This past week, my paternal grandmother, Mrs. Lucille Noble, passed away at the amazing age of 91. She was the last of her generation of our family which included her older brothers and 3 inseparable sisters who were the epitome of what close sisters should be. As is the case with the passing of any pillar of a family, my grandmother's home going brought family members together who had not been in the same place for many years. I was privileged with the honor of officiating her funeral service and was struck by the presence of so many loved ones who had grown up, were raising families and who possessed countless family traits and quirks that served as subtle reminders of a shared heritage and a rich family history. As I interwove my own recollection of how our family history had affected me and my family, I had no idea of how my understanding of my family history was to be deepened and reshaped in a single afternoon.
After the service, we gathered at my cousin Claudine's home for some down home hospitality and serious Southern soul food. As we all talked and laughed and ate, my cousin Frankie began sharing about "a little family genealogy project" he had been working on. As it turns out, his "little" was serious major historical work which he has been pursuing since about 1977 and which had been published. Armed with hundreds of family photos and obituaries dating back years, Frankie began a quest that led him to trace our family lineage to ancestors born into slavery in the mid-1800's, a link extending all the way back to Africa and even to a slave owning ancestor born in the late 1700's! That's right! We have our own Jefferson/Hemmings saga right in out own back yard! We no longer had to guess about where that red-hair originated! It turns out that there was not only a name, but a portrait with a face that displayed features that were clearly definable as ours! Even more incredible was the fact that because this slave owner had no other children, he worked tirelessly after the civil war ended to pass on a part of his wealth to his descendants birthed by slaves he had previously owned! As Frankie shared this spellbinding history, I couldn't help but think of the words of Martin Luther King who in the most famous speech of his lifetime shared the following hope:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.
I now had historically indisputable facts, not just anecdotes, with dates and names provided, that confirmed that I was both the son of a former slave AND the son of a former slave owner! It also occurred to me that this hidden heritage might somewhat explain the burning desire deep within me to see people of all sorts of backgrounds come together in love, fellowship and harmony - it is literally a part of who I am! Within the blood that runs through my veins there exists both the genes of one who cracked the whip and of the genes of one who endured the scourging! I was reminded of Acts 17:26 which states that "He [God] has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth." If we dig deep enough, we will find common roots. This commonality can serve to remind us that those we struggle most to understand and live with are part of a larger human family that shares the same beginnings and are literally more like us than we often choose to believe.
For me personally, the new discoveries of family origin place me in a position to be less likely to assign blame - knowing I have ancestors who helped cause and perpetuate problems blocking understanding and healing - and less likely to claim vitimhood. What a motivation to know that I have ancestors who in full knowledge of where they came from, overcame tremendous odds to produce loving families and wonderful individuals like my grandmother, who raised 3 amazing children - one of them being my father - who in turn overcame his own challenges to go on to raise me. What examples for me to pass on to my children!
Through the serendipitous discovery of personal roots, the Lord has blessed me with a new perspective that has helped to understand more about the complexity of history and its effects on the human spirit and made me more desirous to be a conduit of healing for others. It has shown me furthermore that the love of God can overcome even the most tangled roots! Isaiah 61 reminds us that the Lord desires:
To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness,The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
I knew the weekend would be a return to my roots. I just didn't have any idea it would also be a call to produce better fruit and more glory for the Gardener! So let me challenge you not to be afraid to dig into your past. It will show you just how far God has brought you and challenge you to allow Him to take you even further than you thought you'd be able to go! Until next time...