VIEW VIDEO  I went with two of my siblings and my cousin to southern Illinois last weekend to revisit the haunts from our childhood. Most of the people we visited as children are now deceased, inhabiting various graveyards in Franklin County, Illinois, so much of our time was spent hobnobbing with the dearly departed.

Thanks to a cemetery app I had on my smartphone, we were able to find where our ancestors were buried, and even directions to the cemeteries, which proved helpful, since several of the cemeteries we visited were remote and small, tucked in behind old defunct country churches. Once we found the cemeteries, it was a simple matter of walking up and down the short rows for a few minutes to locate our ancestors. Until we arrived at the Maple Grove Cemetery, just north of Sesser, whose population is 1,800 people. Driving there, I thought, “This will be easy. How big can this graveyard be if the town has only 1,800 people? It can’t be very big.”

But when we arrived, we discovered the Maple Grove Cemetery held 5,314 graves in 31 quarter-mile long rows. Seven and three-quarter miles of gravestones, so we began walking up and down the rows, looking for our great-grandfather, David Petway Gulley, with no success.

It turns out that while the smartphone app was great at telling us the cemeteries where our ancestors were buried, it told us nothing about where they could be found once we had arrived at the cemeteries.

We’ve been reflecting on the earliest maps in our lives, be they people or paper, and the effect they have on our lives. Today, I want to talk about the limitations of maps, one of which is the limited knowledge they impart. No map can communicate everything, there is always more to learn, our knowledge is always partial and never complete, or as the Apostle Paul so poetically said, “We see in a mirror dimly.” There is always more to learn.

I remember when I graduated from seminary 31 years ago, telling myself I knew everything I needed to know to be a pastor. I was feeling very full of myself. Then a month later I find myself smack in the middle of a church fight with no idea what to do. It turns out they didn’t teach psychological warfare at the seminary I attended. So I went to see my superintendent to ask his advice about what I should do. The superintendent, who had been in that position since God was a teenager, said, “The problem with that congregation is that years before they’d had a pastor with vision problems, and they never resolved it.” I asked him how in the world a pastor with vision problems could cause problems for a church, and he said, “Well, this minister’s eyesight was so bad that one day he mistook his secretary for his wife, and that church has struggled ever since.”

Well, I hadn’t known that. I guess there’s always more to learn. The maps only get us so far, don’t they?

Think how often we enter circumstances and situations thinking we know all we need to know. I remember when Joan and I first married, how no one could tell me anything about what it meant to love, because I was certain no one had ever loved someone as deeply and perfectly as I loved Joan. We’d been married maybe a month or two, and up until then things had been going great. She’d say, “I love you.” And I’d say, “I love you more.” And she’d say, “No, I love you more.”

But then one day I did something stupid, really dumb, dumb, dumb, and Joan looked at me, and I knew immediately what she was thinking. She was thinking how nice it would be to be single. She didn’t say it, but I could tell she was thinking it. That was certainly a learning experience. There’s always something more to learn.

So there we were last weekend, down at the Maple Grove Cemetery, looking for my great-grandfather’s tombstone, David Petway Gulley. We’d maybe looked at 4,000 tombstones by then and I was starting to dislike him. I was wishing he’d been cremated, and they’d thrown his ashes in a creek. But we kept looking and my brother Glenn finally found him, right there underneath a tree alongside my great-grandmother, Leona Echols Gulley, who from what I had always been told was a genuine piece of work. There they were.

We looked at their gravestone for a while, then left the cemetery and went to visit a second cousin we hadn’t seen in probably 50 years. She’s the family historian. We didn’t tell her we were coming, we just showed up on her doorstep. All four of us. She didn’t recognize us at first, so when she opened the door, I asked if we could come in and talk to her about Jesus, but then she recognized my sister, and was happy to see us. She lived in the house David Petway Gulley had built back in the early 1900s, and she told us all the family secrets, things my parents never talked about, the death of little children and the broken marriages, and the decline into alcoholism of so many of my ancestors. Listening to them, I thought of my own father’s struggle with alcohol and how angry it had made me. When he was alive, I never tried to understand it. I just got angry about it, and thought it was a simple matter. He drank too much and needed to stop. But listening to our family historian, I realized it wasn’t simple at all, that the roots of that sickness ran deep in our genes. I thought I’d known all there was to know about my family, but there’s always something more to learn. Isn’t it funny how often we set down the shovel because we think the hole is dug, when in fact we’ve barely broken ground? There’s always something more to learn, some work that lies unfinished.

It was the Catholic sister, Joan Chittister, who wrote, “In our dreams lies our unfinished work for the world.” There is always something more to learn, something more to understand, something more to which we can aspire. In our dreams lies our unfinished work for the world. There is always something more to learn.

A Quaker Query: Has my lack of knowledge caused me to treat others poorly? Am I careful to see the full picture, the true picture, of others, especially those who I find difficult to love?