Learning the Lessons of History: Old First E-pistle 09.26.13

Learning the Lessons of History: Old First E-pistle 09.26.13

Someone after last Sunday’s sermon thanked me for the message. That’s always nice.

He explained that the Judeans’ failure to recognize their sins leading up to the destruction and captivity at the hands of the Babylonians compared to situations facing the United States today helped him think. Or even wonder whether we are adequately assessing the contemporary challenges and risks before us.

He went on to ask how I had thought to make that comparison. The larger part of that answer is that’s what preaching is about. Looking for how the Bible can illustrate or interpret our current situations, questions, and choices.

But his question reminded me of something else that, preparing the sermon, I hadn’t been conscious of, but may have been playing a role behind the scenes. The Spirit works in mysterious ways.

I had recently come across a cutting of an article from the June 2003 Harper’s Magazine. “The last Americans” by Jared Diamond is about the collapse of the Mayan culture in the Yucatan peninsula. (It’s been posted on-line by Mindfully.org if you wish to read it.)

Diamond points out how Mayan society — and other civilizations around the globe and across the ages — have succumbed to various combinations of environmental degradation and climate change because they have occasioned declining trade with neighbors also affected by environmental problems, and aggression from enemies taking advantage of the resulting weaknesses.

Diamond points out that peak population, wealth, resource consumption and waste production create greater, and often unsustainable environmental effects… to the breaking point where impact outstrips the environment’s ability to absorb or mediate debilitating damage. Diamond believes this relationship explains why so many societies’ decline so swiftly after their heydays.

But, perhaps, even more relevant to helping me with the comparison of the Judah and contemporary North America was Diamond’s point about how the combination of undermining environmental, economic and factors were often compounded by cultural attitudes preventing the society (even those in power) from perceiving or resolving the crisis. It’s a sobering insight.

But in this E-pistle, I don’t mean to continue last Sunday’s sermon or the “weeping prophet’s” warning. Instead, I want to offer the hope that comes of mining our history for resources to help with our present.

Earlier in the week, when we ended up with the unexpected disappointment… finding ourselves empty-handed vis a vis a new Music Director — an even deep disappointment for the search committee that has worked so hard since early summer — I appealed to Old First’s recent history finding a pastor for solace and hope.

Geneva had left for a position on the Conference staff. Pastoral searches almost always take more time than congregations can really afford. Old First’s experience exaggerated that truth. The twists and turns of those extended travails aren’t the lesson I mean to point to. Instead, in hindsight, I’d suggest, we can deduce, despite all the difficulties, even heartbreak, those series of delays, even detours, also meant that in time, Old First and I were both looking for a new ministry opportunity at the same time. And the Conference minister saw a chance to introduce us through the Covenant Ministry.

In other words, just because something we had hoped for or were counting on didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t have something in store for us. Good news for all divorced people and everyone else who knows what it means to need a second chance.

In another conversation this week, a personal one with a young adult friend, I found myself — like some wizened Asian sage —  advocating for growing older. I explained, it’s true one gets more gray hair and wrinkles and pounds alongside less energy. But, despite or maybe even because of all that, life becomes more interesting, richer even… if only because one has so much more history and learnings to reference and work with in each new situation. Every day’s new, and yet, resourced and deepened by all the days that have gone before it.

Which is all to say that history isn’t so important to me in and of itself. I admit, passing the guides in Old City decked out in colonial garb always makes me chuckle. And I’m skeptical about longing memories of better times. Ok, I can get nostalgic for when my sons were little. But I’ve never been that interested in going back in time. And the recreations of Plymouth Planation or Renaissance Fairs leave me cold.

For me, what is important is what we can take from history. Or what it brings us. What can the lessons of the past teach us for living today? How can the sufferings and struggles, and the successes, of past generations make our lives richer.

This Sunday, we are celebrating 286 years of Old First faithfulness (and maybe some less than faithful times too).

We’re welcoming Geneva back as our Pastor Emerita. She’s preaching on a passage from Jeremiah where God, against all sense, directs the prophet to buy property in a land that is about to be overrun and conquered. Her sermon title is “Real Estate,” and I think she’s going to say something about the buildings and properties Old First has built and bought, sold and abandoned, and reclaimed over the years. And maybe opportunities missed too.

Come join us, as she invites us and leads us in listening to our history for what the Spirit is saying to the church…

See you in church,


P.S. Remember: after worship, we’re having a potluck. Bring a dish to share, and plan to meet someone new and make some history.