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Edgar on the Lakeshore

I know Edgar through photographs, grainy black and white images of a man who is never smiling. I know Edgar through his letters, loving messages of faith and encouragement he sent to his wife and children. It’s clear from his words that he had a deep contentment for the life God gave him. Even when voicing concern to one of his children, he reflected a strong faith that kept him anchored in choppy waters. I know Edgar from a place even though we never overlapped at this place. I have slept in the house he built out of devotion to his family of seven children. I have met Edgar but only indirectly.

Edgar is my mother’s paternal grandfather. He died on May 22, 1930, two years before my mother was born. He was 78. His widow, my great grandmother whom we called Nana, was 64. She would reach her 100th birthday, spending 36 years without her husband. My life overlapped with hers by seven years. I can remember sitting on her lap, a frail woman with a ready smile. She spent summers on the shores of Lake Michigan and so did we. I got to know Edgar through her and in this place that meant the most to him: a farmhouse on Lakeshore Drive in Fennville, Michigan.

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When I was young the farmhouse was creepy. Nana was too old to take care of it in the last decade of her life. It went to her daughter, Stella. My great Aunt Stella was of meager financial means, a poor housekeeper and had increasingly dim eyesight. This was a prescription for decay in the home her father had built. When we walked up from our cottage to visit Aunt Stella she would open the creaky door onto the wrap-around porch and musty air would waft out from the front sitting room. It was always dark except for the parlor where she had a floor lamp with a glaring 200-watt lightbulb! I inherited this beautiful piece of home decor for my apartment in Chicago after Aunt Stella died. You know that stage when you accept any item of furniture that anyone will give you? I settled for a 100-watt bulb and that worked well for me.

In spite of the decrepit state of the farmhouse in my youth, I could imagine the glory days from my grandfather’s tales. He and his siblings labored to help their father with the chores. At the end of a sweaty workday, they raced down the bluff and bathed in the lake. An outhouse served the plumbing needs of the family for decades. Edgar built a barn that housed a sturdy mule and some chickens. There was a bowling alley built into the barn that kept Edgar’s seven children entertained. A clay tennis court was smoothed out of forest floor and this, too, became part of the family lore about glorious summers on the lakeshore.

Edgar became real to me through his writings in a farmhouse log where he recorded his activity on their lakefront property at the turn of the 20th century. He and Nana built the home in 1896. They named it Kenwood after their neighborhood in Hyde Park, Chicago. He writes, “The district where we bought our home, 4343 Lake Pk was called ‘Kenwood’ where there were many churches, good schools and no saloons.” His penmanship was beautiful and his Christian values emerge readily from his entries. The details he gave in the log were precise: what varietals of grapes he purchased, how much chicken wire he bought to contain his brood, the Chicago-based company to whom he sold his strawberries. The real treasure was the journal entries he made in the spring as he first arrived at his beloved farmhouse. He described the process of preparing the earth for another fruitful season. Edgar always arrived at the farm a couple of months before the family. He came in the middle of March many times facing harsh weather conditions. He prepared the soil, ordered the plants, cleaned the barn and pruned the fruit trees. He always gave a commentary on the weather, the size of the beach, and social outings that included Sunday drives to visit his sister-in-law and her husband in downtown Saugatuck. He went to church and had nice conversations with his neighbor, a local doctor.

From November through March Edgar worked as a realtor in Chicago. But what he lived for was the spring thaw when he could leave the big city behind and head north to the property along the shores of Lake Michigan. A drive of only a couple of hours now, it would have been a significant journey at the turn of the century to cover those miles. But it became a beloved and familiar trek for generations of Edgar’s family over the decades. It was the place of family reunions with time shared between the gracious home and the beach. The family worked hard to do the chores that come with living on a farm. But they also knew how to take time for meals and tennis matches. There’s a picture I love of my grandfather and his brothers on the roof of the house. Who took the picture and what was the occasion? It captures the fullness of life that was lived in these 19th century walls.

Edgar’s obituary is brief: “Edgar Tharpe [name misspelled] passed away at his lake shore home last Thursday. The funeral was held at the home at 10:30 o’clock Saturday a.m., Rev. F. H. Zerbe officiating. The body was taken to Chicago for services and burial. Mr. Tharpe, with his family, lived at their home on the lake shore summers for many years and made many friends in this locality. He is survived by the widow, two daughters, Mrs. Menard and Stella, three sons, Edgar, Gilbert and Russell.”

The last entry in the farmhouse log is from the Spring of 1929, one year before Edgar died in his beloved home. It paints such a lovely image of the contentment he felt arriving on the lakeshore each Spring that I will close with that:

“Apr.22 Friday the 19th it began to rain and kept on raining hard for 30 hours. Sunday morning the garden and orchard in front of the house was covered with water and the pond and woods clear over to bucks was like a good sized Lake and the road from our south line to Dr. Irwins corner was like a large ditch. At Dr. Irwins road the water ran past his barn to the gulley west of the barn and today the 22nd the road is still full of water and the road near Bucks is impassable being covered 18 in with water. Nothing like it has ever occurred before in the 29 years we have been on the farm. I have had plenty of wood and have kept warm. I drive East through the farm to Westvelds for supplies and Shep [his dog] and I have plenty to eat. E. H. Tharp.” (copied verbatim)

The man in the grainy black and white photos emerges from the shadows of the past in this journal entry. This weekend three generations will gather on the lakefront for “Cousin Camp”, the youngest of whom are five generations removed from our patriarch. Somehow I imagine Edgar looking in on this joyful chaos and smiling.

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Iona in Images

So I made it across the ocean without incident to return home. Along with my own bed and Half & Half for my coffee, I gained good internet service. The wi-fi blight is over! I can access emails and upload photos with abandon. Of course, the best images of my trip are in my head. I’m still in Europe in my dreams and awoke the first two nights at home to be confused about where I was. In 30 days I stayed in 16 different hotels! Each day added one layer after another of discoveries about my ancestral roots. I haven’t been able to walk away from this trip easily!

So let me revisit the last chapter of my trip when I didn’t have the technology to share my pictures. The Isle of Iona is known for its beauty and faith so I’m going to give you a glimpse into life on this place of Christian pilgrimage.

It’s not easy to get there. I left the home territory of my MacDougall ancestors by ferry. As we pulled away from the Oban harbor I was able to see the Dunollie Castle, home to the current MacDougall clan chief. From the water it’s easy to see what a prominent position it holds to watch for aggressive sea raiders. The ride from Oban to Mull is scenic, skirting other Hebrides islands to arrive on the Eastern coast of Mull. A bus was waiting so a long line of us loaded our bags into the storage area and jumped aboard a very comfortable coach.

