Two weeks from tomorrow is the first day of 2022. As I write this post, uncertainties and anxieties about the existing and new variants of covid-19 continue to cloud the new year outlook. Recently I’ve been reading an excellent book on the first three hundred years of the Christian Church, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Anabaptist historian and theologian Alan Kreider. As the title suggests, a key component of the growth of the Church in these centuries was ‘patience’. Kreider analyzes sermons and writings of such Church Fathers like Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome and others, identifying a common challenge for the place of patience in the life of a believer. And that this quality of patience is reflecting the long-suffering patience in the character of God.
But it is a patience that goes alongside ‘ferment’. It is not a passiveness with no expectation of growth. But a ‘patient ferment’. As Kreider writes, ‘Ferment refers to a mysterious bubbling up of life forces…brewing, but not under anyone’s control. It was uncoordinated, it was unpredictable, and it seemed unstoppable’ (pg. 12). The ferment of growth was in diverse places around the Mediterranean Ocean and Roman Empire. But I was pleased reading Kreider to see that he, unlike many Western mission historians, understood that there was also an ‘engrossing story of the growth of the church in the Persian Empire’ at a similar period. (pg. 3.) In fact in 2007 Kreider had spent several months researching some of this growth (which I have written about in this blog several times), but decided there was too much to include in this book.
This is the patience of history. Recognizing that there has been a long story before our present, and that it involved ‘mysterious forces bubbling up’ that will emerge again, albeit in different forms, in the future. The sheer amount of time humbles us, and provides a corrective to our pretensions of ‘knowing it all’ or imagining that our activity is completely new and original. Most likely, it has been imagined or done before but perhaps in a different way. This long view of history is especially a good corrective to those of us that come from the ‘newer’ nation of the United States of America. On a recent research trip to Oxford, England, I was in a shop looking for Christmas gifts for my family. I asked the lady attending how old the shop was, having not remembered seeing it before. She replied the shop was only a few years old, but the building was over 600 years old!
What are some correctives that come to us from believing in life and history as a ‘patient ferment’? I can think of a few:
- A long view of the sheer amount of years that have gone before us brings fresh perspective on the challenges of today. Though we enter 2022 with the pandemic continuing, as well as other global challenges of mounting climate change and areas of moral decline, it is most likely not the darkest time in history. There have been many challenges in human history before this, and will be again. There are also areas of opportunity for the human family to celebrate that are greater perhaps in history. It depends on your perspective. Hope can arise from a perspective that includes the survival of the human race before, and the faithfulness of God in the mysterious ferment of it all.
- Along with that, the expanse of history brings a humility to our present and future pretensions. Patience is needed as we enter a new year, and understanding the seasons and rhythms of life in the past can help us find that grace.
- I have heard and read some of my fellow followers of Jesus not only lament the state of the nation or world, but also predict that we are in the ‘last days’ and ‘Jesus must be coming soon.’ But as I said above, are things really darker now than they have been before in the last thousands of years? That really depends on your perspective. Many times in the past 2,000 years Christians of some streams have prophesied that the Lord’s return was imminent, only to die without it happening except for them. I have no predictions, but studying history for me has helped to bring (hopefully) an even greater humility about the ‘end times’. Truly, no one knows the hour.
- An understanding of history can help practically in times of crisis at a personal or national level. (or global). I was shocked last year during the election season and aftermath to see how many USA Christians (and others) were duped to believe plain falsehoods about how the election could be overturned. Some of it could have been corrected with some basic understanding of the over two centuries that gone before since 1776 and the aftermath of the American Revolution. Including some more basic understanding of the Constitution.
- As I wrote above, hope can arise in our hearts as we see the past with a long and corrective view. This can be in not only the good events, but the tragic. Because even in the awful things that have happened, we learn that people have been able to go on and not give up. That is true for individuals and also for nations. We will get through this pandemic, as the world has in the past. Whatever challenges we face today personally, there is hope in knowing that as Frederick Buechner writes, ‘The worst thing that can happen to us is never the last thing’. He writes that particularly for followers of Jesus, whatever history has brought us even in the tragic, the last thing we will experience at the end of life will be the loving face of Christ. And that will be the first thing of eternity.
Those reading this may not love and study history like I do. I would not expect that. But perhaps in 2022 you may want to try and read a biography of someone in the past you desire to learn about. Or a history of a particular time period that interests you. It may not become a regular part of your reading or listening, but perhaps it could spark a place of hope, or even correction.