History as Stewardship of the Past

Over the weekend I had the honor of being the featured speaker at the 125th anniversary banquet for Salem Covenant Church in Duluth, Minnesota. I didn’t write out my remarks and won’t try to reproduce what I said entirely — but I thought I might share some of the ideas at the core of the address. They form the outline of a possible chapter for a new book project I’m working on.

Salem Covenant Church

The idea for the talk came to me earlier this year, when our own pastor preached from the last chapter in the Book of Joshua. That passage starts with history, a recitation of the story of Yahweh and his people from Abram on, and ends with the tribes of Israel renewing the Covenant in the Promised Land. But en route, Joshua delivers this reminder from the Lord:

I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant. (Josh 24:13, NRSV)

While Joshua was speaking of the actual land surrounding him and his audience, it struck me that we might think of the past as well as a “land on which you had not labored” and as “towns that you had not built.” Don’t people at churches as old as Salem continue to “eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards” they didn’t plant?

Quasquicentennials don’t have the cachet of centennials, but they’re important for this reason: while it’s possible to imagine that someone might be alive for both year 0 and year 100 of an institution’s history, that won’t be true a quarter-century later. (“We do have one charter member with us today,” pointed out Salem’s pastor on Sunday morning, “the Holy Spirit.”) Even relatively elderly people celebrating a church’s 125th anniversary must admit that a substantial share of their community’s collective past has passed to them. And, of course, this will be easier and easier to understand at subsequent anniversaries, as the ratio of people’s lived experience of the church to the total lifespan of the church continues to shrink.

All of which should remind us that a church’s past is no one’s property: like everything else, the past is a gift of God entrusted to the care of each succeeding generation.

Salem's church sign this weekend: "125 Years of God's Faithfulness"And so, I suggested, we should consider what it means to be good stewards of the past, just as we’re called be good stewards of our talents, gifts, energies, finances, and of the physical environment. Properly understood, the language of stewardship grows out of the two origin stories in Genesis, in which God gives dominion over Creation (not exploitive, tyrannical power, but responsibility) to those created in his image and places Adam in Eden “to till it and keep it.” But while I think most Christians have some sense that they are responsible for the care of created space — land, water, air — and all that lives in it, I think we forget that time is also part of Creation.

I suppose God could have created space without time, but he didn’t. Right off the bat, we get one day succeeding another and then another. “Make a joyful noise, all the earth” (Ps 100:1), says the psalmist, to the God whose faithfulness spans “all the generations” (v 5). Truly, God is both everywhere and everywhen. And nothing can separate us from his love: not time (“nor things present, nor things to come”), not space (“nor height, nor depth”), nor “anything else in all creation…” (Rom 8:38-39).

So again, if the past is part of Creation, then we ought to care for it — not as its owners, but as its stewards. What does that mean, more practically?

First, recognizing that all of Creation, after the Fall, is subject to decay, we stewards of the past must work to preserve it. Not time itself — that would be the most futile erosion prevention project imaginable. But we can preserve what the passage of time leaves behind.

First, churches can invest time, energy, expertise, and money in preserving photos, films, documents, and other physical artifacts. Salem not only has an archives, but under the leadership of Kevin McGrew, a Bethel History alum who directs the libraries at the College of St. Scholastica, it has been digitizing some of its resources through the Minnesota Digital Library project.

screen shot of the Salem Covenant Church page at the Minnesota Digital Library

But better yet — since it’s impossible to preserve all artifacts, or to know which will actually be most helpful in the future — we can preserve the past by sustaining our memories of it. The very act of putting up temporal milestones like anniversaries helps remind us to remember. But it needs to be an ongoing commitment of any community.

Perhaps we might recover some of the oral tradition assumed in the Book of Deuteronomy. How could the people of Israel fulfill that text’s twenty-some commands to “remember” (or “do not forget”)? Simple, sang Moses:

Remember the days of old,
    consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
    your elders, and they will tell you.

But to preserve is not enough by itself. Like anything from the past, artifacts and memories lie inert if we do not make meaning of them. So second, to be a good steward of the past requires interpretation of the past.

Consider the costumed guides who work at places like the San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site: they are called historical interpreters. They take preserved artifacts and memories, and bring them to life in terms that a present-day audience can understand.

As historian Colleen McDannell pointed out in a talk on LDS “heritage religion” a year ago, those interpreters think of themselves as missionaries. Even a Christian church that holds to a very different theology than that of the Latter-day Saints might consider how interpretation of the past can serve their mission in the present.

As another example of historical interpretation, I mentioned Grand Portage, a reconstruction of a fur trading post northeast of Duluth, near the Canadian border, that is run by the National Parks Service. And the history of the National Parks led me to my third point: that good stewardship makes the past inviting.