Travel on the backroads of Scotland is very different from American roads. Most people use public transportation so there are very few drivers vying for passage way. The roads are wide enough for maybe one and a quarter vehicles. This means that, as you see a car approaching you from the opposite direction, you make a quick decision about who is going to pull over into one of the designated “passing places”. Sometimes one person has to back up to a passing place so that each can then continue on their own journey. This obviously wouldn’t work if there was heavy traffic but there isn’t. Island residents jumped on and off the bus to get to appointments, jobs and social events. It wasn’t just for tourists. We were also held up at one point by a Highlander cow who was happily grazing along the side of the road. Our bus had to completely stop and yield to the reluctant response of the cow who was much more fixated on the grass than our huge vehicle. After 50 minutes through scenic territory we arrived at another port on the southwest side of the island. The final leg of the journey was a 10 minute ferry ride across to Iona.

The view from the ferry showcases a town that seems very small. The Abbey is the dominant structure and it stands clear from other homes and businesses that cluster around the port area. The evening I arrived I walked from my hotel, the Saint Columba, down to the port and beyond. It’s easy to get a sense of the community. While there are other parts of the island that are developed, the east coast is the destination for thousands of tourists each year. The ferry between the island of Mull and Iona runs frequently all day long, depositing literal boatloads of people to check out the shops, restaurants and natural beauty of the island. It is known primarily as a spiritual mecca and it was evident to me that a yearning for a Christian experience was what brought many people across the waters.

Historically there have been five churches on the east side of the island. The Abbey has morning and evening worship each day and many people visit specifically to participate in those services. There is a chapel among the ruins of a 13th-century nunnery where women served their God for several hundred years. In that same area stands the community church which was for the residents. The Abbey would have been the place for the monks to worship. Therefore those who lived on the island had their own small church where they lived out their Christian convictions. The Bishop’s House is a retreat center and it also houses a lovely chapel. I took a picture of the frontal that covers the altar. It is lovingly crafted to reflect the community in which these Christians serve. You’ll notice that there are sections depicting puffins, sheep, local flowers, and water. The central image is that of a boat whose mast forms a cross. One of the seat cushions on a Deacon’s Bench depicts a nautical scene. Life on Iona is directly impacted by the surrounding waters and the effect that the sea has upon their day-to-day experiences. To find this uniquely reflected in each parish is not surprising. Finally there is a congregation established in the 19th century that hosts a Church of Scotland congregation. Island visitors are warmly encouraged to attend worship at the three churches that still have intact buildings: the Abbey, the Bishop’s House and the Church of Scotland congregation.

In the three days that I was on Iona I attended three worship services at the Abbey. We sat in the choir loft area in upright wooden benches with high backs. The people spoke of major renovations that happened in the 1400s! It is still a work in progress with layers of history that surrounded us as we joined our songs and prayers to those who preceded us. The pianist sits in a loft area, perched above an ancient doorframe. She played beautiful and contemporary music from this archaic stage. The power of the Spirit at the Abbey is palpable. There are graves, statues of holy people and Christian symbols in every part of the monastic compound. Each generation has worked to renew the space and add their own symbolism.

The wind blows continually on Iona and that, perhaps, is the best image for the attraction to this untamed and beautiful place: the Holy Spirit has been a presence and blessing to Christian pilgrims ever since Saint Columba established a monastery in 563 A.D. He arrived by boat with 12 Godly men to serve as Christ’s disciples. Boatloads of us have been washing up on these shores ever since!

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A Proper Vocabulary

I’m dying to know what our President and the Queen talked about today! I know, there are reported conversations thanks to the media. But it would be fun to be a fly on the wall to see these two together. With the time I spent in the British Isles it is clear to me that there are different expectations of etiquette and accompanying vocabulary. Even though I spoke English in England and Scotland, it was clear I wasn’t always speaking the same language!

I found myself repeatedly using words on our European trip that I seldom use here. Let me offer a list of those words with confirming pictures!

Quaint: I can’t tell you how many times I expressed amazement at a quaint scene before us. How about these images?

Picturesque: I seldom use this word in my daily life in Belmont, Michigan. But I found myself naming the scenery before me in this way quite often. What do you think?

Darling: There were certain scenes, especially with children or animals, that could only be described as darling. Another word that I seldom use in my Michigan environs. But see if you don’t agree with me!

Charming: Probably our most common association with that word is pairing it with the word “Prince”. No surprise, then, that our fairytales often times came from the British Isles where a monarchy has been firmly in place for generations. Check out these photographic images showcasing a charming life!

Idyllic: Every now and then circumstances in our lives are idyllic. Too often for me the demands of daily life make it hard to either see those moments or have the time to experience them. On this trip there were countless times when my family and I witnessed scenes that were truly idyllic. Let me make my point!

Exquisite: I walked through enough museums in Europe to be able to verify that I have now seen many exquisite images and items! Here are just a few.

As I found myself developing a new vocabulary to response to my new digs, I also learned to appreciate a few words that I heard repeatedly. These were familiar words but they held a different meaning in England and Scotland. See what you think:

Proper: it is impossible to over-use this word in England. Again, I imagine Queen Elizabeth meeting up with our POTUS and wonder how he was able to be proper in the British sense?! This adjective was even used to describe items on restaurant menus. Here’s just one illustration.

Brilliant: I seldom use this adjective. It seems to either apply to someone like Albert Schweitzer or a stunning diamond ring locked away at Buckingham Palace. It has such extreme value as a superlative word that we seldom pull it out of our vocabulary word chest. It is used in England very often and we learned to drop it in conversation appropriately. A recent example would be the British diver who first found the lost Thai children and their coach. With his headlamp shining on this elated cluster of children, he asked how many of them were there. When they told him, “13”, his answer was, quite simply, “Brilliant!” I doubt that any of us would’ve chosen that word for those circumstances but I kind of love it! So that’s my example.

No worries: Every culture seems to need words of reassurance. We found this phrase to be particularly popular with the wait staff in restaurants where we ate. We were relieved to hear that we didn’t need to worry about asking for extra water (it is not routinely brought to the table and you typically pay for it) or having our eggs scrambled dry! We weren’t going to worry about such mundane details but, with the waiter’s words of assurance, our uncertainty about what we needed to worry about–or not–was allayed! So,

NO WORRIES!

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My Clan

I’m on a train clanking south toward Glasgow. Tomorrow I get picked up at my hotel at 6:30AM to begin a long day of travel home. I’m ready. I can’t stand any of the clothes I so carefully packed over a month ago. I’ve added one suitcase that is crammed full of memorabilia and gifts. Yet I’m still almost literally bursting at the seems. It’s time to go home.


