We are not defined by our past

Who am I? According to the suggestion of the editor of a collection of essays in honour of my friend Paul Goodliff and to which I have contributed, I am “a former Principal of Spurgeon’s College, London and minister of Central Baptist Church, Chelmsford”. In response I wrote back and said: I would prefer not to be defined by the past and offered the following one-line bio for this Festschrift: “Paul Beasley-Murray is a prolific author, a minister to ministers, and an activist in his church and community”.

Am I being difficult? I believe not! As I look back on my past, I look back with gratitude. I have lived a full and rewarding life. God has blessed me beyond my deserving. True, like everybody else, I have experienced highs and lows, successes and failures, but the good times always outweighed the tough times. However, I have moved on and find myself in another place. I am defined by my present, not by my past.

In the words of Antonio, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest , “The past is prologue” (Act 2, Scene 1). It is not that I have forgotten the past. The past has certainly shaped me. Indeed, I would argue that I am a better man because of the past. I have grown and developed as a result of my experiences of the past. Yet I do not live in the past. I live in the present.

Alas, there are some who live in the past and are controlled by the past. They are stuck in the past. They have never got over past disappointments and past hurts. They are sad and all too often bitter people. They have not learnt to let go – indeed, I like to remind those who are wrestling with the past that the Greek word for ‘to forgive’(aphiemi) literally means ‘to let go’.

To let go of the past does not mean that we simply forget the past. Forgetting the past can lead to fresh disappointment if we go on to repeat the same mistakes. We need not just to come to terms with the past, but also learn from the past. It is very sad if we allow the past to define us in the present.

For those of us who are retired, it is important that we live in the present and not look back with longing for the roles we exercised in the past. In the past I was a missionary in the Congo, I was a minister of two local churches, I was principal of a theological college. But at the age of 70 I retired from stipendiary service and have entered on a new stage of life.

In retirement I have had time to write. Amazingly, since I have retired I have written my four-volume Living Out the Call, what I regard as my magnum opus on ministry; This is my Story in which I reflect on my life, faith and ministry; Retirement Matters for Ministers and Entering New Territory, two research reports which prepared the way for Make the Most of Retirement, the first British guide to retirement for ministers; Fifty Lessons in Ministry, in which I reflected on my 50 years in ministry; most recently There is Hope, the first book-length guide to preaching at funerals published in the UK; and next month my latest book, Growing Older: Our story of New Adventures and New Horizons will appear. God willing, if health and strength allow, I have plans to write a further two books.

Precisely because of my past, in retirement I am able to be a more effective ‘minister to ministers’. There is so much I have learnt which I am still keen to share. Admittedly the pandemic curtailed that ministry, but it still continues. It continues on a one-to-one mentoring basis; through my writing and blogging; through the group for retired ministers which I normally lead; and through the opportunities which still come my way to speak to ministers and ministers in training.

Somewhat grandly perhaps, I maintain that in retirement I am a community and church activist. I am, for instance, an active Rotarian and have been honoured by being made a Paul Harris fellow for service during my retirement. I am the chairman of the Cambridge Society of Essex, a Cambridge alumni club which buzzes with activity; and in my local church I head up the welcome team, lead an ever-growing fellowship group, and regularly present ‘seminars’ for the Sunday ‘Breakfast with the Bible’.

Of course, the day will come when I will have no choice but to move to a new stage where active ministry is no longer possible. I trust, however, that I will still be living in the present, focused not just on my children and grandchildren but also – in my prayers at least – on the wider world of church and community. I see no reason why I should be defined by my past!

One comment

  1. While I of course agree with your general thesis, can people experience events and experiences which irrevocably taint and shape them? I’m thinking of (say) a small chil who has witnessed the murder of a parent, or a young woman who has been brutally abused, a worker who has been maimed by the negligence of their employer, a soldier who has escaped death from an IED which killed his colleagues. These are extreme examples and, to be fair, some folk seem to make amazing recoveries and move forward. But is that always realistic? I honestly don’t know.

    On a slightly different line, I think we’ve all met Christians who love to recount a testimony of something that God did for them 30 or 40 years ago. What happened was intensely meaningful for them – but one wants to ask, “Has he done nothing for them since then?”

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