My Irregular Ancestors
by Joni Bell | 02 May 2023 |
I love genealogy. Quizzing elderly family members about our family’s past has been my “MO” since I was small.
In my adult years my interest has helped me understand the importance of the choices we make. I’m a member of Ancestry.com and regularly work on my family tree, and “Finding Your Roots” is one of my favorite programs on PBS. The stories I’ve accumulated over the years are amazing!
Like each of us, there are stories in my family I am proud to divulge and others not so much. We have some very irregular relatives.
In 1876 my great-grandmother Eva unwittingly permitted the Jesse James gang to water their horses on her farm. She apparently missed any clues that they had just attempted to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, and were fleeing for their lives. She pleaded her case to the lawmen who rode in not long after: “They were so polite, I had no idea they just robbed a bank.” Yeah, I always want to believe the best about people too. Maybe a bit more discernment is needed, however. This great-grandmother was also the first woman to be issued a driver’s license in her county. She traveled the country with her pet chicken, Biddy, perched on the back of the seat of her car. Seriously? That had to get pretty messy!
It could, however, explain some of my eccentricity when it comes to animals. In some manner, we seem to carry DNA from generations past.
My fourth great-grandfather in my maternal tree sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. Needless to say, he lost all his land holdings in Connecticut. A resourceful man, he hightailed it to New Brunswick and was rewarded for his service with a land grant. That could explain my rebellious streak and resiliency.
Yes, a lot of irregular ancestors. Nonetheless, I feel a connection to my ancestors, including the irregular ones. After all, they are family. The choices they made resulted in my being here. Yes, not all their choices were the “best” choices. It doesn’t mean I don’t love and respect them. Nevertheless, I’m not obliged to repeat their errors.
My point? I believe this is true for our spiritual ancestors as well. My intention as I reflect on our shared past isn’t to point out how every ancestor shaped our family or our church but to explore how some of their choices have impacted us. Mine is not the reflection of a church historian. Rather, I seek a sense of peace with my faith, and my faith family.
I frequently muse over the spirit of exclusivism that has been the experience for many in our Adventist family—at least, in my observation. We’ve got it all right, and it is us-versus-them. Perhaps this irregular behavior goes back to the Millerite movement, when our forefathers thought they had decoded the apocalyptic prophecy of Daniel 8:14. Can you imagine selling your business and giving all the proceeds to advancing your beliefs that the second coming was in days? Or refusing to harvest your crops because Jesus was coming before winter would arrive? Well, that had to be devastating and embarrassing! Perhaps it also reflects spiritual courage and commitment.
How did that whole event impact us as a church? Our forefathers who fervently believed Jesus would return in 1844 must have been afraid of making the same mistake in the future. They must have repeatedly relived the jests and banter of critical friends and family following 1844. Financial consequences may have resulted as well. They, no doubt, determined to never let something like this happen again. They would be absolutely certain about anything in the future. And they found reason to keep on. They did not abandon their faith.
Is there anything wrong with such certainty? One problem might be the sense of euphoria that often accompanies certainty. It feels like nothing can challenge or harm you. You have it right. You don’t have to pay attention to what others may try to tell you. No thinking is needed, just the pure reflections of your inner certainty.
The temptation I have observed (or struggled with) is trying to tell others they are wrong and then trying to manipulate and control. I like what philosopher Andrew Pessin says regarding religious certainty: “Religious people should embrace a paradox: that one can feel certain about each professed belief of their faith, yet also admit that some may yet be wrong.” Sounds a bit like humility, doesn’t it? Ah, a challenge for us to embrace.
May I offer a word regarding our decision to compile conversations and letters from Ellen G. White into books and then use them as dogma? When growing into adolescence I read Messages to Young People, like others in my generation, with serious devotion. My reflection as I have more carefully examined the context and gift shared by Ellen White is that the process led to some irregular behaviors that are a bit difficult to swallow (forgive the pun). “Tea and coffee is a sin.” It apparently has to do with the caffeine content. You will seldom see either in an Adventist church. However, hot chocolate and Hershey bars are a “go.” The jewelry issue really does become a bit comical. Necklaces, bracelets, earrings . . . . Definitely frowned on. However, a diamond brooch or Rolex is not a problem. I’m so confused! Without doubt, irregular. But that is my family.
Or what about the whole health reform movement? I like a healthy lifestyle! And I am convinced the sense of God’s calling to stewardship of our health is a gift. However, I’m old enough to remember potlucks in the ‘60s when there was enough fat and cholesterol in the offerings to do a great deal of damage to your heart, while we railed against tobacco and alcohol. We were pretty self-righteous about being vegetarians. But all those eggs and cream cheese? The mantra seemed to be if it wasn’t meat it wasn’t an issue. I’m not so sure how healthy some of our choices were. We’ve learned. We’ve grown since then. I have to extend a little grace. We were doing the best we knew. And we still have a lot to learn.
Just like our relatives, fellow church members can be annoying and challenging to be around. We can’t change them or their behavior. The only thing we can control is our behavior and that isn’t always easy. Like our family members, our spiritual family knows which buttons to push. How are we to deal with irregular people in the family?
It may be beneficial to write down our “hot spots” and think about how we will navigate them. You might even consider practicing a disarming response to an unwelcome comment with something like, “I see your perspective. Thank you for sharing that.”
Sometimes in a foyer conversation, or a Facebook reply, we need to take several long, slow breaths. It will lower your heart rate and blood pressure and enable you to be calm and in control. Peace. Perhaps peace is a contribution we can make to our spiritual ancestry.
That would mean we do not expect to completely change a person’s mind. Instead we listen, and try to gain some insight into their beliefs. When we sense an argument coming, take a “timeout.” Find a peaceful space.
No perfect families
There are family members we actually enjoy seeing and having a conversation with! Keep those relationships alive. Seek them out. Don’t let the challenging people control your relationships.
With each passing year, the lesson seems clearer. There are no perfect families. And we add to our family history. The choices our ancestors made may shape who we are but do not determine who we are.
My point? We are not perfect. Our church family is not perfect. Please do not expect us to be. And do not expect us to have everything right. The church does not save us. We are a family receiving grace. From our Lord, and from one another. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV)
It’s your family—don’t disown them. There are some crazy stories—like Grandma traveling with her pet chicken. I’m amused, but it doesn’t mean I have to do the same. Our ancestors made mistakes—some humorous, some sad. But we can still love our family. We don’t have to defend everything. We can value the lessons they have passed to us. We can acknowledge errors, and grow. Our history, our errors, our victories, our growth, our family.
Joni Bell is a contented wife and homemaker with a dodgy past as a psychiatric nurse. She divides her time between Maine and Tennessee.