Last Christmas, my mother wrapped a stack of antique books and gave one to every member of my family. Each was a different edition of a book that was first published in 1840, written by my paternal ancestor, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Each had a different binding: crimson with gold script; emerald with silver script; brown leather. My 1946 edition had a royal blue spine with tiny gold waves curling above the title, Two Years Before the Mast. It was thrilling to receive this gift, because the book told part of my family story, in my ancestor’s own words. It’s a memoir about an epic journey by sea from Massachusetts to California, and it advocates for better working conditions for sailors. The gift reminded me that I’m one in a long line of writers, and this encouraged me in my own calling.
The Bible is a series of books that tells the story of my spiritual ancestors. This text, which often feels antiquated and confounding, comes to life when I understand that it is my family story. The book of Genesis tells of one of the Christian’s earliest spiritual ancestors, Abram, who became Abraham. God called Abram outside and told him to look up at the night sky, crowded with stars. “‘Look up at the sky and count the stars- if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Genesis 15:5 CEV). This lineage, promised to Abram, extends through the Bible’s narrative. It includes Christ, who grafts even Gentiles into the family line, extending to all who put their trust in Christ. The Bible tells the story of my spiritual family, which has sought, however clumsily, to hear God’s voice, and to live with love toward others in God’s name.
Warnings in Our Family Story
In this family story, I find both warning and instruction, for the Bible includes stories of moral failure and victory through faith. At times my spiritual forebears, men and women like me, demonstrated political haughtiness and not humility. They rejected the poor and the stranger. They wished evil, and not mercy, upon their adversaries. David betrayed his family through infidelity. Peter betrayed Jesus, denying his association with his beloved friend and Lord.
Every family has stories of siblings, aunts, and second-cousins who’ve behaved shamefully as they’ve wrestled the shades within, and their stories become part of the family lore. There are countless episodes in Scripture in which individuals and entire societies live against the grain of grace. When I understand the Bible to be my family story, I see that these episodes are not to be imitated, but they are to be considered critically and prayerfully.
Instruction and Examples
I look for instruction in those examples of justice, mercy, reconciling love, and faithful pursuit of God’s company enacted by my spiritual ancestors. Because time after time, these forebears, who worshipped God with love and wonder, were faithful to their families and their neighbors, and cared for the orphans and the widows in their midst. They sought God’s company through prayer when they were light with joy and when they were burdened with sorrow. And they repented, turning from betrayal to faithfulness as God extended forgiveness. Theirs is a complex but enduring faith, and one I wish to emulate. As I discern just how to emulate their faith, I look to Christ as the chief example, imitating others only if their lives fit within Christ’s pattern for holy living. It is Christ’s pattern that I follow, and Christ’s Spirit that empowers me to follow it.
My mother has not only collected vintage editions of that old seafaring memoir; she has also tracked down the published poetry, essays, and journals of Richard Henry Dana Jr. and his father by the same name. These writers are the namesake for my own father’s middle name, Dana, and for the middle name he gave to me and my brothers. My dad was proud of the creative blood in his heritage and found a strong sense of identity in being of the Dana line. The family name inspired his own work as a writer. As I read my family’s published works, I too find a sense of identity in this lineage. Surrounded by a crowd of writers who share my name, I remember who I am, and I’m encouraged for the literary work before me.
I am also a member of a great family of faith, and my family name is the name of Christ, and my family work is the work of love. In Scripture, I find my identity as a member of this family. Hebrews 11 remembers the faith of many forebears in this line-prophets and prostitutes alike-and concludes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV).
Read Scripture with Lineage in Mind
With eyes on Christ, who puts on flesh and teaches us to love, we can read the Bible as our family story, discerning how to live today as daughters and sons of Abraham. Here are some exercises to help you find your place within the lineage of your spiritual family:
Read the book of Ruth, paying particular attention to the climactic genealogy listed in Ruth 4:13-22. Review the genealogy in Matthew 1- Jesus descends from Ruth’s line, and we, too, descend from this line through Jesus. How do the actions and attributes of your spiritual forebears Naomi and Ruth, who faithfully cared for one another in grief and distress, inspire you to faithful living today?
Read 2 Timothy 1:1-2:2 and consider your own spiritual legacy. How does Paul encourage Timothy to nurture spiritual descendants? How might you take on that call in your community today?
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