I enjoy museums and I have been privileged of visiting some wonderful ones. While in seminary I regularly visited the museums of Fine Arts and Science in Boston. I have also been metaphorically lost in the Smithsonian in DC, the Chicago Museum and the Getty in L.A. But the ones that were most memorable to me were the Prado in Madrid, the British Museum in London and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
The thing that baffles me is that I cannot fully explain why museums have such an impact me. I love to learn and so that is part of it. I know next to nothing about art but I know beauty when I see it and I find it healing to the soul. And it also rings true that we can only really understand our present and prepare for our future if we understand our past and museums help us do just that.
But one thing that is true for all of the museums is that they have a closing time because museums are places to visit but we are not meant to live in them. And while it may seem preposterous to suggest that anyone would want to live in a museum, I have met many over the course of the years who are doing just that. They live in museums, not in Boston or in LA, but museums of their own making.
For example, no doubt that each of you have met someone who is living in the museum of his glory days. His sole focus, and all that he talks about, are those good old days when he was a football star, or some kind of hero or when he was the best in his career. This poor soul is so stuck in the past that he barely has a present and what is worse is that his future is very bleak because he knows that he will never be able to recoup what he had in the good old days.
Some are living in a museum of traditionalism. This is where a tradition has lost its original intent and while it is still held as sacred, in reality it is now meaningless. This was the problem of many of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. They were so wed to their traditions that they failed to see that they were but signs pointing to the One to come. Now that He was here the signs were no longer needed. But they were blind to that and so they continued to live in their museums. Christians can do a similar thing when we are engaged in traditions but have no idea why, except for the response, “Because that’s the way we have always done it.” Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikin reminds us, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
Some choose to live in museums of past pain. They are stuck in a time when they suffered an injustice or a time when they were betrayed by a loved one or a time when someone that they loved suffered a wrong. These museums act more like prisons because it feels very much like the inhabitants are there involuntarily. But they are not there involuntary because they could leave if they chose to do so.
Some time ago I received a certified letter from Miami. It was from a friend from so many years ago that may as well have been from a former life. We knew each other when we both were non denominational ministers in Florida, but we had no contact with one another in over 20 years. The point of his letter was to tell me that he was an alcoholic, that he had two failed marriages, that he was estranged from his children, and that he traced it all back to me.
It was true that we had gone through some very difficult things. Conflicts had emerged and none of us handled it well. There were scars all around. We were able to meet face to face and he was right in some of the things that he accused me of. I admitted where I had wronged him and I asked for his forgiveness. But at the same time I disagreed with him that I had the power to make him an alcoholic, to ruin two marriages and certainly not to estrange him from his kids. He was the one choosing to live the museum of his past pain. I told him about my life as a priest, about this wonderful church, about my marriage to Beth. I did it not to rub salt in his wounds but as a testimony that we don’t have to stay stuck in the past. I wanted him to know that in Christ, God has given us a way to move forward.
Another kind of museum that I have witnessed folks living in is the museum of their past sins. They become emotionally and/or spiritually stuck because they wrongfullybelieve that God could never forgive them. Or even if they are able to get over the hurdle of God’s forgiveness, often they don’t seem to be able to forgive themselves. It is not hard to imagine that it was this kind of thinking that led Judas to take his own life.
So the question is, what do you do if you find yourself living in one of these museums or something akin to them? The answer can be found in these dynamic words from St. Paul to the Philippians.
First St. Paul acknowledges the loss. He does not make light of his or anyone else’s suffering. He says, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”In St. Paul’s case he suffered the loss of his reputation and his standing in his community. Earlier in the chapter he went through his past credentials. He was circumcised on the eight day, which made him a son of the covenant. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. He called himself a Hebrew of Hebrews. He was a Pharisee, which meant that he was an expert of the law. He was so zealous for God that he persecuted the Church. He even said that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless… blameless at least by all outward appearances.
And what is he now? Now he is a penniless preacher in jail for his faith and he is despised by his kinsmen. “But Paul, doesn’t all that loss devastate you?” He replies, “I count them as refuse that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.”
Do you see what he does? Rather than living in the museum of his loss, he compares it to what or rather Whom he has found and that makes what he lost seem like junk. The actual word that he uses is “dung.” Once your realize that the museum you are living in is really a sewer, then you will be happy to move out. St. Paul certainly was.
The second thing we see St. Paul doing is taking action by moving forward. He refuses to be stuck in a museum. He says “….forgetting what lies behind …I press on…” He sounds here very much like the prophet Isaiah. “Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing.”
Why forget the past? Because St. Paul is on a journey or better yet a race. He is not paralyzed by his pain. He uses the words “straining forward” to describe his progress, giving us the image that he is running with all his might, with his eye on the tape at the finish line.
If you have ever played a sport, or learned to play an instrument or developed a specific skill then you know with certainty that you will only win or succeed if your have a single focus. If Fr. BE is in a tennis match but he is worried about his upcoming sermon then you can bet that he will play poorly. If pilot Fr. Chris is thinking about anything else during takeoff or landing then I’m going to have to ask the Bishop to help me find another associate. It is St. Paul’s single focus, and the hope that it brings, that gave him the perspective and ability to write to the Philippians from prison and say “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.”
We need also to remember that part of what St. Paul is putting behind him, by “forgetting what lies behind,”are his former sins; in particular his persecution of the church. It’s not the he literally no longer remembers. He certainly remembers and likely is why he refers to himself as “chief among sinners”and “the least of the apostles.”But St. Paul is refusing to be stuck in those past sins because as he says, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” St. Paul is pressing forward. He doesn’t have time for museums.
St. Paul then tells us what it is that we are to be straining forward to achieve. He says, “I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” But that language is a little fuzzy. What is our upward call? Our lessons today stops too short because St. Paul goes on to define it later in the same chapter. He says, “ But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Our upward call is to be resurrected and to reign with Christ when He returns and His kingdom has come in its fullness. The prize is eternal life with our Lord in a new heaven and a new earth. That is the vision that gets us out of our museums and living life as God intended us to live. That is why Jesus told us in so many ways to make seeking the kingdom of God our highest priority.
It is hard for me to believe but next Sunday is Palm Sunday and we then enter the passion of Holy Week. As Lent draws to a close, and we prepare ourselves for the Paschal Feast, it is not too late to benefit from the season. It is not nearly as important that you have successfully fasted or followed a certain discipline, as it is that you get out of your museum and press on toward your heavenly call. St. Paul said that his goal was to “gain Christ and to be found in him.”From this perspective Lent is simply a coming home to the One who loves us and gave Himself up for us. The good news is that we don’t have to reach sinless perfection to make it because He has already done that for us. St. Paul calls upon us to join him in pressing forward to attain the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.