Consider: The Generations Long Past

24 07 2010

Consider This: Part One

Remember
the days of old;
consider
the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.
(Deuteronomy 32:7, NIV)

One of my favorite family stories is of my Great Grandfather, Abraham Harder. From the time he was young, he had felt a calling from God to establish an orphanage in Russia. He had a heart for children who didn’t “belong” anywhere and were being passed from home to home during a very difficult period of time in that country, the early 1900s. On the pages of our family memoir (from a self-published book titled “Portraits of the Past”) a little of their story is told,

“In 1906 they purchased some property which included a large house, barn and granary, a garden and some land. Later, a large modern school building was added along with a boys dormitory. Eventually they also purchased another farm for the purpose of training older boys farming, gardening, and shop skills. This was a faith venture! They trusted God for the money needed and for the food. The number of orphans grew from year to year until it reached 80 children, during 1921-22” (18).

Life was so difficult for them. They walked through a severe famine and were, a times, on the brink of starvation; but God always provided for them, just when they needed it most.

The new revolutionary government began noticing the orphanage and forbade my Great Grandparents from teaching “religious instruction” and ordered a communist curriculum. My Great Grandparents refused to comply. So, in 1922 they were told to leave the orphanage and to take only their personal belongings.

I have heard this story many times now and the part that catches me every time is the ending: on the school building, Abraham fastened the word “Ebenezer,” which means “thus far has the Lord helped us.” It is from 1 Samuel 7:12 in the Bible. It was written in large letters, set in concrete, and “When the government took possession of the building, the letters were removed. Yet, in spite of this, the word could still be read, for the letters had been pressed into the concrete” (20).

I love that line. I love that the communists tried to wipe God out of that place but could not, because God was in the very concrete. They would have to actually demolish the buildings (which they eventually did) to hide the truth that God was with Abraham’s family and all those children; and even then they could not because God was in the foundation of their lives and the truth has lived on for generations now.

When I consider the generations long past, even just the ones in my direct lineage, that story continues to speak to me. Has there ever been a time when God has not walked with us? Thus far, no.

My Great Grandfather knew something about conviction and his story can not be told without that character trait. The truth of this, mentors me. I think this is what Deuteronomy is pointing to when it calls us to consider the generations long past; it is the call to glean the lessons of those who came before us for the purpose of mentorship.  What did they do right? What did they do wrong? Everything is a teacher; every story becomes a guide for our own footsteps.

Job 8:8 goes further and says

“Please inquire of past generations, and consider the things searched out by their fathers. For we are only of yesterday and know nothing…” (NIV)

It has a bit of a dig to it, doesn’t it? Essentially it is saying, “You’re just a kid; what do you know?” I don’t like being told, “You really have a lot to learn,” and yet that is exactly what this verse is saying. My tendency is to want to prove that I am all grown up; this verse is saying I am a long way off from that.

The problem is, the mantra of our generation is “don’t look back.” We are about advancement. We are about the next thing. We are about the new and the innovative. We definitely don’t want to be told the same story twice. The Bible takes a completely different approach. The Bible is about slowing down, not speeding up. God laughs at our latest time-saving-life-altering gizmos,

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV)

The Bible calls us to pause, look back and remember. There really are lessons that stand the test of time and we ought to know those things and let them warn us, guide us, comfort us, and compel us.

Who should I be looking to?

  • The lives of the authors and characters contained in the Bible. Learning from the people described in the Bible is like winning the wisdom lottery. There are 66 books loaded with stories of criminals and heroes; love and hate; faithfulness and waywardness; happy endings and horrible endings. I get the inside scoop of what went right and what went wrong and I get to walk away with the lesson and apply it to my own life.
  • The lives of my own family members. Some of who I am has been shaped by where I have come from. Where have I come from? What was important to the people one, two, three generations before me? Who was noble, who was not? Who can I admire, who do I definitely not want to be like? How have they handled the big questions of life and death and family and faith?
  • The “others.” Whether you find it in a great memoir, or in a conversation with a stranger, we ought to see ourselves as “gleaners,” always looking for the “moral of the story” in the stories we hear.

This whole process though, requires something of me.  I need to step out of my self-contained life and want to consider what there is to learn from generations long past:

1. By being open

Am I open? Or am I a know-it-all? If I don’t think I have anything to learn from someone older than I (living or not) then I will get exactly that: nothing. But if I believe that someone else has something to say to me (this requires humility), I am well on my way.

2. By being grateful

If I am living in a world that I believe is of my own making then I shouldn’t even try to learn something from the generations long past. But if I believe I am indebted to the past, then I will approach this process of listening and learning with a spirit of gratitude, knowing I am building my life on the backs of others.

3. By being patient

I am so impatient.  I have realized that the internet has done something to me: it has made me a “scanner.”  When I am looking for information, I am looking for a summary of everything. I want whatever it is to get to the point.  But learning from those who have walked before us is a slow brew. We need to let it be that. One of my pet-peeves at funerals is when a person’s life is summarized with 10 quick facts. How can that be? That person lived for 80 years and all we can  say is where they came from, who they married, how many kids they had and a little about their profession? Tell me their life lessons; no one’s story is ordinary, so tell me what made them unique. I want to know. Again, can’t we sit a while and talk?

5. By asking

People have things to say, but no one asks. How many opportunities have you had to tell your story thus far? I need to learn the art of asking questions because, logically, it’s the only way I will get answers.  Don’t just wonder about things in your head; ask.

What is a lesson I walk away with from my Great Grandfathers story? It’s this: would I have words that I would stamp into the concrete? When I leave the building, what’s there that wouldn’t easily be erased? I have my own verse, in keeping with my Grandfather’s convictions, and it has kept me clear for many years now:

“Stand firm. Let nothing move you.
Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,
because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain”
(1 Corinthians 15:58 NIV)

I hope I do this; I hope this is the thing that outlives me.

What have you learned from considering the generations long past? I would love it if you would join the discussion and leave a comment in the box below…

— Teresa Klassen

Afterword: I will be writing on the theme of “Consider this” for the next few weeks, leaving room for deviations if inspiration strikes 🙂

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