Barbara Coffin was the planned speaker at semi-programmed worship September 16, 2012.
Why am I so endlessly curious about my ancestry? I am not one of those people who is anxious to prove how American I am by waving the Mayflower flag. At the same time, it is fascinating to know that one of my ancestors is that staunch Puritan, John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Do I bear any of his characteristics? Well, yes, I think so. I am steadfast in my values. But do I detect a bit of piousness, pride or prejudice? Very probably. But then, lest I get too Puritan hoity-toity, there is George Corwin, great-grandson of John Winthrop, who was the overly-conscientious and brutal sheriff of Salem who carried out the hanging of the witches. Although some of his descendants claim that he repented, I can find no extenuating historical record on his behalf.
As though it weren’t enough to be cursed on my mother’s side of the family tree, my father’s side yields a very bad apple too. George Washington Knight was not only a horse thief, but also a bigamist!
Alas, how many illustrious ancestors does it take to wipe away such a stain on the family honor? I’ve named only three examples of the millions of men and women whose genes make up my being. I am part of every hero who ever lived – and every villain – and all those in between. We are all connected right back to those original primates who broke the connection with other primates and became human beings. I don’t believe in the theological idea of being doomed by Original Sin and being salvaged only by faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. But it is clear that our nature consists of both good and bad and many degrees in between.
Where am I trying to go with this? I recognize in myself a great interest in relationships and connectedness. When I meet people, I immediately start searching for things that could tie them to other people I know, events I’ve heard of, places I’ve been. In fact, I think this is a characteristic of human beings. We are interested not just in immediate satisfaction of our basic needs, but we want to “make something of it.” We want to explore the unknown. We want to predict the Future. And then we take the next step. We want to control the Future.
But to do that, we have to find out everything there is about the world. Well, not just the world – the Cosmos, for Heaven’s Sake! So were the ancient writers of the Bible on to something when they said that the first bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge doomed us to tragedy? No, I don’t think so. The decision of those early primates to try something new, to challenge their fate, started us on a journey toward finding our connection to everything that exists – not just our family, our neighborhood, our church, our country, but to every tiny speck of stardust through the endless stretch of time and timelessness.
I recently read a novel by Louise Erdrich called The Master Butcher’s Singing Club. The butcher’s wife Eva, a devout Catholic, who had left Germany after World War I to make her home in a tiny town in the vastness of North Dakota, is dying. She calls her sons into the room and tells them she has seen something very reassuring and that it didn’t have to do with the church, even the One True Church. It didn’t have to do with taking communion or getting confirmed by the bishop.
She says, “It don’t matter if you do these things now. If you must need them, do them. But the plan is greater, I am telling you. The plan knows the huge thing, and it accounts for the little fingernail. If I die, don’t take it too hard. Death is only part of things bigger than we can imagine. Our brains are just starting the greatness, to learn how to do things like flying. What next? You will see, and you will see that your mother is of the design. And I will always be made of things and things will always be made of me. Nothing can get rid of me because I am already included into the pattern.”