Although I’m something of a whipper-snapper, one of the things that I know well, is that history plays a profoundly important role in our lives.
Mothers and fathers and sons and daughters snap and clip and crop and post photos of their loves and lives, so they can preserve a slice of history before it fades away.
Future lovers explore and share and reflect on their own histories before they commit themselves to marriage.
Nations, and cultures, and movements fret, and sweat, and labor, and protest, and plead, and posture so that they can secure their place on “the right side of history“.
History plays a profoundly important role in our lives.
Yet, as important as history is, there’s a question about the way we experience history that is so deeply lodged into our souls, that it affects the way that we live, and hope, and celebrate, and pray, and sing, even if we never explicitly ask the question. And the question that I want to ask you is this:
“Is there anyone with whom a past history of personal presence and kindness secures a future personal presence?”
Read that again. Slow.
Now when I speak of a past history of personal presence and kindness, I’m speaking of an experience of companionship and shared history with another person that is characterized by a mutual giving and receiving of kindness: Mothers pack tasty lunches for their kiddos before they scurry off to school. Kiddos thank Mom for the munchies and then gobble up their lunch in a satisfied tribute to their Mom. Fathers push their kids on a swing as their kids squeal approvingly of Dad. Romantics share dinner and fun and laughter and struggles and hopes and dreams.
And when I speak of a past experience of personal presence and kindness securing a future personal presence, I am insisting that this past experience of personal presence and kindness is so deeply satisfying, that there is an instinctive but unspoken cry that arises within the experience itself that says, “I want to experience this kindness…again…in the future…with you.”
For example, this experience is so powerful that if a single man suspects that a past history of personal presence and kindness with a young woman will secure a future personal presence, he’ll move heaven and earth to see to it that this woman moves from being his girlfriend to being his wife.
This experience is so powerful that if a child suspects that a past history of personal presence and kindness with their family secures a future personal presence, they will move heaven and earth to ensure that even if they move to the other side of the world, they will be able to visit, and talk, and love, and laugh, and see their family.
This experience is so powerful that if a nation suspects that a past history of personal presence and kindness with an obscure or unknown statesman secures a future personal presence, they will move heaven and earth to see that this statesman moves from being an unknown statesman to being the leader of their nation.
Yet, if this past experience of personal presence and kindness is so powerful that it can move heaven and earth, the loss of this presence can be so bitter that it can draw a man or a woman or a child; or a citizen, or a city, or a leader, or a nation; into a kind of cynicism, numbness of soul, or a creeping despair.
So the man who had labored and laughed and loved with his wife, only to lose her, will begin to wrestle with a cynicism, numbness of soul, and creeping despair, because he thought that a past history of personal presence and kindness with his wife would secure a future personal presence.
So the children who experience the explosion of their family, will begin to wrestle with a cynicism, numbness of soul, and creeping despair, because they thought that a past history of personal presence and kindness with their own family would secure a future personal presence.
Or the nation that experiences the bitter betrayal of an immoral or incompetent leader will begin to wrestle with a cynicism, numbness of soul, and creeping despair, because they thought that a past history of personal presence and kindness with a statesman would secure a future personal presence.
And in the midst of this cynicism, numbness of soul, and creeping despair, there’s an unstated question that nags at our minds and our souls: “Is there anyone with whom a past history of personal presence and kindness secures future personal presence?”
Asking the Question
The reason that I’m explicitly asking this question now, is because by the time I first stated the question out loud, it was already too late. My parents had been divorced for more than a decade; and I’d discovered that a cynicism, numbness of soul, and creeping despair had been nagging me all these years without even knowing what hit me. My life seemed to be normal until I slowed down and reflected. Here’s what happened:
Prior to the loss of my family, I had experienced many seasons of kindness in which there was an intensely deep exchange of personal presence and kindness: Hugs, and holidays, and lunches, and laughter, and tears, and comfort, and prayers, and songs, and kindness, and silliness, and struggles, and joys, and hopes…together.
Yet when my family exploded, this seemingly unbreakable cycle of kindness was unexpectedly broken. Unfortunately, as I began to process this loss, I instinctively began to suspect (without even stating or knowing it) that regardless of how deeply I had experienced someone’s else’s personal presence and kindness; no one could ever secure a future personal presence.
In essence, I was choking over the question as to how I could deeply savor the kindnesses of another if I couldn’t even be sure that I would experience that personal presence and kindness in the future…again.
Over the period of a decade, I came to discover that this suspicion created such a creeping deadness inside me; that when I witnessed the kindnesses of others, I couldn’t fully savor or nourish my soul with their kindness.
Yet one of the bewildering things that I discovered about this journey; was that this deadness existed because I had been injecting a kind of unspoken legalism into the very foundation of my relationships – and the legalism went something like this: “Unless you can assure me that our past history of personal presence and kindness secures a future personal presence, then I can’t fully savor your kindness.” While I never explicitly stated this to others, I was stating it in my ambivalent refusal to deeply savor their kindnesses.
Yet who was I to demand this of others? I couldn’t even guarantee others that my own acts of kindness would secure a future personal presence for them!
Sadly, this unspoken legalism began to hollow my soul out for at least three reasons:
First, my soul was getting hollowed out because legalism can never function as the basis for meaningful relationship, because its very structure attempts to trade performance for relational security.
Second, my soul was getting hollowed out because grace and not legalism is the only sure basis for enduring relationship.
Third, my soul was getting hollowed out, because I refused to carefully scrutinize those personal habits that I had cultivated to protect myself from the risk of loss. Consequently, as long as I saw myself as a victim of my parent’s divorce, then everything I did to “protect myself from loss” remained largely unchallenged as I reflected on my responses to the loss of my family. Tragically, the legalisms that I used to exempt myself from experiencing further loss were simply a means of avoiding the risks of being in relationship to God, and others. To implicitly demand guarantees from others that neither they nor I could give, and then make the fulfillment of these demands a prerequisite for savoring their kindnesses, was a recipe for loneliness and disaster.
This is one of the major reasons that seeing myself as a victim was so dangerous to myself and those around me. While I don’t deny that people have been victimized by the evil of others; we live in a world that repeatedly encourages us to posture ourselves as victims in the way that we understand our relationship to others. Yet, in my own experience, one of the things that I desperately needed to grasp, was that being a “victim” of divorce didn’t place my reactions to that divorce beyond the need for a penetrating degree of scrutiny by the living God (Psalm 139:23-24). Dan Allender caught this well when he said:
“No victim remains solely a victim. It may sound like heaping more guilt on the betrayed, but seldom, no, never will we endure harm without making someone else pay. This is not to say the resulting harm is of equal weight to the original offense – rarely is it. But the presumption that a victim is good, innocent, and pure while the abuser is merely evil is not only too simplistic, but it denies the darkness we know exists in every human heart.”
Although this question of personal presence remains, Jesus Christ ends up answering this question in a way that is so deeply disturbing and yet satisfying that it has kept me from going insane.
The next time that I pick this up, I’ll explain how John 13 relates to the question of personal presence.
*Many of these thoughts were drawn from an earlier sermon I preached on John 13 called, Past History & Future Presence
 Dan Allender, The Healing Path: How the Hurts in Your Past Can Lead You to a More Abundant Life (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 1999), 65.
The effects of divorce on children… Divorce in the church…