Essay / Culture

Confessing the Generations

(This is in some ways a sequel to my earlier post, “Gospel of Confession”)

Perhaps, like me, you have dreaded your turn to tell your conversion story at a church event. I would open my story with an apology: “well, my story really isn’t very interesting….” Unlike some of the more sensational stories that had been told, my own story was pretty pedestrian. Raised in a Christian home, I had some struggles and questions, but my transition to my own Christian faith from that of my parents was pretty seamless.

I have come, however, to radically rethink this story, partly through a fuller understanding of confession as participation in God’s self-confession, and partly through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I will focus on the latter here. I now begin my story with my great-grandfather, because Homer more than anyone taught me to think of identity in terms of multi-generational categories. Who am I? Adam, the son of Glen, the son of Bill, the son of Axel.

A Scandinavian sailor, Axel (pictured, standing) abandoned his wife and children, and started a new family in Alaska. One day he was playing poker with a native-American (Athabascan) friend, who ran out of money to bet. Not to be dissuaded, he bet one of his daughters. Axel won, and since by this time his second wife had died, and the deal was done. Thus began and ended my great-grandfather’s courtship of my great-grandmother. And thus began and ended their romance as well, for from all accounts, it wasn’t a pleasant marriage.

My grandfather Bill was born out of that union, and resented his mixed birth, thinking of himself as a half-breed. Passing up the opportunity to play college basketball to care for ungrateful sisters and mother, he suffered from regret and shame. When my father expressed an interest in sports at a young age, my grandpa’s redemption presented itself: the chance to fulfill his dreams. Within a short time, grandpa, with the help of the city manager, filled in the muskeg land across the street, and dad had himself the best baseball field in town.

As a young father himself, my dad at some point realized that much of his life had been spent living out his father’s dreams. And with this realization came the freedom to relinquish those pressures. As a result, I was raised with a freedom unprecedented in the history of this family.

What is my story? Just as Homer demands that we think of individuals in terms of their lineage, the story of my conversion is the story of God’s work in my family. And through the conversion of my father and the ensuing self-realization about his family dynamics, I am part of a generational work of God in which he has, over a period of four generations, brought freedom to a family that I now seek to offer to my children. I confess God to be a God who works to bring freedom across the generations.

Did I have a dramatic conversion away from a life of sin and debauchery? No, and in a competition of “whose pre-conversion life was most interestingly hideous” I will lose every time. But that is not the point. The point is to confess God’s grace as he works through the generations. Who am I? One who freely participates in God’s radical transformation of my family over the generations. Equipped with such a story, I have little to fear the next time I am asked to share my conversion story. And that, of course, is only one small glimpse into the stories to be told from God’s work in my lineage.

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