And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God led you these forty years in
the wilderness, to humble you and to test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you
would keep his commandments or not.
In a way, Deuteronomy is a New Year's book. It is presented as Moses's address to the
Israelites just before his death, when the wilderness wandering had come to an end and
they were poised for the conquest. It reflects a consciousness of the end of one phase of
life and the imminent beginning of a new one.
Perhaps it is for this reason that it is striking to see how much emphasis is placed on
looking back, on remembering. There is clearly a fear, or at least an anxiety, that once
the nation is settled and comfortable, it will forget how it got there. It will forget the
Lord's part in the process, and take its prosperity as its right or as its own
achievement. The result of this forgetfulness will be laxity in keeping the laws on which
its prosperity depends.
It seems a distressingly familiar scenario. Sometimes when we see most clearly what needs
to be done we cannot believe that we will ever lose sight of this vision. Time and again,
though, we do. We come into circumstances that we have not anticipated, or that we have
anticipated only in fantasy, and are not able to make the connection between our high
resolves of the past and the actualities that engulf us.
This can be brought home to ministers with particular force when young couples come to
consult about getting married. Every minister has heard it--our marriage won't have all
those troubles, because we love each other so much. There is no way they can know how
different things will look in a few years--how different they will look to each other. It
will be genuinely hard to remember the marriage vows because they will seem to have taken
place in another world. "We didn't know what we were talking about. We didn't know what we
were saying. We didn't know it would be like this."
As the years pass, we should become more realistic in this regard. We should learn what
different faces the world can present to us so that we face the future a little less
cocksure that we can cope with it. We should learn, in a way, how much we can trust
ourselves, what we have to guard against. We should learn especially how badly we mislead
ourselves when we are more concerned with our image--in the eyes of others or in our own
eyes--than with actual self-understanding.
A passage from the close of John's Gospel comes to mind. The risen Christ is talking to
Peter, and says, "I tell you in all truth, when you were young you dressed yourself and
went wherever you wanted to. But when you are old, you will reach out your hands and
someone else will dress you and take you where you do not want to go." How much we can or
cannot do is simply a matter of fact. It changes in the course of a lifetime. As we move
from childhood into adulthood, our physical and mental capabilities increase. As we live
our adult lives we learn skills and, we trust, increase in judgment. At the same time, our
physical abilities begin to decrease.
Clearly, it seems, we are called on to accept more responsibility in the mental and
spiritual spheres and less in the physical. It is hard, when we have held our independence
in such high regard, when we have labored so persistently to stand on our own two feet, to
learn to ask for help. There are likely to be feelings of shame and resentment. Unless we
have begun to discover that we are essentially spiritual beings, there is almost certain
to be a kind of pessimism or defeatism, a feeling that life is not fair. We will find
ourselves looking back at the past as the good time, and trying not to look ahead.
As in crossing the street, though, we need to look both ways. All that we know about
ourselves and our world is bound up with our past experiences. All that knowledge is
pointless unless it informs our purposes. Past and future come together in our goals, in
our present purposes.
This is one of the most important facts about us as human beings. When our theology says
that we are our loves, that the love is the essential person, it is telling us that we are
fundamentally purposeful beings. We are not simply the product of the past, wholly
determined by what has already happened. What distinguishes us from animals is our
"freedom and rationality"--our freedom being our ability to make intentional, purposeful
choices, and our rationality being our ability to reflect on experience and design actions
that promise to lead us to our goals.
It is intriguing that while "hard science" formally denies or ignores the existence of
purpose and tries to account for everything on the basis of random events, the life
sciences over and over again resort to the language of purpose. Birds sing "in order to"
attract mates or warn off rivals. Predators approach from the downwind side "in order not
to" alarm their prey. The human immune system reacts in certain ways "in order to" resist
infection or disease. The blink reflex is "for the purpose of" protecting the eye.
Biologists are convinced that these behaviors are the result of learning. They are not
disregarding the past at all, and in a sense still hold to deterministic models. However,
it turns out to be terribly difficult to come up with a language that takes account of the
benefits of learning and that does not resort to the notion of purpose.
The intriguing thing is that this language comes in even when our own experience says it
is inappropriate. The blink reflex is not intentional. We do not deliberately turn on our
immune systems when we feel threatened by infection or disease. This is very different
from using a potholder to take something out of the oven or buckling the seat belt when we
get into the car.
