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Surprises from History

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Surprises from History

Tom Elenbaas

About 10 years ago I had the privilege of having breakfast at Angelo's in Ann Arbor with Dr. Calvin Seerveld, Professor Emeritus in Philosophical Aesthetics at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, and his wife. I wanted to talk about his understanding of Christian aesthetics and the role of the church in the development of the Christian imagination and cultural engagement. It was a fascinating conversation, and the famous raisin toast is worth a visit anytime you're nearby. I've appreciated his thinking and writing, especially Rainbows for the Fallen World, but also many of the pieces from In the Fields of the Lord. In one particular passage, Seerveld is reflecting back upon his own life and actions and he says the following:

“I learned from Augustine’s Confessions (VII,5,7-10) long ago that our most important decisions are often almost involuntary because we are led to take certain openings by following a heart-deep vision in the mysterious recesses of human willing hid under the layers of one’s limiting, congealed societal matrix... But one’s history is full of surprises.” [“The Informal Fantastic Life of a Believing Fishmonger’s Son: Autobiographical Vignettes” by Calvin Seerveld, In The Fields of the Lord.]

Isn't it simply true that we are in so many ways the product of our histories, our genealogies, and our cultural matrices? We live from our depths, and out of the recesses of the deep come lives lived, words spoken, and actions acted. [cf. Luke 6:43-45] We have learned from experience - both painful and joyful - that we inherit historical surprises in morality, social constructs, and world-views. We can often feel stuck by our genetics and social construction - wishing that deconstructing a life was a simpler task.

The bad news: generational sins have personal and societal effects to at least the 3rd and 4th generation, a kind of moral DNA passed on through the "congealed societal matrix." [cf. Deuteronomy 5:8-9] That makes parenting scary and recovery difficult and personal ownership not just personal but familial and societal and cultural.

The good news is even better though: generational sins are not unbearable or unbreakable prisons, but instead the labors of love can melt the chains of dysfunction that drive us all the way back to a brother who kills a brother over a bowl of soup and pushes all of us east of eden. [cf. Deuteronomy 5:10 and Genesis 4:1-16] We are not condemned to eat the grapes of wrath (ok, ok, enough with the Steinbeck references), we are invited to the communion cup of blessing where the blood crying out from the earth [Genesis 4:10] is redeemed by the blood of a selfless, spotless sacrifice. [Hebrews 10:8-10]

Seerveld is right. Our actions are often almost involuntary, as if we are led by forces that are not visible to the naked eye but are deep in the recesses of our hearts, hid in the deep recesses of human willing. But what if the heart could be reshaped and reformed and renewed and remade? What if the deep dark recesses of the sinful human heart could be replaced through a heart transplant, complete with the ability to will things we couldn't before and break that pattern and power of cancelled sin. [He breaks the power of cancelled sin/ he sets the prisoner free] I believe it's possible. I believe that God has done just that. [cf. Ezekiel 11:19]

To be real, spiritual formation is hard because it is surgery on these deep recesses, and there's no Da Vinci Robot for that. It takes the hard, personal work of looking inward, being honest, facing the demons, breaking the power of the past, overcoming addictions, and setting a new course for a new generation. Spiritual formation hurts, but it's worth it - not only for you and me, but possibly for a thousand generations.



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