“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus,the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” -Hebrews 12:1-3
The great cloud of witnesses surrounding me gained one additional member early this morning. My Aunt Virginia “Jenny” Hayes was promoted to the celestial shore, joining her beloved mother, husband, and her brother, who passed just a few weeks ago. My Aunt Jenny, sister of my Father, was present in most of my memories growing up as she and her family lived adjacent to our family home in rural Arkansas.
Personal and collective memories are often measured by the clock and by the calendar. The events of our lives are torn away with each passing year and discarded into the past, only to be retrieved in those moments of nostalgia and memorial. But what if our lives were measured not by linear standards of past, present, and future, but rather, measured like the life of an old growth tree? With concentric circles of relationships, knowledge, experience and ritual ever widening from our inception and eternally remaining a part of our identity.
From this perspective, my memories of my Aunt Jenny isn’t something to merely recall, rather it is something to be embraced and absorbed, becoming living parts of my perpetual present. This paradigm leads to a better understanding of the self and our collective histories, examined through the lens of an ever-evolving kaleidoscope instead of the sterile lens of a microscope. Or to paraphrase the words of Hebrews 11:4 “By faith Jenny still speaks.”
The faith of my Aunt spoke consistently throughout her life. I recall many instances when the love of her heart was revealed in her laughter and the tears. She maintained a disposition of kindness towards all, informed by a life empowered by the Holy Spirit. Along with a conviction that God is good and His grace is sufficient.
During the lazy summer days that were frequent in the Arkansas Delta, it was my Aunt Jenny that first suggested that I read a book or two from her collection. Her front porch with a collection of ragamuffin farm cats as an audience, provided for me opportunities to explore words on the pages of books for the first time. I recall fondly the first book I ever completed was a suggestion from my Aunt. And while the nuances of The Adventures of Huck Finn were lost on my pre-adolescent mind, the images of a young man attempting to navigate an untamed river while assisting in the escape of his friend Jim were seared in my mind. Perhaps ideas were planted then that are still yielding good fruit all these years later? I have my Aunt Jenny to thank for inspiring me to read that first book, and by extension I owe her residual gratitude for all the books I’ve read since.
Aunt Jenny was faithful to serve her husband and children with a wonderful example of faith, even during times of adversity. She was a stalwart presence at every family gathering, and in the tradition of her mother before her, always shared an encouraging or challenging “word from the Lord.” I recall from the countless reunions, funerals, or holidays, that Jenny was always kind, considerate, and genuinely happy to see you. At my last visit with her we sat and reminisced about her childhood and early adult life. I never met my paternal grandfather, but it was fascinating to listen to Jenny’s recollections of his influence, most of which were memories that were also shared with her given her young age at the time of his death. It was even more amazing to hear her talk about my Dad and to see him from the perspective of a younger sister rather than my limited perspective as his son.
My Aunt Jenny was so kind to my own children. In particular, my children loved to visit her as they were always the recipient of her famous bologna sandwiches with the signature smiley face made of mustard that she lovingly added. My children found this highly delightful and once again seeds of kindness were planted that are still yielding a harvest to this day.
The timing of things is curious. Today is also my daughter’s twenty-first birthday. The coincidence of how events align sometimes serves as helpful landmarks as we all journey through this life. The concentric circles of our family now align with grief and celebration. Perhaps one day while looking back we will recall with gratitude the thickness of this present circle, at this time marked by personal adversity and National division, it is a moment of loving solidity. And as I reflect on the intersection of events, my wish for my daughter on her birthday is that she will continue to exhibit the faith, courage, and kindness, that has been shared with us by previous generations in our family, like my Aunt Jenny.
May the circle be unbroken. And let all the witnesses say “Amen!”