As I sat next to my grandpa on the old wooden pews from the church where he was raised, I realized that my heritage of faith was deeper than just what my parents taught me. In October of 1884, my grandpa’s great-grandfather, Nathan Harden, came to Lexington, Kansas (a current ghost town that is located in between Protection and Bucklin), and homesteaded, and around 1908, his son, Charles, built the house that I have lived in my whole life. I remember sitting on my great-grandfather’s lap as he told stories of coming home from school and nailing the lath (wood framework for plaster) for the walls, but it was not until recently that I understood the significance of my family history. Over the Fourth of July weekend, I was joined by about 120 other Hardens for a family reunion and 100 year anniversary of my house. We spent the weekend catching up, and for some of us younger cousins, getting to know each other, but the best part of the entire reunion was Sunday morning when Hardens from four generations gathered together for a church service I will never forget.
The morning was crisp, but heating up fast as we boarded the trailer pulled behind my Uncle Mike’s Case International tractor for our ride through my grandfather’s pastures on our way to church, which would be held in the tree row behind my house. Along with my uncle’s months of research about our family history, he and his cousin, Don, spent hours welding scrap metal onto the trailer in the shape of high arches, which supported the cream colored tarps that kept the hot Kansas sun off our backs. But even with the modern tractor and rubber tires transporting the trailer, the tarps gave it a covered wagon look that transported us to the time of our ancestors. Ever since my great-grandmother was “saved”, the family attended the Church of God. Years ago the church got rid of their old pews and after storage in our 101-year-old barn, they were dusted off and placed on the trailers for our educational ride around Bluff Creek. The sun could not make up its mind which side of the trailer to shine on as we moseyed around the bends and curves of the now dry creek. My grandpa tried to pick the best spot for him to stay cool, and I sat close by, intently listening as he gave his recollections of how it used to be. My aunt loudly asked him questions and I wondered if he really was that deaf, but either way, there were enough loud Hardens to get the story told to everyone on the trailer. My uncle and my dad jumped off the trailer several times to move fallen limbs in our path and I thanked God for all the fallen limbs and hard times that my ancestors never ceased to remove from their pursuit of God. Upon our arrival at my house, the rest of the family, who were too tired to wake up early enough for the trailer ride, began to pull up in a variety of farm vehicles and rented vehicles and vans able to hold their large families. By eleven o’clock the sun was reminding us that we were in southwest Kansas, but the hollowed out tree row that my grandpa planted was significantly cooler. In an array of quad-folding cloth chairs and rusty metal benches from my mother’s garden, the sanctuary had been set. The fragrance of the cedar sap was contrasted by the sweet smell of summer flower blossoms, which my mother had been planting and watering for the last several years. My dad’s cousin and I stood on the grassy opening where my dad remembered playing badminton and we began to lead my family in the hymn “Holy Spirit, Thou art Welcome.” I soon discovered why my family is known for their musical gifting. The heartfelt worship was paralleled by beautiful four-part harmonies that would put any choir to shame. Even the birds seemed to approve as cardinals and wrens and quail all joined in the song.
Despite the joyous worship, something weighed heavy on everyone’s hearts. A couple of days before the reunion, Grandpa’s brother, my great-uncle Ray, received news that he had cancer on his spine and it was serious. My grandpa is the oldest child left from his family. Already two of his siblings and a couple spouses, including my grandma, have gone on ahead of him. I have watched many times as my grandfather, a strong, determined, well-respected man, burst into tears at the pain of lost loved ones, and this weekend was no different. The day Uncle Ray arrived he told him the news, and my grandpa had once again crumbled into tears. Uncle Dan, the pastor of the group, stood up in front of the family congregation and told of the situation of his brother, Ray, and explained that we were going to pray for him as a family. Hands of all sorts rested on Uncle Ray’s shoulders, from those of young men and women not used to hard work, to those of my grandpa and his brothers and sons that had seen years of heavy farm labor. I looked up at Uncle Ray’s grandchildren and soon felt that burning sensation of welling up tears that matched the ones running down their faces. All around, the well-known strength of the Hardens was in a vulnerable position. One of our own was sick, and there was nothing we could do but call on the healing power of the God our family had served for generations. The tears shed were enough to cause a greater humidity than we are used to in dry southwest
Uncle Dan stood and shared from the “parable of the sower,” an ideal passage for a group of family farmers, and one by one several of the others proved their “never at a loss for words” Harden ancestry by standing and sharing their own stories. Their long-winded speeches and recollections were complimented by the cool morning breeze and gentle shade of the old cedar trees that offered a comfortable temperature in which everyone was able to intently listen for such long periods of time. Cousins and grandchildren and uncles and aunts stood and recalled the lessons learned at that old house and how if it were not for their faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, they would never have made it through all the hard times. The adage that “you reap what you sow” was evident as the seeds of faith from my great-great-grandparents were reaped from the next four generations ending with the men and women of God that stood and shared that morning. Uncle Ray pleaded with us that the greatest decision we could ever make would be to have a relationship with Jesus. With the salty taste of tears in my mouth I wiped my eyes and glanced at all the related faces. Many had the same curly hair I was blessed with and the firm noses pointing straight to the ground, but despite our similarities, there were still differences. Some were at points of decision in their lives and I prayed that God would reach out and touch their hearts with the love that many of us had already accepted. I watched as the sun broke through the cedar branches and kissed the white hair of wisdom of some of my family members and I apprehended that what they were saying was the greatest wealth of wisdom that could ever be passed down in our family.
On that beautiful Sunday morning, the message of Christ’s love became more to me than the words my parents told me or even that my grandparents told me. I realized this message was a seed planted years ago on seemingly infertile Kansas soil that with the love and care of those who have gone before me had developed into a strong and flourishing family tree.