Zach was the first to arrive for Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house. He had just started college this fall about an hour away, and so it made him the geographically closest her to home, and in some ways it made him closer to her than he had been before. He made it a point to drive over every once and a while and sit down to eat, or talk with her. So, he came over a day early to get settled into his room and help with the food. They did a little prep for the big meal the next day, and settled down for a sandwich together. Zach caught her up on his school, and she caught him up on her church. Absent-mindedly, Zach reached over and grabbed one of the old photo albums that Grandma had on the shelf and started flipping through it.
“Grandma, why do you keep these things around? You know that I could scan and digitize them for you, right? I mean, with our phones the way we have them now, it feels like this thing is so outdated. Why do you even keep them around taking up so much space?”
Grandma smiled. “Oh no, I would never get rid of them. It’s not the same looking at them on a screen. I want to flip through the pages and hold them in my hands. I want to look on the back and check the date, and see if we had enough forethought to put everyone’s name on the back.”
“Sometimes I just flip through and recall. Faces who are gone. Times that were important and happy. Look, here’s your dad’s graduation from college. And their wedding the next month.
“And sometimes, I go because I want to remember something in particular. Your mother asked me the other day if we still had that big ugly couch when her brother was born. I could have sworn that we got rid of it to make room for the new baby, but she was right. I went right back to that spot in the album and there it was. Me, holding him just home from the hospital, sitting on that monstrosity. Your granddad loved that couch, but I told him it was a waste of money and a waste of space. I think that the salesperson snowed him over, for sure.”
She thought and then continued, “There is something powerful and meaningful and profound about a photo album. It records the truth. I don’t know how many times I go back and look at that album. Not every week, but probably at least once a month. I go back and look at those photos and remember.
She reached over and picked up the well-worn Bible on the coffee table. “You know, I was reading in my devotions this morning a passage from Revelation. It was written by John, who is in the middle of a political and social firestorm. Things are a mess in his world. The politicians and leaders are openly working against his faith, and it is easy to despair and give up. But then he sees this vision, this revelation. And it is a vision of hope, that God is still on the throne. And at the end, the angel tells him, ‘write this down, for these things are trustworthy and true.’ And he wasn’t talking about a picture album, I know, and the Bible isn’t the same and a picture album. But it matters that we look for things in this world that are trustworthy and true. I think that is why I keep these things around. They are a visual history, a way to write down what is trustworthy and true. It’s kind of like the Apostle Paul says: “whatever is true, and noble, and pure, and lovely, and admirable, think about these things.”
I feel like there is so much in our world today that throws away trustworthy and true. Politicians don’t keep their word, and then they deny what they just said or what just happened. Companies are trying to stretch the truth in order to get your money. It used to be that the news was all about truth, but now they are so much about one perspective or the other; a report came out on the accuracy of the news and none of them came out looking very good – one of them was only 40% accurate! I heard the other day that it feels like we are living in a “post-truth” age. I think it matters that we write down truth. That we hang onto truth.
It was Zach’s turn to think. “I think I see what you mean…they tell a story, but not just the story about that event, but about the people who were there. In my intro to anthropology class they talk about a folk history, that pictures can tell stories about who people were and how they related to each other. I guess I never thought about my own family having a folk history. I guess I just thought we did stuff, and nothing very interesting at that.”
Grandma corrected him, “Of course we have a history! And of course we have interesting stories to tell! Here, look at these again. I noticed this the other day. These are pictures from your mom’s high school dances.”
Zach laughed for five minutes straight when he saw her hairdo!
“But look at what I noticed. In this one, she is standing with this boy, getting ready to go to the dance. But across the picture…do you know who that is?
Zach’s eyes got huge when he realized it was his father…with another girl!
Grandma continued: “But look at the picture close. Do you see how he looks at your mother? He is here with another girl, but if you look close, in every picture he is staring at your mother. Now, flip a few pages to the next dance.
Hey, they are going together!
And the rest is history. After that first dance, he asked her out, and they have been together ever since. Now, if that isn’t trustworthy and true, I don’t know what is.
But when I look at these pictures, I am reminded that there is trust. There is truth. Just like Revelation, God is at work in our world. The whole Revelation of John is filled with crazy images, but they are natural, from our world. I think that I keep these pictures around because they are a story, not just of a family, but of God at work in that family. Not just in the things that we have done, but in the memories of God’s presence throughout those things.
Zach’s face twisted up in disbelief. “Yeah, but aren’t you just glossing over the pain and the agony? If I remember my Sunday school lesson, Revelation was a pretty ugly time. Christians were being killed left and right. Isn’t it a little disingenuous to just remember the good stuff? And I would make the same point about the pictures. Look at these pictures. Everyone is smiling! But life is hard, right? Doesn’t it seem fake to you to look at all of these pictures? My friends call this the Facebook effect…we only see people happy and excited and reporting the best days of our lives! It can lead folks to become pretty depressed, because it makes us feel worthless if our days aren’t like that.”
“I mean, look at this picture. When was it taken? Aunt Jackie and Uncle Jeff aren’t even married anymore. This had to be right before their divorce, but here they are smiling at Thanksgiving!”
He felt like he might have pushed too hard when he saw her face wince, as if reliving that pain. But she replied lovingly, “You are right, and if I went and picked up someone else’s photo album, then you would be right…all I would see is generic smiling faces. It would be like when you buy a new photo frame and you have all these fake models in the pictures!”
She continued, “But this is our album. And this is our story. We know it. We don’t hide that part of who we are. It tells the pain, too. This page has Aunt Jackie at Thanksgiving, but we know why the next page at Christmas has Jeff all alone. We know the story, and we don’t gloss over the truth. But we hold onto it. We retell it. We remember that pain, and that grief. I look at these pictures and remember how hard that holiday season was. Your uncle and I had more tear-filled conversations that month than we ever have before or after. And that is why we keep the album. Because it tells the whole story. We don’t cut Jackie out of the album, in the same way that we could never cut her out of our lives. She was there, and at some level she still is.
“I’m sorry to preach, but I read that in Revelation this morning, too. It says ‘he will wipe away every tear.’ Tears are a part of our reality. Suffering is a part of our reality. But so is a God who sits with us in the suffering. This is from the last part of the Revelation of John, written by the same voice who wrote the first part of the Gospel of John…throughout the whole thing is this same idea. God is with us. Tenting with us. Tabernacling with us. God will be with us and we will be his people. God is there. In the midst of the smiling faces, and in the midst of the pain behind the smiles. In the midst of the Thanksgiving with Jackie and the Christmas without her. Revelation says that’s who God is in our lives. The Alpha and the Omega. The first letter of the Greek alphabet, and the last. And every letter in between. The other day in church we celebrated All Saints Day, and it was a reminder that these people – imperfect as they were – are examples in our memory of God with us.”
Zach smiled, “You don’t need to apologize…you can preach to me any day, Grandma.”
He picked up both the Bible and the photo album. “I guess both tell us the truth: God is with us. God will never forsake us. God is tenting with us. Tabernacling with us. It reminds me of a quote I read the other day on my phone…let me see if I can find it. Here, by a guy named Eugene Peterson who translated the Bible. Apparently he died recently, and someone posted this quote:
“When we submit our lives to what we read in scripture, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves. “
With a smile, she grabbed another book off the shelf. “Amen. Now, I didn’t get this from the internet, but I think it says the same thing:
“Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come;
‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.”
Zach smiled. “Now that is trustworthy and true.”