How Is the Past Present?

Where do you come from? Our history can be a source of strength as we move into the future. I was reminded of this recently when I attended a service for the 100th anniversary of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon, where I live. After the service we attended a breakfast in the church’s brand-new Hellenic-American Cultural Center. Painted on the wall just beneath the ceiling were a number of quotations, including this one: “The branches must not forget their roots, for if they do they will be lost.”

In today’s world it can be easy to want to escape our past. People can move across the country and leave family behind, at least geographically. Institutions must adapt quickly or face extinction. Businesses must be light on their feet or go out of business. But our past always shapes us, even when we don’t think about it. And exploring it can be a source of possibility and hope.

At the Holy Trinity breakfast, several church leaders spoke, including Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco, who spoke of the need for stability and flexibility. He stressed the importance of a firm but not rigid foundation. Flexibility alone is not enough, because we will have nothing on which to build toward the future. Stability alone is not enough, because if we cannot bend, we may break. I was struck by the way these leaders of a very traditional church were both valuing their heritage and looking for ways to make it significant in today’s world.

If you begin to ask questions in your organization, you may find stories of innovation and resourcefulness from the past which will surprise you and inspire those you lead. If you begin to ask questions in your family, you may find stories of adventure and resilience that help you recognize those qualities in yourself. I was surprised to learn about a decade ago that my grandmother (whom I always thought of as a traditional pastor’s wife) went off by herself to teach school in Arizona before she married. I realized that my own adventures were less a break with the past than a continuation of it.

One church I worked with, St. Mark’s Episcopal in Teaneck, New Jersey, found that when they began cooperating with the Catholic hospital next door, everything they did together was successful. The rector, The Rev. Randall Day, learned that Grace Chadwick, the same woman who gave the land for the church in the 1920s also gave the land for the hospital. He says, “As she saw it, these places would serve the community. Their purpose found their original meaning in Mrs. Chadwick’s visionary intention.” The two institutions share a historic connection that makes new things possible in the present.

Who knows the stories? What curious questions can you ask to get them talking? Take note of the strengths and sense of possibility that you hear, and draw on those qualities as you face present challenges.

4 replies on “How Is the Past Present?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Thanks, Israel and Phil, for two great illustrations of how the story of the past shows up both in families and in institutions. More questions than answers is probably always a good ratio in both settings.

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  • Phil Mitchell

    Margaret-thanks for the stimulating thoughts! Serving a church that has 225 years of history brings both an incredible sense of heritage and a huge challenge to resist calcification. I am finding life and spark in folk as we are all seeking to reshape our systemic questions in the absence of a Senior Pastor. We are slowly moving from “Wasn’t it great when…” to “What are we now doing that might be described as adventurous?” to “What emtionally stands in the way of bold, new initiatives.” Such questions are threatening to some and liberating to others. We are asking more questions than we are finding answers, which for the first time in a long time feels OK.

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  • IGalindo

    The past returns in many ways, often in repeated patterns, or in cycles, sometimes springing up in unexpected places and persons. Sometimes the past haunts us, plodding after our steps to remind us of where we’ve come from generations ago, pulling us back, saying, “Who do you think you are?” Sometimes the past is realized in the present as echoes of deferred dreams and hopes, like in a gift of land for the common good, or in a namesake.

    Yesterday my youngest son graduated from his college’s school of engineering. When they called his name to walk across the stage I heard my father’s name echo in my son’s middle name, Thomas Samuel Galindo. My father was never able to start college, much less finish it. Circumstances in his native war-torn country and a decisions to immigrate to a foreign land for the sake of his family and—its later generations—-meant personal sacrifices of opportunities, and of dreams deffered. My father loved learning. Despite his lack of formal education we grew up in a home full of books. (That’s an environment rarer than I realized until years later. Even as an adult, visiting many homes as pastor or as hospice chalplain I was always surprised at the lack of books people had in their homes).

    My father’s love of learning was instilled in his children, along with the message of the importance of an education. I remember his affirmation when I graduated (eventually doing so five times!), making no secret of his regret at never being able to do so himself. But yesterday, a Samuel Galindo walked across the stage, and two generations later the past is present, as a dream deferred was realized.

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  • Dick Moser

    This was an excellent article. I found many ideas that affect our lives in many ways, as well as the church and other organizations.

    Thanks for a great and positive work.

    Dick

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