My mama’s extended family usually meets every two or three years for a reunion in different cities where clusters of our cousins live. After four years of waiting because of the pandemic, this year we gathered in Detroit, Michigan where my mom was born. We weren’t sure how many would actually show up because of high travel costs, canceled flights, Covid cases hanging in the balance, and other life challenges.
On the first night, we were delighted to discover 140 cousins had made the trek for this epic gathering. (Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but Italian style with all the signature food, generations mixing, and stories of the old country.) Some of our traditions at these reunions include a picnic in the park with a bocce ball tournament, a banquet with music from all different eras, and lots of time around the table telling stories about aunts, uncles, and grandparents who have gone on to Heaven.
My mama’s great grandparents immigrated to the United States from a little town called San Giovanni en Fiore in Southern Italy. Their three sons represent the three main branches of our family tree from which the various generations originated.
More than three decades ago, my mama started researching our family tree. She filled in the spouses and children, the new branches of descendants that extended from the original branches. I remember hand lettering and coloring the poster boards. Some form of the family tree is always displayed at our reunions. Behind every name and every branch is a story. These stories weave together our past and present.
Through the years, we have also welcomed unexpected branches and stories into our family tree — a cousin who married a Japanese-American woman, several who have spouses with Latin roots, and my mama who married my mixed-race dad, who is Filipino, Chinese, and Polynesian.
Now it’s more the norm to find names among the branches that are different from the Tonys, Marias, Franks, Angelas, and Guiseppes, which were more common in the first generation. It’s the beautiful mixing of cultures and settling in new cities that make our family tree unique today.
Truth be told, sometimes family trees can be messy. The branches become gnarly and tangled. Some branches are broken off way too soon because of divorce, separation, or death. We might be tempted to hide these stories, but they are an important part of God’s redemption story too.
In my case, my husband Ericlee died of cancer at age forty. We could view that as a broken branch of our family tree, but God brought my new husband Shawn and grafted him in. This year he is officially adopting my three daughters — another piece of our redemption story.
As we read through the Bible, we discover that God’s family tree had its share of twisted branches and unexpected stories as well. His family tree brings together people of diverse nations and backgrounds.
I think about Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute who hid the Israelite spies sent to scope out the Promised Land. Members of her family were the only survivors of Israel’s attack on Jericho, because she helped them escape. She married one of those spies and was invited into God’s family tree, moving from outsider to insider because of her courage and reverence for God. She is one of five mothers mentioned in Jesus’ family genealogy in Matthew 1.
Then there was Ruth, a Moabite woman who married into a Jewish family. Historically, the Moabites and Jews were enemies, but God creatively brought together branches of His family tree to include Ruth.
In Ruth 1:16, we read Ruth’s pledge to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi that changed everything: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
These words mark a shift in Ruth’s life. After she was widowed, Ruth was released by her mother-in-law to return to her own family. Yet, Ruth steps into an unexpected story and proclaims her trust in Naomi’s God, Yahweh. She leaves her family and accompanies Naomi back to her home in Bethlehem.
Ruth meets a man named Boaz, who happens to be the son of Rahab and a relative of Naomi. Through a wild weaving of unexpected events, the two are eventually married. Because of her courageous choice to follow God, Ruth is grafted into His family tree.
Not only is Ruth adopted into a new family, she’s also blessed with a son and eventually becomes the great-grandmother to King David himself. We might be tempted to skip over those lists of names and genealogies in the Bible, but they are significant. If you check out the family tree Matthew records, that means she’s great-times-forty-grandma to God’s own son Jesus, our ultimate redeemer relative.
Like Ruth, we are invited into God’s family tree when we choose to believe in His Son, His death, and His resurrection. Friend, you are chosen for God’s family. You are not an accidental or peripheral branch. You were invited in on purpose. Your story may just be unfolding like a new shoot on the family tree.