His face is stern. The porch is rough and unpainted, marred by heavy boots and dirty hands. The family is large. Resources must be scarce and needs must have to be met. Days must be long, work must be hard, and words must be tense.
This is my great, great grandfather. He sits in the middle of his wife and five children, my great grandmother to the far left. There is no one alive today who knew him face to face. There is no one to tell his story. In the absence of facts and any personal narrative, my mind fills in the blanks. What I have is this photo and the knowledge that he died young, followed shortly by his wife, their children left orphaned. Forsaking education for employment, they moved north and traded the roles of sisters and brother for father and mother, playmate for protector, partner in mischief for provider.
When I picture my great-grandmother Thelma’s childhood, it’s possible I substitute her family for the one in Grapes of Wrath. It just seems like so much dust and hardship. Where fact and my assumptions blur is difficult to determine. What I know for sure about her father is that his face is so very serious, his work was more strenuous than most today, and that he died. What I fill in is gritty and exhausting.
This picture hangs on a wall in my grandmother’s home and has for perhaps the last 25 years or so. I have examined it countless times and searched for my likeness in her face and thought about how harsh their lives must have been.
But then we found the letters.
In the middle of sorting out some belongings of mine I’d left stored in a spare room in my grandmother’s house, my aunt and I had paused to peek through the file cabinet of family history she’s kept for longer than anyone can remember.
“Do you think these could be old friends from Romania?”
“Is that the binder with the Civil War letters?”
“Oh! See this fiddle in the picture? That’s your grandma’s great-grandpa and that’s the fiddle she still has.”
But then there was a smallish blue binder we had never seen and in it were original handwritten letters in a penmanship we didn’t recognize. After reading a few pages and reconciling a few pet names with given names, we realized the letters were from Thelma’s father written to his wife and children while he was away working in a mine in California. Page after page was filled with descriptions of nature and neighbors, questions after health and well-being, requests and complicated plans for visits, and nicknames, affection, hugs and kisses. Each letter ended with the word “kiss” written five times and circled in pencil, one for each beloved family member he’d left behind.
These letters are not filled with dust and exhaustion. They’re filled with love — practical, need-meeting love; affectionate, playful love; personal, intimate, familial love.
In a matter of minutes, these letters written in my great-great grandfather’s own hand to the family he had loved and left behind, brought the person he was into sharp focus. He was someone you could wrap your arms around and depend on, someone who would give you a nickname, and someone whose absence would be difficult to bear. He was a father who loved, enjoyed, and sacrificed for his family. It was a fresh breath of knowing.
I have spent most of my life completely misunderstanding this ancestor of mine. My gaze has rested on his photo for brief moments again and again, never stopping to question the understanding I’ve constructed. We’ve looked through the files a million times and never come across that blue binder.
I do the same thing to people I pass daily. A quick glance and my mind fills in their whole story. Typically I just assume I’m right and probe no further. I’m sure I’m not alone.
I’m also certain I do the same thing with God. It’s easy to gather bits and pieces of information from all around you about who God is and then fill in the blanks:
God must not care because there is so much pain in the world.
If God is so loving and so forgiving, then why aren’t his people?
If I’m faithful and obedient to all these rules it seems like I’m supposed to follow, then God will come through for me and make sure I’m comfortable and happy.
I just saw a scripture that says we’ll conquer over our enemies, so that must justify my actions against this person.
Those are simplifications of real struggles, but there are so many messages I know I have thought were true about who God is and who I am to Him because I attempting to construct meaning out of hearsay and incomplete information. When I do that with the person of my great-grandfather, it’s unfortunate. When I do that with who God is, it is devastating.
When I open scripture, I am opening God’s letters written to His bride, His children. We are no longer face to face with the physical Jesus, but our Father’s words of love are written for us to know who He is as an affectionate, need-meeting, personal, intimate, provider, protector, and lover of our souls.
Certainly the more time I spend with those letters scratched out to a family separated by poverty and need, I will continue to gather insight into all the ways their father loved his family, even from a distance. Our Father God has left us so much more to know about Himself — history, poetry, law, personal correspondence, visions and prophecies. And unlike my great-great grandfather, He did not leave us as orphans to fend for ourselves with just a packet of penciled words and kisses to remember him by. He left us a Holy Spirit, a counselor and comforter, along with thousands of pages of His Word and Jesus to bridge the gap.
For me, encounters with God’s Word often bring that same fresh breath of knowing. Often I have inhaled deeply and thought, “Oh, you love me like that,” or, “You are so, so much bigger than I thought.” Or a thousand other slight clicks of clarity that change the whole picture. We do not have to settle for knowing about God. We can actually get to know God.