“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…let us run with endurance the race that that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1
I’ve always been curious about my ancestry. I remember as a kid asking each of my parents, “What are we?” over and over again. I had to ask more than once because they each rattled off such a long list that it was difficult to keep track. Let me see. On my mom’s side we were supposedly German, Danish, Irish, and my granny swore her grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee. On my dad’s side he said we were English, Irish, German, and my Aunt Judy claims that there’s Omaha Sioux mixed in there somewhere. I’m not sure why being Native American was such a prominent feature in our oral genealogy over the years. Maybe my relatives thought it rooted us more firmly on this land, or maybe they liked the idea of being exotic. Whatever the reason, that identity certainly had an effect on me. I remember watching the Disney version of Peter Pan as a child and feeling comforting solidarity with the beleaguered Tiger Lily, who I was sure was my distant relative.
Recently, hoping to find some confirmation of the stories I’ve heard over the years, I completed a DNA test through Ancestry.com. There was some validation from the results in my “Ethnicity Estimate”: I am 19% English, 10% Scandinavian (Danish perhaps?), and 8% Irish. But there were also some surprises. I’m descended from a group of historically oppressed people, just not the ones I thought! I am 0% Native American but 52% European Jewish. I’m one of God’s Chosen People, y’all! When I told my mom and my dad about the results, they just kind of shrugged about the lack of evidence to support claims that we’re Native American. Also neither one said they’ve ever heard of any ancestors who were Jewish.
Why do we spend so much time accounting for our heritage anyway? There are long genealogies sprinkled throughout the Old and New Testaments tracing the lineage of different Jewish tribes and of Jesus. I usually skip or skim these monotonous passages with impossible-to-pronounce names, but when I reflect on how curious I am about my ancestry, the fact that someone thought this stuff was important enough to write down makes a lot more sense. So now that I know my DNA ancestry, what, if anything, does it mean for me? Maybe it means that I’m descended from a rich tradition of faith. Maybe it means that I have a penchant for imperialism and potato growing. Maybe it means nothing. Or maybe I get to decide what my ancestry means to me and how I will let it influence my identity.
In addition to ancestry by blood or marriage, there is another type of heritage that has had a profound influence on my identity. In chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews, the writer creates a genealogy of faithful followers of God across many generations, people who struggled but ultimately remained faithful to God. At the end of the long list of Biblical heroes and heroines, the writer offers this encouragement: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” The cloud of witnesses has also been described as a “Hall of Faith,” and that’s what I imagine. I imagine a tunnel of friends, family, role models, and ancestors, both blood ancestors and my foremothers and fathers in faith, cheering me on through the tough stretches of a long race.
When I’m going through hardship my mind often returns to the cloud-of-witnesses image, and I think about the people I know who’ve been through unimaginable challenges and have come out on the other side. For example, I think of my good friends Kirsten and Jason. In August of 2015, they lost their firstborn son Caleb during childbirth. Their anguish was profound. And yet so was their faith. Seeing them grow closer to one another, closer to their community, and closer to God through the painful process of grief has inspired my faith beyond anything I’ve personally experienced up to this point. Last month, they welcomed their beautiful and healthy son Asher into the world. Thinking of Kirsten, Jason, and baby Asher gives me encouragement to remain faithful through my own trials.
I know I’m not alone in my reliance on my cloud of witnesses. Last month I attended an International Women’s Day event where one of the speakers shared the power of heritage in her own life. The mother of four boys, she was a victim of domestic violence that she kept a secret from everyone. One day she reflected on her grandmother’s life. In the 1920s, her grandmother was a young married woman of color with young children. However, she was unhappy in her marriage and longed for independence. She decided to leave her husband, daring to take on the stigma of divorce and the hardship of single parenthood. Reflecting on her grandmother’s strength gave the speaker the courage to leave her abusive husband and create a better life for her and her sons.
Just like the Women’s Day speaker became braver after meditating on the bravery of her grandmother, I believe that our cloud of witnesses – whether bonded by blood or friendship or faith – can make us braver, too. Knowing that my ancestors, both distant and recent, were people of faith can influence my faith, too. I can choose to add empowering stories and characters to my cloud of witnesses. As I run the race of life, I believe looking backward to these witnesses is a powerful way to follow forward.
What about you? How does your knowledge of your heritage and the experiences of your family influence your identity?
This is the first in a series of blog posts I’ll be writing about my heritage as I seek to understand, as my pastor says, who I am and whose I am. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and future posts, and thanks for reading!