During my adolescence, a Swiss author, Erich von Daniken, made waves with his theories about extra-terrestrial influences on early mankind. His most important book was called Memories of the Future. Of course, his ideas have no support today, but the idiom remains: memories of the future. Something from the past says something about what is to come.
Looking back, I have the disturbing feeling that God has used the past to prepare me for what He knew I would face. The spectacle of life was for me an unparalleled school. I have met people whose destiny amazed me and made me want to know them better. I have become acquainted with exemplary attitudes and have witnessed experiences that unfolded before my eyes. I have been fascinated by altruistic choices and by surprising and irresistibly convincing applications of principles that are generally accepted, but usually only superficially applied. I have listened to life stories or faith lessons that aroused my admiration and gave a new, vigorous and comprehensive meaning to the truths of the mind, that were insufficiently transposed into the reality of my life. My inner being responded with admiration, amazement and conviction, so my memory recorded them indefinitely. In due course, these memories showed me the direction to follow.
One of the pastors from my childhood, who had been a prisoner in the Soviet Union, told me about the reaction of another prisoner, a man from high society, when the camp management gave them half a slice of bread in addition to what they regularly received. The man refused the offer. “I don’t know how long this supplement will be offered,” he said, “and I don’t want to create any expectations that will make me suffer if the supplement is withdrawn. As I have lived so far, I will live on.” I heard that more than half a century ago, but I never forgot it.
When I was promoted a step higher on the ladder, I said to myself, “One day you will have to go down again.” When I was treated with honour and given privileges, I said to myself, “Don’t get used to this, it won’t last long.” And, anyway, the special treatment was always related to the position I was occupying, not something that I deserved as a person. When the time came to get off the pedestal there was no drama. The story I heard as a child had prepared me well.
In recent years, as a pastor, I got to know a man who had cared for his ex-mother-in-law for many, many years. This woman’s daughter had been his wife, but she had died a long time ago, and he had remained the only caretaker to help the old lady in her suffering. When I visited them, in a very simple house on the outskirts of Bucharest, the old woman was completely paralyzed, unable to speak, eat or do anything else by herself. Without care, she would have perished immediately. But this man dedicated his life to her, without hesitating to do whatever he could to keep her alive, to relieve her of pain, to keep her clean and dignified. That was his only reward—to know that she was alive and well. When she died, the old woman was very close to a hundred years old. I had the privilege of baptizing this man, with the wonder of his character hidden beneath a plain appearance. His mission complete, he himself died not too long after.
The meeting with this remarkable man revived more and more memories—of my mother, who could not neglect the old and the sick, abandoned in their misery; of the pastor who was my mentor in my early years, Constantin Alexe, and his tender care for the lonely and forgotten sufferers; of the admirable service of one of the deacons of an Adventist church in Bucharest, Romania. And now I can’t help but think that this is how God was preparing me for a calling I had never imagined: with my wife, we care for her elderly parents, both of whom suffered severe strokes. How would we cope without the example of those from whom we learned?
Of course, this way of looking at life also comes with some uncomfortable questions and fears, because I have also known people who have gone even further in devoting their lives to those in need. There was the young wife who took care of her mother-in-law alone, her husband having gone abroad to work; it was not only her age, but also the mental degeneration that gave her mother-in-law an unimaginable destructive energy. Or the wife who, herself suffering from innumerable ailments, desperately cared for her husband, a former soloist at the Opera, now debilitated by Parkinson’s disease. Are these also memories about the future? Sure, I really hope not. But what if…
“For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).