Isaiah 43: 18-19 “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. 19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
Last weekend I had the pleasure of visiting my family in Lanexa, Virginia, just off Route 60 near Williamsburg. Route 60, which runs from the southeastern Hampton Roads area across the middle of Virginia to West Virginia, has many names and is known as the Pocahontas Trail through New Kent County. No matter what you call it, the road leads to Jamestown, the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the Americas. Yorktown, Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary are not far from Jamestown.
My mother worked at William and Mary for many years and I spent a lot of time roaming the campus and the cobblestone streets of Colonial Williamsburg. In an environment like that you learn from the successes and failures of history, and you learn that you cannot live in the past. The people who work at Colonial Williamsburg take off their costumes at the end of their shifts and return to the contemporary world.
Discerning what lessons to take forward from the past is tricky. Sometimes we confuse form with substance or misinterpret a temporary solution as having wider meaning. You probably know the Thanksgiving story about three generations of cooks who cut off the end of a ham because the granddaughters had been told by their mother that’s how her mother did it. The younger women assumed that there was something special or meaningful in the process until a young great-granddaughter went to the source. The great-grandmother explained that she did not have a pan large enough for the whole ham. It was a practical solution to a simple problem rather than a tradition she planned to pass down over the generations.
Surrounded by historical sites as a child, I learned to ask questions like those. When you ask, you learn that there were often multiple ways of doing things, even in colonial times. Over the centuries they’ve found different recipes for common dishes, different ways of making candles and soap, and so on. If people disagree on a process there probably have been different ways of approaching that process; some will be grounded in practicality, others in logic, and others in tradition. Deciding which to choose should be based on current needs, resources, and intentions.
Both the Old and New Testaments are full of stories about how people learn and more importantly, relearn what do to and how to do it (worship, food and housekeeping, family relationships, and interacting with neighbors). The prophets encouraged us to use God’s mercy and steadfast love as our guide. Jesus continued that tradition by teaching that love of our neighbor is a way to demonstrate love for God. So, if you must choose how to speak or act, choose God’s way, choose love even if it goes against local tradition. The Lord is always doing new things and reminding us how to do the essential things in new ways. Let’s not miss the grace of the now because we’re looking back instead of looking forward.