Ancestry-Looking Back for God
Months ago, I attended a men’s retreat where the very capable speaker was attempting to break the ice that usually separates the relational capability of men from the reality that is their lives. To do this, he presented us with a usual greeting. It was one common to men who first meet.
“What do you do for a living?”, he said.
It is true. Many times, this is the normal introduction men use to get to know each other. His point was that this introduction is actually how men try to avoid getting to know each other. It is attempting to get to know someone by working one’s way from the peripheral area of a man’s life, their vocation, to the most intimate. There is great protection in the vast world of vocation. A man can spend hours talking about what they do for a living and avoid any real revelation about who they are.
I get it. He’s right. But…
Something struck me as peculiar while he explained how this greeting, while seemingly relational, was really a subconscious effort to keep our distance. While this greeting is the norm for so many Modern men, it’s not the norm in this context-the South. In the South, we don’t keep our distance by never getting to know someone. We use manners to keep folks out of our “bloomer drawer”, pardon the expression. Chewing the fat about vocation as a deflection technique, seems to me to be rather amusing. In fact, since then, I kind of throw the phrase around as a sort of disguised cynicism just to see what kind of reaction I can get.
I’ll sometimes ask, “How’s work”, or “What do you do for a living”, just as an particularly inside joke (I’m the only person who gets it). Yes, I’m sick that way.
Regardless of my comically delusional cynicism, the fact remains that the fellow erred in his premise because he underestimated his setting. Where I come from, where his presentation took place, the greeting is much more personal and unquestionably more relational. It’s a jump off the high dive compared to the kiddie pool of “what do you do for a living”.
Getting to know you
In the South, when a man meets another for the first time, the introduction is not usually where do you work but where are you from. Thomas Fleming says that some folks might even go so far as to ask “who are your people” or “where are your people buried”. By asking where a person is from, especially when that from is intended to include ancestry, Southerners look to know a person. Unlike the individualism of other American cultures, true Southerners place a great deal of value on ancestry. It is a quick way to get to know a person. Rather than escape intimate self-revelation, we get to the core to see what makes you tick. Paul did this himself when he needed a quick introduction.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” (Acts 22:3, ESV)-Paul’s description of who he is
The truth about a person as revealed by their ancestors cannot be avoided the same way that men hide themselves in vocation. In a sense, we are the sum of our ancestors., We are not accordingly defined by our jobs. I am my father’s son, my mother’s raising, and the traditions of my grandparents. My raising is a mixed bag of discipline, tradition, theology, and manners. I bring all those things with me to work, not the other way around.
Community, family, and land
In the South, there is a connection between blood and the land. Life is filtered through an understanding of kith and kin. The fruit of a community’s labor comes from the soil that they fought for, farmed on, and in that their bodies were consecrated. The question, where are you from directly correlates with who are your people. Family is the facts of your ancestry and neighbor is not a mere ambiguity that can be relegated to the whole world. Neighbors or kith, are the people with whom you share soil. There is a bond that is both familial and geographical. Home is where the heart is but it’s also a place on the map for a true Southerner.
Covenant-God’s work through family
Respecting one’s elders is a significant portion of a child’s upbringing in the South. Elders include all elderly people, but make no mistake, the word directly refers to parents and grandparents. Children are often taught to address their elders as Sir or Ma’am. Many times, honor is given by speaking to a person as Miss Brenda for example, or Mister Donnie, if the child is familiar to the elder. Otherwise, first names are off limits. This is a question of honor.
The honor due is not arbitrary or merely traditional as some would suggest. It is a mandate that comes directly from Scripture. ““Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12, ESV) Honor in this way teaches children respect while giving them a way to relate to elderly people. God’s decision to include this as a commandment was not capricious either. He values family and community. His way of honor helps us to value them as well.
Some outsiders denunciate this as a Southern attempt at works based salvation. Most of the time they’re wrong. Very few people in the South see this as a substitute for the gospel, but most would understand the dearth of honoring one’s ancestors as a privation of sanctification. And the negative is worse. A person who dishonors his ancestors dishonors God. This is a foundational principle of being and its presence or absence says a great deal about who a person is.
