Campus Blog

Discovering Your Spiritual Heritage

Neil Downey

I recently spent some extended time in my hometown. On the last night of my stay, my parents opened up some family history books. Two hours later, I had a much clearer picture of what my ancestors were like. Some of my discoveries were incredibly interesting when viewed through spiritual lenses. Here are a few highlights:

•  My great-grandparents (Ebenezer and Annie Brown) founded a Presbyterian congregation in rural Manitoba.

•   Another set of great-grandparents (Robert and Belle Atkinson) had family devotions every night, shaping the spiritual life of my grandmother and her sisters.

•   One great-grandfather (George Bambridge) was born into an aristocratic family but, in Downton Abbey -like fashion, was disowned for marrying a commoner and moved to Canada, penniless. His youngest son (my great-uncle Ernie) was a devoted follower of Jesus and spoke at my wedding reception. Ernie's wife continues to encourage and generously support my ministry with Cru.

•   My great-great uncle (William Scheel) attended  Moravian College  in Bethlehem, PA. He became a pastor and, along with his brother and their wives, was a missionary to the Yup'ik people of Bethel, Alaska.

•   William's sister (my great-grandmother Minnie) put her kids to bed and soothed them to sleep by playing hymns on the organ every night. Minnie was married to my great-grandfather (Alex Downey), an alcoholic who would go on two-day benders (perhaps to escape from the organ music). His son (my Grandpa Doug) would have to go to the bar and drag him back home. This caused my Grandpa to warn my Dad of the dangers of alcohol abuse and the importance of being a loving, responsible family man.

•  My great-great-great aunt (Agnes Brown) was a devout Christian and gifted poet. Here's a sample of her poetry:

It will not matter when I die
How soon I am forgot.
Or if the spot where I shall lie
Be marked by flowers or not.
If I but reach that blissful shore
Beyond the pearly gate
And meet with those who've gone before,
Who for my coming wait.

For then I'll lay life's burden down
No more to weary be,
But claim the robe and glittering crown
That is laid up for me;
And when I see my Savior's face
In Heavenly beauty shine,
Whose radiant smile of love and grace
Shall light up even mine...

And so I journey here below
Mid scenes of toil and strife,
Cheered on by hope for I would go
To reach that better life.
And when I'm called from earth away
I'll shout for gladness, when
I've reached that land of lasting day,
For naught will matter then.

Lessons Learned / Points to Ponder

  1. God doesn't have any grandchildren. While some of my ancestors were faithful, godly people, not all of their children were. In fact, many of my relatives show no interest in spiritual things at all. There is no guarantee that growing up in a "Christian" home will make you a Christian. "Train up a child in the way he should go..." (Proverbs 22:6) is a general truism, not an absolute promise. No matter your spiritual heritage, your life, your choices, and your faith are personal and individual.
  2. God brings good out of bad. In more than one instance above, situations that seemed grave could have turned out disastrously for the next generation. But, like in the story of Joseph, what man intended for evil, God intended for good (see Genesis 50:20). He is sovereign and we can trust in his goodness, no matter how bad life seems.
  3. Can anything good come from Owen Sound? Before arriving on the plains of southern Manitoba, a significant number of my ancestors came from the area around Owen Sound, Ontario. I won't go into detail here, but Owen Sound is disparagingly referred to as a pachyderm's posterior . This may be the modern-day North American equivalent of being from Nazareth (see John 1:46).
  4. What will my legacy be? When my descendants read about my life 100 years from now, what will they learn about me? How do I want to be known? Am I a man who "seeks justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly?" (See Micah 6:8.) Am I living, loving, and serving in a way that builds the kingdom and gives life to those around me?

Action Step

If you haven't already, invest some time in finding out about your spiritual heritage. Perhaps you come from a long line of devoted disciples of Jesus. If so, celebrate and continue their vision. Or maybe you're the only Christian in your family: your lineage is full of people apparently distant from God. If that's the case, determine today to leave a rich spiritual legacy. Pray for your relatives and your descendants, that they would know and serve the Lord and make a difference in the world. And be encouraged that, as a child of God, you are part of the most important family of all.

* Photo courtesy of Gwenda Brown Dunning.

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