Can even the cursed branches of a family tree bear fruit? Or even branches that have been broken off, can they be grafted into the life source again?
Parentless children feel a sense of isolation and fragmentation that others cannot fully know. Because we are defenseless in those early vulnerable stages of life, we are also often targeted for abuse of the worst kinds. This leaves a soul wound that is carried through the course of one’s life.
One of my favorite images of God from the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is that of “father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5). This has certainly been true in my own life, both figuratively and literally.
This post is a kind of part two to my “getting to know me” blog post. Maybe it is less about you getting to know me and more about me getting to know me. But if you’ve felt what I just described my prayer is that you will find hope in what I share here. Also, that you will find a way to tell your story that will bring healing to yourself and others.
A quick recap, in my intro post I described the circumstances of my birth… born addicted, abandoned by mother, my biological father unknown. My grandparents adopted me but died when I was young. I became a street kid, sold drugs, got wasted, in and out of juvenile detention facilities, and as a 9th grade dropout, earned my GED in an institution for incarcerated juvenile felons.
Jesus redeemed me from that life through a supernatural encounter on the floor of a jail cell and the love of a community of Christians in the making. I went on to earn a Bachelor’s in Psychology, Master of Divinity, and a Doctorate in Semiotics. I’ve been involved in founding corporations, cultivating movements, planting churches, teaching doctoral students, and writing a couple books. I found a way in my life, to use my own wounds to bring healing to the woundedness of others.
For the last 30 years I’ve been completely disconnected from my family of origin. Two years ago, my little brother McKinley overdosed, and died in my arms. He spent 10 of his 34 years of life in prison for a drug related crime, not because he was a bad person, but because he was a sick person. My biological mother resurfaced after 17 years for McKinley’s funeral, still struggling with her own demons of alcoholism and addiction. A war she has been losing for over 40 years. Again, not because she is a bad person, but because she is a sick person. We Beck’s carry this addiction disease in the molecular fabric of our being.
Essentially, I had given up hope on knowing anything about my family of origin. I took great comfort in knowing that God has always been a good father to me and provided a massive mixed up family of sinners and saints called the church. But in another way, I was spiritualizing a problem that had a simple solution. I was afraid to say I cared. Afraid to voice the pain that followed me like a shadow through every day. But I would never let you see that fear. I hid that pain in relentless cycles of creativity.
My wife Jill often sees through my tough exterior. She has always sensed that deep down inside, questions about my origins bother me. Many times in our marriage, Jill lends me her strength when I can’t muster my own. So, three weeks ago she did her research, reached out to my relatives, and connected me to a massive family tree I never knew I had.
My family tree has many branches, and the matriarchs and patriarchs of my line have carefully documented and preserved our lineage. They hold massive annual family reunions, belong to groups like Daughters of the American Revolution, the Mayflower Society, and have an odd fascination with producing 300-page books documenting branches of our ancestry! Here’s a little cliff notes version.
The Beck line goes back to John Beck (1770’s, the farthest we can go without the proper documentation) and Rebecca Collins, daughter of Thomas Collins who served under George Washington, wintered at Valley Forge and fought at the Battles of Trenton and Brandywine. Their son Jonathon married Mary Anne Orr who was the daughter of Thomas Orr and Mary Gatchell. The Gatchells were infamous troublemakers who came to Massachusetts in the 1600s and my 8th great grandfather ended up in Philadelphia married to the daughter of William Penn’s rope maker.
Edwin Augustus Beck, Jonathon’s son, married Matilda Sanderson McCrum. He was an entrepreneur who started a lucrative company designing and building horse-drawn hearses and transporting the bodies of deceased persons to their final rest.
E. Augustus and Matilda helped plant and were upstanding members of the Methodist Episcopal Church for many decades. Being Wesleyan is baked into my soul.
Matilda’s great grandmother was Hephzibah Stout married to William McCrum. Hephzibah was the daughter of Benjamin Stout who was the son of Benjamin Stout and Hannah Bonham. Hannah Bonham is a granddaughter of Samuel Fuller (son of Edward) both of whom were on the Mayflower.