But the train is passing through very scenic countryside. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of fields dotted with sheep and lovely “lochs” or lakes carved out by glaciers eons ago. But it’s more than just pastoral hill country that I’m sorry to leave. The train is taking me away from the land of my ancestors. I left the Isle of Iona by ferry this morning and had several hours back in Oban to walk about before hauling my accumulated stuff to the station. So I sat at an outdoor table on the Oban Esplanade and soaked in the city associated with my clan: the MacDougalls.


My paternal grandmother was a MacDougall. She was quietly proud of this. She had a picture of her father—James Ellis MacDougall—who is in full kilt regalia and playing the bagpipes. He has an awesome moustache but it can’t hide his smiling eyes. His daughter Jean (think Brigadoon song lyrics, “…go home with bonnie Jean..”) was very proud of her Scottish heritage. She was my great aunt and I was given her name as my middle name. She had a three piece suit made out of the MacDougall plaid that she wore in all seriousness for special family gatherings. That’s a lot of wool—especially for a middle-aged woman! Loyalty to one’s clan can be sacrificial. So our final leg of the family journey landed my sisters and me in Oban where there are two castles associated with our Scottish ancestors: Dunstaffnage and Donnollie.


Dunstaffnage is three miles out of Oban and is open to the public for tours. My three sisters and I hopped in a cab which dropped us off at the edge of a wooded property. Fortunately there was a sign to reassure us that he had not left us off somewhere to perish. So we followed the indicators into the woods and soon there was a green clearing. An enormous castle loomed in the distance. It was made of the typical Scottish construction material: large stones and mortar built upon an outcropping of rock. No wonder these ancient dwellings endure! We learned that it was built by one of the earliest MacDougalls in 1220 when the clan was relatively newly formed and powerful. If my 13th century kin wanted a status symbol, this castle certainly would have done it!

Really old structures in Europe have layers of history: additions to the building and losses from fire or natural decay. A house was built within the walls in the 1700’s that added significantly to the (comfortable) sleeping quarters the castle could offer. There was a tower with narrow windows for firing upon the enemy. There was a dungeon just beneath the sleeping area of the family. How convenient to be able to hear any uprising-in-the-making of your prisoners while drifting off to sleep! The castle is built on a promontory at the entrance to Loch Etive. It would be impossible for an enemy to approach Dunstaffnage by sea undetected. And if they tried to come in through the backwoods, arrows were poised, ready to shoot through the narrow slits in the three meter thick stone walls. It’s an under-appreciated feature in our modern homes. Perhaps a hidden camera at the front door is our closest equivalent!

The Donnollie Castle was within walking distance of our hotel, the Oban Bay Hotel. We walked up a path that climbed toward a farmhouse built in the 1700’s when the original stone castle was no longer habitable and far too costly to renovate. This was a smaller castle, again built on an elevated parcel of land that looks over the Oban bay. A tower remains and a wall marked by a Celtic cross. In both clan “homes” their Christian faith was evident. At Dunstaffnage the clansmen actually built a chapel within walking distance of the home. As recently as the 20thh century, MacDougalls were buried there. At Donnollie the home is inhabited by the present clan chief, Lady Morag. They live in a portion of the old farmhouse during the summer and have dedicated the lower level as a museum. We carried our great grandfather with us on our tours in the form of a grainy black and white photograph. At the end of the tour we showed this to our guide and told her we, in fact, belonged in this space! She was either threatened or intrigued because Lady Morag’s son emerged from the home to greet us. Three of us were wearing MacDougall plaid scarves so that made it easier for him to identify us. I can’t say that we had particularly remarkable conversation with him or will add him to the Christmas list. But it felt very special to connect with a direct descendant of those who had built and claimed this castle as home for hundreds of years.

For us 21st century MacDougalls, the most meaningful aspect to these castle visits was to experience the life of our ancestors by breathing their air, standing in their personal living space, and looking out their windows at stunning scenery. We learned a few things about our clan through these tours. At Donnollie Castle there was a room for making cheese (one sister’s eyes lit up and she said, “I like cheese!” Proof of our heritage, no doubt!) They did weaving and crafted lovely items. I’ll claim the aesthetic roots. They were thrifty! Check. Wherever they journeyed, they took samples of local plants that they liked and added it to their lovely garden. The result at Donnollie is an estate filled with a very unlikely and interesting mix of foliage. We learned that the MacDougalls have a progressive attitude toward women! A couple of generations ago the clan chief had three daughters and no sons. Normally he would have nabbed a nephew or younger brother as his successor. But this leader divided up the land three ways and gave each daughter a parcel. The present clan chief is a woman and she is respected in her role. Finally we learned that our clan was peace-loving–another attribute that we liked. We provided safe keeping for those on the run. We declined participation in a couple of wars, wishing to simply tend to our land and family instead. So we were all about that feature of our heritage. But that strong point became our weakness, as is often the case. One guide, before she knew we were MacDougalls, stated that the clan was known for making poor decisions. Dang. We were doing so well! It turns out that being peaceable in times of savagery was disadvantageous!


Aren’t we still trying to figure that one out as Christians today? How do we preach Christ when the arrows are slinging at us from above? When do we pick up a sword and when do we walk away from a fight, exposing our hind quarters? How do we muster the courage to take a stand for a just way of life when it might cost us our castle, like it did my ancestors? Dunstaffnage was overtaken by the Campbell clan which was much more aggressive at war. Donnollie had to be abandoned for a long period because they refused to fight against the king and chose to stay home and mind their garden. This cost them their land and home. Peace is costly. History tells a story that often isn’t evident in the moment. I`ll proudly claim my MacDougall clan, warts and all. I suppose that’s what being family is all about.

