April 28, 2024

I’m sure many of you have heard things like this, but it’s good to be reminded from time to time.  The college graduating class of 2024 shares the following characteristics:

-They have no memory of the Bill Clinton presidency.

-They have always lived during an age of AIDS, and were still in high school when the COVID pandemic started.

-They have never known a world without computers and cell phones.

-They have no clue what the expression “you sound like a broken record” means.

-They have never seen a TV with only 13 channels.

-They have never paid only a dime for payphone call.  In fact, most of them have probably have no idea what a payphone is.

The speed at which the generational odometer spins is mind-boggling isn’t it?  But if the cloud of dust from the wake of the newest generation as it races toward its destiny is bewildering, so is it awe-inspiring to behold the footprints left in the sands of time by those who have passed this way before.  I am one of those who can be absolutely carried away by being in a very old place and imagining the lives of the people who lived there.

I had that feeling a while back on a trip to visit family in Arkansas.  While there, we went to the Pea Ridge civil war battleground.  It’s now a national military park, but on march 7th and 8th in 1862, its large open fields, wooded ridges and roads were the site of one of the early decisive battles between Federal troops and the Confederate Army.  We looked at artifacts from that two day long blood bath: pistols, bayonets, canteens, and uniforms of soldiers – some with bullet holes in them.  We went to the Elkhorn Tavern on Telegraph Road where in 1838, thousands of Cherokee Indians had walked on their forced exodus from ancestral lands in Georgia and the Carolinas – the infamous “Trail of Tears.”  Twenty four years later, the lawn and road in front of the tavern were strewn with the bodies of young soldiers in blue and grey uniforms.  I wandered over to the big stone fireplace, and shook my head in amazement, thinking about what kinds of meals have been cooked within that hearth over how many generations, what amazing things those stones had seen, and what has been said in conversations shared within those walls.  That’s the sort of thing that gives me “goose bumps.”

And so, at least for someone like me, something very large and very ancient stirs from its slumber in the depths of my soul when I hear these words put down thousands of years ago by some unknown person of faith:

“Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”

When I see photos of my great-grandchildren smiling with the joy of youthfulness, there are moments when I imagine them, years hence, studying their own great-grandchildren, and in an instant I am transported back to my own childhood, and the smells and sounds of my neighborhood, and I find myself strangely connected to other generations, past and future — to my grandparents as toddlers, to my grandchildren as elders,  and to, in the words of the ancient Psalmist, “a people yet unborn.”

Those are fleeting moments, but they are magical.  Most of the time, I’m not thinking about the future, or the past, because today has problems enough of its own.  You know what I mean.  It’s the garage door opener not working, the project deadline looming, and the appointment at 3:00 that’s got to be over in time to get to the grocery store because dinner is early to make time for the evening meeting, and . . . on it goes.

So on this Sunday morning in April in the year of our Lord, 2024, I’d just like for all of us to stop for a minute, and draw a breath, and put ourselves into a “context” — see ourselves as we are, links in a very, very long chain.  And I’d like to ask you: what are you proclaiming to a people yet unborn?

Your life is a story, and it’s written in the hearts of the people you touch.  That story becomes part of the oral tradition of a family and of a people.   Like it or not, you are speaking to those who come after you; you are speaking to them with the substance of your life.

There are so many examples around of this dynamic.  People are telling stories with their lives all the time.  Just pick up the newspaper and you can read about them.  Nicolás Maduro, the president of Venezuala has been described as an autocrat and a dictator.  According to estimations by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch, under Maduro’s administration, more than 20,000 people have been subject to extrajudicial killings and seven million Venezuelans have been forced to flee the country.  He has been accused of crimes against humanity including murders, thousands of extra-judicial executions, arbitrary detentions, and torture.1  Maduro has made a statement with his life.

