I had a saddle pulmonary embolism when I was 22, and now no doctor deems it safe to let me live without an anticoagulant. Specialists and nurses want to know why it happened: “Do you have a family history of blood clots?”
I think I remember hearing that my grandma had blood clots when she was pregnant with my mom.
My uncle had blood clots after a car crash, I believe.
And . . . my mom died in her sleep from a blood clot in her brain.
But specifics? I’m not close with extended family. My dad has been absent from my life for years. The most I can gather to respond is a collection of fragments of conversations. I can’t call a parent or grandparent to ask for more details about my history.
But having a broken family history goes even further than medical information. Without a clear knowledge of my background, I cannot fully know my spiritual history—my legacy—either.
The Bible shows us sin patterns repeated over and over. In fear of a ruler’s envy, Abraham lies and says his wife is his sister (Genesis 20:1-2); his son Isaac does the same (Genesis 26:7). King David rapes a woman in secret (2 Samuel 11); his son Absalom rapes David’s concubines in public (2 Samuel 16:15-22). Old Testament princes follow in their fathers’ footsteps, often leading the Israelites into more and more evil deeds.
These days we love to hear origin stories of criminals and super villains, how trauma and evil inspire their own evil. When a child says something cruel on the playground, we’re quick to blame the parents.
Yet it goes both ways. Proverbs encourages us if you train a child up in the way they should go, they will not stray from it when they grow older (Proverbs 22:6). When children win the same award or accomplish the same success as their parents, we say they’re following in their footsteps.
What if I don’t know what footsteps I’m following? How do I know what awaits me when I know so little of my own history?
Do I tend toward pessimism and doubt because of a trait passed down from my mother? Was my great grandmother a woman who prayed for her descendants daily, as I vaguely remember my mother telling me? Was my father’s use of manipulative words a pattern established by his own parents, grandparents, or ancestors? If I had my mother here to interview today, would I be proud of her response to the Civil Rights movement she grew up during, or would I be ashamed of the antipathy of my extended family?
I don’t know whether to fear or aspire to the legacy of the generations before me. Any facts I might remember are all muddled in the drama and hearsay of broken family.
I’ve clung to this passage of Scripture through abandonment, death, and barrenness:
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing. (Psalm 68:5-6a)
I still believe as I did then, that these families are not just blood related. God was not promising that we will all have children and mothers who live and fathers who love us. If that were my only hope, I would have lost it long ago.
God gives us brothers and sisters in faith, families from our church. Through our adoption as God’s sons and daughters, we have a new family, and with it a new legacy.
And yet, even this is broken.
I’ve often felt orphaned within church communities over my lifetime. Fellow church members have dismissed my pain when I was most hurting. Other Christians have berated me for what they perceived to be my political views. Mentors have pushed me away as they stumbled onto their own paths.
When I hear stories of abuse within the Church, I become ashamed of my association. And the more I learn about the American Church’s complicity with racism—or even simply the Crusades and the Inquisition and other cruelties done in the name of Christ—the less eager I am to claim the name Christian.
I have a spiritual family history, and I don’t always like it.
In the days after my pulmonary embolism, church members flocked around my then-fiancé Jason. While I lay intubated and unconscious in the hospital, they held their Bible study with him among the vinyl chairs of the waiting room, verses of Genesis interrupted by medical codes over the intercom. Friends threw me a bachelorette party in the antiseptic cardiac ward, donning hospital gowns and bringing popcorn and playing the movie Enchanted. The church paid our rent, held a car wash to raise funds for my medical bills, and kept us in constant prayers.
We had few relatives at our wedding two months later, but we had a family that was growing around us.
Even as I tend to the wounds I’ve been given by fellow believers and process the damage done in God’s name, I cannot forget that the Church has also provided balm. For every time I felt they were the Pharisee, they have also been the Good Samaritan.
God has not restored the relationship with my family. He has not given me a legacy through my blood, a legacy of godly Christians fighting for justice or prayer warriors throughout the decades. I will never know what it’s like sitting at a Thanksgiving table with generations of godly examples with whom I share a name. And even with the examples of godly Christians throughout the years, the spiritual legacy of the family of God is tainted by sin.
My family history—our family history—is complicated. There’s brokenness and gaps in our knowledge and waters muddied by controversy and dissension.
Yet He offers me something more.
Paul says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29). I have a legacy that is deeper than church politics and strife. I have a biblical history I can take pride in, and an ancestor whose name I can take and be proud of.
I have Christ.
Cover image by Ralf Skirr.