“To Tell the Old, Old Story…”
Acting Head of Staff
“To Tell the Old Old Story….”
Reflections on My First Theological Question
According to my mom, my first serious theological question was to inquire why Jesus has to be born and die every year. In hindsight, it was a question of liturgical significance rather than historical, but as a young child, I didn’t grasp that. After all, historically speaking, Jesus was born and died once. But as a young child, I was beginning to understand, and be shaped by, the story. The annual remembrance, retelling, and celebration of Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit, was beginning to take root in my life.
Dating to the mid-1800s, “I Love to Tell the Story” is on the list of well-known hymns. Written by Katherine Hankey and put to music by William G. Fischer, the second verse opens with this line:
“I love to tell the story; tis pleasant to repeat, what seems each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.”
To be a Christian is to understand one’s place in a much larger story, the story of God and his people. As Presbyterians, we affirm that we do not choose to be part of this story but instead come to realize that we are part of the story and respond in faithfulness. We belong to God not because we choose to be part of the story but because God is the author of the story and has, in grace and love, written us into the story, and we are active participants in an ongoing story. But, seldom do we grasp all of this, let alone its implications for how we live, after the first reading. For most of us, it takes years and years and years of prayerful reflection to begin to grasp our place in the story and what it means for us.
As a child, my mom read CS Lewis’ classic “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” On the surface, this is a children’s book written by Lewis for his niece and Goddaughter, Lucy. The dedication reads as follows:
My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it, I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result, you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say but I shall still be, your affectionate Godfather,
C. S. Lewis.
When I was in seminary, I re-read Lewis’ classic and true to form, discovered the richness and depth of the story, far beyond what I grasped as a young child or even would have grasped as a teen. What Katherine Hankey and CS Lewis understood is that to find one’s place in the story, one must immerse oneself in the story and must hear it over and over and over again. To discover something new and different each time, and hearing the same story at different times and seasons of our lives makes it take on new meaning. As a pastor who served a congregation for ten years and has now served in mid-council work for almost seven, I’ve had more than one occasion to preach a sermon on a passage that I have previously preached on. It is fascinating (and sometimes terrifying) to look back at a previous sermon and reflect on how different the message will be this time. It’s not because the original story has changed, but rather I’ve changed, and our world is constantly evolving. Yet, God continues to speak and call the church, and its people to new endeavors and challenges, using the exact same texts.
In my current ministry role, I am less immersed in the annual celebration of the liturgical calendar than I was when serving a congregation. And so, it was a unique privilege for me last spring when a dear friend and colleague asked me to cover her Holy Week services. Her beloved grandmother, “Mimi,” was in her final days and hours, and she, understandably, wanted to be with her family. And so, I gathered with the saints of her church as we told that “old old story” – of the last supper and a day later of Jesus’ death on the cross. Then following the silence of Saturday, we proclaimed that God raised Jesus from the dead and that the power of death had been dealt its initial but decisive defeat on Easter morning. These were stories I had told and preached on, year after year. And yet, this time, these stories took on a new depth and richness for me, as it had only been a year since our family had spent Holy Week marking my father’s final days and hours before he joined the church triumphant shortly after sunrise on Easter morning. Was it the same text, the same story, so to speak? Of course. But, in the light of my own experience, this same old story was alive for me in new ways, and God spoke through me that year in new and different ways than ever before.
As we celebrate Epiphany and begin a new year, and we reflect the familiar lines about Mary and Joseph, the newborn baby, the shepherds watching their flocks, and the wise men from afar, may we ever be open to hearing God say something new through this “old, old, story.”