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Connecting To Your Past

I ran through Tokyo this morning. Took a left on the main road out of the hotel at 6 a.m. Took in all that I could of Japan along the way. A factory, a bamboo forest, small gardens, and way too many karaoke bars. A general aroma of tidiness. Things in their places. A mile on, I took to …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

I ran through Tokyo this morning.

Took a left on the main road out of the hotel at 6 a.m. Took in all that I could of Japan along the way. A factory, a bamboo forest, small gardens, and way too many karaoke bars. A general aroma of tidiness. Things in their places.

A mile on, I took to the back streets. Still more karaoke bars. Three women wearing visors walking their dogs and carrying doggie bags. Girls on bikes apparently going to some school (who goes to school at 6 a.m.?).

Barber shops and beauty salons – more riffs on the theme of neatness. Green spaces and gardens kept showing up. I cut through one and was back at the hotel.

What would have happened if I'd taken a right? I decided to see. I kept going past the hotel and found the road to the right very different.

Quickly ahead I saw a path through gardens. Somebody was doing more than just putting salad on the table with those gardens. Row after row of what may have been strawberry plants poked their leafy heads through black plastic. Not a weed in sight.

The path got smaller. I was running by rice now. A woman with a scarf wrapped over her broad hat and around her head was hard at work.

Ahead the path sloped down and I found myself running through a small, thickly wooded forest. It was so peaceful in there. To my right I spotted a large burial shrine – a Shinto shrine, I thought, honoring an ancestor.

For the first time, I thought gracious thoughts about a religion I'd previously disparaged: "I don't know what's going on here, but whoever put that here was reaching for the sacred." Reaching for something beyond themselves that transcended time.

It's a universal thing. We all want to connect with the sacred. Why revere your ancestors?  Well, why not revere something? Isn't that better than the cynicism that infects our culture?

Back in my room, I thought about the two ways I'd taken. To the left I'd seen the current Japan – a mix of  the practical and the aesthetic symbolized by the karaoke bars. The thing about karaoke is that it's a nice mix of the programmed with the spontaneous. If you can remember the song's lines and carry a tune, you're good. But add a little of your own special sauce and you might get some applause.

To the right I saw the country's past. Actually, maybe I more felt its past. In a world rushing headlong into a future that at times feels nihilistic, it was a serendiptious privilege.

There's a tug in me to connect with the past. I need it like I need community. America, just 227 years into its experiment, can feel like a shallow-rooted culture. I need roots to live – don't you?

This past year, I took out all our old family videos and made digital copies for our kids. There they are at ages 3, 4, and 5 playing in a pool. There they are a little older on vacation. And then as teenagers opening presents at Christmas.

And in an old echo, there I am at the same ages doing the same things in my parents' silent movies.

And still further back, in a piece of cinematic antiquity, there's my dad graduating from Yale. And his dad proudly looking on. Seeing the connection between the generations felt strangely sacred. Like watching God finger painting with our lives.

Today Karen is at home planning what will surely be a stay in hospice for her mom. It's hard.

But just watching the flow of the generations whether in my videos or on my run past Japanese gardens and shrines allows me to give thanks to God, the one who orchestrates the flow and makes sense of living and dying.

He's not a product of my wishful thinking. People are looking for him and finding evidence of him all over the world. He's a creator who is creating new life out of old things all the time.

What are the old things in your life that need a little more reverence? Where do you find life through the roots that connect deeply to all that birthed you as you've come to be?

Comments (11)

  • Poignant thoughts here. Just today, I was telling a friend how it was for me growing up. My parents had been very strict when I was small. By the time I was a teenager, my Dad had walked away from God and our family became rudderless.
    When I got to that age where you think you know better than your parents, I really felt that I did! Their confusing messages seemed to justify my bad attitudes and stubborn self-will.
    Even after I became a Christian, I felt like I was supposed to be the one to “do it right” since my parents had failed us. Still, there were good memories and definitely solid things I could look back at and say, “I wanted Jesus because my father put that desire in me when I was very young.”
    It’s only in the past decade that God has shown me how He can use anything—ANYTHING—and redeem it. He can weave every mistake into his tapestry and it looks beautiful in the end!
    God began to show me how He had used even my parents’ mistakes to form me into His image, to teach me humility, to make me lean on Him.
    What a good God He is! He can even make us thankful for the things we once hated.

  • This is so well written. If we will look we will see the hand of God through generations. The enticements and speed of the presence can prevent us from reflecting. Praying for Karen and her family for daily grace.

  • Your post has me thinking, Seth. On our end, we are starting to go through a downsizing process to keep life in balance. The first thing I realized from the process is just how many things already had too much reverence! It turns out that ideas about value and permanence were vested in the wrong things. It also turns out that letting go is really easy when you have God’s hand to hold on to.

    They say that if a house catches fire, the things people most want to save are their pictures. Pictures are a proxy for our memories and our relationships – interestingly, neither are physical things. As we go through the downsizing, reverence for the right things comes into clearer focus.

    This is a stressful time, and we give each other all the grace we possess. We also promise each other daily that, when stretched, we will always run hard back to the center where God is with us at the core of our relationship. That may not be roots exactly, but they are like very strong elastic bands, always able to pull us back in to that right place.

    Unfortunately, some of us were birthed and rooted in poor soil. A lot of those roots never developed and are not a source of strong connection today. But along the journey, God, the tender gardener, has uprooted us, transplanted us, and ultimately re-rooted our lives in Him. This is the way of living that He promises His children. Christ in us changes the whole sense of connection to the past.

  • That’s right, Pam. Isn’t it amazing how God redeems so much from our lives. He wastes nothing.

  • Your words echo a sentiment that I have felt for a while now since my father died. Once that “link in the chain” was broken I have looked for more information about my family and the generations before me. As a result, I have a picture in my office of my great grandfather who was a chaplain in the army who survived the Bataan death march in the Philippines during WW2. The picture was taken the day of their release from the Japanese imprisonment and he looks so much like the men in our family. I look to that picture and God provides me with strength when I think I’ve had a bad day!

    I, too, need that connection to the past and wish I had learned about it earlier. It helps me to see God’s purposes in more focus.

    Our nation does not currently revere the past or look to it for wisdom which is dangerous and can / has led us astray to repeat the mistakes of the past a number of times.

    I pray that God would provide Karen and your family supernatural strength and grace during this time and that it may refine you further. Thanks so much for your example and your transparency…it is so refreshing and encouraging.

  • Good reflections here, Paul We haven’t connected in a while. Hope we can do that sometime soon.

  • In part, this is why it’s important we let our kids in on our failures, disappointments and regrets. It allows them to see what shaped us and our character.

    Maybe a month after my great-grandmother died, we were contacted by someone claiming to be her first-born, given up for adoption. We met her and saw the unmistakable resemblance.

    It was only then that some digging went on and we discovered a miserable childhood in a foster home where father and 3 sons took turns day after day until she became pregnant.

    My mother remembers hearing so many things as a child that seemed so out of place for her grandmother, but it all came together, it all made sense when meeting the long lost aunt.

    Time reveals truth. To think I can hide sin, or hurt rather than deal w/ it in the open will only delay the inevitable. I do not want any surprises for my kids when I die.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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