This past weekend I attended the McAlister Family Reunion. We have one every summer, and almost every summer I go. This year (like every year) I swam with cousins and talked with uncles and sang late into the night with great aunts and second cousins once removed.
On Saturday after dinner we told the story of our family, of my great grandmother’s mother and father and their twelve children. My daughter London played the part of Effie, our ancestor.
Born before the turn of the century, Mama Jane (as we all called Effie) lived to be 102. When I was thirteen or so my grandfather would pay me to “babysit” her (he told her she was babysitting me). She made me peaches. I snuck her McDonald’s hamburgers. I took her blood sugar levels and lingered over old pictures as she napped.
My great grandmother came to faith at a tent revival; that’s what I’ve heard. She and her parents attended a church of Christ. The church of Christ was first recognized as a distinct religious group in 1906. She would have become a christian within five years of that beginning.
Years later, after she’d married a not-particularly-faithful man, she’d walk to church by herself on Sunday mornings. Later, she’d drag my grandfather. She sang loud alto and sat on the front row at church right up until the year she died.
My grandfather was a lot like his mother, but a lot like his father, too—passionate and headstrong. After he’d had children of his own, he’d come to fully embrace the faith of his mother. By the time I was born my grandfather was an elder. When he retired from firefighting, he became a preacher.
I grew up with my grandfather and my great uncle (my grandfather’s brother-in-law) in the pulpit at the Pinellas Park Church of Christ. All the sermons in my “Christian Notetaker’s Journal” are theirs.
During the summer, I worked as my grandfather’s “secretary.” I answered phones and made copies and wrote tracts. Sometimes he’d take me to study with people. I watched everything he did and listened to everything he said.
When I was eight years old I told him I wanted to be a preacher.
He told me I should be a preacher’s wife.
I tell this story a lot and sometimes it makes people sad, particularly people who wish women had more opportunities for teaching in the church. I understand that. My heritage is partly ministry, and it’s a complicated heritage to manage within the church tradition I embrace.
But when my grandfather told me to be a preacher’s wife, I suspect he had no intention of squashing my desire for ministry. I think he took a moment, surveyed the landscape, considered all he’d seen in the churches of Christ, and decided, “This is a path that will provide open doors.”
And he was so right.
Today, I am a minister. I teach and lead a community of readers online. I write small group curriculum for my church family. I serve on committees to integrate creativity and storytelling into the church worship experience. I teach kids and lead them in worship. I counsel young couples with my husband.
My grandfather sowed those seeds. Now they’ve grown.
I’m not a preacher. But I’m married to one. And I can’t count the doors being married to him has opened for me—and not so much opened for me, but for God’s work done through me, work God prepared before I was born, work God likely had planned back when my great grandmother waded into a Tennessee creek to meet Jesus.
Every year at the reunion my family conducts an auction. We bring art we’ve made, crafts, pieces of family memorabilia, and we sell them to one another to cover reunion costs. This year I won this:
This sign hung outside the Pinellas Park Church of Christ almost every day of my childhood. When I saw the sign on Saturday night (I hadn’t seen it in 15 years at least), I wept—“happy tears” I’d tell my concerned daughters. Looking at that sign, sitting in the midst of so many people who love and serve the Lord, I was reminded of my rich, rich heritage.
One of my favorite scriptures is this one:
Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. -Deut. 4:9
I am blessed by a great grandmother who never forgot what she’d seen, by a grandfather who never let his encounters with God fade from his heart. And by a father (the one who actually paid for most of my auction winnings) who taught his child about the wonders he’d witnessed in the presence of His mighty God.
All I am, I owe to the Lord. And all I do in service to Him is enabled by those who’ve gone before.
On my way home from the reunion, a 16 hour drive, I stopped in Lafayette, LA to see a tree. My friend Jodi had been the week before and told me I couldn’t miss it. She promised I’d see God. With that, I had to stop.
My girls and I crawled out of the car at St John’s Cathedral, stretched our legs, and walked toward what was obviously the tree Jodi wanted me to see. It was massive, its heavy limbs held up by pillars like Moses’ tired arms in battle. The trunk twisted and drooped; it seemed in perpetual motion and frozen both, like a strong old man petrified mid-stretch.
That tree is 500 years old. Older than the United States of America. Older than Shakespeare. Older than the Reformation.
And it’s alive.
I stood there looking at that tree and thinking about how long it had lived, about all that had passed since it’s first green leaf, and I couldn’t help thinking of my family and the hearty faith they’d passed down.
All of my cousins, every one of my grandfather’s grandchildren, follow God. My cousin Josh is a missionary in China. My cousin Daniel creates art to raise money for the oppressed and needy. Tabitha works with her church to reach out to prostitutes with the gospel. My cousin Timmy has a beautiful, grace-birthed, light of a marriage. Bethany’s garden leads me closer to God every time I’m in it. Bryan spills joy in his Facebook updates. Watching April’s wedding video, her washing her husband’s feet, vowing to love him like Christ loved us, sets me to crying every time I watch it.
I share this not to brag on a perfect family. We’ve been through a lot in recent years. Many of us have walked through deserts, wandering away from the faith we once held.
But we’ve all returned.
Our faith doesn’t look exactly like our ancestors’ did. We live it out in different ways. I like to think our faith builds upon theirs. I imagine it like this tree, the trunk thickening with every year of life, the limbs reaching farther, the roots deeper.
As I pass down this heritage of faith, I offer my children not just the story of my walk with God, as good a story as that is, I tell them my great grandmother’s story, too. And my grandfather’s. I tell them about my father (a man grafted into this tree) who met Jesus in a teenage girl who refused to give up on him. I tell them God has appeared to our family, time and time again. I tell them their roots are deep and their branches high. I tell them, God has plans for them, plans hundreds of years in the making.
Perhaps you have a heritage like mine. Treasure it. Steward it well. Christ says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
I am keenly aware of the weight of my inheritance.
Perhaps though, you don’t have a heritage like mine. Maybe you’re the first to faith in a long line of men and women running away from God’s call. Maybe you’re the first to wake from generations of lukewarm faith.
Really and truly, what a privilege and honor it is to plant the seeds of your family’s faith. Generations from now, your grandchildren will tell stories about the day Great Grandpa You met Jesus.
Be sure to tell that story, to tell all the stories of your encounters with God, to pass down the treasure you’ve been given, watching it bloom and grow in the hands of your people.
Do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them…