I’m no historian, but I have come to love the study of history.
History takes me back chronologically and transports me geographically. It offers glimpses of the shoulders of those we all stand upon. It makes me a witness to far-reaching moments in human history – pivot points that even those living during those occasions were unable to see on account of their extreme closeness. The study of history affords me the chance to bump into great thinkers and wrestle with their significant ideas.
But, of course, history is also filled with frequent tragedy born of blind spots and dumb ideas. It’s this very fact that gave rise to the much-praised idea that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are forever doomed to repeat them.
Take, for instance, the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. After years of drought in every great plain state east of the Rockies and a series of significant windstorms, the topsoil of an area 75% the size of Texas was stripped away and blown as far east as New York City. The devastation to the land and people was beyond comprehension.
At any other time in human history, that same drought and those same winds couldn’t and wouldn’t have touched that topsoil. The sod that had covered it for ages was as much as two-feet thick. Yet since the onset of the great western expansion of the 1880s, a lousy idea had been accepted as a wise maxim and had proved a powerful call to action. That little bit of fool’s wisdom was this:
“Rain follows the plow.”
In 1881 the land speculator and journalist, Charles Dana Wilber, summarized and popularized a US Geological Survey report from a decade prior. He wrote:
“In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet… [and by it] man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling... [For] the raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power or prayer of labor.”
In other words, rain follows the plow.
Of course, from the distance of more than a century, and from a much-improved understanding of numerous sciences as they relate to both agriculture and climate, we can quickly see this for what it is: Manure. Hogwash. Utter foolishness. Arid lands can’t be made verdant by merely turning over the brown sod and exposing the dusty soil below.
So this business of history can show us the foolishness of previous ages and even invites us to relish how far we’ve come. But it also has the ability to show us how little we’ve traveled at all.
This is our frontier religion: God is waiting to shower blessings upon us if only we will unlock those blessings with the right kind of works, and a sufficient quantity of the same.
Several years ago, while on vacation with my wife and children, we stopped into a church for Sunday worship. The message of the day was tightly crafted and frequently communicated the whole service through – from the bulletin to the children’s message to the pulpit. It was this:
“God blesses those who trust in Him!”
In this phrase, I heard echoes of the 1880s and the decades that followed. And I’ve heard these echoes in my own life and in the lives of others since. Our hearts are utterly religious, and this is our frontier religion: God is waiting to shower blessings upon us if only we will unlock those blessings with the right kind of works, and a sufficient quantity of the same.
Yet while I’m learning the foolish lessons of history only to repeat them, Jesus is entering history. Or more precisely, he did enter history several years ago: conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, graduating in life to the arms of the cross as an innocent victim for you and me, and rising to his new and lasting life as a victor who shares his victory spoils with all those he makes his own.
He did not withhold his blessing until such a time as we first offered up the power and prayer of our labors.
Quite the opposite. God the Father showered his Son upon a world already devastated and turned up-side-down, a world dusty with those long-dead: dusty with their death-dealing actions born of stormy and rebellious hearts. Through Christ Jesus, a new wisdom is taking root. It is this:
“The life of the world follows the Father’s showering of Christ Jesus, his Son.”
This is not just the life of the world generically, but my life and your life, all of which follows and flows from God’s gift of Jesus. His work and his prayers labored for us on the cross so that now the resurrected and living Christ Jesus speaks these words to all the frightened sinners and dusty dead he comes into contact with:
“Peace be with you!”
So labor today. And pray. But in both cases, may these activities be your joyous, “Amen,” and your thankful, “Let It Be So:” a glad and easy response to God’s gracious and freeing gift of Jesus for you.