Sign welcoming us to Totem Bight State Park
One of our stops in Alaska was Ketchikan, where we visited the Totem Bight State Park. At Totem Bight, we had the opportunity to view many replica native totem poles on a rare non-rainy day in Ketchikan. It was interesting to discover how the totem poles were made (we saw one being carved by a native carver atop Mt. Roberts in Juneau), the kind of wood that was used, and that they would usually last about 100 years, even in that rainy climate. But the most interesting thing I discovered was that many of the totem poles told a story about the beliefs of the native people.
Take this totem pole for instance. “The intent of the carving is to illustrate the mythological conception of thunder. Thunder is created by the beating of the bird’s wings, and lightning by the blink of its eyes. This huge bird lives high on the mountaintop. The whale at the base of the pole symbolizes the mountaintop where the bird rests before devouring his prey. It is said that whale bones may be found on many mountain tops that have been carried there from ages past.” (source Totem Poles at Totem Bight State Historical Park) This totem pole describes the native people’s explanation of thunder. To a people without a written language, this totem pole would be an immediate and constant reminder of how they perceived the world around them. (By the way, you can find descriptions of all 14 totem poles at Totem Bight State Park in the above website.)
The sad thing is that some of the stories and totems have been lost over time. Our guide told us that when missionaries first arrived in Alaska and begin to work among the native people, the missionaries made the native people tear down the totem poles, thinking that they were graven idols. They didn’t realize that the poles were simply telling the stories of the people. Many poles and many stories were lost because of misunderstanding.
Viewing the totem poles and the stories that they told, I started thinking about story telling and how we tell our stories of culture, family, and faith. It was not too many years ago that people would gather around a camp fire or on a porch and tell stories. Today, much of that culture is gone. Today, we go inside our own homes, turn on the television and allow the TV to tell us the story. Or we sit at our computer and write our story on facebook or on a blog (like this one) or maybe “tweet” out a story (as long as it is 240 characters or less.) It seems that it is becoming more and more rare to sit down together and talk face to face in our modern culture.
Telling the stories of our family is important, too. In 2010, NBC produced a TV show called “Who Do You Think You Are?” that traced the family history of celebrities, with some very emotional results. NBC cancelled the show in 2012, but it has been picked up by TLC. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Do_You_Think_You_Are%3F_(U.S._TV_series) This show reminds us that it is important to know the history of your family. In my family, we would gather at
the cemetery the Saturday before Easter and grandmother would take us to all the headstones of our deceased family members, tell us about them and how we were related to them. One of my most treasured family items is a memoir written by my grandmother titled “It’s a Long Way to Georgia”, telling of her family’s move from Georgia to Louisiana when she was a little girl. I never met my mother-in-law, Sharon Kaye Rousseau (she passed away about a month before I met Jana), but I feel as if I know her through the stories that Jana and others have told me of her. I hope and pray that we never forget to tell these family stories to one another and to our children.
Maybe the most important story to tell is one of faith. As a pastor, I think I have the greatest job in the world to tell the true story of God’s love, grace, mercy and faithfulness each day. But isn’t telling God’s story and the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, a job for each and every one of us? If we don’t tell the story, who will? It has been said that the church is only one generation away from extinction. With the decline of many mainline denominations, church attendance, and the cultural influence of the church, that statement may be more true today than it has been since the very beginning of the church. Maybe the story needs to be told in a new way, but God have mercy on us if we fail to tell the story!
In the United Methodist Hymnal there is a hymn titled “I Love to Tell the Story”, written by Katherin Hankey (find the history of this hymn here: http://www.gbod.org/resources/history-of-hymns-i-love-to-tell-the-story). It is one of my favorite hymns to sing and the chorus says “I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” It is a great hymn, with a great message but sometimes I wonder if we have not told the story of Jesus as well as this hymn challenges us to do. I hope and pray that you and I will tell the story of family and faith through spoken words, facebook, twitter, even totem poles, but, by whatever means necessary, tell the story!
Questions to consider: How do we pass down the stories and histories of previous generations in our modern technological culture? Who passed down the stories of faith and family to you? To whom do you need to pass down your story of faith and family?