Each Sunday is a kind of family reunion. We look at what we have experienced and we remember that we are here for each other in the midst of the joy and triumph as well as the sorrow and sadness.
I know that when I was gone, I resonated with the words of Paul, “Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God.” Paul was wistfully remembering his church family while he was in jail. Knowing that they were carrying on, gave him the energy, focus and inspiration to continue his work.
I know that it was important for all of us to be apart, if for no other reason than to renew our spirits, discover or rediscover our connection with one another and recommit ourselves to a ministry that is healthy, restful and inspiring in word and in action. I know that while I was away, I did not forget you. In fact I was happy and confident that ministry was continuing. You were holding each other tightly together. You were caring for each other. You were embracing of Diane Hooge, and enjoying her preaching as well as that of Nadean Bishop, Stephanie Burroughs-Saffold, Jane McBride and Nancy Osborne.
Seeing all of you brings to mind an experience I had at the Edinburgh airport. I was off gallivanting in Ireland and on the Island of Iona in late May and early June. Those three weeks were fantastic and filled with great music, amazing worship on Iona, pilgrimages to family sites and a real education about the history of those islands. But through it all, I was missing the end of school for our kids. I was missing the day-in-day-out ebb and flow of our family life. Kim was holding down the fort alone, and I was just a face on a computer at odd hours of the day and night (thank God for Skype). Having all of us together seeing Scotland, Wales and England seemed so far away. But the 12th of June ended our drought. I saw the kids bounding toward me from those airport doors and I felt whole again. In their arms I felt safe and really home. “Daddy, why are you crying?” they asked.
I think of those who have lost family members, or those who are disconnected by school or work or other circumstance. The reunions are that much more important, as many of you know. We never know when will be the last time we’ll see each other.
A big part of this Sabbatical experience for me was to get in touch with my family. I did this, sure by visiting places where my extended family had lived. I did this by having dedicated time with Kim, Amanda and Rebecca without the distractions of church life. But a part of it was also to come to terms with my family history. We wrote in the grant proposal that we wanted to remember stories— finding those stories that have been forgotten or misplaced; claim stories—saying that they were and are part of our narrative; articulate stories—tell them so they will not turn to dust like all of us. When we articulate stories of those who have gone before, we attain just a slice of immortality. Finally we celebrate our stories — find occasions to see the trajectories of our lives as a celebration of the lessons taught to us and that we are the culmination of those who have gone before. When we remember, claim, articulate and celebrate our stories, we enable the next generation to know who they are.
For good or ill, we are reflections of our family. The lessons taught over generations, the patterns that have developed over time, the demons that lurk behind closed doors. What have you inherited? What do you wish to pass on? What do you not wish to pass on to the next generation?
Maybe it has to do with being a certain age. Maybe it’s because we have seen too many die with unfinished business, but many of us are drawn to exploring ancestry these days. We have lots of resources which makes things pretty easy. I gathered what I knew and entered it into an online genealogy resource. We found out more information and were even contact by distant relatives we didn’t even know we had.
In Ireland and the UK, folks say “people come there all the time looking for their ancestors.” Why did they leave? I wonder. Did they long for home? Was the New World all that they wanted it to be?
When I was in Ireland, Barack Obama had just visited and lots of people were talking about the visit. He met with an 8th cousin, I guess. He made more of an impact than the Queen of England did when she visited a week later.
I recognize that I am in a privileged position, knowing (or imagining) that my ancestors arrived here by choice. They certainly had more of a choice than did people of African descent, or the Native Americans who were displaced so that my ancestors could settle on their land. Such are the conundrums of looking at history. Then there is the fact that adopted people may have a different feel for ancestry than I do. Aside from medical history, I think bloodline is overrated unless you’re a wizard. There are more important things than blood that bind us together—more important lessons that are passed down the generations.
I didn’t have a lot of luck meeting with family members. Most of my family came over between the early 1600’s and the late 1800’s. I’m sure there’s some distant relative somewhere in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. But we didn’t see them.
The closest thing was when we went to Corwen, Wales. My great grandmother Jeannie Williams was born there in the 1870’s or 1880’s. Her immigration was the last of our family living on the other side of the pond. She married another person from Wales, but his family had arrived in the U.S. in the 1680’s. Maybe they spoke the same language, wondered about home.
In 1909 Jennie Williams, her husband Ellsworth Skidmore and my grandmother, Alice Reeve Gwendolyn Skidmore (and later Donley) travelled to Corwen to visit the old homestead. They took a picture of my two-year old grandmother in front of the house in which her mother was born. The house was called Pentre Trewyn. Pentre means area and Trewyn is the name of a mountain, with the ruins of an iron age fort on its summit, towering over the city of Corwen.
My aunt and uncle visited Corwen and found the house 29 years ago. They wrote about their visit, showed me pictures and encouraged me to see if it’s still there. Knowing the significance of Corwen—actually it’s the only thing that approaches a physical connection with our ancestors, if you don’t count the Scotland McLeish clan museum that we visited. We spent four days in Corwen getting to know the culture, landscape and imagining what it might have been like a hundred years ago.
Because of the good directions and pictures, we were able to find the house without much problem at all. It looked exactly like it did in the pictures. We actually visited three times, trying to get the owner at home. Finally, we found Emyr Evans, an 80-year-old farmer at home. Actually, he was in the midst of herding the sheep, just closing the gate to the farmstead when I arrived. He invited me inside and gave me a cup of tea.
