Thursday, October 1, 2009

Past and present

On a vacation in September 2006, I lived in the past, visiting cathedrals, parish churches, national parks, archaeology sites, castles, and farmhouses in England, Wales, and Paris. This was my third pilgrimage to where my ancestors lived, worked, and worshiped. I have an unusual hobby: finding and photographing the medieval burial effigies of my ancestors, and discovering their roots. The photo here is of the effigy of my ancestor, William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury, 1176-1226, illegitimate son of Henry II and Ida de Tosny. (This tomb could be that of his son William Longespee, but he's my ancestor, too, so I'm OK with whichever William is interred there!)

On that trip, I drove to the tiny village of Sturton-le-Steeple, home to ancestor Rev. John Robinson (1575-1625), minister to the Puritan Pilgrims in England and Holland before they emigrated on the Mayflower to Plymouth, Massachusetts. I stood at a hedgerow and looked out at the harvested fields, much as John and his parents must have done at the end of a day's work. But John was a religious rebel. He resisted even the reformed English church as being too comfortable with saints and a liturgy by rote. He and the believers who became the Pilgrims attempted to emigrate to Holland, but they were betrayed by a ship captain, their possessions confiscated, and he spent months in a prison cell. Eventually, he was able to join family and flock in Holland, but his health was too poor to make the perilous journey to America. His son Isaac emigrated to Massachusetts in 1631.

I enjoyed a Bach concert at St. Martin’s-in-the-Field church in London, where ancestors Mary Barrett and William Dyer were married before emigrating to America. (They sailed to Boston only a few months before bubonic plague ravaged their parish in England.) After 25 years of active resistance to what was expected of her, and being a missionary to Puritans and Indians, Mary was martyred on Boston Common in 1660 for preaching the Quaker gospel to Boston Puritans who had expelled her numerous times. More about them at my other blog: Mary's beliefs, in the dark and repressive 1630s, were surprisingly representative of the New Covenant of Hebrews 8:10-12, that the Lord would teach his will and speak grace to our hearts and minds. Her "inner light" made her stand out from the crowd.

At a Salisbury, Wiltshire church, only four parishioners, the vicar, and I were blessed by a lovely prayer service in the very chapel where my Ayre ancestors are buried and memorialized in marble sculpture of the Elizabethan era. I was impressed that the liturgy moved from praying for missionaries and faith communities around the world, to their own government, to their parish, and they even made it personal for the American visitor in their midst. Four hundred fifty years after my Ayres were buried under the floor, their daughter communed with God in that sacred place.

While our ancestors were deeply convicted and willing to live and die for their beliefs in God, post-moderns believe that if there is a God at all, they just don’t care. Religion is a pack of fairy stories and superstition, Europeans have told me. Nine hundred-year-old churches in cities and villages, empty of worshipers, are historic landmarks, or buildings to remodel as fire stations and restaurants. God still has faithful followers, but they're not plentiful.

I think denominationalism, and possessive and distinctive beliefs ("I'm special, I'm chosen, I'm the remnant, I'm correct--but YOU are not!") isolate us from our fellow members in the Body of Christ. But quietly sharing what God has done for us in everyday life, and performing simple kindnesses, bring us together and glorify the Lord's reputation among those who believe in luck, fate, and coincidence. God still speaks to us (conscience, creative juices, inspiration of nature or art) and still acts through us (support for the hurting, hugs, healing, kind actions), as He has done for eons.

It is heartening to see how God has led us in the past, to glimpse what He has for the future, and to have the certainty that now He holds us in His loving hands and cares about every detail of our thoughts and emotions. The Eternal God, Who was, and is, and ever shall be, is directing our steps, and He is with us always.

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