While I am not normally a fan of cheesy quotes, I confess to having a fondness for this one by Alice Morse Earle: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.”
Having a clear focus on “today” can be easier said than done. Remorse, unfinished business or the longing to return to some earlier time can keep us distracted from the present. Rather than remembering our history and carrying forward whatever best prepares us for the challenges of today, some of us get stuck in our history and may fail to notice what is going on before our very eyes.
Past and future, history and vision matter. If you don’t believe it, read the Bible where so much of the prophetic emphasis swings between these two pairs of realities. Over and over again, we are urged to remember God’s faithfulness, to never forget our covenant calling or neglect our heritage. In twin fashion, the same prophets point us hopefully toward the future. Like artists, they paint a picture of a time and place where tears are no longer shed, where rivers run through desert places and the lion lies down with the lamb. These visions are to serve us like a pole star,
guiding us home.
What I love about the prophets’ use of the past and future, however, is how they ground us solidly in the present. We remember our history in order to faithfully live in this moment. We look ahead toward who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do in order to align ourselves with this reality in the here and now.
It has been said by many people that, “living in the present is the premier skill of the spiritual life.” This moment in time, the only one true certainty, is always the place where we can experience the presence of God and make the next faithful step of obedience.
The skill to live in the present, at least for me, requires persistent practice. I do get distracted, both by what trails behind me from the past and by what I anticipate will come my way in the future. Sometimes, I have needed a jolt to pay better attention.
Several years ago, I was working on a long-range project. The particular work required both historical research and an action plan to be implemented by a church. It was fun and engaging, and frankly, I was not very interested in paying attention to what was going on around me while working on it.
In the midst of this time, a couple who chronically struggled to stay together was again on the verge of breaking apart. All my previous efforts to help had only been a Band-Aid to an often gaping wound. Not knowing what to do, the husband came to my house to talk. As much as possible, I listened compassionately, suggested a possible plan for mediation and asked him to call me the next day.
He did call, still quite upset. After we talked for about 45 minutes, he seemed more settled, had a way forward and agreed to check back in a day or two.
My honest love for this couple did not keep me from feeling a bit put off by the “distraction” this was creating. Grumbling a bit, I refocused on my project. About 15 minutes later a Voice — one I had heard clearly only a few times before or since — said, “Go to his house now.” Though it nearly shook me from my chair, I incredibly replied, “But I am working on this project.” Once more and even stronger, this inward Word thundered, “Go now!” I was undone by this experience and immediately humbled by my reluctance.
Leaving quickly, I drove the 20 minutes to his house. As I walked up the steps to knock on the door, I happened to look through a side-door into his garage. There he was . . . hanging from a rope from the rafters. I rushed to him and held him up as best I could and stretched to find a knife to cut him down. We fell to the floor together but he was lifeless and still.
After finding a phone to call 911, I worked with him for several minutes but could not get him to breathe. And then, suddenly, he took a desperate gasp of breath. Minutes later, the medical team arrived. They did not expect him to live and if he did he would suffer severe brain damage. However, this man did live and had no signs of lasting trauma.
Moments in time matter. Paying attention to our God and our place in the world matters. I’ve been involved with enough suicides to know a Voice does not always intervene. For the life of me, I cannot explain why this is so. All I know is I want to be paying attention when it does. At other times, whether by an inward urging or our own compassionate awareness, we may see a need and respond. Though it may not save a life, it just might change the world or impact eternity for someone in a small but equally significant way.
Living in the present matters and requires our best time and attention, not only for the sake of others but for the sake of our own souls.