The ability to look backward while moving forward is a talent, a gift, and a calling.
Thirty-five-year-old Aaron Yoder knows all about this as he practices his love of running. He delights in this sport so much that he coaches the cross-country and track team for Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. But what makes Aaron special is his Guinness World Record for retro running. In 2020, while many of us were hunkered down at home, learning about something called Zoom or thinking up a new hobby, Aaron ran the mile in 5 minutes and 30 seconds—backward! If the sport of running backward grabs your interest, there are international meets every year. Success in retro running comes by remembering one important thing—even when running backward you need to see where you are going.
We have many ways to look to the past even as we work in the present and strive for the future. Wedding anniversaries are one of those wonderful ways that we remember and cherish. But there are so many other milestones we can mark annually: birthdays, work anniversaries, the date of one’s baptism, to name just a few. There can be a special dinner, presents, a cake, our friends and family gathered around us. As we get older, anniversaries mark a time to remember us “back then,” when times were different and seemingly simpler. Some of these anniversary moments bring out feelings of reflection, regret, or a desire to still reach our hopes and dreams of yesterday. Anniversaries have a power to impact us in often surprising ways.
As a community of faith, we Seventh-day Adventists remember October 22, 1844, as a significant date in our church history. Although our denomination did not organize officially until almost 20 years later, we still reflect on this date in October—the Great Disappointment—as a foundational moment in the creation of who we are today. Out of this crisis of faith and very public embarrassment emerged a group of “Adventists” who clung to the idea that this unprecedented spiritual experience meant something more than a misreading of Daniel 8:14. I hope that if you have not done so recently, you will read one of the excellent books available through the Adventist Book Center that recounts this period of our early history. The struggle to discover the meaningful path forward is inspiring and forms the theological foundation of what it means to be a 21st century Adventist.
There is a power in looking back while at the same time keeping one’s eyes fixed on the forward horizon of our destination. One of those early Adventists was used by God to help guide the “Little Flock” to alight again upon the upward path of faith. Ellen White penned these words filled with hope: “We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White, p. 204). I would remind us that what is true for a movement of trembling believers looking for light amidst despair is true for us in the daily challenge and struggle of faith. There is a power in remembering what God did for you yesterday, a year ago, and the last time your back was up against the wall. Ellen White was so right when she reminded us to look backward to see how God had led in the past. I do that a lot when I am facing tough decisions today.
But looking backward is not the whole story. I like the way the Apostle Paul puts it in Philippians 3:12-14. While under house arrest in Rome and facing an uncertain future, he tells us to forget the past. “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (NKJV). Paul declares that we must do two things at the same time as believers and as a church. We must remember to forget but not forget to remember as we pursue “the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
First Paul is “Forgetting those things which are behind.” What must we forget? Too often we become fixated on our mistakes and failures in life that function like emotional goo, keeping us from moving forward. I remember visiting one of Los Angeles’ most memorable attractions—the La Brea Tarpits. Living animals would become stuck in that sticky tar and become immobilized. Their preserved bones are on display there. In the same way we can become stuck and entrapped by our past, so we become unable to move forward. Paul tells us that in Christ we can seek forgiveness, restoration, and healing and move into God’s great future for us.
But then Paul adds that he is, “Reaching forward to those things which are ahead.” The Christian life is about looking forward with hope, optimism, and faith. Why can we do this? Because Jesus never stops walking with us and working upon our lives to transform us into His great ideal. And where does this all end? Paul calls it the “prize of the upward call of God.” This is the amazing life of walking day-by-day with Jesus in our lives today. And ultimately meeting Him when He returns in the clouds of heaven. This is how we remember to forget but not forget to remember what matters most in life.
There is a great homecoming awaiting us when, forgetting what is behind and reaching forward, all come to their ultimate fulfillment by our own very literal upward call of God. This is the call that literally lifts us off this earth into the clouds accompanying our returning Savior and King. What our pioneering brothers and sisters hoped for will become our lived reality by the grace of God.
I invite you to join me in recommitting yourself to the great divine work of remembering to forget but never forgetting to remember. We have a God-sized love to share with our communities and families. What a day it shall be when one day soon we will rejoice together as Jesus returns and time becomes eternity.
Bradford C. Newton is the president of the Pacific Union Conference.
There is a great homecoming awaiting us when, forgetting what is behind and reaching forward, all come to their ultimate fulfillment by our own very literal upward call of God.