A friend of mine passed away recently. He was an older friend, in his late eighties. He was a popular man in the Waterville area—a respected retired business owner, a generous contributor to many area nonprofits, an active presence around town.
As I sat there last weekend at the Mass of Christian Burial, I found myself thinking about my own grief and also thinking about lessons that I learned from Walter. One of those lessons is a good lesson for churches.
Though Walter loved talking about the past, he lived very much in the present. Despite tremendous loss that he experienced in his personal life, he lived with vitality in the present, able to hold his past lovingly while not be a hostage to that past.
As an adult, Walter experienced a great deal of success. He moved to Waterville when a business opportunity was presented to him. That business was a small one, but Walter got that business to grow in a big ways, and was able to live generously and in comfort in his retirement.
Walter lived very much in the present, making new friends of all ages. He was actively involved in philanthropic activities in the community, not just by writing a check. He was actively involved, working to help organizations that served children and the homeless. He had an infectious and easy laugh, and was completely charming and interested in people, in being in good relationship with everyone around him.
But Walter also loved talking about the past. He loved to share stories about his wife and their life together, and the family they raised. He also enjoyed talking about what Waterville was like when he arrived, and the wonder of moving to a community teeming with possibilities. But, then also watching the community decline.
Walter lived in the midst of two important dynamics that I think offer a lesson for churches—to live in the reality of the present, while speaking lovingly of a past, which has been left in the past. So many churches seem to live in the past, while also speaking suspiciously of the present.
The lesson is that good church people must find a way to embrace the present, to engage in good relationships with community in today’s terms. But, at the same time, churches must find a way to speak lovingly of the past, in a way that conveys an acceptance of the past as past.
My friend loved to reminisce about the past and to share wonderful stories, most of them happy but a few of them were sad. But they were stories of a life well lived and a life that continued to be well lived until he died. Walter wasn’t held hostage by the past. Instead, he found a way to bring his past with him into his daily life, balancing it with the present, with his seemingly constant array of new friends and new opportunities.
Churches, and the good people who are a part of them, should seek to learn this lesson and to live by it. The past doesn’t need to be completely left behind, but good church people must free themselves from being held hostage to a past that will never, can never, be made anything other than the past. And, to engage in the present, and all of the wonderful opportunities and new friends that are waiting.