The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Ever walked forward, facing backward?

Earlier this year, my son Ethan and I made a trip to our local grocery store to pick up a few items. While reaching for a basket an odd idea crossed my mind. "Let's walk through the store backward," I suggested.

"OK," he said, turning to begin our backward walk through the produce section.

We meandered past bananas, peaches and potatoes. Up and down the aisles other shoppers gave us some odd looks. Down the frozen food aisle I turned around and began walking forward.

"Dad, walk backward!" Ethan said.

Immediately I walked backward again, pleased by Ethan's commitment to this impromptu experiment in social interaction.

You may be thinking: "Who walks backward through a store? Why? What's the point? You'd never catch me doing that."

But we do this as a church all the time. Every time we gather for worship we walk into the future — facing backward.

Storytelling is like "walking backward," says renowned improv teacher Keith Johnstone. With improv the storyteller sees where "he has been, but he pays no attention to the future," Johnstone explains. "His story can take him anywhere, but he must still 'balance' it and give it shape by remembering incidents that have been shelved and reincorporating them." Great stories take ideas from the past and give them new form and new life in our current context.

As the church, we've been given the best story of all — the story of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — to share with the world. Contextually, each successive generation in your congregation carries forward God's story and the unique story of your congregation into the future. We carry the past into the present while letting God lead us into the future.

The word "remember" occurs nearly 160 times in the Bible. As the Israelites moved into the future, they were told over and over again to remember what God did for them in the exodus out of Egypt. As Christians we remember Jesus' birth with our Christmas celebration. On Maundy Thursday we remember how Jesus gave us the sacrament of communion. Every Good Friday we remember Jesus' crucifixion. At Easter we remember and celebrate Jesus' resurrection. Whenever we read Scripture the word comes to us into the present, moving us into God's preferred future. As scientist Isaac Newton once said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." For the church this has meant standing on the shoulders of the saints.

But let's resist the urge to freeze in our tracks, gazing back to a nostalgic time when things seemed simpler. Let's not go forward taking everything from the past into the future — as when we refuse to change out of a mistaken belief that what worked in the past will certainly work in the future.

But your congregation can go forward while occasionally looking backward to decide what to bring into the future. It's a simple fact: you can't take everything with you. So what will you take? How is God is calling you to respond to the movement of the Spirit, while remaining rooted in the remembrance of all that God has done? 


Martin Johnson

Martin Johnson

Posted at 11:48 pm (U.S. Eastern) 11/18/2012

Where I live seeing someone walking "back-forwards," as my students call it, is common. The Chinese think it is good for one's health -- maybe not just one's physical health, but mental and spiritual health also. 

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