Two old bibles, and a cloud of witnesses

As I write this, it is nearly Easter 2023. Happily, we have sun today, the intense rain and winds have moved on, and the days grow slowly longer as the blossoms gleam a little more brightly with spring. When I was a child, Easter was two things – church, and egg hunts. Neither of those will be a part of our day this year – but the awareness of what they represent has not lessened in my heart. Growing up in the smaller community of my childhood and youth, most in my circle of friends were “Christian” in the traditional sense – attending church, professing some set of moral standards passed on to them through their denominations. I had a close friend down the street who was Jewish, and I came to appreciate their traditions and faith first through that friendship, to have it grow during my own early adult years and quest for understanding. But being a Christian wasn’t seen as abnormal or weird or offensive those few decades ago, whereas now for many, it is used as a word of shame and judgment.

Photo by George Dolgikh on

I have always felt torn between those two disparate parts of my sense of identity; the lessons I learned in childhood and studied into many years beyond still bear the weight of truth in my spirit, and the music and words of song and scripture still life my heart. But I knew too well the sense of exclusion, shame, inadequacy that came with being labeled fairy, pansy, homosexual – before gay and queer became words for community. Even to this day, it is almost as if I am a citizen of two worlds – one of faith, one of relationship, that often see each other as the enemy, the other – to be despised, rejected, condemned. I know beautiful people who live in each of those disparate worlds, who I love and who accept me as I am – but who cannot, for their carefully held reasons, move beyond that seemingly eternal segregation.

So when Easter comes, and it’s ties both chronologically and in terms of meaning to Passover, as well as the equinox – I never quite know what to say to so many in my circles of life. I end up hiding, in a way, not speaking my heart – I know only that what I understand to be truth, is not such for those in my life who feel differently. I respect that, but the silence somehow stifles my spirit, quenches what joy I want to not only feel but share, knowing it would be rejected or worse by people I treasure. It is a paradox, and not limited just to me, or other members of carved out communities – whether separated by faith, ethnicity, politics, social standing, identity or any one of dozens of other labels we use to feel close to some, and far from others.. The silence cuts us off from one another, or worse.

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

I honestly don’t know why I write of these things, today – they are just very much on my mind. For me, faith is both a source of strength, and yet also still a sense of not making the cut. Not necessarily because of my sexual drive – I have come to find peace seeing God’s love as so immeasurable to extend beyond any limits we, our cultures, our politics might try to impose. I see that message in what Christians call scripture, knowing it is essentially a pile of scraps accumulated from salvaged writings of uncertain translation – but letting the power behind disputed words give way to a truth my intellect cannot measure but another part of me can embrace. I cannot imagine a life without faith, just as people I know, respect and love find comfort in seeing a universe without a Creator, or seek avenues of understanding based on writings and traditions that are opposed to those which hold meaning for me.

From the 1860’s, the Bible of Robert Titus Pence and his wife Elizabeth – leather bound and worn. The inscriptions on the corners – “Exalt the Lord of Heaven and Earth”; “Honor thy Father and Mother”; “The Just shall live by Faith”; and, “Praise His Holy Name”.

As I sift through my family history, and at last begin the process of preserving and sharing the old photos and documents that have wandered into my possession, I see faith of all sorts in my ancestors. Because of the time and place they lived or were born into, most were Christian; I don’t know if they gave serious thought to questioning those beliefs – it is easier not to question, or to simply set aside and ignore, than search for any kind of certainty. Among the boxes of faded letters and memories, I recently opened and scanned two very huge, and deteriorating, Bibles – both belonging to my mother’s father’s line, which happened to be named Pence, but was originally Bentz from an area of Germany called Iggelheim. They found their way to America prior to the war for Independence, and eventually several came to California- including my great great grandfather, Robert Titus Pence. He captained a wagon train to “Hangtown” in 1850, for the gold rush, from Oquaka Illonois; the bible, bound in worn leather with metal clasps, looks almost like a prop from a Harry Potter movie, tattered and falling apart.

From many hands, the records of births and deaths of my great great grandparents
and their nine children.

