Tuesday, November 29, 2011, 1:50 PM
For many years, I have been researching the history of my families of origin. This has been a slow and painstaking process. My ancestors passed along almost no written records and few photographs. I have memories of stories my grandparents and their siblings told me as a child many decades ago, but I also know that their memories and my own were faulty.
Diane and I have spent countless days visiting cemeteries, libraries, and archives. We have gently cleaned ancient gravestones and repeatedly searched the internet. We have paged through paper and microfilm copies of old newspapers, ships' passenger lists, city directories, and church records, looking for pieces of evidence of the lives of people that I never knew and that no living person remembers.
While some searches did not bear fruit, others yielded unexpected treasure. An exhaustive search of church records from the 1850's finally yielded my great-great-grandmother's maiden name. My great-grandmother's birthplace is listed only on the birth record of her seventh and last child. A word in a directory points to a mid-life career change that was previously unknown. A search of cemetery records revealed that three hitherto unknown children, whose names are not listed on the tombstone, were buried with their parents.
Imagination and empathy help us weave pieces of evidence into stories of lives lived 100-200 years ago, stories of people who lived and died, worked and played, went on long journeys to unfamiliar places, established homes and moved when they needed to.
The Advent texts from Isaiah speak to a people returning from exile. The prophetic words echo clearly through the centuries, offering God's promise of love and hope to a hurting people.
Most of those who returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem were 2 or 3 generations (possibly more) removed from the faith experiences of their ancestors who had been deported. Inspired by God, they painstakingly reconstructed their history as a people using memory and imagination, in much the same way that we might reconstruct the life stories of those who have gone before us.
The returning exiles stood in the ruins of the city where their ancestors had worshipped and tried to see what they saw and feel what they felt. Their study of the stories of their ancestors helped them discover who they were, who God was calling them to become, and how God was calling them to live in their time. They passed their stories on to future generations so that we, too, may read them and hear them and incorporate them into our own stories.
As we hear these Advent texts anew this year, let's remember that people in our time are also in exile. Many folks who have been involved in the church all their lives are feeling a profound sense of disconnect from church as they once knew it. Like the exiles long ago, they stand in the midst of declining institutions and wonder what happened. Others are in exile from their true selves, disconnected from the Christian story and the community of faith, unsure that there is a connection between their yearning and a God who loves and cares for them.
God calls us the church to establish or reestablish the connection between the Biblical Story and our own particular stories. Establishing this connection may be as difficult as trying recreate the story of our ancestors from incomplete records. But God still calls us to do it, to do it together, as we trust in the presence of God's Spirit to create and renew God's people in each generation.
May this season of Advent be a time for us to discover our connection with the past even as we seek to make God's story our own and write it anew in our time.