“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). I had been in a time warp. Janet and I had gathered with my family in Draper, Virginia, to celebrate my mother’s ninetieth birthday. The entire weekend was drenched in the constant rain of nostalgia, beginnings, formative times, and endings.
First, there was a mother, grandmother, great grandmother, aunt, widow, and sister celebrating her nine decades of life. She had known the depths and the heights that come with birth, life, and death in God’s wounded creation. She had buried her parents and all but one of her siblings. She had buried her husband after fifty-four years of marriage. She had buried her youngest son and a grandson in the midst of their years. But she is now the matriarch of a family that saw three sons enter the Christian ministry and two daughters marry ministers. She is the matriarch of five children, 18 grandchildren, and 20 great grandchildren.
In the celebration there were many prayers filled with memories and thanksgiving. There was also much levity: In a toast from the “black sheep” of the family, mom was reminded that we were not surprised at her longevity, as “only the good die young.” But the truth I had learned from her was that we are all black sheep and that Jesus came to die for those errant, sinful sheep.
Contemplating her beginning in Dallas, Texas, in February 1914, I surmised that no one could have dreamed what God would do with her life. But her achievements didn’t just happen. They were accomplished through faith and devotion to God, through commitment to parents, husband, and children, and through hard work and godly goals. Christian marriages and godly children are not created by worshiping at the temples of materialism, power, and pleasure. It is not the size of the house that counts; it is the “heart” of the home that matters.
Such high achievements are won by brave, sacrificing souls wrestling day-by-day with the dark, pervasive powers of this fallen world. So, in reality, we celebrated the birthday of a battle-scarred, tough, persevering, gracious, veteran — a true lady of the kingdom. Watching her this weekend I was reminded of what God has called me to be as a man, son, husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, and cousin.
I was also forced to consider my own beginnings as I sat in the church of my youth that Sunday morning. For thirteen years I had inhabited the ancient pews of Draper’s Valley Presbyterian Church. The church building had been erected in that picturesque setting in 1832. There are descendants of those Calvinistic pioneers who still sit in that sanctuary today. As I looked around, the pews were different, the frosted, arched windows were the same, the adapted gas light chandeliers were still the same, the choir was still beside the pulpit area, and the pulpit furniture was the same. I saw men with whom I had attended church, Sunday school, and Bible school fifty years ago. Most of all I saw a church that had remained faithful to God’s Word and vibrant for 172 years. I did not realize it when I was ten years old, but the Lord was beginning even then to form in my mind the biblical picture of the church that resides in my mind today. That small country church is a bastion of stability. With all the current change upon change in our world, sameness and stability are not bad words; in fact, in our world they are gospel words.
When I left my brief visit to the sanctuary of my childhood Sunday morning, I found myself hoping and yearning that one Sunday 150 years from then (2154) a descendant of my family would be able to sit in the sanctuary of the church I serve and see sameness and stability, see the children of great grandparents who had served Christ there, see a high view of worship, and drink the rich wine of the traditions of the Reformed faith that were bottled by faithful men and women year after year. Such a church, like a godly family, doesn’t just happen. It is born, formed, and built through the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of God’s Word, through constant prayer, through love that conquers disagreements, through hard fought battles with a relentless world, through wise and bold leadership, through God-given challenges that cannot be accomplished in our own strength. Such churches are not built by folks who wander from church to church; they are not built by congregations who follow after the latest “new twist” that seems to be working; they are not built easily, for we are in the midst of a world that seeks to destroy such churches daily.
Soon, the visit to the past ended. I returned home — home to my family and to a relatively young church. But the Lord has vividly reminded me that godly families and godly churches are not easily built. In both, future generations are shaped. The faith of mothers and fathers is handed down, batons are passed. Thus, families and churches are worth the blood, sweat, and tears; they are worth the hard work and perseverance; they are priceless.