History as Christian Testimony

Funerals make historians of us all. The death of a loved one compels us, individually and collectively, to slow down and dedicate ourselves to remembering. Sometimes the task warms our heart, sometimes it rips open old wounds; invariably, it leads us to make meaning of what came before, to reflect on how the past produced the present.

Diana's dad, Gordon Davis
Gordon Davis (1940-2014)

So before my colleague Diana lost her father after a long battle with cancer, it was perhaps a blessing that he could ask his historian daughter to deliver the eulogy at his memorial service. Not only had history offered father and daughter a shared interest, but Diana’s professional training made her the perfect person to narrate her father’s life for the family and friends gathered — some of whom, like me, had never met him. From a lifetime’s worth of data, she discerned turning points and recurring patterns. But also, the small, painterly details that let her flesh out her sketch of a man’s life, to imbue it with warmth and humor.

History is always a kind of resurrection, reviving what otherwise might languish in the dust of the past. Truly, Diana’s father came to life for a few minutes as we shared in her telling of his story.

A story, as she had promised at the beginning of her remarks, that had “the happiest of endings”: having been unreligious most of his life, Gordon encountered Jesus Christ in his last months. That conversion brought to mind, said Diana, words that she no doubt has heard, read, or even taught many times — they’re integral to the Christian intellectual tradition and have been part of Bethel courses for years now:

I came to love you late, O Beauty so ancient and new; I came to love you late. You were within me and I was outside where I rushed about wildly searching for you like some monster loose in your beautiful world. You were with me but I was not with you. You called me, you shouted to me. You broke past my deafness. You bathed me in your light, you wrapped me in your splendor, you sent my blindness reeling. You gave out such a delightful fragrance and I drew it in and came breathing hard after you. I tasted and it made me hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned to know your peace.

Listening to Diana repeat part of Augustine’s opening prayer from the Confessions, I realized for the second time in her eulogy that history can testify to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in ways that I sometimes don’t hear.

Mary Slessor and adopted children
Mary Slessor (1848-1915) and four of her adopted children – Dundee City Library

The first time that thought came to mind was when Diana told of her twins visiting their grandfather. They attend a Christian school here in town and had been researching the lives of heroes of the faith, to be presented as first-person accounts. Diana’s daughter chose Mary Slessor, the great Presbyterian missionary who served in Nigeria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Among her other activities, Slessor helped save the lives of twins abandoned by parents who believed that such a birth was a curse.) As it happened, I had just talked about Slessor in my Modern Europe course — but only in passing, dispassionately, en route to a discussion of the relationship between Christian missions and European imperialism. But in Allison’s hands, Slessor’s life became a powerful testimony to her ailing grandfather. In the midst of his physical suffering and spiritual awakening, he told her that it was best presentation of the Gospel that he’d ever heard.

Now, I think there are good reasons that Christian historians not engage in hagiography. We ought not to suppress uncomfortable truths because they complicate the story we’d rather tell. But perhaps, in my concern for objective truth-telling, I’ve forgotten how powerfully God can speak through the lives of his children, complicated though they may be. Perhaps there is treasure in those “clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (2 Cor 4:7).

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the Earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice!

As Fanny Crosby’s familiar refrain reminded us at the end of the service, God speaks to us still through the Body of Christ — which includes historians who tell the stories of those who have gone before. I don’t know that any of my storytelling will have the impact that Mary Slessor’s testimony had in Gordon’s life, but as the presiding pastor said at the close of his sermon, you should stay in relationships and keep speaking: you don’t know the impact your words might have.

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