Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Meditation on American History and the Power of a Paralyzing Past

She was 65 years of age. Yet, it still haunted her. It was like a poison that made life bitter.

She had been married at the age of 22. Now, four decades later, her very existence seemed overshadowed by something that had occurred right after the wedding.

Looking back, she said, “I felt all the honest pride of my soul was laid low forever.”

She had written it all down on paper, reflecting back on her long life; in an essay she called “Adventures of a Nobody.” In it she wrote this bitter sentence: “It is 43 years since I became a wife and yet the rankling sore is not healed which then broke upon my heart of hearts, it was the blight of every future prospect and has hung like an incubus upon my spirit.”

An incubus is a form of demon, by the way – a legendary devil that preys on people while they sleep, causing horrific nightmares. Louisa let this demon, this nightmare, this ”blight, this “rankling sore” fester in her life for 43 years.

I suppose this is not an uncommon situation. Think about our own lives. How about you? Is there some “rankling sore” somewhere in your own past that continues to trouble you, even paralyze your life, today?

Louisa’s story is true, found hidden in the pages of American History.

Louisa was born in London to a wealthy American businessman who had married an English wife. She was raised in France, and there, when she was only four years old, she met for the first time her future husband, an American boy named John, who was traveling with his father. At the time, John was only 12.

Louisa’s family returned to England, and when she was 22 she married John; and it was no ordinary marriage. Louisa’s wealthy father was the American consul in London – the equivalent today to the Ambassador, and John’s father was the President of the United States. The wedding was held on July 26th, 1797.

It appeared to be a fairy tale match. The daughter of a prominent family married the man who was ostensibly the most eligible bachelor in the country. He was handsome, smart, and extremely gifted, having already achieved great things for the country in the Foreign Service as a consul or ambassador to Russia, France, the Netherlands, and England. He was a rising star on the American political and social scene, and, even more importantly, was the son of the second President.

You would think with all this going for her, and the reality of how most of her life actually turned out, the expectation was nothing but “happily ever after.” But the carriage suddenly turned to a pumpkin. Her father’s business failed. The family was bankrupt. Louisa suddenly had no dowry. Scandalous rumors sprang up all over the country. Tongues were wagging. Perhaps she had lured John Quincy Adams into a rushed marriage under false pretenses.

Later, at the age of 50, at a time when her husband had been elected President (making her the only foreign born First Lady in the history of the United States), Louisa still agonized over it. Listen to what she wrote in this memoir to her children: “Conceive my dear sons the shock I underwent, every appearance was against me; actions proceeding from the most innocent causes looked the deliberate plans to deceive…”

Interestingly enough, this event in Louisa’s life is only mentioned in passing in David McCullough’s best selling biography of Louisa’s father in law, John Adams, and only to mention that Adams, as President, had given Louisa’s father a governmental appointment to assist the family. But Cokie Roberts shared Louisa’s version of the story in her book “Ladies of Liberty,” and she came to this conclusion about Louisa Adams: “This was a woman who clearly saw every ounce of pride slip down the drain with her father’s fortunes.”

How sad. Louisa Adams let an incident she was not responsible for poison her life – an event that even the rest of her family, including her famous father in law, really didn’t hold against her or her family. But even if the event that had haunted her and purportedly ruined her reputation had not been her fault, she didn’t need to let her past control her like that.

Now what about the rest of us? Are there “rankling sores” from our past that continue to haunt us today? I know this has happened to me – embarrassing moments from my childhood, misunderstandings that made me want to bury myself in a hole, stupid things I’ve done – these have all stayed with me way past their “expiration date” and often hinder my ability to advance. Indeed, my recent struggles with losing my job and trying to start my own business feel like one disappointment after another, as I struggle with my own sense of worth and purpose.

The Apostle Paul struggled with similar issues. Or at least he could have. He persecuted and even killed Christians before becoming one himself. At several points in his writings in the New Testament, Paul makes note of his past and the reputation it left him. It could have become a chain around his neck and caused him suffering that could have stunted his Christian ministry all his life and in his case it was his own doing.

But this is what Paul had to say about the attitude he took about the things in his past. He wrote in Philippians 3, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

It’s a pretty radical concept for ordinary folks like me, but he said, “…one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind…”

It’s hard to say what Louisa Adams would have done with that advice. She had a lot of other things she suffered through – miscarriages; children who died; long, lonely stints living overseas in foreign countries while her young children stayed stateside in order to be educated. She was a brave woman who endured a lot to support her husband. But could she have overcome this darkness, this “demon?” Could that have helped her better cope with these other trials? Would forgiving her father, and forgiving HERSELF set her free? Would she have had a better relationship with her husband, had a better family life? Would she have been more of a service to her country (and to her husband) as the First Lady? We will never know. But from her own pen, we know that she suffered immeasurably all her life because of one incident in her past.

What about me? What about all of us? Have things in our past laid us low and kept us there? De we believe this is our destiny, our calling in this life?

Not on your life. If you are truly born again, truly a Christian, then you are a child of God, and the future is bright.

Second Corinthians 5:17 says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

If you have sinned, come to Jesus for forgiveness. If others have sinned against you, then with Jesus’ help, forgive them.

Then follow the advice of Philippians chapter three: forget what is in the past, and press on toward what God has for you in the future.

Let Him who began a good work in you carry it on to completion.

The Christian pop singer Chris Tomlin has recorded an updated version of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which contains a new chorus: “My chains are gone. I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior has ransomed me.”

Don’t let the past paralyze you, the way it did for Louisa Adams.

I pray that as we begin this new year, I want to forget the past and press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus!

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