VIEW VIDEO My family on my Dad’s side were coal miners from southern Illinois, to the chagrin of my paternal grandmother who wanted everyone to think she was from England and personal friends with the Queen. She and my grandfather had lived in London for about ten years after the war and had actually met the Queen, a 5 minute visit with several hundred other Americans working in Britain, a brief visit that over the ensuing years, in her world of fantasy, morphed into a deep personal friendship. She and the Queen on a first-name basis, with the Queen saying, “Call me Elizabeth and I’ll call you Lois.” That’s what my grandmother would have you believe. She never liked being reminded that she’d been born in Valier, Illinois and had married a coal miner. So of course, we reminded her, every chance we got.
All my dad’s family would return each summer to Valier and be dispersed among the relatives to stay. It was the highlight of our summer, a weekend in Valier. I would stay at my second cousin Clarence’s house. Clarence was the town’s only policeman, by virtue of owning a used Harley-Davidson police motorcycle he’d purchased at a junkyard, and agreeing to serve for free. He had a daughter, Laurie, my third cousin, who was indescribably beautiful and someone I wanted to marry, but didn’t, because I was only 14 and because I didn’t want to have children with 12 toes, which my brother Glenn warned me was a regular occurrence when cousins married.
But just to be in her presence for a weekend each summer was gift enough. I was thinking of her this week, then wondered why, because I hadn’t thought of her for years, then it occurred to me it wasn’t her I was thinking about, but reunions, and more specifically, our reunion today, after a long absence from one another. We’ve been apart 455 days. When our separation began, we anticipated a two-week absence, which soon became a month, and then a year, and now we are reunited after 1 year, 2 months, and 29 days.
When the Jewish people were scattered, they would, upon leaving one another say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” They said this even when there was no Jewish Jerusalem for them, when bigotry and segregation and political and religious discrimination prevented their return, consigning them to ghettos around the world. To say “next year in Jerusalem,” was to express hope that one day their circumstances might change. It was the promise of a better day.
Everyone has a Jerusalem, a place of gathering and memory, that symbolizes for them the world as it ought to be, the world as we want it to be. That world is always in the future, it’s always next year. It is aspirational, because we need something to look forward to, something to dream about, work toward, and long for. For 455 days, we’ve been anticipating this simple act of gathering together, greeting one another, sitting in this companionable silence, maybe even learning a little something about ourselves and God. Experiencing our little Jerusalem right here.
I was talking with a pastor the other day who’s big into church growth, who said to me, “My church has lost an entire year. We’re way behind schedule.” Behind schedule? According to whom? This is a mindset I’ve never understood, this notion that the church should have strategic objectives by which its value is measured. But this pastor believed his church had fallen behind and he was fretting about what to do. He asked me what my pastoral objectives were and I told him I wanted Fairfield to have a pitch-in dinner as soon as it was safely and humanly possible. How does a church even fall behind schedule? And who made the schedule in the first place?
I also told him we had the exact opposite experience, that we were ahead of schedule, that we had exited the pandemic with new friends from all around the world, and had been reunited with old friends who had moved away. I said it in words I knew he’d understand, “that we had met and surpassed our objectives with the assistance of a development team trained in mass communication, community building, and online marketing.” It sounded so much more impressive than saying, “Treg and John set up a Zoom account and taught us not to say dumb things when we thought we were muted.”
Behind schedule? On the contrary, we’ve learned a great deal this year, haven’t we?
We’ve learned that when you entrust the governance of a nation to those who’ve achieved power by mocking and disparaging the mutual human effort we call government, they will lack the knowledge and desire to help and heal. Caring only for their power, they will be powerless to care.
We’ve learned that essential front-line workers, those most vulnerable to Covid, performed most bravely and faithfully. They fed us, they tended us when we were ill, they were often the last ones to clean and comfort our parents and grandparents dying in nursing homes. We’ve learned that how we value them and what we pay them is disgraceful and must improve.
We’ve learned that the isolation of a pandemic can for a few people be restorative, but for most people is lonely and frightening, so we learned again the importance of friendship and community and reaching out.
I have learned that I didn’t have to go all the way to Valier, Illinois to find my family, that what constitutes a family is less about shared DNA patterns, and more about shared values, shared affection, and shared compassion, and that sometimes all of those things overlap, but not always. When I realized that, it occurred to me I had found my family in all of you, so to be with you today is more joy than I can say. Welcome home, family. Let me close with a query. What have you learned these past 455 days?