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The Messenger: “The Old, Old Story”

February 28, 2024

Ken Kovacs writes in the Lent & Easter Messenger about our hunger for “a story that grants meaning and purpose to one’s life.”

As a boy, I have fond memories of singing the old gospel hymn “I Love to Tell the Story.” Perhaps you sang it too.

I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story
because I know it’s true;
it satisfies my longings
as nothing else can do.

And the refrain goes like this:

I love to tell the story;
‘twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story
of Jesus and his love.”

Here’s the second verse:

I love to tell the story,
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it like the rest.
And when in scenes of glory
I sing the new, new song,
‘twill be the old, old story
that I have loved so long.”

The hymn, based on a poem, was written by Arabella Katherine Hankey (1834-1911) in 1866 after recovering from a severe illness. Born in Clapham, near London, she and her family were part of the Clapham Sect, an evangelical movement within Anglicanism engaged in social reform. They supported the efforts of William Wilberforce (1759-1833) and worked for the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. Hankey later moved to London to teach a Bible class for young women working in England’s “dark Satanic mills,” as William Blake (1757-1827) said, and continued that work for over a decade. Later, she became a mission worker in South Africa.

What I loved about this hymn and what I remember feeling as a child was how it not only told a story about Jesus and his love but told it in such a way that I found myself included in the story. The “old, old story” Hankey was singing about was not only her story but also my story. My story, the story of my life, was and is included in a part of the “story of Jesus and his love.” That truth made my heart sing. All those stories about Jesus that I learned in church school and heard about in worship, yes, they took place long ago, but they were also near and close to me. I loved and still love that story “because I know it’s true”—more so now than ever. Today, I get to tell the story and preach about the story and share the story and continue to discover the meaning of “Jesus and his love.”

One of the major issues facing us in the West today, particularly for those who never grew up within the Christian tradition (or any faith tradition), is that many are searching, “hungering and thirsting” for a story, a narrative, a myth larger than the narrowness of one’s ego and personal agenda, a story one can give one’s life to, a story that grants meaning and purpose to one’s life. Perhaps the Church as a whole could better tell the “old, old story” and invite people to the myth that gives new life. C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) famously said, “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as the others [pagan myths], but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” But we can’t tell the story with meaning and conviction unless we know it’s true for ourselves, claimed as our own. Otherwise, it all rings hollow.

As we approach the season of Lent and tell the story again of Holy Week, the story of triumph and betrayal, the story of death and suffering and new life, I invite you to (re)consider the meaning of the story in your life. It’s one thing to know about what happened two millennia ago in Jerusalem, and it’s quite another to know that the drama of Christ’s passion continues to unfold around us and within us. It’s one thing to recite the story and another to know and feel that one is participating in the ongoing drama of God’s salvific work in Christ to heal, redeem, and make all things new. That’s a story worth singing about and giving our lives to.