As I waited to preach at my home church last Sunday, I realized it had been 33 years since I last preached in the 150-member northwestern Kansas church. Over the years, I had attended services, but it been decades since I had preached.
I picked up my greatest fan in Wichita, Kan., and drove 250 miles northwest to Colby. My mom wanted to "visit the graves," see her old church friends and "hear my favorite preacher." But when we stepped into the church foyer, mom was uncomfortable and uncertain.
"It's sure not the same without Dad," she said. My father died in 2009 in their 57th year of marriage. Mom has since sold the home where she and Dad had lived for more than 40 years, and moved to Wichita, where she lives with my older sister.
"I'm sure it's not the same, Mom," I said. "I'm sorry. This church brings back lots of memories, doesn't it?"
"You can't imagine," she said. In fact, Dad had been a church elder for decades.
"I can try to imagine, Mom. I know it's hard. Just stay close to me. Let me be your escort." She held onto my arm.
Within 30 seconds we bumped into Bob, my old Sunday School teacher from when I was in the fourth grade. "Well Hi, Don. My goodness, you haven't changed a bit." Well, I don't exactly look like a fourth-grader, but I appreciate the compliment. He told me he's now 85. Eighty-five, I thought. How in the world did that happen?
After the service, longtime church elder Gene sauntered up to me. I had said in my sermon how it is hard for some people to forgive themselves. Gene wanted to talk about that. Now 80 years old and blind, Gene is still a feisty old rancher, as quick and decisive as ever.
"Do you think you can truly forgive others if you refuse to forgive yourself?" he asked.
"I think the answer is no," I said, smiling.
"You're right," he said. In Gene's mind to know the full measure of God's forgiveness you have to forgive yourself or you'll never truly forgive others.
When our forgiveness discussion moved to "Where are your kids now," Gene got more reflective. He said in some ways he fears that his children, kids I grew up with, have adopted some of his "stinking thinking." His humility was evident.
He said he encourages his kids to "honestly look beneath the surface" in their lives. Looking beneath the surface allows you to see patterns that you need to explore. Gene said then you can ask, "Why did this happen?"
Honestly looking beneath the surface lets you see the main sins that were passed along in your family. And until you see those patterns you are not likely to break the power of the past.
Repeating his words back to Gene, I asked "Are you saying we need to face the sins passed along in our family and strive to do our best to break the power of the past?"
"That's precisely what I'm saying."
If you can do that, Gene says you can face your own brokenness and vulnerability. Being nearly blind gives him lots of practice at being vulnerable. As a kid I looked up to this tough cowboy who loved to drive his pickup across his 10,000-acre western Kansas ranch. Now he's a passenger in a car driven by his wife.
With his hand on my shoulder as he spoke, I wondered, "How many people in life have places where they truly feel safe enough to be totally vulnerable, to admit their weakness?"
Later in the weekend my own 84-year uncle, still farming, still reading his Bible every day, still holding to his strong conservative principles, told me my aunt's family had the strongest Christian values he'd ever seen. "They had the right politics, too. But you know what? None of her four brothers ever darkened the doors of the church as adults. Not one. Never did. It's a mystery, I tell you. Yep, we sure are broken. Their mom and dad had a tremendous faith."
Shaking his head, he said, "I guess you can say that we all are pretty limited in who we can influence," he said. "Maybe none of us influences as many people as we think we do." All the more reason, he said, to find what we're good at and try to stay at it as long as we can. "When you know you are where you are supposed to be you'll influence the most people. You'll be relaxed, confident and grateful."
Out at the cemetery the next day, I stood beside my mom and my uncle at my dad's grave. "Now there was a truly good man," mom said. "I never met a man like him. He was just perfect. Well, perfect for me."
I moved a few steps over to the grave of my cousin Elliott Follis. He and I were the same age. He was killed in a car accident when he was 23. "I still give myself permission to grieve the loss of that boy," my uncle said. "I still miss him. He was quite a guy."
Driving back to Wichita my mom reflected on the weekend. "I'll tell you those are fine men," she said of rancher Gene and my uncle.
I agree. But I see an even greater truth. Those two old Kansans understand the true elements of a meaningful life — being willing to look beneath the surface, encouraging their children to try to break the power of the past, practicing vulnerability, accepting their limits and readily embracing grieving and loss.
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 34 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.