The fact is that we do have a sense of purposes not our own. We think of our organic
systems as constructive--as designed to nourish and to perceive and to accomplish. Legs
are for walking, eyes are for seeing, stomachs are for digesting, even though we did not
design them. It is no easier for us than for biologists to describe how our bodies
work--or even to think about how they work--without words that imply purpose.
Theologically, of course, we are on solid ground. Creation itself is intentional. The
source of everything that exists is the Lord's love. There is a providential reason for
everything that happens. Swedenborg spent a full book on this--Divine Providence. It is a
sequel to Divine Love and Wisdom, and in fact begins by defining providence as "the
government of the Lord's divine love and divine wisdom" (Divine Providence ¶ 1). When it
lists the laws of divine providence, the very first is "that we should act in freedom
according to reason" (¶ 71). It makes it very clear that the Lord allows some things to
happen without "approving" of them--bad things happen only to prevent worse things from
happening (¶¶ 234-274). And in a short but important section (¶¶ 175-190) it argues that
it is critical that providence remain invisible to us except in retrospect. We can always
be sure that the Lord is at work, but we can never be sure exactly how. Our confidence
need not be entirely blind, though, because from time to time we can look back and see how
we have been led or protected.
This brings us directly back to our text. "And you shall remember all the way which the
Lord your God led you these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and to test you,
to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not." This is a
good time to look back, not in nostalgia for the good old days, but to try to discern how
the Lord has led us.
At a workshop on church growth last year, the leader outlined a program for church
planning that has been developed through the Alban Institute. It involved a very carefully
thought out balance between committee work and meetings of the whole congregation; and one
of the features that appealed to me particularly was the inclusion of a "history night."
On one evening fairly early in the process, the congregation would gather. Sheets of
newsprint would be put up around the room with the names and dates of service of the
congregation's pastors as far back as anyone could actually remember. Then under each one,
people's memories would be indicated. What was this pastor like? What were the major
events during that pastorate? What was particularly treasured from that era?
The point was not to go back and live in the past, but to recognize how much of that past
was still very much present. The sheets would include many if not all of the values that
the congregation did not want to lose, true, but they would also inevitably show how the
church had actually changed. The congregation that was planning for the future would do so
with a fuller consciousness of its own character, with an awareness of things about itself
that it had tended to take for granted. The goal was not so much change for its own sake,
but was best expressed as the discovery of "how best to be ourselves in these new
Our text tells us what to look for when we look back. It resolves the Lord's purposes into
three basic elements--to humble, to test, and to know whether we intend to keep the
commandments. I suspect that if we look back at the past year with these issues in mind,
we will find plenty to think about. There have been situations that humbled us--that
reminded us that we are not in ultimate control of our world. This strikes directly at one
of our greatest enemies, the one Swedenborg calls "the love of dominion." There have been
situations that tested us, challenges that we met as best we could. We have found
ourselves capable to some extent, but with very definite limits to our capability.
And then there is the biggie--whether we will keep the Lord's commandments or not. We are
not talking simply about the literal side of the Ten Commandments. We tend to lead quite
orderly and productive lives. We tend not to go in for theft, murder, perjury, or
adultery. It is on that deeper level disclosed in the Sermon on the Mount that we are more
likely to have gone astray, in being so wrapped up in our own needs and preferences that
we were effectively blind and deaf to those around us. It is also on that deeper level
that we are likely to have had our most rewarding experiences, moments of wonderful mutual
affection and understanding, of light and warmth.
Perhaps we can set these experiences, the rewarding and the dismaying, in their various
contexts, and catch at least a glimpse of the interplay of the expected and the
unexpected. We have been caught unawares, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. On
the other hand, sometimes things have actually turned out pretty much as we
anticipated--again for better or for worse. This says something about the Lord's
providence and permission, and something about our expectations. We may come to know each
a little better.
As we do, we can look ahead to the new year a little more constructively. We are less
likely to make sweeping promises, more likely to focus in on some of the little pivotal
things that we can actually attend to. Given the fact that we really do not know what is
going to happen to us, one of the best things we can do is design ways to remind ourselves
of our ignorance--partly to humble ourselves, perhaps, but largely to awaken us as
observers. We have so much to learn.