We all want to know where we come from. It binds us to a story beyond our lifetime, giving us a feeling of immortality. For the majority of us in the west, the stories we uncover are tales of immigration and migration, tragedy and suffering, hardship and pain. My family tree is littered with holes, but my great-great aunt had the forethought to write out her memories. I read through them year after year to remind myself of my roots and to learn the lessons of my people as I embody their legacy.
This short memoir written by a distant relative, is the narrative of my people. While incomplete and not filing in the blanks entirely, it gives me something to hold on to. I turn the pages, and feel connected to something larger than myself. Long after I digest the pages, I remember the stories, and share them with my girls, hoping to give them a sense of rootedness. However, I cannot imagine reciting a random sentence or paragraph taken from the bowels of the book, with no regard to context.
The story matters. The whole narrative arc cannot be left out. As I read this family tale, set on the planes of Kansas, a mother of six loses her husband in a tragic accident and is forced to work day and night to care for her babies, the youngest only months old. There was hardly enough food to go around before she lost her husband, and now there is even less. Every night she goes to work and leaves her kids home alone. She worries all night long about the transients (she calls them "hobos") who have been hopping off of trains and breaking into her neighbors' homes. The setting is the turn of the 20th century, before electricity and plumbing and automobiles. It’s the story of a woman’s strength and tenacity to overcome fear and poverty, gender roles and American dreams in order to care for her struggling family.
I cannot pull a quote from this stoic matriarch and expect it to bear any weight without the context of her story. I cannot thumb to a closing sentence about an abundant harvest and expect anyone to understand her joy, not having felt her pain. I cannot tell this story with a string of unrelated sentences and paragraphs. It’s a story, and the parts and pieces matter.
I meet people all of the time who are able to quote a psalm, or a sentence from one of the Apostle Paul’s letters, but cannot tell me what the Bible is about. Too often when we memorize Scripture, it’s done without regard to the surrounding text. If you’re going to take the time to memorize Scripture, make sure you take time to learn the story that surrounds it as well.
There’s context to those verses that we’ve been ripping from the Bible. They fit into a larger narrative about God’s creation, God’s people and God’s Kingdom. There’s a plot and characters and conflict and climax and resolution. It isn’t just about plans for your life, not being given more than you can handle and receiving whatever you ask for. Actually, it’s not about those things at all.
It’s about a God and his creation. It’s about making humans in the image of God, and the image breaking into a million little pieces. It’s about calling a people, and the infidelity of that people. It’s about God’s faithfulness to wait and rescue and lose those people and wait and rescue and lose those people time and time again. It’s about God putting on flesh to live with those people. It’s about Jesus, God incarnate, ushering in a Kingdom that everyone can be a part of building with God on earth. It’s about Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection after death, foreshadowing the resurrection and restoration that’s to come for every one of us. That’s what the good news is about. That’s the gospel. That’s God’s story.
Learn the story first. Memorize the verse second.