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Iona

As I leave worship today I walk along a stone path believed to be more than 1000 years old. It’s called “The Street of the Dead” because generations of believers have processed along this route between church and cemetery. Humble monks are buried next to kings. The inscription on grave coverings harkens back to bloody battles when the pious men who lived in the Abbey took a stand for the faith that cost them their lives. Their community reverently carried their bodies from sanctuary to graveyard on The Street of the Dead to their final resting places. To be buried on the sacred isle of Iona was regarded as a quicker and more sure entry into heaven. I return to my hotel room and am irritated that I have a lousy wi-fi connection. I can’t even upload pictures to my posts. Honestly! From sacred to sour all in a Sabbath morning! I find it interesting that I can simultaneously treasure the ancient remains of holy sites yet expect my favorite modern conveniences to be available at my beck and call.
I’ve gone as far west as I can with my journey. I’m on the Isle of Iona, part of the Hebrides Islands off the west coast of Scotland. An Irishman sailed across the waters with 12 brothers in Christ to establish a worshiping community here. He became known as Saint Columba and his arrival in AD 563 was the beginning of a spiritual transformation for this small parcel of land. He built a monastery that became known as a center of Christian teaching and artistic trade. He was greatly respected for his wisdom and miracles of healing so pilgrims like me have traveled long distances to tap into the Iona holiness.
St. Columba died at the Abbey and a shrine was erected over his casket. I’ve spent time in prayer in this tiny dwelling (it seats four and one at the kneeler) a couple of times. I learned that none of his mortal remains are, in fact, still on the premises. Ancient churches like to have relics, items of particular holy power because they are attached to a revered saint. (In one of the churches we visited it was the kneecap of their beloved saint! It was tastefully displayed atop some pretty fabric in a glass case. Lovely.) It seems morbid to us modern folks but people were willing to kill to obtain these things. The Vikings started invading the Abbey because they heard there was good stuff to be had. In 795 they rowed one of their long boats up onto the beach of this peace-loving community and exercised force to grab some goods. They came back a second then third time, ransacking with abandon. So the monks packed their few treasures away, including the weary bones of old Columba who got relocated to a monastery in Ireland, his homeland. But the fascination with relics continued to entice the Vikings whose worst attack on the monastery was in 825. The monks were tortured and killed for not revealing to the invaders the new resting place for Columba’s body. My faith seems paltry when I consider the willingness of these men of God to give up their lives rather than the brittle remains of their patron saint. I imagine the burial procession for these courageous souls that perhaps followed the stony path of the Street of the Dead, realizing that the cross I bear for my faith is not nearly as heavy as I sometimes believe. The Iona Abbey is built on martyrs’ blood yet I am able to sit peacefully in their sanctuary on a cool July morning to connect with the same God these monks worshiped when Vikings came bursting through their doors!
There are no signs of such violence now. To the contrary, pilgrims from different countries, old and young, male and female, wander the grounds of the Abbey quietly. I attended a prayer service this evening that gave most of the time for personal prayer. It was guided by a liturgist at its conclusion. The surroundings of the Abbey are pastoral. Two highlander cows caught me off guard tonight as I walked past the Abbey toward the hills beyond. Looming a good two stories over me on an adjacent hill, one made unashamed eye contact with me. I was zoo material for her just as she was for me. We engaged in a stare-down of polite curiosity. The land is “bumpy” with grassy hills that are relatively treeless. Rocks stick out of the earth everywhere. I looked at a large hill in the distance and noticed it was bespeckled with white sheep. They talked to each other as the evening light began to dim. Animals have a good life here. There’s a wind off the water and the air is pure. I think of my ancestors as I take in the beauty around me.
Iona became a destination for me at least 15 years ago when I first discovered their worship resources. Wild Goose Publications is their printing house and I have borrowed from it for years. They have an order of worship for a healing service around which we have shaped our own Sunday service during Lent. I have used their rich liturgies and melodic harmonies by noted musician, John Bell. When I learned that these materials were born out of an intentional faith community on a Scottish island about three miles long and one mile wide, I plugged it in as a future destination. I am soaking in the sacred while here. In addition to the monastery which sits immediately to the north of my hotel, there is a 12th century nunnery just to the south. Many of the walls are gone but the footprint of a once-active convent is excavated with explanatory signs that describe the function of each space. The Chapter House is a room where the nuns met daily to process the days’ events. They confessed their sins and expressed their gratitude in communal prayer. The stone benches upon which faithful women perched in black habits for hundreds of years still line the walls. So I have collapsed the distance between my Scottish sisters and myself by praying there. My Spiritual Director gave me a three day plan for a retreat and I am following that in any number of inspiring settings on the island. I am reflecting on the passage she gave me: the Road to Emmaus. Not coincidentally the words to the refrain of our final hymn in morning worship were: “Singing, we gladly worship the Lord together. Singing, we gladly worship the Lord. Those who are travelling the road of life, sow seeds of peace and love.” (The Living God. Music is a Guatemalan folk melody arranged by John Bell.) Yes, Lord, I am listening!
It will take a long time for me to fully process this chapter of my life that has moved me from Munich to Iona over the course of a month. I’m grateful that I have a Biblical three days on this mystical mound of Scottish soil to rest in God’s presence after a whirlwind journey of Nourishing Roots. The people and places, the sights, sounds and smells along the way have been an even greater blessing than I could have imagined. And I had high expectations as I took off from Gerald R. Ford International Airport a lifetime ago. God has been very much present and even now, as I sit alone in a hotel room and eat my meals by myself in the adjoining restaurant (I have a new insight into how hard that is for those without spouse or family), I know that I am always in good and holy Company.
By the way, I won’t have the internet connection necessary to upload pictures to this post! I’ll have to add them later. But, if this is my greatest hardship today, my heart is filled with gratitude!

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One

5-4=1. One.
I started off this Roots Pilgrimage with my husband, Garrett, and daughter, Maria. We flew into Munich where we learned the word “glockenspiel” and battled our way through jet lag. We moved on to Austria to dip into the Sound of Music story and claim the inspiration to my daughter’s name. From there we traveled to Paris where I studied for a month almost 40 years ago. We far surpassed 10,000 steps per day, climbing up to the upper dome of Sacre Coeur and the winding streets of Montmartre. We headed into rural France to visit our French daughter’s parents in Villerville and enjoy their hospitality in provincial France. We smelled Monet’s garden flowers. I loved being able to speak in French again and was just getting back into the flow of this romance language when we jumped on another train.

We journeyed to Amsterdam, which my daughter found to be the most interesting city we visited from the vantage point of a Fashion Designs major. Garrett heard the native tongue of his ancestors spoken. We rented a car and headed into the Dutch countryside. It is idyllic and criss-crossed with serene canals. We worshiped in the church his great grand-father pastored many years ago and had rich connections with some of the parishioners there. We have been extended gracious hospitality in countless ways on this trip. We left Holland by train, traveling underneath the English Channel to arrive in London. After an upper deck Hop On-Hop Off bus tour of the city, Garrett and Maria left me to resume their lives in Michigan.

As those two left, however, three sisters flew in to join me for the leg of the journey that explores our roots. Now there were four of us exclaiming over the discoveries we made that link us to the British Isles. We spent only a day in London before heading into the villages of England. The Seymour branch of our family hails from Sawbridgeworth so we spent time in a church in that sweet town that was home to an ancestor in the 1500’s. We moved on to Rochdale, the birthplace and home to my grandfather, Walter Chapman, for at least the first five years of his life. We never knew him so it was significant to walk in the places where he likely played as a child with his parents, Thomas and Maria. I felt a strong connection to this place that I will carry back with me to my son, Joe, who carries my grandfather’s name as a middle name. We sisters pushed on to Barton Mills where we lived as little girls when my father was stationed in Lakenheath Air Base. I had graciously been given the opportunity to preach in Cloverfield Community Church in Thetford which is just a stone’s throw from the town where we lived. We have found that each worship experience has made us feel “at home”, even when we didn’t speak the language!

