope in the young and we can recover the symbols of the past. Let us make the future count with our prayers and our efforts to show that we are not carried on the wings of fluctuating culture but on the power of a living God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The hymn writer Isaac Watts said it well. (I have only changed the last two lines.)
Our God, our Help in ages past,
Our Hope for years to come,
Our Shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal Home!
Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.
Before the hills in order stood
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Like flowery fields the nations stand,
Pleased with the morning light;
We plant new hopes with dreams so grand
He’ll guide us through this night.