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Some years ago, Michael J. Fox starred in a science-fiction, time-machine themed movie called Back to the Future. The premise of the movie is that a young man travelled back in time and almost prevented his parents from meeting — which would have kept him from being born, creating obvious problems.

In chapel at Campbell University Divinity School on March 22, I heard a different take on the words “back” and “future,” and I’m still processing it. Sam Wells, dean of the chapel at Duke University, was on campus to deliver the Camack Preaching Lectures, and he also spoke in chapel.

In the course of a sermon from Joel 2, exploring what it means that God promised Israel to “restore the years that the locust has eaten,” Wells questioned whether words like “replace,” “reimburse,” or “reincorporate” could be functional equivalents for the notion of restoring lost years. He concluded that none of those were adequate; that only “resurrection” could ultimately restore that which is lost.

What stuck with me most was not his end point, but a comment he made in discussing the notion of reincorporating the pain and struggles of “lost years” into the life that remains. In doing so, he commented that, while we tend to think of striding forward into what lies ahead, we actually walk backwards into the future.

His idea, if I understood him correctly, is that we are so shaped by our past experience that we can’t go into the future without reference to the past: in that sense we “walk backwards into the future.” I see his point, though I’m more inclined to think of walking mainly forward into the future, albeit with many a backward glance. We have to acknowledge that when we go forward, we carry the lessons and influences of the past with us, but there is also much that is new for us to encounter, to explore, and to become. Our future has the potential to become much more than a recycled version of our past.

How do you think about moving into the future? Do you imagine yourself walking forward, backward, or adopting some other posture?

[For an audio recording of Wells’ sermon, check this link during the next few days: it should be posted soon.]

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