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Looking Back


Looking Back

Psalm 32


As I was looking up the notes for today I was reminded of some of the old traditions that my parents used to have on Hogmanay.

My mum insisted that we all clean the house. That if we were going into a new year then we went into the New Year with the old year sorted and tidy and we didn’t take in any rubbish into the New Year.

So while my dad made the home-made soup, my mum and my sisters and I would be washing all the ornaments and cleaning out the coal fire and changing all the bed linen.

The other big thing that we did was that just before the bells rang we would open up the living room window. Part of that was to hear the foghorns from the ships on the Clyde so that we knew when the New Year was coming in. But there was also the feeling that we were letting the old year out.

And then once the foghorns went off then we opened the door of the house, to let the New Year in.

The last thing we did is that we always expected someone to visit, so we had a feast ready for them. And we were not allowed anything to eat until the guest had had something.

I think that’s the messages that we need for today. I think that these are the messages that we can also take from our reading today.

We all long for a fresh start, a new beginning, a new chance. And God offers us that, and I suppose every New Year we hope for that. This will be the year we get fit, this will be the year we relax more. This will be the year we sort ourselves out.

We go into each New Year with the idea in our head that we can be better people, we will be better people.

But, here’s the thing, the new beginning can’t really happen if we are holding onto the past.

You can’t put on new clothes until you have taken off the old clothes.

You can put new clothes on over the old clothes but it isn't very comfortable and really doesn’t help anyone. And maybe that’s the problem that we have. That we just add the new activities onto the old ones, so we are carrying two lots of responsibilities now. And after a while it just becomes exhausting and we give up.

So how should we prepare for a new year?

Well ironically we start a new year by looking back.

In our Psalm today it talks about confession. But effectively all that is, is reflecting on what has happened in the past. If we don't reflect on the past then we are destined to make the same stupid mistakes.

Let me tell you a secret, that I know at least three people in the world would kill over; those people being my squash partners.

I have three squash partners, each one of them has different skills and talents and strengths. But in 2017 not one of them managed to beat me. And there is a reason for is not that I am just a better squash player than they are, for often they can have a game that is just as good if not better than mine.

But here’s my secret.

We warm up before the game, and during the warm up I notice what strengths they are bringing to the game that day. Maybe their backhand is really strong that day; maybe their smash is really strong. And whatever their strength is, I don't play to it.

If I hit the ball to their smash and they haven’t missed a smash that day, then if I keep on playing where they can smash it, they will keep on scoring points.

I see their strength and I make sure I never play to it.

Confession is the opposite of that, we see our weakness and we avoid it.

That's what confession is, that’s what cleaning the house was. Don't take the rubbish of the past into the future. But to do that you need to know and admit what the rubbish is. If I pretend there is no rubbish, then that stuff is coming with me.

If I pretend there is no problem, then that problem is never going to be solved.

If I pretend that there is no illness, then I will never be cured, because I won’t seek treatment.

Imagine that I was driving my car and I noticed that the brakes weren’t braking as well as they used to.

Maybe the brakes are wearing away.

I can pretend that they are just fine. I can pretend that they will last a wee while longer before I need to change them. But we all know how that is going to end.

Where-as if I admit that the brakes need changing, and then change them, then the car and those in it are safe.

So the first stage is looking back and getting rid of the rubbish that is there.

The second stage is letting the past go. Having looked at the past, and dealt with the past, we just need to let it go.

In my old tenement house, we opened our windows to let the old year out.

If only it was that simple.

But we all know of family feuds that have lasted decades. We let the old year out but we hold onto the resentments.

Or maybe its fears.

We just don’t want to get rid of our insecurities, because we think our insecurities keep us safe. They keep us sharp and alert to anything that might hurt us. And we don't want to be hurt.

And the truth is that they are like an anchor that holds us back when we are trying to move forward.

The only thing we should be taking into the future from the past is the lessons we have learnt.

The God who has watched over us and given us strength, we can rely on him.

The people who have been there for us in the past and we can trust them.

The situations we should avoid because we don't handle them well.

Or maybe realising that we need help in certain areas of our life, and we need to lean on them.

The number of folk I would visit in hospital over the year and they should have walking sticks, or some other walking aide, and they don't want to use them, why? Because they don't look good.

Here is something that would improve the quality of their life, something that would help them be more independent...and because of something as unimportant as how they think others might think about it, they refuse to use them.

They would rather be more housebound, more trapped in the prison of their own house, unable to bump into friends...and I am sure if I asked them if that was what they really wanted out of life, to be more housebound, more trapped in their home, they would say of course not, yet that is the result of not accepting the help of a walking aid.

And if that is the case for something as unimportant as walking, then how much more is it important in something like our spiritual health.

About 10 years ago I decided I needed a mentor. Someone who I could go to, to seek advice, who could see where I had blind spots and tell me when I was doing something stupid. I suspect that some of my fellow ministers wondered why I would need one of those; I was one of the most experienced ministers in the presbytery. But I felt that I could rely too much on experience and not see the fresh problems ahead with fresh eyes.

Was that a good move? Did other ministers feel I was a weaker minister because of it? Maybe, but I am still in post and I feel I still have a ministry.

So the first stage is looking back and getting rid of the rubbish that is there.

The second stage is letting the past go. Taking only into the future the lessons we have learnt so we don't make the same stupid mistakes again and again.

Last lesson to take into the New Year.

That was the lesson of having a feast ready for the first foot.

And in that act were two presumptions.

The first is that we were going to get visitors.

The second, that when the visitors came we were going to welcome them generously.

As we go into the New Year we are often shocked at what happens.

When I look back on last year I personally had so much going on.

The chaos of my daughters wedding.

The new arrival of my granddaughter.

My sister being diagnosed with cancer again.

The costs, the laughter, the tears...and in the middle of all that, life...tyres in the car that need replaced, unexpected bills when something happens out of left field; friends struggling unexpectedly, or new jobs appearing, or new additions to families, or children leaving home.

Maybe the greatest surprise of the unexpected is that we are surprised by the unexpected. We have all lived life long enough that we know that life is unexpected. So we should be preparing for it. And we should decide how we prepare for it.

My parents expected people to visit, some they invited, some they didn't...but they decided that they would be prepared for them, and they would be prepared by welcoming them openly with the expectation that all would be well.

Maybe that’s how we should look at our future.

We are going to get a few surprises.

But we are not going to prepare for those surprises by barricading the door or pretending to be asleep when the doorbell goes.

We are going to presume that we can grow and learn and benefit from what is going to happen to us.

Because, if we have the choice of deciding if we will fear life or embrace life, we will decide to embrace life.

Because that is what God wants us to do, because that is the life God wants us to have.

Here is the truth.

2017 is nearly over.

You have survived it.

But surviving isn't a good way of living.

I pray 2018 will be a year when we grow and mature and embrace life to the full.

It can be done.

If we reflect on the past, learn from it and then let the resentments and mistakes go.

And then prepare for a future where we expect that there will be surprises, but we fully expect, with God's grace, to learn and grow and even have hope for what is ahead of us.

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