Fathers, Family and Future
In the last three weeks, two of my great uncles died. They were 94 and 87 - extraordinarily great ages, and both had deteriorating health so it wasn't unexpected. The proximity of their deaths to one another was quite startling though, and it has marked the end of an era in our family. They were the last of seven siblings to pass away.
Their own father died before any of them hit teenage years. One sister had already passed away in childhood, and the remaining sister and five brothers had to work out their place in the world without him. I didn't get to meet my grandad, the youngest of them, as he also died when my father and his siblings were young. The other four brothers then, my great uncles, came to represent to me what he would've been like.
They were hard working, family centred men who spent most of their lives farming and ministering at their local churches. Dependable, solid, with cheeky senses of humour - pillars of the community type people. On the farms they worked on and the churches they served in, they created places that were safe and open, that welcomed and encouraged younger people to feel seen and equipped to do something valuable with their lives.
Here they are at some point in the 1960s with their wives, mother and sister, before my grandad died. Uncle George and Uncle John are the two who most recently passed.
These pictures are from a book that the oldest brother Bill wrote in 2004. I'm so glad we have this record of our family history. As I revisited it this week to remind myself of their story, I came across the names of two other men, long gone and whom I know nothing else about.
These were Richard Atkinson and Will Hodgson and they're important to me because they set my family on a path over a century ago that is still having an impact today. Richard Atkinson was was a minister up in Sedbergh in the mid-19th century and was instrumental in a revival movement up there (when many people become Christians all at once). This incuded a couple called William & Elizabeth Dawson, whose daughter Isabella was my great grandmother. Will Hodgson simply worked alongside my great-grandfather on a farm when he was a teenager and his behaviour and faith had such an impact on James Parkinson that he began to attend the Methodist Church and became a Christian.
If these men hadn't been ministering in the way they did more than a century ago, my great grandparents may not have chosen to walk in the Christian faith. If they hadn't, James and Isabella wouldn't have been at the Fylde Christian Convention* where they met in 1920. Even if they had still somehow found each other and had children, they wouldn't have brought them up in the wider church environment that became their foundation, and that generation wouldn't have had the same outlook on family and faith. The next generation (22 survived into adulthood) were all raised in church and so their early social years revolved around church and most of them met their future partners there. By my calculations, they went on to parent 55 children, and so far there are something like 35 great-grandchildren in my own kids' generation - numbers start to get hazy at this point.
Whether you believe in God or not, there is no doubt that for all these family members, they have been given the best potential foundation for life by the choices that were made by the generations before. In the midst of our wider story, there have been many rebellious teenage years, some children who have been born unexpectedly, marriages that have broken down, some who have chosen not to make Christianity the centre of their life - there has been freedom to choose the same path or a different one from the generation before. There have also been an extraordinary amount of preachers and leaders, missionaries who have travelled the world to make it a better place, people who have chosen to step-parent and adopt children into the family, business owners, charity workers and community builders. I feel that my family is a people of door-openers, always seeking ways to encourage and include other people, creating community where others can thrive at the same time as leading our own households.
Biologically, spiritually and relationally, these men pictured above were fathers. That choice to invest in church and family has had wide-spreading impact. Creating safe spaces for people to flourish in is something we can all work towards. It doesn't matter if we are in the fourth generation of a solid faith-filled family, or if we are the ones starting a new legacy afresh. The story of my family probably isn't that common - it's pretty unusual for one family to get so large in just four generations, and for almost all of them to still live locally and still be actively invested in the same faith as their great-grandparents. But it does give hope that the relationships we are invested in today can have unlimited potential for the future. I wonder how many people rejected Richard Atkinson and Will Hodgson when they were spreading the message God had put on their heart. I wonder how tired my great grandma, and then my own grandma, became of getting six young children to church every Sunday morning by themselves. There were probably many times they thought all their effort was going to come to nothing.
We have no idea how we are changing the lives of people who haven't even been born yet, with the way we are living our lives and the message we are communicating to one another. When we get the opportunity to father and mother and befriend other people, we should take it. Let's be community builders and door openers for other people, because it is so worth it.
We won't know the full impact of our own story while we only see things from our own perspective but I'm looking forward to the same heavenly "Well done" that Uncle John, Uncle George and all the rest of the family that have passed so far have received.
Let us not grow weary in doing good,
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest
if we do not give up.
*The Fylde Convention took place at Inskip Baptist Church which is a really special place for our family because it is the final resting place for many of them, including my son and husband. It was only when I revisited the book this week that I realised that this was also the place where our family's story began.