Easter continues

“What if?” can be an empowering question. It allows an individual or a group to think outside of the normal constraints and boundaries. Many innovations and improvements have started with someone speculating, ‘what if?”.It works great when you are imagining the future. Last night I was with a small task force of folks at our church who were looking at the near term future of the church and realizing some of the changes that affect our congregation. They brought energy and enthusiasm to the task and several of the “What if?” questions were good ideas. Of course we will have to sift and sort our ideas and over time some of them will prove to be impractical, some will prove to bee too expensive, some will not work out as envisioned. Other ideas, however, will succeed and may set precedence for new ways to carry out the mission and ministry of our church.

When we turn the question around, however, and just that kind of thinking to examine the past, but can be crippling, even debilitating. The backwards-looking question is “If only . . .” Both observations are speculation. We don’t know what would have happened if we had done something different. We don’t know how things will work out if we try a new idea. We are speculating. When we think of the future, however, we have the opportunity to try something and observe what happens. Looking back, we realize that we can’t rewrite our history. The past is what it is. We can say, “if only . . .,” but we can’t change what actually occurred.

There is a healing form of looking back and realizing that things might have been better. Sometimes when I realize that I wish I had handled something differently, I am inspired to apologize for my behavior and the apology can lead to reconciliation and healing. I’m well aware that the words, “I’m sorry,” are at times inadequate. I am also aware that there is a form of politics in our country that aspires to never apologize. Even when caught in outrageous behavior some politicians will express regret for circumstances, or the behavior of others. They will do anything to avoid apologizing themselves. There have been several notable public apologies of national figures that didn’t sound like an apology at all. They were simply passing blame. The idea that you should never show your weakness can make a person seem to be insensitive or egotistical and there is plenty of insensitivity and egotism in our public sphere these days.

The trick for the rest of us is balance. We can learn from our mistakes if we understand that they are mistakes. We can make changes if we confess that change is necessary. Living in “if only . . .” however, can lead to despair and depression. Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer has been adapted, changed and adopted by various organizations and groups of people. The original version remains powerful:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

“Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,” is a powerful statement. Such a perspective frees us from “if only . . .”

I’ve been thinking quite a bit of the phrases, “What if” and “If only . . .” as I work with a family struggling to make sense out of the sudden death of a teenage son. They knew that he was a bit impulsive. They knew that he sometimes made snap decisions that he later regretted. And yet, his impulses and snap decisions had never before had such devastating or permanent consequences. Part of how parents provide for their teens is to allow freedom for mistakes to be made and responsibility to be learned. Somehow, however, in this particular instance, the mistake had irreversible consequences that left a huge group of people in a deep well of pain, grief and sadness.

“Taking this sinful world as it is” means accepting the death, accepting the finality, and facing the pain. The final reality is that nothing can be done at this point to change the harsh reality. Our minds, however, rush to “if only . . .” It isn’t others who are being blamed. It is individuals who are blaming themselves.

We live broken lives in an imperfect world. Perhaps the most insightful part of Neibuhr’s prayer isn’t the famous bit about grace to accept with serenity, courage to change and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Perhaps it is the wish to “be reasonably happy in this world.”

Part of me doesn’t want to accept “reasonably happy.” Part of me wants to aspire to deep joy. I am, by nature, prone to embrace resurrection and I can see signs of God’s new creation all around in so many places. “Reasonably happy” sounds like a bit of a letdown from the moments of holding a new baby or joy of a wedding celebration. I aspire to more than “reasonably happy.” But I also know that true joy does not come in this life unless we are honest about pain and willing to face sorrow and sadness. To love is to risk loss. I know that I would not be happy if I spent my time avoiding the pain and sorrow of this world. I am called and drawn to situations where pain is raw and real and unavoidable. I choose to be present with others when they are facing deep loss and pain.

It is a balance. Easter reminds us of the joy that lies ahead. It doesn’t pretend that the pain does not exist.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!