It seems that one of the most difficult things to do is to shake the mistakes and failures of our past. From the time we are children, we are taught the right path to take…the moral road…the “high ground.” And yet, something about our humanity drives us in the opposite direction. While there were plenty of people who told us that we had better stay on that straight and narrow, not too many taught us about personal responsibility and the consequences that come from our choices. If they had, then we might have not made as many mistakes as we did. The memories of some of those mistakes of adolescence are still as fresh as the day we made them. They are too easily remembered and extremely difficult to erase from our minds.
There are those who would say, “Get over it! Quit living in the past! Move forward with your life!” All of those mantras are valid and applicable. However, because our brains store every bit of information of our existence, our past will always be a part of who we are. I am of the opinion that one is better off facing the past – reconciling it and learning from it – than he is by totally ignoring it. Even though there is emotional anguish attached to both approaches, the latter seems to hold the risk of a deeper, more pent-up anguish that may be manifested in all sorts of self-destructive ways.
For some of us, our worldly education began early. Mine began on the “mill hill,” a slang term for the village where we lived. Most everyone in our village worked at the local cotton mill, living in the small cookie-cutter houses that were owned by the mill. Mill hill children were rough and tumble, and we learned to fight and cuss at a young age. While kids in the city spent their afternoons playing on swing sets and merry-go-rounds often purchased with taxpayer money, we were playing cops and robbers in a smelly old ditch where the local laundromat emptied its soapy water. As I think back about that, I wonder what toxic chemicals we may have been exposed to, but back then, that thought didn’t even cross our minds. Mill hill kids played wherever there was dirt, whether it was under the neighbor’s house, or on our makeshift football field on the hill. Among mill hill pals, camaraderie was tight, conversation was course and manners were unrefined. By the time a mill hill kid graduated high school, the list of his sins and transgressions would easily outnumber the inventory of note pads Nelson Bradshaw had on the small shelves in his general store.
Many of us, however, were fortunate enough to have someone in our household who was a church-going Christian, who would make sure that our filthiness would somehow dissipate through a bit of spit and shine. For me, that person was my mom. Rattled by the loss of my dad, humbled by the kindness of a local Pastor, she began taking us to his nearby church. At an early age, we were presented with the stories of God, whose love for us was far greater than the sins we had committed. Even in our youth, we learned that, with the decision merely to believe and obey, our lives could be totally transformed by the power of this love – old things could pass away and all things could become new.
I made the decision to follow Christ at a very early age, and the memories of that night are still very fresh in my mind. Throughout the years, the new paradox for my life would become my love for God and my desire to serve Him versus my love for gratifying my flesh and my desire to serve it.
Life without a father leaves behind a huge hole in your soul that you attempt to fill with all sorts of things. For the fatherless, the attempt to satisfy the enormous need for affirmation and significance sometimes takes you to some unhealthy places.
As I grew into my teenage years, the gravitational pull toward the latter became more intense, and in many areas of my life, I experienced what Jesus meant when he said, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” As many young adolescents do, I “sowed my wild oats,” and I made many life choices that were, in hindsight, unhealthy and self-destructive. Some of those choices still haunt me even today, and the guilt from some of the decisions of my past life still lingers in the confines of my soul.
The truth of the matter is that our past does not define us, no matter how vile the sewage ditch that we played in while growing up. A person cannot change his past, nor can he know what the future will hold.
The one gift that a person has is his ability to choose. And right in the here and now, we can make a conscientious choice not to let our past mistakes dictate who we are. Sure, we will have to live with their consequences, but we have the ability to choose how we will respond to those circumstances.
The choice that I make daily is to believe in a Heavenly Father who loves me at my worst and at my best – whose unconditional grace and love are big enough to cover all the mistakes of my past.