Of all the subjects I had to study back in my public school days, history was never my favorite. (PE wasn’t exactly a joy ride either, but that’s another story.)
Part of it, of course, is that like many other students, I had history teachers who had difficulty communicating whatever passion they may have had for the subject — for the human drama behind the dry and abstract list of people, places, and events.
I had little patience for memorizing names and dates that seemed to have no connection to me, no practical use. For your typical middle-class American kid, life wasn’t about the past. It was about having fun in the present and speculating haphazardly about what you be when you grew up. (For the record, “seminary professor” wasn’t on my list. My mother tells me I wanted to be a garbage man, because I liked the guy that came to pick up our trash.)
But it seems that the older I get, the more I appreciate the long view, one that locates my personal story in another narrative which began long before I was born, and which will continue long after I’m gone.
In a recent Ash Wednesday post, I mentioned that my father-in-law had recently passed peacefully, after a long struggle with Parkinson’s. He was a deeply intelligent and honorable man, who loved to tell stories and corny jokes. He died surrounded by family, and when the news got around, people began telephoning from around the globe to share their words of condolence and appreciation.
Later, as I listened to my mother-in-law tell stories, I couldn’t help but hear how the course of their early years together in the Middle East had been conditioned by the historical and political events happening around them; even short journeys, for example, involved challenges with passports and checkpoints. My own mother, herself a wartime immigrant from China, could tell similar tales.
I, however, grew up in a relatively sheltered American suburb. I suspect that this, as much as anything else, is one key reason why I didn’t appreciate having a broader sense of history as a child. But things look different from this end of life, when you’re forced to recognize the normal matters of mortality.
My wife and I have been married for over 36 years. That’s a lot of history. But neither of us was born into a social vacuum. Our parents had their own adventures, and their parents before them. Some of the stories are touching, some are silly, and some are downright hair-raising. And frankly, our parents have far more of the latter kind than we do.
But all of these stories are part of who we are today, with narrative threads running through generations, spanning time and relationships.
As a Christian, I confess that it’s often difficult to maintain a robust historical imagination. The events described in the Bible can seem more like lessons from a history book than the story of my spiritual ancestors, or better yet, the story of the ongoing work of a gracious God.
But if we follow Jesus, this is our story too.
The forty days of Lenten fasting are meant to reflect the wilderness fast of Jesus (cf. Matt 4:2), in which he was tempted by Satan to stake an independent claim to power and glory instead of relying upon and serving God alone. The point of the fast is not to engage in religious behavior for its own sake, but to enter once again into the story, to tangibly and repentantly declare our dependence upon God as we lean into the celebration of resurrection on Easter.
Be glad. We rejoice in the resurrection of Jesus because we anticipate our own. We are part of a long and sovereign history — his story! — that is still in the making.