We left England by train and headed into Scotland. My grandmother, a MacDougall, carried her Scottish roots proudly. We knew, even as children, that there was a MacDougall plaid and that her father—my great grand-father—played the bagpipes and wore a kilt. We had a grainy photograph to prove it! From the first day we arrived and everyday thereafter in Edinburgh, we heard bagpipes! Men wore kilts commonly and castles dotted the land like chess pieces on a lush green playing board. We toured through the Highlands which are stunningly beautiful to arrive at Oban. Two of the castles we visited there belonged to our MacDougall clan. We felt a kinship to these long lost forebears as we breathed their crisp, clean air and listened to the gulls swooping in from water to the land. Once again we claimed a place we could call home.

I am overwhelmed by the discoveries this trip has provided! I pieced together a Nourishing Roots journey with family members that would deepen our self-understanding. I have been blessed far beyond what I could have imagined. I have been in the constant and wonderful company my family. Today we go our separate ways. Two sisters are on the way to the airport. The other sister is joined by her husband and they are extending their trip to bike around the island of Mull for several days before returning home to their lives in Ohio. The five of us (three sisters and one brother-in-law) savored seafood on the waterfront of Oban last night and toasted an unforgettable trip that will be a blessing to our children and theirs.
Today I am one. Alone. On my way by boat, bus and ferry to the final destination of this pilgrimage: Iona. I have wanted to visit the Protestant worshiping community on this island ever since I started using their rich worship resources at least 15 years ago. I will stay on the island for three days, tapping into their worship life. I won’t have a train to catch, a dinner to share, a castle to explore. I can take the countless pieces of this trip and begin to place them in some sort of holy order. I can spend some time in quiet so that God can speak to me of what significance this trip holds. It is clear, from the beginning of my dream to pursue this Lilly Foundation “National Clergy Renewal Grant”, that God has been with me and given me far more than I dared to hope. Today I travel on alone. I have a 6PM phone date with my husband because it is our 33rd wedding anniversary. We will remember the day in Hyde Park (Chicago) on July 7, 1985, when loved ones traveled in from near and far to celebrate our love. I will be away from him on this significant day for the first time in our marriage. It is an odd day. Even sitting in my hotel room alone feels different. I cannot remember a time in the past 35 years that I have spent three days on my own with no one else that I know to keep me company. It feels strange—but it also feels right.
Pray for me as I intentionally place myself in God’s good keeping. A three day stint in the Bible is always a gestational time. Biblical figures emerged from three day retreats different from when they started the journey. Jesus, for Heaven’s sake, resurrected from the dead in three day’s time! So pray for the Spirit to move over the Scottish waters of my ancestors and to speak to me through the cry of the gulls who fly over the same waters as did their ancestors. Pray that the worship services I will enjoy with my brothers and sisters at the Iona Abbey will go to places deep within where I need to find answers. And pray for Peace. The Peace that passes all human understanding.
Today I am all the more aware that I am not traveling alone. This is and has been a journey of God’s choosing. I am so grateful!

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National Pride

I’m thinking the Queen is on to us. First, she throws her annual Garden Party to honor the good deeds of regular citizens in London the very day we’re at the gates of Buckingham Palace. As we fiercely held our places in the crowd, just hoping to catch a glimpse of the changing of the guard, two soldiers on horses approached the gate. They swung open and a royal procession of horses, police officers and cars with honored guests drove through the mob, into the inner sanctum of the palace yard. The gates swung shut but elevated cell phones continued to capture every move of these poor folks on the other side of the bars. It was only later, by asking folks around us, that we learned the cause for the pomp and jubilation (I don’t get to use that word nearly enough and this is as good a time as any!): a royal Garden Party! Splendid!

Yesterday my sisters and I were happily strolling along the Royal Mile in Ediinburgh (pronounced Edinboro with the end of the word falling off—Edinburra). Again there was a crowd massed around a wrought iron gate peering in with pairs of eyes and cell phone cameras. There were occasional cheers. We didn’t pay too much attention as we were taking in the new digs. The voyeuristic event seemed to end and the crowd dissipated. But after about 10 minutes we heard bagpipes. Truthfully there has been a bagpiper on the streets playing in full Celtic garb every time we’ve been out on the Royal Mile. But this was not the strains from one lone piper. The gates to the courtyard opened and a squadron of bag pipers marched out in unison, their music drawing people in. We soon realized something formal was happening as the musicians were preceded by a battalion of soldiers. They stared straight ahead and moved in sync. Royal Police cleared the way since the street is usually a pedestrian walkway. A couple of cars were led out with grand ceremony as we videotaped the event. Again, we didn’t know what party we had crashed. But, through frantic questioning of those around us, we learned that it was the annual Garden Party for honorable Scottish citizens, just as she had done for our benefit in London the week before! Though we never made it to the other side of the iron gates, she let us get pretty close! Long live the Queen!


Yesterday was our first full day in Edinburgh. In fact, for me it’s first time I’ve been in this country. You guessed it—Scotland claims a part of my roots. Two of my sisters have been here before and say that they feel like these are “their people.” I feel that way in England and my DNA cheek swab confirms this. I am 87% English, 5% Scottish, 5% Scandinavian and 3% something else. We’re anxious for the sisters to get results from a DNA test to see if the Genealogical Soup the six of us share as children of Jim and Katie Chapman has significantly different breakdowns of the same ancestry! Do the two who really relate to the Scots have a higher percentage of Scottish blood flowing through their veins, prompting them to wear plaid and whistle mournful bagpipe tunes like my grandmother did? Does my English make-up predispose me to laugh more heartily at Monty Python jokes? I jolly well think so!

The name that brings us to Scotland to close out this amazing journey is MacDougall. My paternal grandmother was named Katie Florence MacDougall. We have always had floating in our family photo gallery a grainy black and white print of her father, James, wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipe. There are times I have looked closely at that man and marveled that he is my great grandfather. He and his wife, Florence, raised a very musical family, immigrating first to Nova Scotia and then to Massachusetts. My grandmother’s affirmative response was always “Aye”, pronounced “Ayah.” She adopted the Boston speech pattern of dropping the “R” where it clearly is printed (i.e. ”Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd”) and adding it where it has no right to be heard (she called her father “Papper“ rather than Papa). We knew she had Scottish roots but really attached her more to Massachusetts than the British Isles. We were kids. It was hard to think beyond our experience.


But finding ourselves inadvertently in a royal parade with a bevy of bagpipers and uniformed RAF soldiers struck me deeply. In that moment as I stood alongside the fanfare with all the marks of a Scottish grand occasion I realized that this was me, to some extent. Once again I was witnessing sights and sounds that were familiar to my ancestors. My sisters shared similar reactions of experiencing uniquely Scottish goosebumps during the ad hoc parade! Our DNA had found a piece of home.


