Wednesday 15 January 2014

Seeing History

This article was originally published in Christian Courier, Issue 2971, October 28 2013.

One of my junior high teachers did something that would never be allowed today. He brought a rifle into the classroom, telling us that studying history was like lining up the sights on a rifle. History was the rear sight lining up with the front sight of the present to give aim for shooting into the future.

Heritage is that which is received not by merit, but by reason of birth. We are recipients of a rich heritage. Many things have been passed down to us as a gift, but we live in a culture of the present.

“What can I have now?”

“Why does the past matter?”

With this column, I hope to stimulate reflection on your past to help you see the present more clearly, and thus to move into the future.

Family heritage

In June my wife and I explored part of our heritage by traveling around the Netherlands. We took a week to visit the “tribal villages” of our ancestors, looking for names such as Ditmar, Griffioen, Wolthuis, Van Garderen, Hendriksen, Westendorp, Bakker and Polma. We experienced how small the Netherlands is and how interconnected towns and villages are. We saw changing heritage in church buildings that had switched from Catholic to Reformed to museums.

I stood in the pulpit of the church in Ulrum where my Grandpa Wolthuis attended, where Wolthuis family members had been organists for 200 years, and where the history of the Christian Reformed Church began in the Afscheiding (Separation) of the Gereformeerde from the State Hervormed Church in 1834. Here I experienced both the sense of interconnectedness to the past and the sorrows of disconnections. How are you rooted?

Church heritage

Recently I preached at the 50th anniversary of Princeton CRC in Kentwood, Michigan, the first church I pastored, 25 years ago. I reflected on that heritage. What is your church heritage? How does it shape you?

Princeton gave me much that has shaped me and my ministry. In my ordination service, the man who had baptized me as a child, the Reverend John Entingh, reminded me from John 12:21 that people need to see Jesus through my ministry. I remember kissing my mother, who was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s, as a sign of love and gratitude for what she had given me.

I remember the graciousness that Rev. John Medendorp showed in accepting me into team ministry. This church taught me how to be a pastor. I learned how to love people in their great variety, passions and needs. I learned to respect difference and difference of opinions. I learned how to do the new in continuity with the old, with a sense of heritage. Pete Zylstra taught me to talk with the congregation as “us,” not “you.”

My experience of the Gospel deepened. I had often thought about the Christian life as doing, duty. I started out preaching about what we needed to do to serve God better. My brother-in-law told me that most of the people listening to a sermon were hurting in some way. They need grace. They need to know that God is graciously at work in the world and in their lives: address their past and offer hope. Not only did they need to know it, I did. I came to know the gospel of grace.

Gifts and challenges

Our heritage gives us certain gifts and also challenges we must address. Our heritage gives us identity. Heritage connects us to the history that has formed us, giving us a context in which to live. Those who ignore their heritage often lose its gifts and suffer its weaknesses without understanding why. Heritage is a foundation for building, the soil into which to sink our roots and gather nutrients for growth. It is important to return to one’s heritage, not for escape or to restrict yourself, but for perspective.

How are your sights lining up? What aspects of your past are helping you aim for the future? Maybe you wrestle with aimlessness. Go back to your heritage. Exploring what has been given to you. Dig into that soil. Visit the sights of the past. For those who are older, share the past with the next generation. Let it shape them. The more we know who and what has shaped us, the more we can shape the future.

Rev. Tom Wolthuis is now, with his wife, exploring how the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto can be an agent of God’s grace to both the church and the academic world, developing its heritage to engage new challenges.