On the other hand, there was “Fanny.”  Fanny was an elderly woman in a church that Dadgie pastored years ago.   She was the matriarch of her large clan (she herself had nine children), although “matriarch” was a pretty highfalutin’ word for someone in a family that poor.  They had enough to eat — at least they had milk and bread.  They had milk because one of Fanny’s brothers had a farm with a few cows.  They had bread because Fanny baked six loaves every other day.

Fanny was a church lady.  She had her own spot in the third pew from the front on the right side, and she was there every Sunday.  Her grandfather founded the church.  But then, this isn’t a story about her ancestors; it’s a story about Fanny.

How Fanny lived was evident in how she died.  You see, Fanny was absolutely aware of the presence of the Spirit, and the goodness of the Lord in her life, but she felt that she herself was a poor follower of Christ, because she just didn’t know enough.  She didn’t feel that she understood the Bible, and didn’t know all the things that educated folks knew about religion and such.  So, she read.  She read the Bible, and she read every book about the Bible she could get her hands on.  But it never seemed to her that it did any good.  She still just never quite “got it all.”  By the time she was in her 80’s she had read more books, and more books about the Bible, and more of the Bible itself than just about anybody in town.  But she considered herself grossly uneducated.

Fanny approached every day as a gift.  She approached it with a smile, and with an eager spirit, and a loving heart.  And all those smiles, and all that eagerness, and all that love was repaid again and again.  Everybody loved Fanny.  And everybody felt just a little closer to the Lord when they were around her.

She didn’t die quickly.  The disease spread over her body in the course of months.  She lost weight, then she lost strength, then she lost the ability to walk.  In the last days, as people gathered around her bed to talk with her, she still gave them that warm, loving smile, and did her best to brighten their spirits.  She was at peace, you know.  She knew the Lord would hold her in everlasting hands, and never let her go.

One of the prominent men of the community, a banker, came to Fanny’s bedside and talked to her for an afternoon.  As he sat there next to her, talking about the little church, and Fanny’s big family, he couldn’t help remembering a Bible study group he was in with her once upon a time.  He had asked the question, “If people ask, ‘Are you a Christian?’ what should we say?”  A little tear started to well up in the corner of his eye as he remembered her answer.  “I don’t know what anybody else would say,” she said hesitantly, “but as for me, I don’t think I’m doing a very good job at it, but I’m just doing the best I can.”

Fanny’s daughters and granddaughters drove in from different towns during the last weeks, taking turns staying with her night and day.  They wouldn’t have thought of doing otherwise.  Pretty much all of her children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren went to church.  They were a powerfully faithful family.  But then, this isn’t a story about Fanny’s descendants, it’s a story about Fanny.

When she died, the money flooded in to the little church in her memory from all corners.  It was used to build a library of religious books — a place for other little girls who didn’t think they knew anything about the Bible to sit and read.

I share with you Fanny’s story as a loving act of sacred “journalism.”  It’s a report, of sorts, on what David Watson refers to as the “message of good news. . . [that’s] still unfolding.”  And that’s our calling, I believe, as Watson said, to be journalists rather than salespeople.  Journalists, because the good news is a story to be told, not a commodity to be sold.

And whatever your life is about, hatred or love, violence or faithfulness, you are, by your living of these days, telling a story.  It’s a story with a context.  We tell it in the context of our ancestors and our descendants.  We tell it as brothers and sisters of Christ.  We tell it as children of Abraham.  And, as Paul made clear in his letter to the Galatians, that lineage is not in blood, but in faith.  We are all children of Abraham.

Anyone who tries to count the stars of heaven and knows that they represent the spark of Divnity in the lives of generations too numerous to count is a child of Abraham.  Anyone who learns how to gently smile through the pain of dying because of the certainty of being held in the loving arms of the Lord of Life is a child of Abraham.  Anyone whose eyes well up at the bedside of an old woman with the overpowering recognition of, as Jacob said to Esau, “seeing the face of God” in her is a child of Abraham.

In the end, for those who live by faith, all of our stories are the same story.  And it is this: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever! . . . Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord,  and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.”


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