So I don’t have much theological insight about this experience. But I am realizing, as I look at monuments and lavish buildings built by generations of royals to commemorate generations of royal events (like marrying a woman, making her your Queen only to have her beheaded later! Not everything has a pretty ending!), that having a functional monarchy certainly has its advantages. Kings and Queens serve their best interests by showcasing their wealth in some exquisite way for their people and the world. Since their budget is quite lavish and their workforce is relatively unlimited, a bunch of spectacular stuff can be built that lasts for a really long time. Tourists like us get to visit and gawk and take pictures of which Prince did what when and what china pattern was created to commemorate the event. It’s a distinctly un-American political environment and funny that I should be reflecting on it today, July 4, 2018. There has been nothing Fourth of July-ish today, apart from wishing each other joy as American sisters. Instead we’ve witnessed what the beneficence of a faithful Queen toward do-gooder citizens can do to bolster the national joy of her people. Its quite easy to get pulled into the jubilation!
God save the Queen!

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Placing Walter

My father’s birth certificate gives us information about his father, Walter. His place of birth was listed as Rochdale in Lancaster, England. At the time of my dad’s birth in 1931 his father was 53. He married my grandmother later in life and became a dad when his contemporaries were welcoming grandchildren. My grandmother, much to the chagrin of her family initially, was twenty years younger than her groom. She insists she wouldn’t have changed a thing about their marriage. They were happy and had a quarter century to enjoy each other before he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 70. My father was a senior in high school. Walter never met his son’s beloved, my mother. He didn’t have the opportunity to play with his grandkids. Apart from family stories, Walter was lost to us. On this side of heaven we know people by physical place but my grandfather claimed no physical corner of my life. We gave our second son the middle name of Walter to honor the man we had never known. In our Nourishing Roots journey, Rochdale figured importantly.


We pulled into town around noon on a Friday. A stunning old building was marked as the town hall. Offering public parking, we took advantage of that and headed into a nearby pub for lunch: The Flying Lion. Assessing our options we saw a dish on the menu that cried out to us: Rag Pudding. That had to be a historic recipe! No self-respecting chef would give that name to a dish today. Sure enough, it’s a recipe that dates back to the 19th century when peasants would wrap a mix of ground beef and some spices into an old rag to give it some shape while it cooked. Think of it as meatloaf wrapped in phyllo but you remove the phyllo at when finished to reveal a savory dish served with brown gravy and a mash of peas (that’s a very popular menu item here, we’ve noticed). Nowadays, pushing poverty aside, the meat is cooked with a crust around it. We had no choice but to order it. We were meeting Walter through our food.


We know, from the copied page of an 1881 census, that Walter lived with his parents and maternal grandmother at 6 Broadley Place. His mother’s maiden name is Broadley. One couple sitting in our corner of restaurant looked approachable. They acknowledged that they were locals. Since our GPS didn’t pull up a location with the Broadley address I asked them if they had heard of it. Never. But she gave us crucial information. At an art gallery/local museum/archive office we could dig through artifacts from 125 years ago. It was within walking distance. After savoring our Rag Pudding (so-so, sorry to say) we headed to Touch Stones to try out our luck with the local data base.


However we didn’t get far because we were drawn into the local town hall that was across the street from the pub. There are so many buildings on this trip that are so grand and spectacular that we have felt pulled inside. An older gent sitting behind the reception desk told us that the spacious entryway was the only part of the building that we could explore. In all other areas the Rochdale government was in process on just another business day. They do offer tours but not on the day we were there. To give you an idea of the size of this building, the tours were 2 ½ hours long! My sister disapeared and returned wtih a woman who was willing to do the 5-minute tour! We happily followed her and she led us into an incredible banquet hall that is open to community members for celebrative events. Construction was completed in 1871, seven years before my grandfather was born. It makes complete sense that he would have been here with his parents or maybe his grandmother, Mary Broadley. We were already beginning to place Walter.


We walked on to Touch Stones and saw the needed bureau tucked back to the right of the entryway: Local Studies Centre. While my sisters explored the displays that comprised the Rochdale Museum (don’t you love small town pride?) I pried the very helpful women who sat behind computer screens near the entryway. My personal investigation quickly became their project. I had several questions I was hoping they could answer through the stacked and piled resources in the small office. Are there any baptismal records for Walter Chapman or his parents, Thomas and Maria? Could we pin down their home church? Are there records of any other Chapmans in local cemeteries? Could they help us find 6 Broadley Place listed as their address in 1881? One woman went one way and plopped onto the floor in front of some very large books. The other started shuffling through enormous plastic sleeves that held maps from the past. Soon we had some answers!


According to a map from 1892, 11 years after the census data, there was no Broadley Place. But there was a “Broad o’ th’ Lane Place. This could have been a longer version of the same street name. The archivist said that buildings in that area would not date back to the 1870’s but assured us that it was still a residential area. She gave us the needed post code for our GPS and we moved on to the next issue.
The Protestant church in town was St. Edmund`s. The Local Studies Centre had the records from the other churches in town but not that one. They gave me the email address I can use to track down those records. But there was something they found that indicated that the Chapmans were a part of that congregation. When we looked at the 1892 map we saw that the suspected neighborhood of my grandfather as a small child was within walking distance of St. Edmund’s. The pieces were fitting together even if they weren’t backed up with a paper trail yet.


Final issue: burial. I knew that my great grandparents and my grandfather are buried in New England, where we will travel in August. So I wasn’t looking for their final resting places. I was looking for traces of my family from earlier generations in this English town.There was only Chapman listed in their records: Thomas Chapman of Low Mill who died August 5, 1839 at the age of 54. This would probably put him a couple of generations before my great grandfather, Thomas and three generations before Walter. His name was listed in a tedious book that only an archivist could navigate: Schedule and Inscriptions—Disused Burial Ground, Drake Street (St. Chad’s New Burial Ground). This was the parish whose spire towered over the Town Hall with a daunting set of steps climbing up to it. She explained that a grave from that long ago was probably located in an enclosed area that housed historic markers that were no longer intact or standing. She was too polite and professional to use the word “creepy” but that’s really how she was describing the historic cemetery on the grounds of St. Chad’s. It would be nothing short of a miracle to find any evidence today of an earlier Thomas Chapman but at least we knew where to look.

Armed with postcodes, email addresses and vague indications of neglected tombs, we left Touch Stone with the obligatory books from their gift shop that could give us even more information about my Grampa Walter’s birthplace. We were ready to place Walter, the grampa we had never known.