Entrance to Yellowstone National Park
Licensed by Creative Commons (Randy Watson)

In laying the cornerstone of the gateway to Yellowstone National Park in 1903, Pres. Teddy Roosevelt argued that the “essential feature” of that preserved space was its “essential democracy.” It was created for all people, and had to be welcoming to all. Likewise, what we can preserve of the past does not belong to any individual or group. (Again, it is not owned — it is entrusted.) So it ought to be interpreted in such a way that it is inviting to those new to it.

I think this is particularly difficult for churches. Often perceiving themselves as threatened by change and surrounded by hostility, churches can be tempted to use history to build barricades — to tell stories about themselves to themselves that keep others at a distance. But the healthiest churches recognize that they don’t exist for themselves but for the people in their communities. If they can find a way to tell their story in such a way that it draws in neighbors — and, even better, prompts them to share their own stories — then they are being truest to their mission.

Finally, let’s think about how stewardship of the past forms us. How does it remind us who we are, and whose?

It is with deep gratitude to God and with joy in our hearts that we join together for this week of Anniversary services. (Rev. Carl Janson, Salem’s pastor at its 60th anniversary in 1950)

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has the senior devil Screwtape teach his nephew Wormwood about how humans interact with time. “[M]ake them live in the Future,” advises Screwtape, “Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities.”

Humans ought to focus most of their attention on the Present, implies Lewis (through the unique device of these imagined letters), for it “is the point at which time touches eternity,” when “freedom and actuality are offered” to mortals. But while there is temptation in turning too much to the Past, we do — through the means of preservation and interpretation — “have some real knowledge of the past”; being “determinate,” it somewhat “resembles eternity.”

C.S. Lewis Statue in Belfast
Statue of C.S. Lewis (opening a wardrobe) in his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland – Creative Commons (Genvessel)

And while focus on the Future leads to “fear, avarice, lust, and ambition,” Lewis believes that the Past is essentially bound up with one virtue: Gratitude.

I hope that reading that sentence made at least some immediate sense: it probably surfaced a memory of someone to whom you still feel grateful, even years later. A parent, a teacher, a friend, a healer… God.

One last time: the past is not our possession; we did not labor on this “land.” If we believe that his faithfulness extends from generation to generation, than any encounter with the past ought to teach gratitude to God for his grace.

If we preserve the past, we preserve enormous potential for gratitude. If we interpret the past correctly, we invite new friends to join in our grateful response to God’s grace.

But let’s also admit that the past evokes feelings more complicated than “warm fuzzies.” For a church, for example, a 125th anniversary is an occasion to celebrate — but also an occasion to mourn. It reminds us to remember those who have died since the last such gathering. It revives the hurt feelings and sundered relationships that afflict every faith community I’ve ever known or studied.

I wasn’t really sure how to end this talk on Saturday, so at this point I simply indulged in my love of Swedish hymnody and closed with a tune that seemed apropos. “Thanks for all thou dost provide,” I had us sing together: “for times now but a memory,” “for tears by now forgotten,” “for pain” and “for pleasure.”

But here’s what I should have added, on further reflection:

Stewardship of the past is a stewardship of feelings, not just facts. It is a stewardship of happiness and sorrow, of celebration and regret. In short, stewardship of the past is stewardship of joy, rightly understood.

Writing in Surprised by Joy just before he recalls losing his mother while he was still a child, Lewis defines Joy as being

sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might also equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is. (p. 18)

Good grief — I hope this sounded coherent in person on Saturday night than it looks in print on Monday morning! Clearly, I need to keep refining these ideas as the book project moves ahead. So I’d appreciate any thoughts from readers. Am I on the right track? Does any of this resonate with your experiences of history, memory, and other ways of interacting with the past?

6 thoughts on “History as Stewardship of the Past

  1. This is great – I love finding places to merge the way I think about space and time (after all, modern physics places them on the same continuum!), and the idea of stewarding time as we steward physical things/space has wonderful and challenging implications both for how we think of history and for how we structure our daily existence. Have you read Abraham Heschel’s _The Sabbath_? I highly recommend. Heschel talks about the concept of creating “architecture in time” – for example, thinking about structuring our day or week the way we’d think about decorating a house. I won’t try to explain in detail because Heschel is much better at it than I would be, but the book might be a good reference as you prepare your book chapter. Thanks for the post! -Bekah

  2. Reblogged this on Faith and History and commented:
    I rarely link to other sites or reblog posts by other writers, but this essay by Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz impressed me so deeply that I had to pass it along.–TM

  3. Good grief — I hope this sounded coherent in person on Saturday night than it looks in print on Monday morning! Clearly, I need to keep refining these ideas as the book project moves ahead. So I’d appreciate any thoughts from readers.

    Depends who your readers are, I make it, Chris, and what they are permitted to say. It’s not hard to achieve 100% agreement if conditions are right. In fact, it’s a near-certainty.

    Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. Cheers, Dr, Gehrz. You too, JF. 😉 Rock on.


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