How forgetting church history can mutate the future
Did Not Know Joseph (Day 26 of A Simple Lent) | Thursday
To understand our church history, we should look no further than the move from Genesis to Exodus. While it certainly doesn’t explain the history itself, it reveals that human tendency to lose sight of who we are and where we were the further from that world we get.
The later chapters of Genesis, we recall, deal with Jacob’s 12 sons, particularly Joseph. For it is in his being sold into slavery and finding himself in Egypt which serves as the surprising salvation of the family – of the whole nation of Israel.
The greatest surprise in the story is that the slave, Joseph would rise to second-in-command of the mighty Egypt, saving not only his own people, but the whole world. If you were looking for a hero story, you really don’t need to go much further than that.
The story also shows us some surprising reversals which will lead to reversals to the reversals in Exodus. Joseph’s rise is one. The affection Pharaoh shows to Jacob (Israel) and to his family, the generosity shown the Hebrew strangers, the sharing of power with Joseph and property with his family, and perhaps most especially, the enslavement of the Egyptian people for their inability to ration.
It is this last element which becomes the most significant reversal of fortune in Exodus.
Forgetting the Past
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’
I love the phrase “who did not know Joseph”. It describes the loss of relationship, the loss of institutional history and memory with a profound nod toward intimacy. The Pharaoh of Joseph’s time knew Joseph. Because Joseph knew his heart, interpreted his dreams, and shrewdly protected his people. This relationship is now long gone and the descendants of Joseph have profited well from the relationship and the Pharaoh’s descendants have less so.
The Pharaoh’s people aren’t hurting, of course. They are no doubt fine. The famine is long gone. But when the king looks at the Israelites, he doesn’t see friends who helped save us. He sees an enemy in their midst; outsiders outstaying their welcome. This would be a problem itself. But these concerns seem to be mixed with paranoia and a wicked ego.
That we can read what happened and know what happened does not mean the people can see it. Much like the grandchildren who were decades from being born when their grandparents founded a business with sweat and $100 in their pocket. Stories of family businesses crumbling because they are removed from the experience of starting the thing are numerous. Labor unions also make this same argument: our detachment from our history means we don’t know the struggle.
And that lack of understanding leads to less than shrewd decisions.
Church History and a Mutated Future
For many of us, memories of a time only a few decades ago is not so far away. A time when churches were full and children were always running around. Times full of programs and expectation. And we look at these times with such eager fondness and the unending hope to restore this long-gone moment.
And our churches are full of this nostalgia and memory of the past that it is driving us crazy!
Of course, I never knew such a time, born more than a decade after the end of the hay day. Those happy times were replaced with increasing cynicism and anxiety and all manner of attempts to change the future: to change the course we are on to somehow reclaim a past I’ve never known.
All of this nostalgia and attempt to change the future is based on a forgotten past. A past which preceded those salad days in the 1950s and ’60s. We are operating from a false sense of church history, divorces from its earlier past. A church history of much smaller institutions before the Baby Boom, before the post-war euphoria of optimism and thankfulness. A history of a church of far less significance and power in the world. A time before “In God we trust” was put on our currency and “under God” was put in the Pledge of Allegiance in the midst of the Red Scare and demonization of Communism.
Those halcyon ’50s and ’60s, remembered so fondly, were not universally wonderful, if we’re being honest.
Our church of today, so unlike that age of half a century ago, is much more like our 1920s. Unsurprisingly, so is our economy.
The demographics of the church mirror the church of a century ago. The levels of church attendance and markers of secularism are actually quite similar.
The one difference is that we had the boom ’50s and ’60s. We built great big education wings which we have to heat and we built over our green space or our parking lots.
And we remember not having to evangelize to bring the people in and our children always had church friends.
Demographically, we are replaying our church history, but experientially, we are charting new territory.
For those of us who are into the Spirit and claim Jesus is Lord, that is actually good news.
It means we aren’t stuck with repeating the past, our rose-tinted memories, or a mutated present, but we can actually see what that lost relationship actually means. We can see, for instance, how the fear and paranoia of the Pharaoh is transformed into abuse and murder. We can see how the lost intimacy with Joseph’s saving grace, his GOD, his otherness, provided a greater sense of a divinely-inspired love for all of humanity.
This is how we can know where we’re going. Why we’re following Jesus to Jerusalem. Why Jerusalem is also our destination. Why it isn’t only about being nice and having an idyllic life now, restoring the idyllic and misremembered glory days. Why it is also about service and sacrificial love; mercy and great hope the full embodiment of the Christ in us.
Service that takes the all of us and all of us to fulfill. With mercy and grace. Today and tomorrow.
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This week’s homework is to find how to best embody a life of vocation.
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