We knew that St. Chad’s Church was in the general direction of the car, if you add a steep climb up a hill and subsequent descent. So we started hiking along a path and stairways that must have been there for close to 100 years. Of course our thoughts were always whether this was a pathway that might have been traversed by our very young grandfather nearly 140 years ago. St. Chad`s is a stunning cathedral that has a great view of Rochdale. We looked unsuccessfully for the abandoned graveyard. It didn’t really matter. We weren’t altogether sure that this Thomas was an ancestor and, if he was, it felt holy to simply walk among the other graves and know that he was buried out of this church almost 180 years ago. The tiled walkway that surrounds the church is a block mosaic of marking stones with inscriptions bearing names and dates: final love letters to the saints beyond. Just as we saw in the floor of so many ancient churches, the rectangular stone that sealed each tomb was laid right next to another so that the stone path we walked on was a stone quiltwork of Rochdale’s dead. We looked for the name of Thomas Chapman to no avail. We know that Walter’s grandfather perhaps lived his days in this town and was buried at St. Chad’s in a place marked only by history.


We returned to our car and plugged in the address given for the supposed residence. It took us away from the town center into an area that appears to be home now to hard-working laborers. We found ourselves on a street that presently is called Molyneaux. We parked and wondered if we had placed Walter correctly. I got out of the car to take some pictures and noticed that the string of homes where we were parked bore the even numbers stretching between 2 and 18. There was a tan home whose door was ajar: number 6. This could be the place! It wouldn’t have been the same buildings but it would have been the same street. The layout of the homes from the 1892 map looked similar to the long strings of tenements that stretched along the streets of this modest neighborhood now. When I turned back toward the car, having captured the desired pictures on my phone, I saw a stone tower looming above the rooftops. I shot a picture of that as well and joined my sisters in the car. I shared the news with them that the street number lined up for Walter’s 1881 home. My sister had pulled up a google image of St. Edmund’s Church so that we could hunt for that. When she showed me the Wikopedia image, it lined up perfectly with the tower I had seen over the homes! We got out of the car and started walking to church, right along the path, we imagined, of Maria, Thomas, young Walter and Grandma Mary. Once again we felt like we were placing Walter.


The walk to St. Edmund’s was easy. This would have been a natural choice for a spiritual home in an era when people walked to church. It was another impressive structure that dates back to 1873. Walter was born in 1878. We walked around the church which had a locked gate forcing us to keep our distance. Was our grandfather baptized here, welcomed into the faith that he would pass on to his children? Did he squirm in his mother’s arms as she invited God into her life for another week? We may find out definitive answers from the data base we can access by email in the town records. For now we wonder. We walked all the way around it, placing Walter in this sacred spot that now is used for community events and addiction outreach. Sadly it was closed for worship in 2007 and bears no signage that indicates an ongoing purpose apart from what we read on line. Though the Word is no longer preached in this place that perhaps welcomed my grandfather into the Christian faith, the Spirit moved from his life to my dad (who was ordained more than 50 years by the time he died) and later to me. Fortunately our faith is not reliant on places but on people who invite the Spirit to be their guide. The Word takes root not in real estate but in human hearts.
Although we didn’t have the hard data we might have liked for our grandfather’s past life in Rochdale, we left very contented that we had finally placed Walter!

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Chasing after Ghosts

A little boy sashayed his way through the cemetery on his scooter. School was out for the day and English mums were walking their children home. A path winds sweetly through the many tombstones in the yard of the Great Saint Mary Church in Sawbridgeworth, England. The contrast between the excited voices of children happily processing their day with hand-holding moms and scattered tombstones covering centuries of village life was remarkable.

My sisters and I were spread out throughout the church yard looking for the name “Seymour” as a link to our past. This was the strand of our roots that brought us to this charming English village.
We trace our roots back to a Reverend John Seymour who lived in that area. He was born in 1535 and died October 22, 1605. The odds are slim that we would find tangible traces of someone who breathed their last in the early 17th century. Tombstones that date back more than 150 years were very difficult to read. I have found myself wishing on our ChurchandGraveyardTour that I had newsprint and a fat crayola crayon with which I could do gravestone rubbings. That would be the only way to decipher whose name is inscribed on the aged stones.
One local woman walked by me on the path and said, in her awesome Yorkshire accent, “It’s good to see some interest in this cemetery.” I’ve learned to tell our story to folks we encounter. I told her that four of us sisters were looking for the name of ancestors that might be buried in this shaded lawn. I don’t have to tell her that we are from the states. People know even before we open our mouths. This British mum was helpful. She told me to go knocking on the door of the vicarage because they would inevitably be there to let us in the church. If not, the phone numbers on the posted sign might connect me with someone who could let us in.


It was the phone calls that brought a response. Interestingly, the first call revealed that the senior pastor is on sabbatical this summer. So next I called the church secretary. It was off hours so dead end. But it gave the number of the Associate Pastor so I dialed up that number. Rev. Debbie answered, learned we were on the premises right now and wanted in right now. Graciously, as she grasped our intrusion on her day, she told me, ‘I can pop over right now, if you wish?” I love that British brogue! “That would be great,” I responded with gratitude.

In five minutes she was there, wearing her clergy collar and holding a serious set of keys. She wielded a classic “church key” that opened one set of doors that opened into a small breezeway. In front of us was a 15’ high wooden church door that she told us was 600 years old. “If this door could talk…”, I mused. She reached her hand through an opening in the door and leveraged a handle on the inside to give us access to another stunning sanctuary.


The Great Saint Mary’s is built on a site that probably dates back to early pagan worship. The base of their clock tower is anchored with “Pudding Stone” that dates back to about 1086, the pre-Domesday era. There was a church built atop the ancient pagan ruins that was destroyed in time. The present sanctuary, which was erected in the 15th century, was built out of flintstone and mortar. Both Elizabeth the First and Anne Boleyn worshiped in this sacred space. Like so many of the churches we have entered, the walls and floors are filled with memorial plaques and engraved family crests that honor the dead. Our hope was to find physical evidence of Rev. John Seymour in the building but we did not. We will have to write to a source in the village that holds genealogical records from centuries past.


Rev. Debbie was gracious, answering our questions and leaving us to scour the building as we wished. I climbed up into another impressive pulpit which housed a tattered Bible on a lone shelf. I opened it up to see when it was published. Inscribed in casual handwriting in the opening page were the words, “Gt. St. Mary’s Church, Sawbridge. Pulpit Bible.” I had a couple of thoughts when I looked at the tattered Bible: 1) This is really old, and 2)Their people must have better eyesight than ours because I can’ imagine being the lay liturgist and having to read from this tiny print! It has obviously been well used by the faithful in this parish and fueled a Christian devotion such that Great St. Mary’s is a vital church still today.
We’re discovering on this trip that many of our stops raise more questions than they answer. We want to know more about the ancestors who raised families, preached the gospel, and cultivated gardens here. I can see how folks can spend decades delving into family history to track limbs on family trees that are sometimes clearly filled in with firm handwriting and documentation. Other times the lines to the past are tenuous. We are the living chasing after ghosts whose DNA still drives us today. We felt the saintly presence of our Seymour roots in this town. Google confirms this as fact when we search for “John Seymour of Sawbridgeworth.” But we don’t know much more than that…yet! I’ve sent an email today to one of our family members whose genealogical research has been a great blessing to us. I’m hoping our exploring, that barely scratches the surface of family history, will inspire us forward in search of our past.

