Looking back, looking forward

There’s an Internet meme reminding us that the windshield of a car is a heck of a lot bigger than the rearview mirror. The wisdom of the meme is that we should go through life the way we drive a car: looking forward, not back.

Okay. But that’s assuming, of course, that nobody’s following you.

And to me, it feels like 2020 is following us.

Tailgaiting. Flashing its lights, honking its horn.

There’s a certain arbitrariness to clocks and calendars. The sun rises and sets, and the seasons come and go; as part of God’s created order, these things are set. But how we divide these cycles into months, days, and hours — and arrange our lives around such divisions! — is a human construction.

Every year, for example, we’re forced to “Spring ahead” or “Fall back” in response to the beginning and end of Daylight Savings Time, a ritual that seems increasingly vestigial. We do it, lest we be out of step with our neighbors (and miss our favorite TV programs). But we may struggle with it. On the one hand, the clock insists, No, it’s not time to go to bed yet! On the other hand, our body argues back: You’re kidding, right?

The popular mythology is that the changing of the calendar is supposed to be an opportunity for a fresh start. In truth, the 23rd of September might have done just as well as the first of January for changing our habits. But somehow, we lean on the belief that everyone else is making some kind of resolution to change, so hey, what the heck? A little boost in motivation can’t be a bad thing. Maybe we’ll actually nail it this time.

Then February rolls around, and we’re looking for the next boost. We’ll get ’em next year. Now where’s that Valentine’s candy?

So much of our collective concern and anxiety these past several months has been related to COVID. Not only has the virus not gone away, in some places the risk has increased. January 1 doesn’t come with a reset button. True, the production and distribution of new vaccines gives us reason to hope for an end to the pandemic. But even so, it will still be months before the vaccines are widely available to all. In the meantime, we have to maintain due diligence and do what we’ve already been doing to keep the virus from spreading.

I know, I know. Not everyone agrees that the pandemic is as bad as people make it out to be; indeed, some insist that no pandemic exists. Or they behave as if it only exists for other people. But then we hear the stories — some in the news, some from our own families, friends, and acquaintances — of people who discovered the hard way that the risk, though invisible, is quite real.

I’ve written at greater length about this in another post, so won’t repeat the whole argument here. If you don’t believe that COVID is real, nothing I say here is likely to make a difference. But if you believe that it is, even if you think the risk is very small, then consider this: the moral question is not whether you will be infected, but whether you will unknowingly infect someone else. You can, in just a few careless minutes, unintentionally spread a virus to other households and never know the consequences of that act.

Put simply: if we follow Jesus, if we believe that we’re called to love our neighbors, is it really too much to ask that we humbly and compassionately submit to public health regulations and guidelines — even if we don’t agree with them?

Pretty please?

Looking back over 2020, I can go on at length about all the challenges to me and my family that were direct or indirect consequences of the pandemic. Chances are, so can you. And if the truth be told, at the moment, COVID-wise, the view through the windshield and in the rearview mirror don’t look all that different. The new year doesn’t bring any magical re-dos, just the opportunity to continue to rely upon God and persevere.

It is in the nature of the Christian faith, however, to look forward rather than back. For hundreds of years, God’s people looked forward to the coming of the promised Messiah. Today, we look forward to his coming again, to finish the work he started, to usher in a new heaven and a new earth.

And Lord, have mercy — wouldn’t a new earth would be welcome right now?

But Christian hope can’t be merely a private expectation. It must have its public expression. And the question of hope is always this: How do I think and behave today in a manner that’s consistent with the tomorrow for which I hope?

If, for example, we look forward to the return of Jesus tomorrow, then we should strive to be the presence of Jesus to others today. If we look forward to a day in which God will banish tears (Rev 21:4), then we should strive to be people who never give anyone a reason to cry.

I think we can look forward to 2021 — but only if we look forward in 2021, past 2021, to the future in which God makes all things right and restores his creation to its original specs.

And as we await that future together, we must find ways to show others, through the way we live, glimpses of what that future holds.