Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, creator of the ends of the earth …” (Isaiah 40:28)
“We forgot who we were,” he said. Then he proudly related his heritage and history. “The missionaries came to us, you see. They had the best of intentions, I suppose. But the completely misunderstood our totems. Our sacred poles that stood all over the landscape of this country side, were etched and carved and painstakingly painted with careful reminders of our history and of the people we came from. But these missionaries, they just assumed our totem poles were a kind of idol worship or something. And they insisted on taking them down, destroying them and worshipping only in the ways that they instructed. So we began to lose our culture – to forget who we were. Thankfully, all that is in the past. We are reclaiming our heritage and learning again where we come from and who we are.”
The history of missionary activity in the world has countless stories of love and courage and blossoming faith. And there are also other accounts like this one. The best of intentions overlooked the rich cultural heritage and the sacred insights of a native people. The need to know our past, to reconnect with where we come from reminds all of us who we are. And remembering this, allows us to see a little more clearly just where we might be going and for what reason.
It is not so much what we are to think, as why we are to be. Doctrine today holds far less consequence than does the sense of purpose. Why we areis more important than what we say. Recognizing the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1 is the ancient affirmation of the man’s concerns in lovely Ketchikan, Alaska. To forget who we are and where we come from, those ancient roots of faith and heritage, leaves us orphans in a world expecting backbone and substance. We live in a time that demands credibility and depth of character, not for what we say but why we are here and how our lives correspond with how we process information. Character, integrity, sense of personhood and place, responsibility and depth of understanding – these are the attributes that carry weight in today’s world.
Listening carefully to Jesus’ critiques of those condemned for hypocrisy, we can hear distant echoes of the same, clear refrain: “White-washed tombs!” This was not a compliment. It was a clear condemnation of people who cared more for protocol than the people they ostracized.
The missionaries who condemned the rich culture of the Tlinget people were not bad people. They were trying their best to be good people, devoted to God and passionate about offering good news to people in need. Yet, we now know the sad damage many of these well-intentioned missionary efforts created. God knows our hearts. And God knows the difficult tension culture often creates for faith.
Known as the “Salmon capital of the World,” Ketchikan also is reported to have the largest collection of standing totem poles. The town was built on a narrow strip of land between the water and hills forested with tall stands of hemlock and spruce. Constructed partly up steep hills and partly on and among pilings and boardwalks, this fascinating place is a great testimony to the courage and determination of its earliest people. The Tlinget forged their living off this lovely but harsh environment.
Creative ingenuity allowed for sustainable living even in these challenging conditions. In the same way, our Christian faith calls for courage in the face of obstacles and determination in the midst of difficulties. Like these first settlers, life can be challenging. And like the creative responses the Tlinget offered the Ketchikan area, so can be our stance.
And even on what appears to be the farthest reaches of civilization, our kind storyteller reminded us again of this eternal truth. The missionaries didn’t have to denigrate and attempt to do away the a rich heritage. Rather, they – we –can see with understanding eyes and proclaim with a faithful heart: “The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.”