Happenings, News

Tell me the stories

BACK in theological college, we had to do a year of Church History. Too little for a history buff!

So, I can tell you that May 11 will mark the 1673rd anniversary of the founding, by Emperor Constantine I of the Roman Empire of the East, or the Byzantine Empire. This has been called “one of the most magically resonant place-names in all history”. It was certainly the longest-lived Christian empire the world has ever seen.

After Constantine gained sole control of the Roman Empire and made Christianity the religion of his realm, he left Rome for the East, transferring his capital to Byzantium, a 1,000-year-old Greek city at the mouth of the Bosphorus River. Constantine renamed it Constantinople and dedicated it to the Holy Virgin Mary on May 11, 330 AD, a Monday. It would become the centre of the late Roman world. Today the city is named Istanbul, in modern-day Turkey.

May 29, however, will be the 550th anniversary of the fall of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (just 21 years old) launched the final assault on Constantinople at half-past one in the morning of Tuesday, May 29. After five hours of fighting, the Ottomans forced their way into the city. Constantine XI, the 88th and last, Byzantine Emperor, had commanded the defence all night. As the enemy poured in, he threw off his imperial regalia, and, surrounded by his friends, returned to the site of the heaviest fighting, charging into the fray. He was never seen again.

According to the historian John Julius Norwich, Tuesday is still believed to be the unluckiest day of the week throughout the Greek world.

I suppose most of you didn’t know all of this. Perhaps, most of you might find it “boring”.

Yet, boring church history can be very useful. I have come across a few sincere Christians sprouting all sorts of strange heresies. Knowing that these have all been expressed in the past, and being able to put a name to them is very satisfying for me. And have you ever wondered what the difference is between an Anglican and a Methodist? You wouldn’t if you had a bit of church history.

Sometimes it is surprising how little Christians know about church history. There are some who are content to be blissfully ignorant of our heritage. We are a part of a larger story, but many of us concentrate on our own little tales. Navel gazing, you might say. Some of us don’t even have that.

When my group of old classmates meet for dinner every few months, there are complaints that we tell the same stories about each other, year after year. I was thinking about it: the reason for this may be that we have all gone our separate ways after graduation. Though we are all in different lines of work, different professions, these old stories are not just something comfortable to cling to in an ever-changing world. Telling the same old stories reminds us of who we are as a group and acts as a sort of anchor.

Perhaps this is what Psalm 78 is trying to get at:

O my people, listen to my teaching. Open your ears to what I am saying, for I will speak to you in a parable. I will teach you hidden lessons from our past – stories we have heard and know, stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children but will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the LORD. We will tell of his power and the mighty miracles he did. For he issued his decree to Jacob; he gave his law to Israel. He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, so the next generation might know them – even the children not yet born – that they in turn might teach their children. So each generation can set its hope anew on God, remembering his glorious miracles and obeying his commands. (New Living Translation, verses 1-7)

The stories of our brothers and sisters in the Bible and throughout church history remind us of who we are as God’s people and what He is doing. They re-focus our attention away from our own narrow thread of life onto the larger and more glorious tapestry that God is weaving.

That’s good enough reason for me to read church history. It’s not often considered “practical”. But, as William Willimon put it, “What we most need [are] reminders of why we are here in this sea of trivial, accommodationist congregational demands. What we need is some means of focusing on the utterly essential beyond the merely important.”

All the more so, as 2 Peter 2:1 warns us that false prophets will exploit us with false stories that they make up!
So pick up a book on the church today and make sure you know all the right stories. If you can’t think of where to start, well, there’s always the Bible.

The Rev Chiang Ming Shun is Assistant Pastor of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.