I love the BBC series Call the Midwife (2012-). Based on the memoirs of former British nurse Jennifer Worth (1935-2011), it tells the stories of Anglican nuns and nurses acting as midwives in 1950s Poplar, a poverty-stricken part of London’s East End. I love the ambience of this series, the warm relationships shared by nuns, nurses, their lovers, and new parents. It feels like hot chocolate on a cold night and I hate to see each episode end.
In the season 2 Christmas special, Nurse Jenny Lee meets Mrs. Shirley Jenkins, a former workhouse widow living in appalling conditions who always knows when new babies arrive. One day Mrs. Jenkins tells Jenny that she resembles her daughter Rosie. Then she describes the last night she spent with her.
With Mrs. Jenkins’ “workhouse howl” ringing in her ears, Jenny goes to the public records office to find information on the family. She discovers that all five children died in the workhouse due to “failure to thrive.” When Jenny shares this information at Nonnatus House during a meal, Sister Evangelina accuses her of prying and tells her “the past is in the past.” So, Jenny learns where Mrs. Jenkins’ children are buried. Then she brings the elderly woman to a mass grave in a churchyard and points out each child’s body. When she learns where Rosie is buried, Mrs. Jenkins finally finds peace.
The information Jenny discovered was useless until she shared it with Mrs. Jenkins. Yet what if Sister Evangelina had told British journalist Martin Sixsmith or retired nurse Philomena Lee “the past is in the past”? Would Lee, the subject of a book and award-winning film, have sought and found her son Anthony, who was taken from her by Roman Catholic nuns in the 1950s? No.
The past is the fabric of our character and personality. It determines our present and, if we do not find healing, then the past will determine our future. Philomena did not find healing until she learned the truth about her son. Dredging up the long-forgotten and pain-filled past has not only given her spiritual lightness but also given other women the courage to search for their lost children. It has even forced the Roman Catholic Church to face its mistakes.
We should not tell hurting people “the past is in the past.” Until they confront it, they cannot receive healing and move forward. However, sometimes the past involves our own mistakes. God says he will cast our sins into the depths of the sea, but only if they have been forgiven (Micah 7:19). Otherwise, we must repent. General feelings of worthlessness are demonic. We must resist Satan by telling him our forgiven past is under the blood (James 4:7). Memories of specific sins, however, are from God and he will lead us to repentance. Whether we have sinned or been sinned against, the Holy Spirit uses memories and the Word to bring the past to light. Then he helps us confront it so we can move forward in holiness. That confrontation may require repentance, forgiving someone, or asking forgiveness and making restitution.
The Israelites could not keep conquering Canaan until they learned why they had lost a battle at Ai. Joshua asked God, “Why have you brought us here to destroy us?” (Joshua 7:7) God replied, “There is sin in the camp. You cannot stand before your enemies until you take away the accursed thing from among you” (7:11, 13). So Joshua used lots to find Achan, who confessed to stealing clothes, silver, and gold and then hiding these things in his tent (7:18-21). After Achan and his family were first stoned and then burned, God turned from his wrath (7:25-26). Only then could the Israelites capture the city of Ai (chap. 8).
King David could not keep governing Israel until he learned the cause of a three-year famine (2 Samuel 21:1). God told him, “It is because of Saul and his bloodthirsty house, because he killed the Gibeonites” (21:1). This event took place decades earlier, before David was anointed king. When he asked the Gibeonites how to make restitution, they replied, “Give us seven of Saul’s descendants, whom we will hang before the Lord” (21:6). So David delivered these men (21:8-9). Afterward, “God heeded the prayer for the land” (21:14).
In modern times, both churches and nations have issued formal apologies for past mistakes, including sexual abuse, the Trail of Tears, and the slave trade. These apologies may seem “too little too late,” but they show that past pain often produces present suffering. Only through forgiveness and restitution can both individuals and nations move forward.
If bringing up the past heals just one person and helps them embrace the future with hope, then it is not in vain. So let us pray that more people find emotional and spiritual healing for their past.
 New King James Version (NKJV), unless otherwise noted