In this Psalm we are invited to take time to recognize the goodness of God, God’s care and provision. My first thought as I begin to meditate on these words as an individualistic American are being thankful for the me’s and my’s – my job, my wife, my family, my apartment, the food on my table. I feel my heart swell with gratitude at the many gifts individually I have been graced with by a loving God. Truly I have more than I could ever earn or deserve even in those moments in which I am frustrated at how far my life is from my own ideal!
But as I meditate on this text I am quickly struck by how different the focus of this call to gratitude is than my own initial listing of things for which I am grateful. The Psalmist almost immediately turns her or his gratitude toward the gift of covenant, a covenant in which they are included but which predates them. They see their relationship with God rooted in the many relationships with God that went before them. They believe, they trust, they follow, because of the many who have found and followed the winding path of faith before them. So she or he thanks God for Joseph, for his struggles and exploits, and for God’s provision through Joseph and through their many forebears of faith.
What does it look like to begin to open our awareness to how our faith and the grace given to us in Christ comes to us through a covenant that predates us, made available to us through networks of relationships which pave a way for us generations before we enter the scene?
I was invited into such an awareness recently in two ways.
First, as United Church of Christ minister in North Carolina, I was invited to our 50th anniversary Southern Conference gathering. Although the Congregationalist and Reformed traditions which make up the United Church of Christ go back as far back in America as our first European settlers, my denomination is less than a century old and the conference I’m in just turned 50. At this gathering, time was taken to remember the history of this tradition here in the Carolinas and Virginia. Stories were told of settlers from Europe touched by a message of grace that inspired them to create new visions of and communities of faith bound not by ritual or creed, but deep and abiding faith here in my home state. I heard about great leaders like the southern Abolitionists of the Congregationalist churches who helped found churches and schools here in the Carolinas and who helped both fight for an end to slavery before the Civil War and, after the Civil War, helped fight against the rising tide of racism that would birth Jim Crow as advocates for justice. I heard about James O’Kelly, the founder of the Christian church movement who was a Revolutionary-era abolitionist and preacher in NC & tide-water Virginia whose preaching helped inspire both historically white churches centered on grace but also a movement among freed slaves that birthed a unique movement of faith in the black church. I heard how these many strands of faith heard the call to lay aside denominational infighting and seek reconciliation in Christ over 50 years ago, uniting historically English-speaking churches, historically German-speaking churches, and historically black churches in living memory of two wars with Germany and at a time when this region of the south was fighting over whether people of different races could sit at the same lunch table. We heard how answering that call to reconciliation with “yes” helped inspire a community of churches that spoke up against racist policies here and across this nation, that spoke up for worker’s rights, that advocated for women’s rights, and that led the fight for LGBT equality all while many southern churches were unable to speak up with such a bold voice. I was reminded by hearing those stories, sometimes by those who had lived them out firsthand, that my own faith as one who feels Christ saying that to be with Jesus is to be for justice is a gift I receive not alone, but through the witness of such ones who went before me.
Secondly I was reminded of this through one of my classes at graduate school as a part of work to become either a mental health counselor or pastoral counselor. My family therapy class asked us to do a multi-generational genogram, charting stabilizing and de-stabilizing forces in our family. Having done this before with just a focus on damaging cycles in my family history, I was struck by gifts of grace which have shaped by me in life-giving ways going back many generations. I noticed how I am not the first preacher in my family, but my grandmother’s grandfather John Moore was a Free Will Baptist preacher. His example set the stage for her to experience faith as a life-giving thing which inspired her to get an education, unlike many women in her day and age. She went to East Carolina and become a teacher. It inspired her to raise my mother to pursue higher education and a career against the pressures of misogyny I already had traced in my family history, and to tell a little boy she used to take walks with about both the power of faith and of education to transform our worlds. I saw so many gifts I’ve encountered in my own life of faith as growing out of seeds planted generations before.
Seeing our relationship with God as not just the personal “me and Jesus / we’ve got our own thing going / me and Jesus we’ve got it all worked out” which the old Gospel hymn sang about but also as flowing from a covenant that predates us and will outlive our presence on this earthly sphere is humbling. It is a part of what theologians talk about when they describe prevenient grace, a sense that God’s liberating and life-giving love comes unasked for at the start of our lives, before we could even begin to seek God out. It also reminds me of the need to honor those imperfect folks who came before, recognizing my relationship with God as a gift I learned of and embraced through other’s example.
It challenges me, too, to think about in what ways I am laying these seeds in other’s lives. Whose lives am I taking time to touch with love and grace, weaving into the pattern of their lives an inheritance of grace-filled life-giving faith and love? How am I shaping my community for the future in ways that will leave others communities closer to the shalom and peace Christ & the prophets point toward?
Seeing our private relationship with Christ as a gift of covenant invites us to also see ourselves as shapers of and continuers of this covenant. We are called in the face of a fearful world that at times seems to seek to erode and tear down such life-giving paths, to threaten the very existence of this covenant, to not surrender to fear but move forward in hope to continue the work of mending our world and letting our lives light the paths others who follow after us will walk.
Let’s continue that covenant work together.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!
Your progressive redneck preacher,