The other story of my family tree

I contemplate the pain of my great-grandmother’s life. It says right there, she was knocked unconscious by the butt of a rifle after being stabbed 28 times, once perilously close to the heart. It says it there, in black on white paper, that when she came to in a pile of dead bodies, she found another and they clandestinely departed to the house of someone they hoped might sympathize. When my grade school-aged great-grandma arrived there, the woman slapped in the face and told her that her disfigured body was ugly and she was not worthy of saving. She would only take the other.

The child didn’t even cry. She was numb.

There were no tears left.

And the child walked across a desert of burning sand without shoes, limbs so swollen they became disfigured. The child had lice. The child was skin covering bones. The child lived on the streets for weeks after escaping to safety, scavenging for food.

But she lived. She raised her family in the church.

Nearly all her family died, but she lived, and how do you live through a pain like that? How do you watch men get raped, sisters taken by wanton lusters, children stoned to death by neighbors, friends die in the desert…and still believe in God?

They don’t preach sermons like that in America anymore.

And I’m tired of hearing it. Hearing how God wants us all to be wealthy and giving and prosperous. I’m tired of hearing that He wants to heal all our infirmities. I’m tired of hearing how God provides, when it contradicts some of the things we see in the world.

Here’s the truth about what God wants. God wants us to lay down our lives. He wants us to seek Him in our living and even our dying, knowing that the story will go on without us. He will always leave a remnant.

And even when it seems like there will be no remnant, take heart. Know this. Our stories never die with us. They always-and-forever live with God.

He protects them and cherishes them and mourns over them and loves them.

Only white, comfortable Christianity tells us that we will have financial favor and full healing for every ailment and full provision for every need. Because you know what? Some of us, He wants to take pay cuts. Some of us He wants to offer hope through our trial. Some of us He wants to heal physically to reveal His glory, and some of us He wants sick to reveal His glory.

Because you know what? For every one of my family members that lived, nine died. There were nine people that God didn’t provide enough food for. My great-grandma’s kid brother asked her for water as he lay dying. She took her hemorrhaging body and walked miles to try to meet that need, and she couldn’t grant him his dying wish. God didn’t provide the water for him, didn’t provide the food for him, didn’t heal him, despite her desperate prayers. Despite a wounded country’s prayers.

But He doesn’t promise water. He promises to be living water. He doesn’t promise bread, rent, or freedom from retching-hard lives. He promises to be enough in all those things. The bread of life, the roof of Love over our head, the presence in the retching-hard, the hand holding us in death to carry us off to a life of forever-glory.

The tears come in church, because I understand survivor’s guilt. Why did she live and they die? Why did she live, when siblings might have been smarter, stronger, or kinder? And I feel it for myself. Why do I live, and their great-grandchildren never had a chance to? When they might have been better, done better, loved better? And it’s an overwhelming grace to be alive, to live in America, to have a trauma-free childhood. To not have my own family tree hacked violently by evil.

And any wondering about the methods is just me being Eve reaching for the apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Just me, a naked creation, asking God to justify himself. Asking him to justify himself to someone with no concept of long-reaching consequences. I pull my hand back.

He doesn’t want me to know that, but here is what He does want me to know.

Joyce. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of hardship or trial.

There is a special tenderness that I have for those going through trial that the comfortable never feel. I have special grace and presence stockpiled for the marginalized, for the sick, for the needy, for the mentally ill, for the lonely, for the oppressed, for the weary, for the dying…that those living in comfort never learn.

He is here. In Syria. In the psychiatric hospital. In the factories of cheap labor. In the foster home. In the orphan’s bed. In the mission field. With mothers burying malnourished babies. He is sustaining, even when He limits His provision to the spiritual, and not financial or agricultural or physical or mental. Is there anything more important?

This is the thing: Jesus becomes more real and more powerful because of our suffering. We discover strength, comfort and facets of God’s character that we might have never found otherwise. My family found that. They learned to give thanks for the answered prayers despite the unanswered ones. They weren’t able to explain away the hard, but they were blessed to know that there was an unexplainable peace in the hard, worth the hard, bigger than the hard.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Yes, the odds are in our favor in America. What we preach is probably true here, and we shouldn’t stop preaching them. God probably will provide what we need physically and financially to get by. Things probably will get better. But we need to be okay if they don’t. We need to know we’re loved when provision or survival are not our story. We need to be reminded of God’s greater picture, and the better world that He’s preparing for us. We need to not fall to pieces questioning God when we’re not given what we pray for.

Pastor? Tell us the stories of miraculous provision and healing. But don’t stop telling us the stories of God providing spiritual strength through the hardship of martyrs. Don’t stop telling the stories of God fulfilling His will through our infirmity. Don’t stop learning from the global kingdom of God. Don’t stop giving us the eternal perspective through our suffering.

There is a homeland that I have and there were 7 great-grandparents who suffered enormously and yet each did the best they could to give their kids God. I want their resilience. I want the truths they knew. I want the boldness that some of them had when they chose not to forsake their God and convert, even when it meant the literal hard road.

And people can tell you it’s not a part of you anymore. That you are not part of it and it’s not part of you because you chose an American church, but God whispers it to you: it’s still a part of you, Joyce…a deeper part than you know.

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2 thoughts on “The other story of my family tree

  1. Julie says:

    Joyce! This is so beautiful and refreshing. Thank you for sharing. Your great-grandma was an amazing woman. I think often death can be the most merciful thing God will allow. Death, for the believer, is the ultimate fulfillment of all of our needs. Though your grandmother’s brother passed away thirsty, he awoke in the hands of the One who would meet all of his needs. He never thirsted again. God answered his prayers in the most complete way possible.


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