When you live on land bought and cleared by your great-grandfather more than 100 years ago, it gives you a connection to the past that others may not so easily enjoy. Such is my great privilege.
Someone once said to a family member: “You mean Ferrell just had that land given to him. He didn’t have to pay for it.”
“Right,” said the family member.
So I reside as a blessed man. I enjoy a gift that was given to my grandmother, then to my father, and then to me. I have never seen it as “my” land, and I really haven’t seen it as John Henry’s land. It’s God’s land.
My house sits in the middle of a hay meadow, and the front porch faces east with a view of the meadow, a pasture, and then thick woods. It is pretty much a classic pastoral scene. But what people who don’t live in such places may not understand is that a classic pastoral scene does not just happen on its own. If we did not cut the weeds and bale the hay then the bushes, briers, and thorn trees would take over. The scene would be ruined, at least for several decades until trees retook the land from the less noble flora.
One could say that the more natural state would be better. I surely love the parts of our land that have not beencleared and cultivated. But while better in some senses, it would not be as productive. Cleared and fertilized land can grow crops or, in our case, grass for cattle and hay. So there are two sides of the coin in land management.
I sat on my porch the other day contemplating such things after reading a book. I wondered what the land where I live looked like when Jesus lived. I suspect that the earlier ancestors of the trees that now populate the place grew unmolested in a broad wilderness. Native Americans roamed the land in the more recent past, but I have no idea if they were here 2,000 years ago.
My thoughts went back in time because of what I had been reading — Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr. Near the end, he talks about our connection to the past and what that means for the present.
Every Christian has a history with God. He or she remembers past successes and failures in seeking to relate to and follow God. And the believer is part of the church, which also has a history. History gives us connections and has an impact on our present, which is the point in time at which each of us must act and decide. . . . [T]he time of decision is neither past nor future, but the present,” Niebuhr said. “What ought I to do now?”
The answer comes in the present moment but is informed by the past and the future. “Each present moment in which we decide is filled with memories and anticipations,” Niebuhr said. We look back, and we look forward. The looking forward points to the consequences of our decisions, and anticipating those consequences accurately is a very detailed and tricky process which often happens very quickly in the mind.
I think of my great-grandfather. Before he cleared the land where I now lived, he had seen his father turn another piece of wild land into usable land. John Henry knew it could be done because it had been done before. But he also had in his mind a vision of what could be — a home place on which to raise a family and to provide for their support.
“Every ‘Now’ is a historical ‘Now,’” Niebuhr said. It grows out of a past and then quickly becomes part of a new past as the moment passes. My great-grandfather’s present became part of my past, and his decisions affect me still.
God is present in all moments, whether or not we acknowledge that presence. There is a consistency, a dependability. Culture, on the other hand, changes constantly. We look back on a history of moments in time, and we see God in them, as well. Some of that history is our personal story; some of it is the story of the church through the centuries. As we look at that broader history we recognize others whose lives have been “made sacred” by the “actions of the one who inhabits eternity,” Niebuhr said.
Those lives inspire us still. They provide us insight and understanding. And in so doing, they help us live for Christ today.
A prayer: Thank you, dear God, for your work in the past. Help us today to give our moments to you in order that you might make them sacred, as well.