That night, I played a concert in a little church in Kalmar, and, try as I might, I didn’t see anyone that looked any more like me than than they do anywhere else (though their fingers might have been of the slightly floppy sort). Still, with a week or so of research I would almost certainly be able to find some distant cousins, mutual descendants of Nils Petersson. The people were warm and kind, and there was an audible response when I told them about my connection to Kalmar. I sang “Lay Me Down”, a song about my geographical roots in America (Illinois? Florida? Tennessee?), and realized, as silly as it sounds, that I need to add this little coastal Swedish town to that list.
It’s such a gift that these people from my past are in some measure knowable. I have seen their castle. I have walked the same stony ground. I have smelled the sea air in autumn. So often in the U.S. I meet people with striking surnames and ask them where the name came from–and they shrug. It’s never occurred to them once to learn about this name they’re marked by, this identifier they carry all their lives, which their children will also carry. Rich Mullins said once that we can’t choose which family we’re born into, so there’s a lot to learn from it. We should pay attention to it. Ask ourselves why God might have put us in that family, in that story, and not another. Ask your parents about their parents, and theirs before them. Learn their reasons for boarding the ship. Press in. Encounter the long suffering and secret joy of your forbears. Unearth the mystery of their silence.
Then board the plane for home, see yourself in the story your descendants will tell, and kiss the ground where your children play. You are living a life that is not just your own. Your story will be told, by someone, somewhere, in some age. Behind you trails a shimmering strand that weaves among the people in your life, and binds your story to theirs. Before you is the story of your fathers and mothers, and part of your toil is to cling to its light as it leads you down those old roads.
But some of us may look into the past and see darkness, or nothing at all. There may be little that is laudable about the choices of our ancestors; they may be dead branches on the family tree. We may be struck with fear that our choices will inexorably be theirs. That is a lie. Evil’s power is destruction, a weak and sloppy thing compared to the music of light and beauty. If you look into the past and see desolation, it falls to you to hover over those waters and sing a new song. The canvas is yours to fashion as you will. Step into the love of Christ, let him clothe you with mercy and equip you with his power. Then in strokes broad and bright, fill your canvas with love and truth–then even your worst choices will only brighten the picture. And that is a great mystery.
Look back. Look forward. Then walk with a sense of your place in time and space. Listen by faith for the great cloud of witnesses to cheer you on in the long defeat. In a hundred years, when your grandchildren’s children ask about you, the answer will drip with honey. May they taste and see that the Lord is good.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.