Despite the heat and humidity of late-July Florida, I strapped on my shoes for an afternoon run. The relief of getting out of the house and capturing a few quiet minutes on my own outweighed the threat of heat stroke.
Andrew, our firstborn, was just a few weeks old. My wife, Joy, had taken maternity leave from her public-radio job, and since I was on a college faculty, my summer months were my own to structure. So we both spent the first days of Andrew’s life sharing his every gassy smile, dirty diaper, and middle-of-the-night feeding. A combination of sleep deprivation and cabin fever was tipping each of us toward new-baby psychosis. So when Joy said, “Jake, I think you need to get out the house. For all our sakes,” I jumped at it.
At about the half-mile mark, I’m sure I looked a fright. My heart rate and breathing had evened out, but my face was flushed and sweat had saturated my t-shirt and shorts. One of my older neighbors was shuffling toward his mailbox. As I ran by, he said, “What on earth are you doing?”
I responded, “I’m running from my past.”
Pretty clever, right? It seemed funny at the moment. But the phrase kept turning around in my mind. I’m running from my past. Am I running from my past? What am I running from?
At the time, I was just at the beginning of my professional career, straining to establish myself as an expert in an academic field. New parenthood was stretching not only my sense of self but also who Joy and I were to each other as friends and lovers. Challenges of the heart and professional growth were exactly what I had signed up for. My days were rewarding and the future looked promising. Well, mostly. As I was coming to the end of my run, another truth emerged with wrenching clarity. Some of the defining memories of my life were breaking my heart, disrupting my relationships, and dragging me into bouts of shame and sorrow. I couldn’t just leave those experiences behind; I was going to have to grow beyond them.
Up to this point I had spent my life pushing ahead, as if a new life as husband, father, and philosophy professor would in time diminish the power of these painful memories. Maybe I could just start over and escape all those old wounds. But now I was beginning to admit that simply moving on was out of the question. After all, unless injury or disease destroyed my memory, my past was going to follow me wherever I went.
Actually, the past doesn’t just follow us around. It’s a crucial part of our identity. Just ask some people to tell you who they are. I mean, who they really are. Once they get beyond telling you that they’re a doctor or a lawyer or a machinist, stories about kids or grandkids often follow. Dig a little deeper and they’ll start telling you personal stories. They will share their memories with you. They will piece together their past in a way that makes sense to them and that they hope will be acceptable to somebody else.
On a résumé, we can cherry-pick the flattering bits of our experience. We’re out to make an impression, to land a job. Nobody lists their biggest flops or most embarrassing missteps. We omit the messy parts of our lives. Coming to terms with our past does not resemble résumé building. We have to be honest with ourselves about everything. Especially the stuff that can still shatter us, enrage us, flatten us, and make us wince. Like those of many faith traditions, Christians have realized this for eons. And we know that processing our memories is most effective when we do it with another. For us, coming to terms with our past is done best with Christ.
Jesus-followers usually call this repentance. And I’m going to use that word too. But before I do, I want to help us recover a depth and breadth of the spiritual practice that Jesus had in mind. Like many of my fellow Christians, I once assumed that repentance focused narrowly on sins. The process went something like this: Admit that you’ve gone the wrong way, stop where you are, turn around, and get back on the right road. God blots out what you’ve done in the past and grants you a sort of do-over. God won’t hold your past against you.
I’ve confessed some real doozies. Before taking the run that day, I had received absolution for things done and things left undone more times than I can count. As advertised, confession brought relief from my feelings of guilt. But remorse about my past wasn’t the defining problem; I was wounded by my past. I was wounded by abuse, neglect, and exploitation. I needed to find a way to die to the person whose life was shaped by this pain and sorrow in order for a new self to emerge from them.
The Night My Father Killed Me
Like most of us, my soul was bruised by countless things. But one childhood experience crystallizes the woundedness that was finally overtaking me……..