FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION

Receiving and Delivering by Fresno genealogist and cruise resource leader, Alan Peters. An address given to a memorable joint worship service of the Mennonite Heritage Cruise and members of the Zaporozhye Mennonite Congregation on the sundeck of the MS Viktor Glushkov at Zaporozhye, Ukraine on Sunday July 20, 1997 - published with the permission of the author.

Alan Peters (standing) with string quartet from the Zaporozhye Symphony Orchestra

Mennonite Heritage Cruise passengers and members of the Zaporozhye Mennonite Congregation

Like pilgrims, we here today have retraced the steps of our forebears, and have returned to this land which has so vitally shaped the personal history of each one of us. It has been more than two hundred years since the first of our ancestors walked upon this soil, and caught sight of this mighty Dnieper River. Those pioneering settlers had made the fateful decision to leave oppression and opposition behind, and seek freedom and peace in a new land. They came here--to this refuge in Ukraine--with hope, ambition, enthusiasm and a deep faith in God. Their choice--made generations ago--still leaves its mark upon our lives, our traditions, our history, and our faith. As a group, we have made this pilgrimage for a variety of reasons:

--some of us have come out of curiosity, to seek out and visit the sources of our own unique history, --others are here because of a deep desire to see and experience firsthand the places that our grandparents could never forget, and which shaped both them and us, --and some of us, born and raised here, have struggled to achieve the courage and strength to return to this land and confront once again the overwhelming spectrum of personal memories which this land rekindles in our minds.

We will walk those old paths again, breathe once more the air of our memories, revisit the places that mark both the best and the worst of our history, and let the soil our farmer forbears tended and nourished slip through our fingers--and touch our lives--once more. And on this Lord's Day, even though the old church buildings are gone or decaying, we worship together just as they once did, honoring the God of history who walked with them and is still with us, and who has strengthened, comforted, and inspired people of faith from generation to generation.

The Lessons of Scripture

As pilgrims, we carry on a long tradition, following in the footsteps of believers of every age. God's Word is filled with encouragements that people of faith should carefully remember the mighty acts of God, and should recognize the lasting impact which the events of one generation have upon those who follow. We have heard scripture lessons today which contain these words of encouragement. To these we could add many others where memorials were established, stones of remembrance set up, and parents and leaders urged to repeat the stories and lessons of history to their children, so that the treasures contained in the experiences of God's people might be carefully passed from parent to child, from teacher to student, from hand to hand, from generation to generation. Scripture also cautions us that the implications of our own choices--notably the bad choices we make--have a long-term effect upon the lives and circumstances of those who come after us. In Exodus we read this warning: "I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."

The implication is clear and unavoidable: the circumstances, events, and choices of one generation have an undeniable effect upon the next, and upon the next, and upon the next. In order to understand our own time and history, we must uncover and explore the choices and events that define our heritage, and recognize the influence that these have had upon our own makeup. There is another sobering implication: each one of us carries the enormous, awesome responsibility to hand over a proper set of choices and circumstances to those who come after us. Each one of us is establishing the patterns and models that will constitute our legacy, just as those who walked in this land years ago provided the framework that has shaped the course and nature of our destiny.

Lessons from Family History

I have been a student of genealogy and family history since I was a teenager. More than forty years of thought and study have given me a number of convictions and beliefs that have flavored my understanding of history, heritage, and faith. I can best summarize these by using the analogy of the "bucket brigade." We all know the concept: a chain of people, passing buckets of water from hand to hand, combating fires when no other firefighting tools were available. This model of a "bucket brigade," with each person receiving and then delivering--hand to hand, person to person--the vital materials needed down the line, provides me with an intriguing picture of the relationship that exists between our heritage and the course and content of our own lives.

We did not enter life, as some believe, with a "blank slate"--an absolutely untouched, unspoiled beginning point--upon which we then began to record the thoughts and lessons, actions and events of our experience. On the contrary, we each received at birth a "bucket" full of history and tradition, along with our genetic makeup, that has characterized us and made us who we are. The miracle of birth gave each of us a unique inheritance--traditions, history, family, and community--that differ markedly from person to person, and from time to time. During the courses of our lives, we each alter the contents of our bucket, adding experience, education, understanding, wisdom, along with a host of other ingredients, some wholesome and positive, others not. We even try, on occasion, to toss out some contents along the way, in an effort to remedy or remove what we perceive to be the less desirable or less attractive components in our bucket. Unlike those in a literal "bucket brigade," we are in a continuous, lifelong process of "delivering" the contents of our bucket to those whose lives intersect ours, trading thoughts and experiences with those within our reach: family, friends, associates, and acquaintances. In many ways, our lives achieve their highest potential only to the extent that we and those around us are willing to give and receive the treasures that represent the contents of our lives.

This understanding leads us to the next: we can only come to truly know ourselves by discovering, identifying and analyzing the mysterious combination of ingredients that constitute the "buckets" of our character. That is one reason why we are here today. We have come to find ourselves in the soil of Ukraine, in the waters of the Dnieper, in the winds of the steppes, and in the fire that is the faith of our forefathers. These elements have started to bubble up within the buckets of our lives, and as we walk through the villages of Chortitza and Molotschna, as we see the ruins and relics of our history, as we put together the stories we have heard and the memories we have cherished, and as we see the hand of God in the lives of our forbears, we will be peeling away the wrappings that have concealed, till now, the finer details of our character, and we will be refining our knowledge, more and more each day, of who we really are, and why.

