A number of weeks ago a twenty-year-old image appeared on one of my social media feeds. It was a photograph posted by a friend and it included a large group of young adults. These young couples and their children were posing in front of our church building on a Sunday. This was a Sunday School class picture that brought back some good memories. These are memories of young families with babies and preschoolers who found community within the covenant relationships offered in our local church.
At first I smiled looking at this group. The numerous shared memories of gatherings, retreats, weddings, baby showers, etc. came to mind. My wife and I did not attend the Sunday School class (primarily because I was the youth pastor then and my wife taught in our preschool ministry) but we were "in-service members" (that's an old Southern Baptist Sunday School term) and these are our contemporaries and friends.
I started reading the comments and there was one, just one, that seemed to state what came to my mind. One of my friends included in the photograph commented with just one word - "BITTERSWEET."
I "liked" that comment, not because I actually liked that comment, but because it was the only term that seemed appropriate.
Another friend responded to the "bittersweet" comment - "Amazing what all has transpired since then."
"Amazing" can mean so many things. In this case, it means such things as "Wow...we were so young" and "Look at how God did such great things in these years with this group."
Yet, for this photo "amazing" also means "Wow...how sad. We never could have expected what would happen."
- Some of this tightly knit group has relocated to other areas around the country due to their employment. Therefore, in some cases, the tight friendship connections have naturally loosened.
- Some remain in the area, but are members of other churches now. That's not necessarily negative, just a reality.
- Some of these happily married couples are no longer happily married (at least not to the spouse of their youth as pictured in this image.)
- More than one family has suffered heartache due to family issues with children and others.
- Disease has impacted this group. Sadly, one of our brothers has died (sadly because his wife, children, and we grieve him not being with us. Gladly because we know he is with our Lord in heaven now. So that's bittersweet.)
- Some no longer openly walk with the Lord.
- Others are just...somewhere. We have lost touch and no one in the photograph knows what has become of them.
My Old Photographs
I have been serving on pastoral staff at our church since 1994. I have had the honor of being the lead pastor here since 2005, which surprisingly makes me the longest-tenured lead pastor in this 99-year history of this church. With these years of service, I have accumulated many great memories of brothers and sisters who have covenanted with our church for God's glory over the years.
Since I was the youth pastor for almost ten years, I have many memories of teenagers and young people who now are adults and raising their own children in our fellowship. I, too have many boxes of old photographs from back in the day when these were actually printed on paper. As I looked through some today, I had the same response as seeing the picture of the Sunday School class.
Many, many people have walked through our doors at the church. Many have joined groups, classes, and ministries. Many have attended camps, choir tours (yes, that was a thing,) ski trips, mission trips, etc. For some, these were life-changing events. These were moments where many solidified their faith in Jesus Christ.
Thankfully, there are hundreds now serving in this church and other churches throughout the world whom I was privileged to know and mentor during their formative years. Some are serving in full-time ministry in churches and on the mission field. Others are serving faithfully as laypeople in their church and impacting the world and the workplace for Christ. Many are raising the next generation of Christ-followers faithfully in their homes in churches.
Then...there are others.
So many others.
People whom I love dearly, but not nearly as much as Christ loves them.
People whom are no longer teenagers, no longer "young," no longer having more years ahead of them than behind, that have sadly relegated their faith to a chapter in their past.
Some that see their church experience as they do their old high school yearbooks - something fun at the time and good for nostalgic reasons.
Some have struggled with their own crisis of belief only to walk away.
Others never truly walked with Christ or had surrendered to him as Lord. They may have been baptized, but they never were born again.
Confessionally, there are many whom I failed as friend, brother, youth pastor, and pastor. I failed in not being as intentional or strategic in the covenant relationship required. I failed as many others have in letting the machinery of ministry overwhelm the disciple-making.
Why Is This a Concern Now?
During this pandemic, many people started posting old pictures and photographs. Throw-back Thursday began in March and lasted a couple of months. This is likely because many people were holed-up in their homes and after a few days started cleaning out old closets and suddenly were reminiscing.
Memories can be healing. They can be helpful. They can also be harmful and depressing bringing people to a dark place of regret.
Likely, God is be using these moments pointing toward our past to remind us of some valuable things in our present.
As a young man, I took for granted the time I had available. I took for granted much. I presumed that good times were normative. I believed (well, I wanted to believe) that all the kids who had Christ-loving parents and were active in the programs at their gospel-centered churches would grow up serving the Lord. That has proven to not be the case in my own family and in many others. In some cases, not even the parents have remained faithful.
There is much lament among pastors over the large percentage of church members who have not joined online Bible studies since the pandemic hit. Many have not watched services online and have seemingly disengaged from all aspects of church life. Some appear to have abandoned the covenant made when they joined their respective churches.
Yet, what has been revealed is that while many Christians and Christian leaders were content in our service and church activities, it seems we may have actually focused more on building crowds in the past than in discipling the church.
One of these days, we will look back at today's photos (not on paper, but on some cloud-connected device or maybe a hologram) and we may find ourselves smiling, crying, and wondering "what happened?"
But what about today?
You see, sometimes nostalgic photos bring back good memories. Sometimes, they remind us of missed opportunities. Sadly, they also can remind us of what was, but is now gone.
What about today?
You cannot live in the past. You cannot live in a heretofore nonexistent future. You only have today.
If we are not careful, we will miss the blessings of now (even if now isn't the greatest experience in your life.) Rejoicing in what we now have with Him is our goal, our desire, our command.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. - Psalm 118:24 (ESV)
Don't throw away your old photographs.
Remember that God was sovereign at the moment the old photo was taken just as he is today.
Don't allow your most faithful moments with the Lord be in your past.
Live TODAY for the glory of God (and don't become one of those "whatever happened to them" people.)