May 042010

At the end of this month I will have finished my third placement. This is the last one before probation (starting on the 1st September – or rather the 2nd, as the 1st is a conference day). As with any placement there’s plenty of paperwork to do and I’ve been finishing off my placement report. This means looking back over the past (nearly) eight months, working out what I’ve done, how I’ve done and how I feel about it all.

When you first sit down to start writing it always seems as though there’s too much whitespace to fill up. And yet, when you fill it in, you realise that there isn’t enough. Eight months is a lot of ‘stuff’; a lot of activity and reflection. Trying to encapsulate that in a couple of paragraphs is quite a challenge, especially if you don’t want to sound too glib. By the same token, when you choose something to write more fully on, you realise that words just don’t seem to do it justice. Because, if it has been worth writing about, then it has generally made a significant impact on you anyway – more than words could ever express.

So I’m not going to follow my original thought and pick out some highlights and lowlights. Rather, I simply want to mention the value of stopping every once in a while to look back. It’s not something I generally like doing. It’s not an issue of refusing to face the past, but the simple acknowledgement that it is the future we need to move forward into and so that should be the focus. There’s a question that crops up during the initial candidate enquiry process that asks if you have any regrets. That, to my mind, is an unhelpful way of ‘looking back’. I’m not suggesting we should ignore the negative or painful events of our past, but rather acknowledge that they have happened and look back at how we may have moved on from them.

So, what of looking back? If nothing else, it’s always a surprise to see just how much you have done. And it’s amazing how much we forget until someone prompts us as well. Looking back reminds us that our life is far from empty. Often it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we see the outcomes of things that may not have seemed significant at the time. We can overlook that initial trigger – a word spoken, an opportunity taken. Conversations which seem insignificant at the time are suddenly the source of quiet satisfaction. They can also be the source we need to return to when we see them as the beginning of a fracture which needs healed. Looking back reminds us of just how much we are not creatures of the moment, but rely on our history to help us understand who and how we are.

Looking back also helps us with a sense of the bigger picture. We can (and ought to) look ‘sideways’ in the ‘now’ for that as well. That may provide breadth; but it doesn’t always provide depth. Looking back also provides a sense of ‘trajectory’. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Emerging Church stuff for my dissertation and I sometimes get the sense that the past is too readily rejected – “it’s why we’re in the mess we’re in, so let’s wipe it out” seems to be the cry all too often. If the past is relevant, then it is only the far past that is seen as ‘authentic’; the ‘original and best’ as it were. I’ve been doing some grumping that when I’ve been reading General Assembly reports there seems to be little evidence of ‘joined up thinking.’ In a sense this is true, but generally only of you take a snapshot in time. When you look at the past, you can discern the trajectory, where ideas have influenced others and there is a seed of ‘coming together’ beginning to show.

I see the same thing in my placements – take a snapshot and you’ll generally find me on my soapbox about something. Whether it’s a theological hobby-horse or particular project, the snapshot shows a lot of unjoined-up thinking. It’s only when you see the trajectory by looking at the past that you can (I hope) discern a process of formation.

But looking back should only ever be a pause. A trajectory takes us somewhere and it is that ongoing journey that we must give our attention to. But, in so doing, we must acknowledge that it is our past which is pushing us on that path. Sometimes that pause to look back is a good time to look forward too and ask questions about whether we are being propelled by our past or whether we are still holding the semblance of a steering wheel. To borrow from finance advertising, past performance is not a guide to future returns. We still have some control over our trajectory. We may draw upon the past but we are not slaved to it. Tradition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The pause to look back is also an opportunity to nudge the steering as well. We can’t step away from that past, but we can allow it to inform where we steer our future. But steer we can, and should.

Time to press the play button again and start moving forward.

  One Response to “Looking back”

  1. If the phrase ‘looking back’ isn’t an easy one for you to use, maybe the idea of stepping back, or sideways even might help. As a golfer, I find it helps to read a putt on the green by steppoing to one side to see the contours more clearly. They are not always clearly visible when you stand directly behind the ball. (Of course, this analogy will only work with golfers….)
    The idea of looking back is a good one and this can be done in full time ministry on study leave, or through some kind of guided time with a colleague. I meet with a retired minister once a month to talk through the past four weeks to try and discern where God is in all the experiences of that time and to probe and question my motivation and also to get some sense of where God might be leading.
    There is a tinge of guilt in the way you write about reflecting and that would not be fair on yourself. It’s maybe not something you have done, but it can be a helpful exercise as long as there isn’t a feeling of dwelling in the past….

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