Among its faded pages is a list of family members and birthdays; written by various hands, in some cases years after the events. Correspondence shows that this Bible was used to support birth records not otherwise available, for Robert and his wife Elizabeth’s nine children, including the youngest – my great grandfather, Arthur Sherman Pence. I probably will never learn how or why Arthur eventually moved to Oregon, where he married my great grandmother – a member of the historic Applegate family – and had their only child, my grandfather. His bible, in better condition from the 1890s, has a beautiful color dedication page with the record of their marriage; both volumes are so oversized, they were almost certainly not read frequently but represented a time when a family Bible was a sacred treasure. And both have illustrations and commentaries that speak to an era before our readily available access to not only printed material, but an overwhelming flow of information at our fingertips.

I am grateful that among Robert’s sons, one – Kingsley Adolphus Pence – became interested in genealogy, because he documented that family line extensively, even publishing a book about it – still available on Amazon, amazingly. He and his wife “Birdie” were childless – perhaps making them more open to raising my grandfather when, in his early teens, his mother passed and his father had to find work wherever he could to survive. If they had not taken in my grandfather Richard to their home in Denver, he never would have met my grandmother, whose parents emigrated from Scotland in the late 1800s. But they did, and eventually, I joined the human race.

The dedication page of my great great grandparents Bible.

I know not everything in those Bibles is literal truth, and I know much of what has been used to create wars, judgment, hatred for centuries by those who wanted to use God’s authority for their own benefit. I know those words are not “proof” of anything that I can measure or bang someone else over the head with to believe as I do, which is to say, I am a poor example of a person of faith. When it comes to the “fruit of the spirit” that New Testament authors lift up as evidence of God being present in one’s life – I fall so woefully short, I am ashamed to say I believe in anything because my life is more of an example of futile effort than meaningful success.

And yet, here I am. Proclaiming, weakly, that I believe; that what little I understand rings of truth, and I am willing to live with the gap between what I “know” and what I can “prove”. Understanding just enough of history to be slightly beyond complete ignorance, I can see in not only my faith, but that of others, the common desire to reach out and understand where we fit into the bigger picture – and that those who were the earliest “Christians” – a word they nor the subject of the Gospels ever heard in their time on this earth – had to face exclusion and ostracizing because their understanding opposed the traditions and standards of their small world, and only their common faith and support for one another could help them stand against that opposition.

Notes in the Bible of my grandmother, possibly by her own hand.

When I look at what one might call the threads of faith running through the various generations and branches of my family tree, I see people questioning, failing, wondering, fearing – and sometimes, simply hanging on. Not having answers, but doing their best with what little they felt some degree of certainty – to share love. These old bibles have not been opened in a long time – and I think for many homes and families, the Bible of my ancestors’ time has become less relevant, but it has not been washed away. Some, with good reason I know, would see our world as being a better place without it – without any faith in a magical being in the sky waiting to judge us, or occasionally granting our wishes. I can’t disagree with them – I can only say that on Easter morning, I will think of these things, and more – the people who loved one another before me, and those I love today who will live on beyond me, seeking hopefully if not answers of their own, not giving up the quest.

With age, I have to confess, there is more of life that I do not understand with the passage of time – what appeared to be certain in youth has softened under the weight of experience. I am not a fan of using scripture to argue a theological point – there are too many conflicts and inconsistencies in not only the Christian Bible but almost certainly every “holy book” revered over the centuries. Yet, one verse comes to mind as I think about not only those in my blood family, but all those who have looked for answers without fully reaching them. It is from one of the letters by the apostle Paul – another admitted example of less than fully realized faith – in what is called the book of Hebrews.

“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.” 

Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12, verse 1.

A cloud of witnesses – a congregation of lives we know, and those before our own – which one day, all of us will join. A cloud – a massing of lives, of voices, of history – with light behind it, only seen in part, but still shining. Perhaps when we too enter that congregation of lives, we will know answers that escape us now – but until that day there is a race marked out for each of us, I believe. Our courses may differ, our challenges be lonely, our strengths hidden and our failures only too familiar – but we run, we walk, we stumble ahead with perseverance. Wherever you may find that strength to take the next step, I cheer you on, ahead.

We may not make it to the mountain top – but we can still seek the light. Please stop and say hi along the way – you and I are not alone.