Covenant-God’s work in community
The link between God and ancestry is more than sentimental. Not only are there Scriptural mandates to honor the living kin, there are correlations between the dead and the covenant. Furthermore, covenant is to be understood as more than direct lineage. It is corporate and communal. The covenant of God cannot be separated from a community of people. Communities share geography and their dead are returned to that local soil. The covenant is to be understood as producing Kingdom, but Kingdom can only largely make sense if first understood locally and generationally. God’s covenant promise binds these three (land, community, and ancestry) historically, immediately, and eschatologically. No other understanding is comprehensive much less sufficient.
Understanding Covenant through ancestry
A thoroughgoing understanding of family, community, and honor is foundational to understanding how God has worked through covenant. Understanding that is primary to a vison of God’s faithfulness to his people. The Scriptures reveal God’s covenant faithfulness continually in community, family, and property.
“I will be your God and you will be my people” is not an obscurity to help us understand a future heavenly state nor is it merely a concrete description of an ancient Jewish nation. It is a promise to all of God’s family both present and past. They are his chosen and adopted sons and heirs to all that he owns.
“he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,” (Ephesians 1:5, ESV)
“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,” (Ephesians 1:11, ESV)
God’s revelation of his faithfulness in ancestry
The forgotten and neglected lineages inhabit great swaths of Scripture. The fact that God in his infinite wisdom inspired the Biblical authors to take so much space on the Holy Pages to pen the names of his people in the context of relationships, ought to inspire us as well. The sweet breath of a Holy God blows as self-revelation in the words of the Biblical ancestries. He has answered our innermost inquisition of him, “who are you” by a display of the family tree.
Jesus was not created. He has eternally existed as God. But, he became one of us through family. He did not appear ex nihilo the same way he created the universe. He came as a baby, born of a real person named Mary. Interestingly, his earthly father Joseph was never given a lesser status even though he did not participate in Christ’s conception. In fact, his ancestry was vital to the Kingship of Jesus, the one promised to the people of God.
How important is ancestry to a vison of God’s faithfulness?
Ancestry, kinship, community, and honor are important to God. He reveals himself to us through those things. He commands us to honor our ancestors beginning with our parents. God is our Father. We are his sons. They display his covenant faithfulness. He is our God. We are his people.
The corporate nature of the covenant community is expressed in terms of solidarity within a given generation as well as a oneness with previous generations. One’s ancestors were not to be worshiped, but they were not to be forgotten either. It is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of one’s ancestors/forefathers, with whom each contemporary generation must be personally and covenantally related.-Int’l Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Unlike the gospel preached across much of the South today, so heavily influenced now by the 2nd Great Awakening, Southerners used to know the truth about covenant and gospel. One individual may be saved by the gospel, but the gospel makes it clear that salvation occurs within the Covenant. No salvation happens outside of it. Whether that is comprehended does not matter. God works through his covenant promise to save his chosen people. Anyone who is a child of God is inherently one of his covenant people. That’s just the way it works. It is his promise. We should seek to understand it that way.
Missing the point of ancestry
Southerners characteristically understand their lives through family, friends, and locality. That’s great but I’m afraid that it misses the point. We ought not be merely looking for our identity when we consider where we are from. We ought to also be looking for the faithfulness of God. An exploration of ancestry to find ourselves is an exercise in vanity. Sometimes our obsession with ancestry is just that, vain.
“I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.” (2 Timothy 1:3, ESV)
You see, as a Southerner (or anyone for that matter), an interest in where you come from ought to be focused on a vision of how God has been faithful to your people throughout the ages. That vision is an enormous benefit of being the product of a Christian culture. A person can look back and find God. God’s people are evidence of God’s work. Real Christian culture is a product of real sanctification. A family’s faithfulness is ultimately God’s faithfulness. That is the overarching story in the Old Testament. It is literally the Covenant realized. God’s promised faithfulness to his people is ultimately displayed in a real person from a real place-Jesus of Nazareth, son of David. Then, after that is established, the Covenant is finalized in his work.
Hindsight is 20/20
Sometimes I muse about the disadvantages we face as modern, rationally focused, Christians. Why does it seem that our forefathers had a much more robust understanding of Scripture? Is there anything our faithful fathers understood that we somehow neglect?
A healthy understanding of where we come from stands out as the forgotten Biblical lens. The practical implications of our age of arrogance is apparent to me. We ought to take another look at our past if we desire to see the hand of God in our lives now. They understood that but we arrogantly presume to know better. Hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to God’s providence. Sometimes it’s helpful to study ancestry-looking back for God.
In future posts I’ll look at how Southerners misappropriate ancestry and what good we have to offer to “outsiders”.