Okay, I feel a little embarrassed about admitting it because it’s such a “retired guy” thing to do, thumb through a shoebox of old pictures. But there I was a couple of days ago, digging through scads of blurry photos in search of a snapshot or two of my sister.
That’s her, along the sidewalk. You can barely make her out, and I wouldn’t have known who it was if my mother hadn’t written her name and mine on the back. That’s me on the other side of the church steps. I’m ten. Feel free to doubt. I could blow it up on our flat screen TV and still not identify either of us.
But I know I was there, and I remember a trip to California when we stopped at Rehoboth, our mission in New Mexico, emphasis on our, a gospel mission among the Navajo people that my father was sure belonged to us, members of the Christian Reformed Church. It was summer. No throng of Native kids were around, but I have blurry memories of stopping there–of the high desert landscape, of round bread ovens at Zuni, of a boxy dining hall just across the compound from this old church.
Just a half-dozen years ago I tramped around that very region on assignment, writing a book about families–Native and Anglo–who, for generations, had been connected, one way or another, with Rehoboth mission, a pointedly “Reformed” idea that had its origins in what we used to call “covenant theology.”
But the book wasn’t supposed to be about theology. My assignment was to interview people, to ask them about their lives and their feelings about this very church and the whole concept of missions and mission schools. Let people tell their stories. Listen to them. Record. Help us remember.
That assignment changed my life, altered its course, simply but certainly brought me into a world I’d known very little about. All those hefty phrases are accurate, even though they feel heavier than they might seem. I didn’t come away from New Mexico any more sinless than I ever was, but listening to all those people made me look out the world around me, around us, in a different way.
A couple decades earlier, and probably twenty years after this family picture was taken, I was seated in a pew at a worship service in that church in the old picture. I was listening to a preacher named James Lont hold forth on a hearty Reformed theme–the providence of God. He was speaking to kids, high school kids, the kids from my suburban Phoenix church among ’em.
I’ll grant you that his topic sounds like a heavy load for high school kids, but it wasn’t. Lont told them that although God’s designs include mysteries none of us are quick or smart enough to determine, they are there. You may not believe this, he said, but there’s a reason you’re here in this chapel today. That’s faith.
I can’t speak for any of the kids we took along for the retreat, but Lont was on the money when it came to me.
I’ve spun a thousand stories in my life, most of them as real as this one. What I’ve come to understand is that one of the characteristics we love about good stories, even if and when we don’t take the time to chart them out or think them through, is a strange, boomerang quality: stories often return to where they came from–or at least we like them to. They are somehow pleasing if they carry some rough-hewn unity, if they double-back on themselves, return to places they once touched.
We like those stories because we like to feel there’s reason and cause and unity in the chaos of our lives. We like to think things have shape and meaning. Like most Native folks, we like our stories shaped in a circle. “People without hope don’t write novels,” Flannery O’Connor once wrote. People without hope probably don’t tell stories either. We like them to hold together. Like this one–that’s me in the picture, almost 60 years ago.
I’m a long way from New Mexico this morning, way up here in cold Iowa mid-winter. But a couple of nights ago I stumbled across this fuzzy photograph no one else could possibly value.
No one but me, but then I’m the kid beside the steps of the Rehoboth church. Even though I’m nowhere close to that old creaky place and spent most all of my life elsewhere, I never really left. That’s the circle. That’s the story.
And for that circle of meaning, good Lord, I couldn’t be more thankful this cold morning.