Looking back at our life

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At our communion service today we were thinking about looking back over our life. Here’s the reading taken from from Psalm 139, and the reflection. (And here’s a link to another way that you can do this reflection using Psalm 23).

From Psalm 139:

Lord, you have examined me and you know me.

You know everything I do;

from far away you understand all my thoughts.

You see me, whether I am working or resting;

you know all my actions.

Even before I speak, you already know what I will say.

You are all round me on every side; you protect me with your power.

Your knowledge of me is too deep; it is beyond my understanding.

Where could I go to escape from you?

Where could I get away from your presence?

If I went up to heaven, you would be there;

if I lay down in the world of the dead, you would be there.

If I flew away beyond the east or lived in the farthest place in the west,

you would be there to lead me, you would be there to help me.

You created every part of me;

you put me together in my mother’s womb.  

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

I know it with all my heart.

When my bones were being formed, knit together in my mother’s womb,

when I was growing there in secret, you knew that I was there –

you saw me before I was born.

The days allotted to me had all been recorded in your book,

before any of them ever began.

Your thoughts are far beyond my understanding,

much more than I could ever imagine.

I try to count your thoughts,

but they outnumber the grains of sand on the beach.

As some of you know, last Sunday was my birthday – and I spent a few quiet minutes at one point looking back over my life – 59 years of it now! I think that as you get older there’s something important about looking back over the different stages of your life.

It feels to me that we are a bit like a Russian doll. Inside each of us are all these earlier Simon’s, or Kelly’s, or Sam’s – stretching right back to our earliest days. And these earlier versions of us, with their experiences and stories, are still part of us, and often still influence us, sometimes without us realising it. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge them is part of allowing the work of healing and integration to flow backwards through our life, and forwards to where we are now.

Psalm 139 is a great encouragement as we do this. It reminds us that God knew us even when we were in our mother’s womb. As Julian says, ‘before ever we were made, God loved us.’ He has been with us each step of our journey, even when we haven’t been aware of him – and he will be there with us in all the days to come. He holds and understands more than we can comprehend, and he can help us to look back over our life with gentleness and kindness, and so become a little more whole. I came across a quote the other day: ‘Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.’

I was talking with our Big Questions café group yesterday about this, and asking how they felt about the age they were now. One was pleased to have got through his quarter life crisis – at 25! – and several were looking forward to the calm waters of their 30s. Some of us were quite a bit older, and aware of the questions that often come at mid-life – Where am I now? What have I achieved? – and the danger of comparing ourselves to others.

These questions are reminders of the way that our earlier selves may still be influencing us. Are we still trying to win our parents favour, or catch up with our siblings or classmates? Are we still governed by our need to be a good little girl or boy – or our desire to rebel from earlier constraints and be free?

Maybe there are some things that, on reflection, we might want to let go of… Maybe there is a need to acknowledge what hasn’t been good. And perhaps looking back at what we have received in our life so far may fill us with thankfulness.

All of this might speak more about not where we are now, but who we are now. Looking back can help us learn self awareness and humility, and so lead us into a deeper way of living which will be a blessing for us and for others in the future.

If this is true for us as individuals, what about us as a country? We’ve been enjoying the latest series of ‘A House through time’ – a wonderful exploration of history through the people who have lived in a single house. It makes me think about the Russian dolls again. There are so many generations before our generation, and their experience has shaped who we are now, a bit like our childhood.

It ties in with the very important reflection over our country’s past which has begun over the last few weeks. What things in our past do we need to acknowledge, and repent of? The house in Bristol that David Olusoga introduces us to was built by the captain of a slave ship. Unless we look the dark parts of our history in the face, we will not really understand how that history still defines us and divides us.

What things do we need to let go of? Are we still trying to live up to what we see as past glories, and our picture of Great Britain as a world power, at the top table? Does that drive us in unhealthy ways? And poison our relationships with other nations?

What things do we need to be thankful for? Have we really noticed how incredibly wealthy we are, as a nation? Do we live as those who have received great generosity and want to be generous in return, both to those who are less fortunate in our country, and elsewhere?

Reflecting on our past, and thinking about who we are now can help us learn self awareness, and humility as individuals, and maybe it could for us as a nation too. And from this deeper understanding of where we have come from, and who we are now, can come a movement towards integration, and a readiness to live in thankfulness and to give more freely. May we know that for ourselves, and may we learn it together,  as we move into a new and very different stage of our story.

  • God of our past, you have loved us from before our beginnings, and walked with us on every step of our journey. As we look back, help us to find healing and integration for our lives. And help our nation to face the past with a new honesty and humility and wisdom.
  • God of our present, may we learn to let go of the expectations and comparisons which are no part of your longing for us, and be free. And as we live through this time of intense change and challenge together, show us how to support those who feel that they are going under, and lift our eyes from our own troubles to the needs of the world.
  • God of our future, we thank you that you are beside us as we look ahead. Give us grace to step out in faith, ready to receive all that you have for us, and to offer ourselves in humility and openness. And at this time of opportunity, we pray that we as a people may have the courage and will to follow a new vision of what we can be, for the good of all.

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