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Still Life

Our goal was simple when we rented a car in Amsterdam: to return it with no responsibility for bicyclist fatalities. Bikers clearly have priority in this Dutch city. Several locals joked with us that there are more bikes than people in Holland. One look at the multi-level bike parking ramp at the Amsterdam train station and it appears to be more than myth. Cyclists have their own lane right next to cars. They seem to have the premier right of way followed by taxi drivers, buses then pedestrians. Oh yeah. Mo-peds can zip along at some 30 miles an hour legally in the bike lane. So every turn with your car is fraught with mortal risk. Garrett opted to drive so Maria and I were charged with looking out for bikers and walkers at every juncture.

Amsterdam is an amazing city but we felt relieved to journey eastward, leaving urban for rural. The Dutch countryside is stunning in its tranquility. Fields stretch in every direction with grains in varied hues of green and gold. Colorful flowers are in the fields and flowerboxes. In this lowland, water shows up all the time, rippling with waves from contented duck couples swimming about or flat-bottom boats steered by unhurried drivers. Modern windmills dot the land, replacing the traditional ones featured in artwork. We settled into our hotel room in Kalenberg which is right on a canal. Sitting on the balcony with a fresh breeze and birds happily chirping around me, I breathed in deeply this still life.


We were in the Dutch countryside with the goal of visiting towns related to Garrett’s ancestors. After a remarkable worship experience in Nijeveen (which I reflected on in my last post), we headed toward the small town of Wirdum. We were armed with a print-out of directions by a cousin that told us where to go and why. Wirdum is the village where VanHalsemas hammered out a life as silversmiths in the 1700’s. These directions, like a treasure map, told us to retrieve the key to the local church from a particular house that is situated right across the street. That there is a keymaster (a la Ghostbusters, right?) seemed like a the classic attribute of a small European town. We mentioned our instructions to our waiter who served us a delicious lunch while we worked up the courage to steal a key. He was in on it! He gave us more precise directions: the key was found on the back side of the left-hand pillar in an enclosure on this family’s private property. Thus dispelling any images I had of spending time in a Dutch jail, we left the restaurant and headed to the Keymaster’s house.


He was sitting in his living room in full view as we took the key. If we doubted the old age of the church, the key confirmed that it pre-dated our 171 year old church (the oldest congregation in our little town of Rockford). The key itself was about four inches long and was attached by a heavy chain to a metal ball about the size of an orange.

The man waved at Maria through his living room window so we decided that the key was indeed there for the taking.
The 13th century church was right across the way with an old brick path leading up to the front door. Even though the key audibly turned something inside the old door, we couldn’t get it to open. We reluctantly gave up on our own skills and decided we would have to bother the Keymaster to be let in. How many times did this happen to him, we wondered? After two timid knocks at his door and, finally, a doorbell, he answered. Any anxiety we had about irritating him was quickly dispelled. When we confessed our ineptitude he responded in good English. His name was James. His mother was English and had married a Hollander. Hence his ease with our language. When we explained our genetic link to the place he was immediately interested. It turns out that our inability to unlock the door was our good fortune. James became our willing guide and told us more about the church than we ever would have known on our own. When we said that we were related to the VanHalsema who was buried in the church his jaw dropped. Just two hours earlier another contingent of visitors had come seeking out the key and they, too, were VanHalsemas. They were not American, he told us. They were Dutch. Like a family tree road rally, it seemed like Garrett’s distant family members were scampering over the countryside just ahead of us looking for ancestry landmarks. What are the odds?!

James confirmed some of the descriptions in the family email. DJF VanHalsema was buried under the stone floor in the chancel area of the sanctuary. His grave is marked with a black stone that has the family crest etched into it. We didn’t know there was such a thing! James told us that the practice of burying people in the floor of churches was replaced at some point with moving the burial ground to just outside the building. When a body was newly interred in an ancient church, they would leave the space open for several weeks before closing it in with a marker. Predictably this allowed for an odor to permeate the church as the body…cured. The only folks who earned the privilege of being buried in a church building were those of great financial means. From this outmoded practice comes the expression “stinking rich.”


DFJ VanHalsema was the first to add the “van” before the name. He worked with silver and one of his pieces is in a museum in Groningen. He lived in a lovely manor called Rust Hoven that is owned privately and has a sweeping, tree-lined driveway that leads up to it. We decided not to bother these country folk for a tour even though James urged us to do so. The other VanHalsemas had already been there that day and had been warmly welcomed. We didn’t want to push our hospitality luck so we drove up to ogle it from afar. Clearly this 18th century forefather had money that allowed him to claim a crest and an inside plot!


In the small but lovely building James showed us the family pew box that has the crest carved into the back of it. There were only two other pew boxes and they were not owned by private families. He had learned that I was a pastor so he invited me to climb up into the pulpit to give it a feel. It’s moving for me to think of who has faithfully served God in different places. How many preachers had poured themselves into a sermon that gave these villagers enough hope to get past a drought, a battle, an untimely death? He suggested we try out the pipe organ which dates back hundreds of years. On keys with tarnished ivory, I played the only song I know by memory: Your Song by Elton John. I doubt that Sir Elton has ever figured into the worship at the Kerk van Wirdum before! It was either the open door or the strange music that drew in a couple of the village children. They looked around the small sanctuary with wide eyes then ran out to play in the yard across from the church. James gave us an hour or so of his time on a Sunday afternoon and we parted as friends.


The Dutch countryside offers a still life that is nourishing. We`ve been in countless museums on this trip and many of our favorite painters are drawn to the countryside. They capture the beauty of nature in different seasons and times of day. They choose as their subjects lowly workers who represent the average villager, like The Milkmaid by Vermeer or the Postman by VanGogh. We spent an afternoon in Monet’s garden in Giverny where he created an Eden that moved his brushes for several decades. Cezanne positioned ordinary items like fruit, flowers and the occasional slain goose with its neck askew to portray the blessing of simple gifts. While I love the buzz of a large city and the cultural opportunities it affords, I think we were created for the more rural setting that connects us more readily to Creation. In village life we met folks who were willing to share their time and kindness with us even though they owed us nothing. The call to hospitality trumped whatever else they had planned.

As we drove back into the wonderful chaos of Amsterdam, leaving the still life behind, I wondered if I would be as available to unexpected guests as was James?