Benjamin Stout is the grandson of Penelope and Richard Stout. Penelope Stout is my legendary very great grandmother who was shipwrecked, scalped, gutted, and left for dead by a hostile tribe of First Nation people. She hid in the hollow of a tree and was rescued by the chief of the Navesink tribe of Leni Lenapi. By forming an allegiance with that tribe, she ensured the survival of her colony, which led to the settlement of Monmouth, NJ. Penelope’s daughter Mary had a great-granddaughter, Hannah Salter. Hannah married Mordecai Lincoln (Hannah and Mordecai Lincoln are the great-great-grandparents of Abraham Lincoln).
Matilda McCrum’s great grandfather was John McClellan who was one of the first commissioned officers in the Continental Army from Cumberland County, Pa. He died on Nov 1775 in Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Canada.
The McCrums, McClellans and Buchanans (John McClellan’s mother) all came to America as the Jacobite Rebellion went south – some by way of Northern Ireland.
My great grandfather, Russell I. Beck, son of Edwin Downs Beck and Nettie Gray, (the gray family needs an entire other blog post!), is the grandson of Edwin Augustus Beck). He was part of a group of Beck’s who moved from Pennsylvania into the Manhattan and Brooklyn boroughs of New York City. His sister Florence Beck, was a professional ballroom dancer and instructor in Manhattan.
He was the black sheep of the family. He ran away at 15 (which made the newspaper below for some reason), got drafted into World War 1, and came back married to my great grandmother Edith, daughter of a Moravian missionary to the West Indies, Rev. Jacob Howard . Russell I. was an alcoholic, fathered children out of wedlock, got mixed up in the mafia (there are several newspaper clippings about his criminal activities and trials), and disappeared in his 40’s his body never to be found (pictured here).
Thus, my grandfather Russell H. Beck grew up with no father, married my grandmother Marion McDonald, went to fight in World War 2, came back and founded a home and lawn décor business in NYC until moving down to Florida. My mother claimed that my grandfather sexually abused her and that he is actually my father.
In my family line there are pioneers, revolutionaries, missionaries, entrepreneurs, sexual deviants, and alcoholics. Fullers, Stouts, McCrums, McClellans, Buchanans, Grays, and Becks helped form relationships with indigenous peoples and colonize a fledgling nation. They fought in the Revolutionary, Civil, and both World Wars. They struggled and overcame incredible odds, pioneered uncharted territories, built businesses, as well as instigated criminal enterprises. All those dualities live in my blood now. Jill gave me the beautiful gift of a DNA test for my birthday. The results may or may not answer questions around my biological father/grandfather.
I suppose all of this new information does not necessarily affect who I am in Christ, or what I’m called to do in this world. Yet it does provide a backdrop for understanding the various polarities in my own being.
For all the multitude of orphaned, adopted, abused, and abandoned adult children out there, know that even the “black sheep” are sacred, beautiful, worthy, and valuable too. I hope that you too could know that you are part of a larger story. Maybe we feel we are cursed or even broken from the tree, but nevertheless we are connected to and not isolated from this blended mess of humanity in profound ways.
The inner struggles we feel have been carried in the blood for generations. Something beyond us, but in us, pushes us to both incredible feats of love and to inflict harm, to pioneer new territories, and conversely to burn down the villages of others.
I spent my youth trying to survive, with no parental support, or family network. The psychological impact of this has been tremendous. Those instincts are not easily unlearned. I was deeply de-formed in faulty mental attitudes. Now as I’m corresponding and Zooming with relatives I never knew I had, I’m feeling a new sense of peace. I feel connected to humanity, not just in a spiritual way, which is real and powerful, but in a flesh and blood, genetic way. I also feel a deep sense of connection with this country, both the positive and negative dimensions.
Even a bastard born addicted in the NICU of a Gainesville, Florida hospital can carry the story of a whole nation in his bones. There is a deep interrelatedness in us all. In a time when our nation worships at the throne of a god who’s guiding principles seem to be the “affordable loss” of disposable human life, or “survival of the fittest.” We need revolutionaries who will point us back to a God who is self-defined by love and care for the vulnerable (Psalm 68:5). Those dying from COVID-19 every day are our kin, our own flesh and blood, our brothers, and sisters.
All of this depends on each of us having the courage to ask our own tough questions, the ones that we pretend don’t bother us. It requires us to stop spiritualizing our pain and doing the relational work that brings actual healing.
It’s our greatest struggles that make us who we are.
If life hands us ashes, we can paint with them.
In fact, it’s with our ashes that God paints the most beautiful pictures. Pictures that can bring healing to others.
Even the cursed branches of a family tree can bear fruit in the power of a God of unfailing love.