Who we are and where we came from

In a conversation with someone I do not know well, a reference was made to Montana. Having grown up in Montana, my attention was struck and I asked a few questions. Before long, I realized that the person with whom I was speaking was born and raised about 30 miles from the place where I grew up. Suddenly we had a lot that we could talk about. It is a common question that comes in many forms, but when we become interested in other people, we often end up with some form of “Who are you and where did you come from?”

When I tell people that I am a pastor, a question that often comes is, “How long have you been doing that?” There are several different ways that I can answer that question. I have been serving 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota for nearly 25 years. I have been an ordained minister serving full time as a pastor since 1978. I was called as a supply preacher in 1973 and served internships in a church during my seminary experience. But in a sense, I’ve been doing church much longer than that. Members of my confirmation campaigned for and received positions in the church when we were 14 years old. I served a term as deacon of our congregation at that age. I was baptized as an infant. I went to church camp for the first time when I was less than two months old. My parents were members of and regular worshipers at church before I came onto the scene.

I have a friend and colleague whose father was serving our church when I was born and my mother was doing some part time nursing in our local hospital when she was born. When asked how long we’ve know each other, I sometimes respond, “since before we were born.”

There are a lot of ways to tell our stories. I’ve lived in South Dakota for nearly 25 years. Before that I lived in Idaho for 10 years. Prior to that I lived in North Dakota for 7, Chicago for 4 and Montana for 21 years. To be specific, I lived in my home town for 17 years and my college town for 4. For a very long time, when people asked me where I was from, I answered “Montana.” That doesn’t tell my whole story.

I was the second child born to my family of origin, but the fourth to become a part of that family because my parents adopted before they had children born to them. I’m the middle child of seven, but my mother delivered only three babies. My folks kept adopting after they had the last child born to them. I am the middle kid, but the oldest son. That doesn’t tell my whole story.

As a result, it should come as no surprise to us that our people have had many different answers to the question, “Who are you and where did you come from?” Perhaps the most ancient answer to that question that we know is a story that goes, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Deuteronomy 26:5b-9) Apparently we told that story so many times that it became a kind of liturgy that was said when gifts and tithes were made at the temple. It is a great story, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of who we are and where we came from.

In 589 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II laid siege to Jerusalem. The conflict ended with the destruction of the city and its temple in the summer of 587 or 586. Some of the survivors were hauled off in exile to Babylon. It was there, at a dark time in our history that they encountered the stories of others who were quite different from us. Those people told fantastic stories of multiple gods. They even had a long poem about human mortality and the eternity of gods. At that point in our story, our people had become staunchly monotheistic. They didn’t like the fact that their children were being taught a poem with multiple gods. Somewhere around the time, our people began to tell a different story about who we are and where we came from. In this story the origins of the universe are addressed, as had bene the case with the stories of our captors. We started to tell our story that began, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Meanwhile, some of our people continued to live in Jerusalem under the government of the conquerers. They tried to maintain their way of life, language and religion, but they too sensed pressures on their culture. Their children were being taught strange stories by those in power. They were being exposed to ideas with which their parents disagreed. A story arose among our people that began, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord] God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.”

When some of the exiles returned the two stories were put together, but they don’t read as a single story. Those two stories eventually got placed together at the beginning of a book that is simply known as ‘beginnings,” or Genesis. It tells part of our story. But it doesn’t tell all of it.

Over the years, we have found a lot of different ways of answering the question about who we are and where we have come from. None of our answers are complete. There is always more to the story. Those who cling to a single line from one of our stories or claim to understand everything because they have read part of the story still have much to learn. In that we can be drawn together because we all have much to learn.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!