The experiences of these days will add new material to the buckets of our lives. And we will each need then to answer the question: How shall we "deliver" the contents of our buckets to those around us, and to those who will follow us. My belief is that we really already know the answer, for we have been doing it all along. As surely as we are breathing this Ukrainian air, as steadily as our hearts are beating here today, we are already sharing the contents of our lives with those around us. Our real task is to make our own delivery process one which enables us to share the most precious parts of our lives and thoughts with insight, wisdom, hope, and faith.

A Voice Out of the Ashes

For several hundred years, people of our faith tradition have found inspiration and models of faith in the Martyrs' Mirror, a thick volume which chronicles the stirring stories of witness and sacrifice on the part of those who were martyred because of their faith in God. Like others here today, I have my favorite story: the account of the martyrdom of Maeyken Wens of Antwerp. The wife of Matthias Wens, a Mennonite minister in Antwerp, she was herself a bold witness to her faith. After enduring difficult questioning under torture, she remained firm in her commitment to God, and would not deny her faith. She was sentenced to death by fire and, because of her ability to persuade others, she was compelled to go to her death in the public square wearing a tongue-screw, so that she could not preach or sing as she passed through the crowds on her way to the stake. She had two sons: a teenager named Adrian, and a toddler named Jan. On the fateful day of her execution, Adrian carried his younger brother on his shoulders so that they could see their mother one last time. As the fire was lit, Adrian fainted, and did not regain consciousness until his mother's body had been consumed by the fire. He later poked through the ashes, to see if he could find some remembrance of her. All he could find was the terrible tongue-screw, which had kept her from speaking of her faith during her final moments. But that is not the end of the story. Van Braght, who wrote the account one hundred years later, mentions that he himself knew Maeyken's grandchildren, and that they still had the tongue-screw, the final relic of their martyred grandmother. That instrument, devilishly designed to deny communication, had in reality become the means by which the story was being repeated. I like to think that somewhere, there are still parents passing that tongue-screw from hand to hand, telling once again the spellbinding story of Grandma Maeyken, who gave her life at the stake, but who could not be silenced even in death, because her story was still being faithfully passed from generation to generation.

The Communion of the Saints

My reflections concerning the "bucket brigade" have also given me a new understanding of the communion service in the life of the church. While little is written in scripture regarding this important celebration, the Apostle Paul's brief comments regarding the Lord's Supper in his First Letter to the Church at Corinth provide us with some helpful clues in understanding the significance of this act of worship. What initially struck my eye were the first words of Paul's instructions: "What I received from the Lord I have delivered to you." Here, once again, is "bucket brigade" language! "Receiving" and "delivering" are made an integral part of the most sacred ceremony of the Body of Christ, the Church. Now that I have started thinking of communion in "bucket brigade" terms, my understanding of the faith community has broadened considerably. I once somewhat naively viewed communion basically as the Christian's way of joining together with other believers in remembering and honoring Christ's gift of himself to the Church. Now, whenever I participate in the celebration of communion, my thoughts inevitably bridge the limits of time and space, and I reflect on the intergenerational nature of the fellowship of believers. Each time I pass the bread and cup, I recognize that I am part of the "cloud of witnesses," beginning with that band of disciples in the upper room who first heard the words, "Do this in remembrance," and stretching forward all the way to the band of disciples who will ultimately share this celebration once again with Christ in Paradise. We are part of an awe-inspiring chain of believers, passing bread and wine (and bucket-loads of other treasures) from hand to hand, from generation to generation. I fondly remember sharing the communion elements with my grandparents. They, in turn, spoke of sharing the bread and wine with several of the pioneer founders of the Mennonite Brethren Church. These, in turn, undoubtedly shared the "Love Feast" with some of the original Mennonite settlers here in this "promised land" of Ukraine. In this exchange of elements between only four sets of hands, I am linked to those pioneer settlers I mentioned earlier: those who first set foot upon this soil more than two hundred years ago. As we sift through the contents of our buckets during these coming days, as we contemplate our responsibility and obligation to "receive" and "deliver" to those whose lives we touch, may we seek God's help in being as faithful as our grandparents, and their grandparents, and theirs too, have been. They carefully showered us with the faith, the traditions, the models, and the resources, that have enabled each one of us to be a follower of Christ. Generations from now, some future tour group will walk upon the ground that we have settled and along the trails that we have walked. They will pause to reflect upon the impact that we have had upon their lives and faith. I pray that we will also be remembered as people who faithfully delivered our treasures of faith, history, tradition, and experience to those who reached out their hands for the fruits of our lives. May God grant us the wisdom, knowledge, commitment, and courage to treasure the inheritance that we have so generously received; to tend and nourish it as we contribute to it out of the riches of our own life experiences; and, finally to prove our capable stewardship of this treasure by delivering it, holy and perfect, into the hands of those who follow us in the way.

For it is through this simple but ancient process that the knowledge, love, and power of God have been received and delivered, from hand to hand, from person to person, from generation to generation.

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