Think of the rock from which you came, the quarry from which you were dug. Think of your ancestor, Abraham, and of Sarah, from whom you are descended. – Isaiah 51: 1 – 2
And so I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this rock foundation I will build my church, and not even death will ever be able to overcome it. – Matthew 18: 18
One of my favourite Cat Stephens songs is Morning is Broken. I love its straight forward beauty, its ability to take me from the franticness of modern life to a place that seems simpler, more elemental. It has all the qualities that make up a good church hymn: playable on a variety of instruments, easy to sing along to, and puts you in a reflective and thankful frame of mind.
One of the reasons it sounds like a church hymn is because it is one. It wasn’t originally written by Cat Stephens, but a shy and gentle children’s author called Eleanor Farjeon, who wrote it in 1931. Eleanor was a prolific author, publishing over 80 works during her life. She also has quite a strong link to New Zealand: her father, Benjamin Farjeon, emigrated to here in 1861 and worked as the sub-edited for the Otago Daily Times for a period whilst doing what he really loved – writing novels and plays. Benjamin ended up moving back to England but Eleanor grew up hearing about her father’s time at the bottom of the world. She must have felt quite a strong connection to New Zealand, as she donated quite a large collection of her books to the Dunedin Public Library which they still have and occasionally put on display.
I came across Eleanor and her father while I was researching for a piece of writing I was doing. The piece was about the Taranaki region in the 1860s and I was wanting to get a sense of what it was like for the colonists living in New Zealand at the time. As part of my research, I read the work of my great-great-great-great-grandfather (plus or minus a great), a man called William Golder. Golder has been credited as one of New Zealand’s first published poets and was a compatriot of Benjamin Farjeon. I thought reading his poems might give me a sense of what the world was like all those years ago. To my delight, I found a book that had a foreword dated the same month and year as my text was looking at. Reading the foreword, I had an overpowering feeling of looking back into time, through the eyes of my ancestor. It remains one of the more powerful experiences of my life.
The readings from Isaiah and Matthew above both deal with the questions ‘who are you?’, and ‘where do you come from?’ In the Isaiah reading, the focus is on our ancestors. As John Dunne tells us: no one is an island. We did not spring out of the ground fully formed. We have an unbroken line of ancestors reaching back into the distant past. I have spoken to more than one person who studied their family’s histories and discovered they share personality traits, interests, even careers with people from the distant past whom they have never met. Such discoveries seem to give most people both an uneasy sense that they are not the masters of their own destiny, as well as a feeling of security from getting a glimpse of larger forces at play in their lives. We are all rocks from the same quarry, as the Isaiah reading tells us.
In the reading from Matthew, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They answer that some people think he’s John the Baptist, others say Elijah. Maybe he’s Jerimiah or a prophet. There is clearly some uncertainty as to who Jesus is and where he has come from. People can sense that he has some sort of special lineage but cannot name the source. It is only when Christ asks them ‘Who do you say I am’, that Peter gives him a direct answer: ‘you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ It is here that Christ famously declares that Peter will be the rock on which he will build his church. We sometimes forget that common rock, I think. It is in every church we sit in, the songs we sing, the words we pray. When we go to church on Sunday morning, we are reaching back into the distant past. A past we are all connected to, whether we like it or not.
I have always struggled with my vocation as a writer. It doesn’t pay well and it’s incredibly frustrating. Many authors live difficult lives in poverty and even the successful ones don’t receive recognition until after they’ve died. I also struggle with the nagging suspicion I should be spending time doing more productive things, that the hours I spend writing are a self-indulgent waste. But when I look back through my family tree I see it lettered with authors. My mother is an English professor; my father was an English teacher; my grandmothers on both sides of my family are/were excellent writers. When I look into my family tree, I see a quarry which God has mined for words he wants to bring into the world. As I write this reflection I can feel myself being mined. Writing is not something I do for fun, it is part of who I am.
My challenge for you today is to ask yourself the question: ‘who am I?’, and ‘where do I come from? To look back into the lives of the people who have come before you and see if you can see anything you can recognise in yourself. It could be that there is an untapped quarry that God would like to mine.