“O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
What we have heard and known, what our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation
The praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders God has done.”
–Psalm 78: 1-4
Are you a storyteller? Every time I read Psalm 78 I am reminded that as people of faith we are all storytellers of a sort. If we are not storytellers, then how will the stories of our faith—the stories of God’s acts in our lives, the passion of the prophets, the compassion and life-saving mercy of Jesus, the constant presence and gifting of the Holy Spirit—be passed down and survive?
As I think about our task as storytellers, two stories from my family emerge. One is a somewhat funny story. The other story is one of tragedy. Both are important for my family to know. Both tell us about who we are. One is about birth. And the other is about death and rebirth. One is a story that generations have told and love to tell. One is a story of “dark utterances,” of hidden things or at least things that my family would rather not know or pass down. And yet, both of these stories tell us about who God is.
My grandfather, Thorn, was around five years old when this incident occurred around the family dinner table one Sunday around the turn of the 20th century. It was customary for the family to go to church and then to return to the home of Big Grandma and Big Grandpa for dinner. Growing up I always knew that Big Grandma and Big Grandpa were Harriet and Joel Vincent Brawley and Little Grandma and Little Grandpa were Amanda and John Davidson Oliphant.
Sadly, I have no pictures of Big Grandma and Big Grandpa, but here are my great great grandparents know as Little Grandpa and Little Grandma, John Davidson and Amanda Oliphant.
On this particular Sunday, the family came to the home amid the wonderful smells that came from a farm kitchen. The dining room table was loaded and everyone found a place to sit. The family grew quiet as the blessing was prayed. And after the blessing over the meal, just as the family began to pass around the food, Big Grandma rose from the table and exclaimed, “Ya’ll excuse me now. It’s time for the baby.”
So she left the table and a little while later, my great aunt Ruth was born! No one knew that Big Grandma, same as 50 years old at the time, was pregnant. My grandfather remembers the day because this new baby was his aunt and he was five years older than she!
The dark story is a story that occurred some six generations back from me and actually effected both my grandmother’s and my grandfather’s families—indeed, probably a whole community. I found court records and a law review article about this incident that records the history of the trial that led to the hanging of my fourth great grandfather.
Although raised in one of the peace denominations, my fourth great grandfather was a slave owner. While his grandfather was a Dunkard preacher, I have found diary entries from a Moravian preacher who wrote about a visit to their home. His comment was that the children needed to find Jesus. So, something wasn’t quite right and my fourth great grandfather grew to be a man of questionable repute.
One day, he was angry at his slave Mira and beat her to death. She was with child. My fourth great grandfather claimed that she had set a fire that burned down the distillery that was located on the farm. When the neighbors arrived to discover what happened, my fourth great grandfather was drunk and violent. He was removed from the farm and taken to the courthouse by his neighbors. In the midst of his neighbors taking him away, he had offered a bribe to let him go, but they refused and took him on to the courthouse.
I have grieved over his actions since the day I discovered this story nearly 12 years ago. Growing up in the south during the 1960’s I was very conscious of the Civil Rights movement. As I have written before I remember my father reading the books of Martin Luther King, Jr. I have always felt a degree of shame that my family resided in the confederacy and that some of my ancestors fought on the side of the confederacy. And, I have always felt grateful that my parents understood that all people are children of God, no matter what and raised my brothers and me to know that no one race or religion or any other qualification makes someone better than anyone else.
My fourth great grandfather was arrested and tried in Iredell County and after exhausting all appeals, was hanged. Only one other person was every hanged in Iredell County, NC and that was the subject of the folk song Hang Down Your Head Tom Duly,
made famous by the Kingston Trio.
When I first discovered this story my mother and my beloved Aunt Helen were still living. Neither of them had ever heard such a story in the family. Both of them told me that I must have gotten the wrong person. Neither of them could believe that anyone in our past could have been capable of doing something such as murdering anyone. I found that it was best not to let them know as I continued to research and discover details about what happened.
In my own family there is the shame of alcoholism among some of the generations back from me. My mother and aunt remembered some of the incidents that occurred where alcohol brought about poor decisions and resulted in tragedy. My mother would often remind my brothers and me about the evils of alcohol by telling us the story of her uncle’s tragedy and how my grandfather grieved over his brother. It never occurred to my mother that there could have been reasons back generations that led to this illness—reasons that might have come from covering up the shame of earlier generations.
Since discovering this tragedy of my fourth great grandfather, I have often wondered if the shame might have been passed down through the generations without anyone really knowing the origin of the shame. And for my family it affected both my grandmother who was the direct descendant and my grandfather, whose great grandfather, Big Grandpa–Joel Vincent Brawley–was raised by the brother-in-law of my fourth great grandfather who was hanged. Both of my grandparents were raised by their parents, who were raised by their parents, who would have known of the tragedy.
In life, there is redemption and out of this story of tragedy there was something good that emerged. Prior to the incident that led to the hanging, this family was not on any church roles, but after the hanging, my fourth great grandmother found her way to church and a community of faith that must have surrounded her with love and grace and mercy. Until the year she died, her name was one of the first on the confession roles at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church. Her children’s and grandchildren’s names are found on the baptism roles and church membership roles. This congregation embraced my fourth great grandmother, shame and all, and gave her a place where mercy and grace surrounded her.
In Psalm 78 we are called to tell the stories of the great deeds of our Lord, but we are also called upon to know and tell the dark utterances as well. We are not perfect. Churches are not perfect. We make mistakes. We sin. And yet, in our God is grace and mercy and love in abundance. The mistakes and sins that we commit often have consequences—painful consequences—but there is redemption with God. There is healing in confession and in repentance there is new life, productive life, and redemptive life.
Even for the church there have been times when it has been necessary to examine our beliefs, repent of sins, and find a better way with God’s guidance and redemption. This month, October, we celebrate the 500th year of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31st, 1517, a young clergy nailed 95 thesis to the door at the Wittenberg Church in Germany. Martin Luther’s 95 thesis was a call for debate about some the practices of the church that were harmful. His intention was not to start a new denomination, but to bring about reform. Both happened.
The Church door at Wittenberg, Germany contains Martin Luther’s 95 thesis.
The idea that reformation occurred once and for all in 1517 is a notion that we need to examine. With each generation, the church is in danger of forgetting the Gospel and moving toward actions that reflect the society around. Are we in the midst of such a time? I think that it is probable that we are and that the church needs to examine whether the teachings that we utter are compatible with the teachings of Jesus, whose main aim was to help people feel the love and mercy of God.
Are we telling the stories that tell of the good deeds of God? Are remembering the stories of old that we might want to forget, but that really will help us learn and repent and grow? I hope that we are holding both and are sharing both so that we can be the people and the church that God longs for us to be.
To God alone be glory!