It was shearing day and they sheared 470 sheep in one day. He knew of our presence. Word travels fast in a small town about these Americans taking pictures of one specific house.
He must get a lot of this. He told me someone had come here last year from New Zealand with a similar photograph and a similar story. He and his family have lived in the house since 1956. There are a lot of people named Williams in Corwen and he was sorry, but he didn’t know anything about my great-grandmother. No problem, I said. I wanted to know about him and this old house. He told me that the house is not too old, it was probably built in the 1600’s. We could see the different additions.
He uncovered from a wall the old fireplace hearth, big enough to walk in. He said that when they removed some of the slate shingles for repairs a few years ago, they found that the rafters were made from old ship hulls. He knew there was a botanist that lived in the house in the 1720’s whose name might have been Williams.
But mostly he talked about the life of a farmer. His sheep are in three fields and he has 960 in all. It turns out we had watched the sheep being herded with the help of a sheep dog and a 4-wheeler earlier in the day when we had hiked up to the old iron age fort on mount Trewyn. He asked whether we had many sheep farms in Minnesota. I confessed that cattle and corn were our cash crops. He then started talking about the town.
He told me about the 15th century hero Owain Glyndwr and how he fought for Welsh independence from the British. There’s a statue of him in the town square. He was from Corwen. And come to think of it when he left here, he stayed at the home of someone named Skidmore. Every morning, he goes down to the coffee shop to meet his friends. They reminisce about how the town with the proud heritage and impressive statue has struggled in the past ten years. Stores have closed, restaurants have cut back and it’s all so sad. He said, “A big part of the problem is the big store that went in a few towns over. Now everyone buys their goods there. Do you know that they won’t buy local milk? They give the farmers a price that is way below what it costs the farmers to produce the milk. The store will not negotiate. So some farmers accept the low price on a 2-year contract. At the end of the contract, the store sets the price even lower. The store gets its milk from Poland, instead of from the local farmers. I won’t shop there.” I told him that we have a store similar to that in the U.S. It’s called Wal-Mart. His eyes got big and he said, “Our store’s called ASDA and it’s owned by Wal-Mart.”
He then told me about a disease that cattle are contracting. Turns out that it is spread by badgers. But since badgers are a protected species, it’s illegal for a farmer to kill a badger. Instead they kill herds of cows.
Over the next few cups of tea, he told me of his family, his health, his hopes for his kids. We took pictures inside and out. I even got a shot of myself in the very same spot on the lawn where my grandmother stood 102 years ago. I promised to send him pictures—snail-mail. The internet is too much for one old farmer to fool with, but his grandkids sure know how to work it. As I left he shook my hand, looked into my eyes and said, “I hope we meet again.” There was a sad look in his eyes, like the look others have had standing in the front yard, saying goodbye to a land and a people they might never see again. I told him I would enjoy seeing him again. He left me with these words, “There’s an old Welsh saying: “two men will meet before two mountains.”
We looked down on the field of freshly shorn sheep, the crumbling town of Corwen, struggling against “progress” and pinning its hopes on the tourist trade that may come once the antique steam train gets extended from the neighboring town. We looked at the river Dee in the valley which has seen its people come and go. After we are long gone, that river will still be there, and maybe an old house on the edge of an ancient mountain like a sentinel against the ravages of time. Beckoning you in to find out something new. Two men will meet before two mountains. It may take some time, some intention, some innovation, some inspiration. But if two men meet, or two women, then we have the opportunity to learn and to grow.
As I left that farm house, I wondered if my grandmother married a man whose family had bought a farm out in Ohio because she was drawn to the land. All those summers I spent at the Donley farm outside of Cleveland, was I getting a piece of the heritage of the land I had trod in Wales? Was my grandmother who she was in part because of where she came from? I know that my love for the land has a lot to do with spending time on that Ohio farm with my grandmother. Two men will meet before two mountains. Maybe what I am supposed to do is integrate the learnings across these miles, to remember how we are connected. To remember and discover how we are different. But most importantly, to remember, claim, articulate and celebrate the story that I pass on to my children.
Why do we yearn to find out about our past? Because we are our past, living in the present.
And we are part of an inter-connected story. I will not think of Wales without thinking of Emyr Evans, his family and whomever next lives in Pentre Trewyn. I had only thought about my grandmother in connection with that place. Now the words of Paul really make sense:
“Every thought of you makes me thank God for you, and all my prayers for you are flooded with joy because of your partnership with me in the good news from the very first moment you heard it until the present. And I can assure you that, having started you off on the right track, I will follow through until Jesus Christ has his day. It is nothing but right that I should feel this way about you all, for I have a very warm spot in my heart for you. All of you are my fellow partners in God’s grace, whether I’m in jail or preaching and explaining the gospel. I declare before God that I have the same tender feelings toward you as Christ Jesus himself does. And this I pray: that your love may keep growing until you have such understanding and keen perception that you can sort out the truly important matters.” (Philippians 1:3-10)
Focus on what’s truly important, says Paul. Let your life flow from the important milestones and markers. Take stock of your journey and don’t let the physical or economic or circumstantial barriers become permanent barriers. Flow like a river from your Source and water the fields on the bans of your stream with passion, thanksgiving and a connection to a power deeper and more powerful than any obstacle. Remember your story. Claim your story. Articulate your story. Celebrate your story.
As we reunite with our families, may we discover the inter-connectedness of all life. May that inter-connectedness spur us to be compassionate, merciful, and peaceful with all of the human family. I think that’s the kind of family reunion God has in mind—that we remember what is truly important.