Family Tree Dynamics

An old family legend holds that my paternal grandfather’s family is related to Daniel Boone. The story is that my grandfather discovered this connection when he was a student at Penn State University. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away when I was a child, and no one knows if he had documentation to assert this claim. I have spent the last several years trying to make sense this genealogical mystery. A few months ago I began to come very close in the research process, tracing my paternal grandmother’s family to the same town in which Daniel Boone grew up. While it was not the path I expected to take, it was going to provide some answers to what had previously seemed like an impossible task.

Eventually, I found the connection: Daniel Boone is the first cousin one time removed of the husband of the grand-niece of the husband of my eighth great-aunt. Which is to say, that I am basically not related to Daniel Boone. However, it does not necessarily mean that my grandfather was wrong. Regardless of its veracity, the legend created an element of identity for the relatively unimportant and common family from which I come. We all look to find our identity somewhere.

On another occasion, I received some DNA evidence connecting me to a person who appeared to possibly be related to two famous Carters. It was an exciting possibility, to again find some famous branch of my family tree. In my excitement, I sent a text message to my sister and brother-in-law saying: “I’m still working out the exact connection, but I think Sarah [my sister] and I are distantly related to Jimmy Carter and June Carter Cash.”

To which my brother-in-law swiftly replied: “I’ll save you some time. It’s Noah.”

I appreciated his sense of humor, but it has caused me to think, “Even if I am related to the Carter family, what does it matter?” On the surface level, it matters because it is an interesting anecdote. On a deeper level, it helps give identity to my family.

I have been reflecting on the purpose of genealogies in the Bible and asking a similar question as what I asked myself, “Why did these genealogies matter?” While there are a lot of complex answers for why the genealogies are important, my simple hypothesis is that these lists gave an identity to people longing for one. There was a desperate need for the Israelites to see themselves as more than strangers in a foreign land.

There was power in being known by one’s name. The prophet Isaiah wrote:

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” — Isaiah 43:1–2, NRSV

Interestingly, Anabaptists are not much different from Israel—they also tend to keep impressive genealogical histories. Being someone who grew up outside of an Anabaptist church, some Anabaptists will ask me questions such as, “Brickner, I have never heard that name before… where did you grow up?” To which I kindly explain that I did not grow up in an Anabaptist church and I am not related to anyone else. No one ever asks these questions to be exclusive or alienating, and so I do not take offense. However, these are questions that I rarely heard in the evangelical denomination in which I grew up. Why is it that Anabaptists ask these questions? I think it is in part because there has been persecution—and to some extent isolation—leading to interconnected familial church structures. There is meaning in being able to identify with one’s family in these communities.

I once met a man who was a descendant of 16th Century Protestant reformer. As someone interested in history, I thought it was pretty incredible to meet someone from this family. However, this man turned out to be one of the most self-conceited people I had ever met. He also insulted my clothing and my family. Suddenly, his pedigree did not matter as much, and his actions eclipsed his identity. It was a reminder to me that we are more than just people from a particular family, but we are supposed to be known by our fruit (Matthew 17:60).

My wife is a direct descendant of the first European family to settle in Lancaster County, Pa. in 1710, making my daughter Lydia the tenth great-granddaughter of the Mennonite bishop, Hans Herr. While this is an identity that she will have, I pray that her greatest understanding of her identity is found in the fact that she is a beloved child of God. Through this knowledge of her adoption into the family of God, she will have an opportunity to bear fruit that comes with being a child of God.

We all look to find our identity somewhere. For some people, identity is found in genealogies, while for others it is in work, sports, hobbies, education, etc. These are not inherently bad things, but when our sole identity is found in any one of these areas, we lose the fullness of our identity. In the passage of Scripture from Isaiah that I shared earlier, you will notice that God only briefly mentions the idea of being called by name. The foundation of that passage is phrases like, “I have redeemed you…” and “I will be with you…” Like Israel, we can learn from these words. It is not really about us, but it is about God.

When we realize that our identity is found in the one who created and formed us, it puts life into a different light. It can be easy for us to become wrapped up in the temporal things that appear to define us, but I encourage you to think about how your identity in Christ is greater than your identity as anything else. I genuinely think that we might begin to see ourselves differently and also see others differently if we learn to see them as the children that God has created and called by name.

Wijnants, Jan, and Johannes Lingelbach. Landscape with a dry tree. Late 17th Century. National Museum in Warsaw, Poland.

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