Ancestors

In this day of digital images, Facebook, Instagram, Dropbox and the like, I wonder how long it will be before old-fashioned photo albums become completely extinct.

Recently, our family has been trolling through stacks of old photographs and picture albums my mother left behind when she moved into an assisted living facility.  Many of the pages are torn or yellowing.  But the pictures have an air of mystery about them, as if offering a portal into another universe.  (I really have to stop watching those Star Trek reruns.)

Family photos have always involved a certain amount of artifice.  It’s not as if everyone just happened to be sitting or standing around one day, staring in the same direction, and someone happened by with a camera.  What we once called “Kodak moments” were not so much found as created, posed.  They were less real than ideal, less about things as they were and more about things as we wished to remember them.  Want reality?  Next vacation, instead of the typical “Here we are standing in front of…(fill in the official name of the appropriate tourist trap)” kind of picture, try taking a candid shot of the kids fighting in the back seat of the car.

Still, these are people with histories.  Behind the solemn faces are minds and memories.  There are stories to be told.

That’s my maternal grandfather in the picture above: the little tyke in the lower right corner.  He was by far my favorite of the four grandparents, a warm, kind, intelligent man with a good sense of humor.  I looked forward to his visits, and still remember some of the conversations we had when we would go on short walks.  Today, I am a professor, in part because Grandpa was a professor.

But then there were the stories he never told me, stories I’ve only heard from my mother as we’ve combed through the pictures: romance, tragedy, adventure.  Here, look: this is the woman Grandpa was supposed to have married, but the family nixed it.  She remained heartbroken and single the rest of her life.  Here, see this picture of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek?  Grandpa served on his cabinet, and survived an attack on Chongqing.

I never knew these things.  He was Grandpa, the man who cut his toast into neat, parallel strips–not Indiana Jones.  What, if anything, must change about my memory of him?  What does it mean for me to understand myself as his grandson?

And then, the next thought: how well are any of us connected to the stories the Bible tells?  These are our spiritual ancestors.  Do we have a sense of continuity with them?

Historical scholarship teaches us that biblical writers had their own reasons for the way they composed their materials.  But this is no album of idealized Kodak moments.  Abraham and Isaac didn’t stand side by side to have their picture taken with the ram.  Sin and violence are on clear display, and the heroes of the faith are ruthlessly portrayed as people of clay feet.

Again, these are our spiritual ancestors.  For centuries, Christians have professed belief in one “holy catholic church” and “the communion of saints.”  That word “catholic” means “universal”: the creed confesses our spiritual union with other believers in a church that extends around the world and across the centuries.

My life is but one subplot of a short chapter in a story that started long before I was born.  The same is true of each and every one of our spiritual ancestors, whose lives are narrated in embarrassing detail by the Scriptures.

And the “hero” of that story is God.  Not me, not my grandfather.  God: Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer, Lord.

Do I really understand that?

I’m still working on it.