Lenten Study: Week 3
“And the book says, ‘We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.’”
So says the character Jimmy Gator in the 1999 film Magnolia. At its best, the past can evoke nostalgic memories of years gone by. At its worst, the past can seem like a burden, weighing down our prospects for the future. By faith, we look forward to God's promise of “a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11). The sin that separates us from trust in the promise of God, though, needles the soul with the stark reminder: “the past ain’t through with us.”
The exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt into freedom is commemorated during Lent as a journey from an oppressive past into a hopeful, promised future. In selecting their leader, God looked not to a forward-thinking champion, though, but to Moses, a man with a past that often may have felt oppressive or constraining. The people’s journey from slavery under Pharaoh to freedom in the promised land mirrored Moses’ own transformative journey, from self-imposed exile born of guilt to a new identity as a servant of God toward a hopeful future.
Born a Hebrew at a time when Pharaoh demanded the death of all Hebrew baby boys, Moses’ mother hid him in a basket, where he was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter. Raised by his birth mother, Moses was taken later as a son by Pharaoh’s daughter. As an adult, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Carefully looking to make sure there were no witnesses, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried the body to hide it. Within a day, Moses realized that he didn’t get away so easily with his crime. Others knew about it – including Pharaoh, who wanted him dead. Even the Hebrews, his own people, saw him as a murderer. Knowing this, Moses fled to Midian to live out his life quietly as a shepherd.
But God had other plans. In God’s hands, Moses’ future wasn’t limited by his past. Born a slave, separated from his family, and rejected as a criminal by both Hebrew and Egyptian, Moses’ past would seem to dictate his future. But God interceded, calling Moses to return to Egypt, to “take hold of the promise,” and to lead the people to freedom.
Jimmy Gator may be quoting “the book,” but it certainly isn’t the book of Moses’ story – or ours. No matter how consequential the choices of the past, faith invites us always forward, to the future that grace lays open before us.
The effects of decisions in the past can be felt within the world in the present, today. Some, like Moses’, are personal. Others are felt in the very land we inhabit. In Malawi, the consequences of the past are starkly visible in the landscape of rural villages like Chole. Deforestation, driven by a need for land for farming and wood for fires, has stripped much of the land of the very trees that are so vital for clean air and healthy soil. Without trees, factors like erosion can make it hard for farmers to cultivate the land and earn a living.
Shadrack Tsatautenda is one of those farmers. Working land that has been in his family for five generations, Shadrack knows the challenges of tending the land in Chole. But with the assistance of a business loan from a village savings and loan group established by ELCA World Hunger’s local companion, Evangelical Lutheran Development Services, the environmental degradation of the past doesn’t have to dictate his future.
With money and training, he planted the first seedlings in his nursery two years ago. The oldest are nearly ready to sell, and Shadrack’s nursery has grown to include 1,200 trees – trees that will provide him with a livelihood and re-establish the natural resources of the land.
Caring for the land, coaxing life out of the soil and guiding it to maturity – this work connects Shadrack to the past, plants him firmly in the present and informs his vision for that future. “It is meaningful to me to look after the land of my ancestors, and I want to pass this land to future generations,” he says. The training he and his neighbors received will allow them to heal the land, and with the money they earn, they will be able to send their children to school.
Despite the visible effects of past environmental decisions on the landscape of Chole, Shadrack and his neighbors know that the past does not dictate their community’s future.
Lent is a story of a journey from a weighty past to a bright future – spiritually, as we receive the gift of grace from God in Christ for our salvation, and materially, as God invites us to accompany our neighbors in meeting our daily challenges with hope, courage and transformative work toward change. In their exodus, the Hebrews were set free spiritually, to be the people of God in a new land and, materially, to be a free people liberated from the yoke of the past.
The past may not be through with us. But neither is God. And that makes the difference – for Moses, for the Hebrews, for Shadrack and for us.
There are four disciplines, or spiritual practices, that guide our time during Lent. Use the questions and prompts below to reflect on the Lenten disciplines: repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving, and works of love.
When have you experienced the past as a “weight,” preventing you from seeing a hopeful future?
PRAYER AND FASTING
This week, remember in prayer the good creation of God, which bears witness to the effects of past actions, for better and for worse, and the workers who tend and care for the land.
As you continue in your commitment to support ministries like those in Chole, Malawi, reflect on the many ways your gifts – both spiritual and material – can allow others to see a hopeful future. How might your gifts to ELCA World Hunger be an investment in the hopeful future God is building for us and our neighbors?
WORKS OF LOVE
How might you, your family or your congregation show love of God and love of neighbor to others in your community this Lent?