In 1977, the miniseries Roots inspired many Americans, including my father, to dig into their family history. Since this was long before genealogy websites and at-home DNA tests, he spent hours poring over dusty files in county courthouses, sorting through old photos, and tromping through small cemeteries, trying to piece together names and dates and places and faces kept in writing in a tattered leather briefcase. Years later, I picked up where he left off, joining the branches of my mom’s and dad’s families into one gigantic tree. Thankfully, I now had webpages and pictures posted by distant cousins. With these resources at my disposal, I’ve worked my way back to 12th century England. (Pretty cool, huh?) As I find those who have given me their DNA, I imagine their lives back then and over there. What were their hopes for their children? What was their greatest hardship? What helped them persevere?
In my family I have pastors and veterans as well as drunkards and slave owners. Farmers and lawyers; merchants and teachers. I have beamed with bittersweet pride while holding letters and photos my grandfather sent from his deployment in France in 1945. I have been dumbstruck reading accounts of my 9-great-grandfather fleeing for his life from religious persecution. I’ve had to wrestle with the implications of my family’s participation in this country’s “peculiar institution”. I laughed out loud when DNA tests busted the myth that I’m a Cherokee princess. (I am whiter than rice, y’all.) As I learn more, it is becoming clear which family members I can be proud of – the ones who, for all I know, were squeaky clean – fine, upstanding citizens who loved God and contributed to their communities. But what do I do with the “dirt”? What do I do with the stories that are tinged with shame?
It is human nature to want to be the hero of our own story. But all of us have a few characters in our family drama who aren’t as virtuous as we’d hoped they’d be. Check the Bible and you’ll find the same thing. The first book of each Testament contains a genealogy in its early chapters. Among the familiar names of those we deem heroes, like prophets and kings, are names of women who were summarily dismissed, those who are relatively unknown, and those who, frankly, were pretty horrible human beings.
Yet intertwined in the branches of each family tree is God Himself, willing to restore the brokenness, heal the wounds, and direct our attention toward His grand narrative of redemption and relationship. Our past can remind us that God Himself is the hero of the story, the only true hero, and the only Hero any of us will ever need.
If all families are a collection of virtue and vice, as our individual lives are, we need not fear facing our familial and individual pasts. No need to keep up the façade; no need to curate our stories until they seem shiny and perfect. There is beauty in our family history – a bunch of faces and stories that few people knew, but in the grander scheme can show a little more about a God who calls us all by name.
Everyone has a story around food and family – a favorite, a tradition, that dessert that never turns out right unless one certain family member makes it, a celebration that’s just not complete until that dish is on the table. Even if it’s not the “right” time of year, make a dish that’s special to you and your family. If nothing comes to mind, here’s something from my family that showed up often on Sundays and holidays. In the classic southern tradition, it’s a “salad” that’s not really a salad. But it is green, so there’s that…
1 c. milk
1 package pistachio instant pudding
3 c. mini marshmallows
1 20 oz. can crushed pineapple
8 oz. Cool Whip®
1 c. chopped pecans
Mix pudding and milk; add rest of ingredients and mix. Chill until firm – preferably in a vintage mustard-yellow Tupperware® bowl. J
John Mayer’s “In the Blood”. A profoundly honest piece about what we inherit from our families and the longing to not be bound by the pain of our past.
Could I change it if I wanted/Can I rise above the flood/Will it wash out in the water/Or is it always in the blood?
Regardless of our families’ past, we invite you into our present and our future. Show us where you are working to redeem and reframe our past to show YOU at work then and there as well as here and now. Show us where we need to hold on to the good we have inherited from our families, and where we need to break free and lean into Your grace.
Get some stories. Spend some time talking to siblings, parents, grandparents…what are the abiding values and characteristics of your family? What have you inherited (good, bad, and maybe ugly?) Use an app like StoryCorps to record them, or just record on your phone. I’m thankful for handwritten stories from my grandparents, but what I’d give to hear their voices.
For the curious – take advantage of a free trial period of genealogy websites. You never know what you’ll find.