Campus Minister with Cru at Stanford University, Associate Faculty in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary
This is one of three pictures of me as a kid that I know of. It represents four generations of my family: my great-grandparents, my grandmother (middle back), my mom (back left), and my cousin and I—we are pretty cute. I am thinking a lot about my family and friends these days; I skew nostalgic and sentimental anyway—even when circumstances are “normal.” But when there is stress, or I have questions, or there are circumstances out of my control, I tend to drift toward thinking of those things that make my life meaningful. And it’s usually my relationships.
I learned early in my life that your family shapes your identity and meaning in both positive and negative ways; this story is more on the positive side.
My family immigrated to America from Russia (and eventually ended up in Montana) in the 19th Century. I grew up in a small town in Northwest Montana—1200 people—and all of my family lived in that town. We celebrated holidays and milestones together. We worked together and played together. When someone needed help, they would be there. Our family wasn’t perfect, but there was some beauty in our imperfections. We are quirky, stubborn, endearing, and a little ornery (do people still use that word?).
It’s not hard to find meaning when your family has a cool story: The legend is that My Grams (back middle) met my Grandpa through writing letters to servicemen who were fighting in WW II. He came back, they dated, and then they got married. Their oldest daughter is my mom (back left). And I’m their oldest grandchild (I beat my cousin by 3 months and I definitely play that up in my family). There was a history in their story that made me think I was a part of something unique.
It’s not hard to find meaning when your family takes care of you when life gets too overwhelming. I lived with my grandparents on a couple of occasions—and they seemed to always be there during some of our most profound losses. I remember calling them when I was going through some difficulties in college; usually one ring and they picked up the phone. There was a consistency to their life that was comforting.
It’s not hard to find meaning when your grandfather would take you hunting and fishing and let you help him in his shop; even when “helping” made whatever he was doing that much harder. Or, when your grandmother would play Sorry or Nertz with you after she cooked and cleaned Easter dinner; or would make you a grilled cheese and jelly sandwich when you would show up at her door unannounced because the school lunch was bad that day. I can’t remember them saying “I love you,” but there was a way that they communicated that love through their presence.
My family taught me that my story is a part of something bigger–A family story that reaches back generations; and that values the kids and grandkids that will be its future. They set me on a trajectory that would help me find faith when I was a freshman in college—an even bigger story that our family fits into. That faith would eventually carry me through the loss of my grandfather. In our last conversation together, he asked me if it was ok that he wasn’t so public about his faith, that he was more private and preferred the idea of “praying in a closet.” Understated, as usual for him. He died a month after Bonnie and I got married, he was too sick to travel to the wedding.
My family story pointed me to a bigger story. And in times of loss and frustration and disorientation and questions, I tend to draw meaning and a sense of myself from these two stories—my family and my faith. I have a lot of questions trying to make sense of what is going on right now. And I get frustrated not knowing when it will all end; but knowing that I am a part of something bigger helps me through the times of stress and anxiety (although I would like to know the ending of Covid-19 so I could shave my protest beard and be able to play noon basketball again).