Sermon: Walking Backwards
Preached on 22nd May 2011
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
John Henry Newman once said that we walk to heaven backwards. On Friday afternoon someone asked me what he meant by that.
I don’t know about you but I don’t often walk backwards. Forwards is the way I like to go. Seeing the view ahead and stepping purposefully out. I like to see what is coming and if it is an obstacle I like to avoid it. I did once walk into a lamp post, and I remember that – but on the whole I avoid them. And so it is with most of us who walk forwards.
The disadvantages of walking forwards are harder to put your finger on. But here is one. You can’t see where you have been.
On the journey of life however, the backwards walker has the advantage of being able to see where they have been. Their eye is set not on the future but the past. And, learning from what they see – not least the evidence of their own mistakes, they are able to make wiser and kinder steps into the future.
Another advantage of walking backwards on the journey of life is that you are not tempted to walk too quickly, not tempted to run ahead. Walking backwards takes a bit of an effort and it is easy to stumble. We feel vulnerable. It is difficult and unnatural. But Newman has a point. It might actually be the way to go precisely because on the journey of life we cannot know the future or anticipate the obstacles. Nor can we see the destination. Heaven, or the kingdom of God, are beyond our imagination and so we make our pilgrimage by faith, not by sight. It is as if we are on a boat or a ship and rather than being able to see the bow all we can see is the wake.
While I have been thinking about walking backwards, I have been reading a book by Richard Rohr called ‘Falling Upwards’. It is about spirituality in the second half of life. As he says, you never know quite when you move into the second half of life. Life’s not like football, a game of two halves each of forty-five minutes with a half time break in between. But I think that it is not ridiculous to suggest that maybe it is during the first half of life that we walk boldly forwards, our eyes looking ahead and focusing on the future (whether the distant horizon or the next exam or the party after the last exam.) Children, you won’t need to be reminded, always look forward to getting older. Seven year olds want to be eight…. They are walking forwards. And as teenagers become adults so they begin to look into the future and imagine what they might do or be and maybe decide who they want to spend their future with. Sacraments of initiation and marriage and ordination are all forward looking. Those of forgiveness and healing are backward looking.
Rohr talks about the sorts of things we need to do in the first half of life as making a kind of container for the second half of life. You could think of it as building a secure personality, a mature character. That takes a fair bit of work and also a certain amount of childishness and brashness. We are never as sensitive or other-centred as we might be as we are maturing and so we do hurt and harm people through our egocentricity and our mistakes. And out of all this comes, after a while, the person we are, our settled adult self, the authentic or real ‘me’.
And it is after we reach this point, a point of wisdom and confidence that can come at any age, that we do the really adult thing of turning round and starting to walk backwards. Now this takes a lot of confidence for two reasons: one is that it is at this point we have to acknowledge that we really do not know where we are going. The second is that when we turning around we do see all too clearly where we have been, the mistakes we have made and harm we have caused all come into view.
We become vulnerable to guilt and shame. We wish the pattern of our lives were better than it has been. We wish for a better past. This opens up for us all the questions of regret and remorse, guilt and forgiveness. And that is quite a set of issues. We need a degree of spiritual confidence (aka faith) to be able to face that. People often talk about not being able to forgive themselves. It is a real and common experience. Something of real regret stands out as we look into the past and accuses us. There it is, boldly accusing us across the years. We are walking away from it but it still seems to loom as large as ever. We seem to forget everything else but this keeps bobbing about in our dreams like a buoy in the harbour. There can be many reasons for this but one of the projects of the second half of life is to allow the forgiving work to happen – whether it is the forgiveness of those you have harmed, the forgiveness of God or self forgiveness – which is often as not more like acceptance than forgiveness.
If the second half of life does have its own spirituality then walking backwards is part of it. Jesus, of course died very young and so the second half of his life was very truncated. However I wonder whether Jesus farewell speech in John’s gospel actually reflects this second phase spirituality.
There is no doubt that for the bulk of his three years of ministry Jesus was a man on a mission: forward looking, prophetic, acting, doing, leading, striding out. He was very much the young man. But in the farewell discourses Jesus turns around (as it were) and addresses very directly his disciples in their need. He attends to them. Listens to their hearts. He feels their anxiety and says, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’
The disciples do not know it but they are going to have to turn around very soon. They have been relying on Jesus to show them the way. They have been followers but now they are going to have to be navigators. But here’s the thing. They are going to have to navigate in the dark for the light is about to be extinguished.
So Thomas pipes up, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Philip has his question too: "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us."
The disciples are acting their young age here. They want to know what cannot be known. Just show us where to go, let us see the invisible God, let us have a nice compelling vision of the future and we will be just fine.
And Jesus says, basically, ‘Grow up! You have seen me – I am the way. You have known me – you have seen the father. That’s it. I have told you, shown you, shared with you all that you are going to see. Ah you want to know about heaven – well let me tell you this. It’s got a lot of space, a lot of rooms. Oh yes, very roomy is heaven –the kingdom of God, my father’s house is the no 1 place for hospitality, Don’t worry about that.’
The disciples are horrified, ‘Don’t worry about the future! Don’t worry about the kingdom! Don’t worry about God!!! What shall we worry about?’
‘Worry about each other, dear children’, says Jesus. ‘Actually, don’t worry about each other but do care for each other. Attend to each other. Regard each other. Support each other and as I may have mentioned before “love one another”. Get that straight and everything else will fall into place - and you will inherit the kingdom that is your heart’s true desire.’
We walk backward to heaven said blessed John Henry Newman. It’s a great image and one that fits in well with the message of John the evangelist. You want to know where you are going. You can’t. You can only walk backwards towards what you cannot see by sight but trust by faith. It is a profound image of Christian living. The progress is towards God but the care is towards our fellow travellers. And that is what Christians mean by progress.