Have you walked into a spider web without seeing it? Arms flail to extricate themselves with the many strands of the web covering the face. This has been one of the scariest experiences for me. It’s unexpected. It’s shocking. On the other hand, discovering the web of life we are part of can be a much pleasanter experience.
The web of life is the connectedness we discover about our families’ pasts and present. Let me illustrate. I’ve written two biographies. I wrote one about my father in 2016.[i] The second one, about an ancestral uncle, Rev. George E. Stone is to be published this month.[ii] A small portion of the web of life of these men is recorded in these biographies. George was born in Mexico, New York in 1873. Dad was born there fifty years later in 1923. George attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 1891-95. My mother lived in Clinton from 1924 until about 1936 when her family moved to Utica. My mother commuted to Clinton High School by bus until she graduated in 1942. Mom and Dad were married at the Stone Presbyterian Church in Clinton in September 1947.
An Army recruiter in Mexico, New York informed Dad’s father that Fort Monmouth in New Jersey had an opening. The recruiter switched Dad’s assignment from military police to Signal Corps. Dad enlisted, joined the Band, and eventually, went to flight school, and became a transport pilot.
In February 1899, George arrived in Muscat, Oman as a missionary to assume responsibility for the Arabian Mission station. The station included the Rescued Slave Boys School. The Arabian Mission was a Christian mission organization dedicated to proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to Arab Muslims. George’s leadership filled an important gap until his replacement arrived in June. By then, George was sick. He died in Birka north Muscat and was buried in a cemetery in Muscat.
Forty-five years later, my father piloted a C-87 transport to India. One of the stops was on the Omani island of Al Masirah. The British and Americans had military bases on the island during World War II. I don’t have any records from Dad that he thought about his great-uncle George’s service in Muscat, but the web of life became more intricate.
Fast forward to the early 1970s, when I read about George in The History of the Arabian Mission (1926). My new faith in Jesus Christ and interest in missions combined to give me a thrill as I learned about the brief description of George’s short time as a pioneering missionary in Oman. I was contemplating missionary service at the time. I discovered that Dad considered missionary service during his senior year of medical school in 1952. Forty years later, he and Mom served in Malawi, Africa for two years as medical missionaries.
My Dad’s cousin, Douglas Courtright, heard about my interest in George and he gave me in 1984 a family scrapbook that contained the printed excerpts of George’s missionary letters. Several years later, I shared the scrapbook with my missions professor in seminary, Dr. J. Christy Wilson, Jr. He knew one of the co-founders of the Arabian Mission, Rev. Samuel M. Zwemer. Dr. Wilson was very much interested in Zwemer and wrote about him. Wilson knew of George, too.
I wrote to the Bahrain Consulate in October 1984 to inquire about visiting the island nation where George began his intensive Arabic training. In 2016, I decided to visit Muscat to see George’s grave. In 2019, I picked January 2020 to go to Muscat. My brothers David and Stephen and I traveled together to Muscat to visit George’s grave in the Cove Cemetery. The Anglican priest said he knew about George who is listed as the third pastor of the Protestant Church in Muscat. A married couple doing business in Muscat said they take groups of people to the cemetery to talk about George and two other people buried there: Bishop Thomas V. French (d. 1891), and Dr. Sharon Thoms (d. 1913), a medical missionary with the Arabian Mission.
The metaphor of the web of life is found in Rev. Samuel Zwemer’s biography of Raymond Lull. He wrote, “We cannot understand a man unless we know his environment. Biography is a thread, but history is a web in which time is broad as well as long. To unravel the thread without breaking it we must loosen the web.[iii]
I encourage you to loosen the web of life in your family or sphere of influence. You will appreciate much more how your thread of life connects to the larger web. Your discoveries can increase your wonder and marvel about life. Humility might increase as you see that so much of life is a gift from God. Gratitude might well up in your heart. Feel free to share it with your family and friends, even to God.
[i] A Last Chapter of the Greatest Generation: The Life and Family of Colonel Frederic A. Stone, M.D. Aviator, Doctor, Missionary, and Friend to Humanity.
[ii] A Modest But Crucial Hero: The Life and Legacy of Rev. George E. Stone (1873-1899).
[iii] Raymund Lull: First Missionary to the Moslems. New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1902, p. 1-2.