Our past can provide the path for real growth

Sunday, April 1, 2012

"I know nothing!"

Those who troll their television sets looking for 1960s-era situation comedies will no doubt recall the declarative exclamation that opens this column. Sgt. Schultz of "Hogan's Heroes" (1965-1971) is the author of that signature line.

Schultz, played by the late Austrian actor John Banner, would utter "I know nothing! I see nothing!" when confronted with evidence that Allied World War II prisoners of war in Stalag 17 were plotting some mayhem against Col. Klink. Sgt. Schultz came to the conclusion that it would be better to feign innocence than to act on the information.

Well, we have arrived at Holy Week. You read this column on Palm Sunday and Easter is each of our spiritual windshields. We see the annual celebration of Jesus' resurrection coming. Moms have purchased Easter dresses for their daughters. Dads are deciding at which restaurant families will eat Easter brunch. Little children are looking forward to seeing what the bunny will leave for them next Sunday at this time. But before our headlong rush to Easter, let's slow down a bit. We pause to remember the tragedies of that first Holy Week.

Here's one of them: St. Peter, like Sgt. Schultz, once said -- in so many words: "I know nothing! I see nothing!"

When asked by passers-by if he knew the man Jesus, who was being dragged before Caiaphas for trial, Peter denies any knowledge of the man. This failure of nerve, which is reported in all four Gospels, is one of the sadder moments of Holy Week. Yet this same Peter, whose cowardice and self-preservation instinct make us avert our eyes in embarrassment, becomes a dynamic and effective preacher in the book of Acts -- leading 3,000 people to conversion following Pentecost.

Peter could still be a useful servant of the Gospel after that regrettable moment in Caiaphas' courtyard. Each of us has something in our past that we would like to correct. We can't. It's over and done. We cannot get in a time machine and go back and have a do-over.

Since history is immutable, we have a stark choice. We can continue allow the regrets of our past to haunt us and to rob us of joy in the present. I have been down this path in my life. It leads nowhere. There is, however, to quote the legendary Robert Frost, a road less traveled. This road allows our regrets to humble us, to strengthen us, to grow us up. What have you done in the past -- or failed to do -- that can be a path of personal growth in the present?

Peter, no doubt, thought of his denial of Jesus many times after that terrible day in the high priest's yard. There was no do-over for him. If he allowed his self-loathing to overwhelm him, he would have been no use for the cause of the Gospel. He came to his own fork in the road and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, became the leader the church needed him to be. Our friends in the Roman Catholic tradition believe Peter to be the foundation stone on which the papacy was built.

Peter came a long way from Sgt. Schultz's "I know nothing!" declaration. It's true. The past is never past; it is always prologue. Prologue to what, though? Our personal histories can cause us to hate ourselves for past mistakes. They can also be the start of real growth -- a growth that seems to elude people who have no regrets.

Take the fork in the road -- the one less traveled. You'll be happier.

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Long is senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.

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