I have been interested in my family history for as long as I can remember. I think it was in part that there are so few stories of my family beyond my grandparents. Even with them, there aren’t many. I don’t remember my grandmothers talking about their husbands much, and I don’t remember my dad sharing many stories about his father. So as I started this series, I knew I wanted to do some further research on my family. I wanted to find something that made me feel more connected to them.
Climbing my Family Tree
Growing up, we could only trace our family back to Herman Gottreu, my 2x grandfather. After some time digging around Ancestry.com I made it one step further and learned the name of my 3x grandfather, Karl Gottreu. I found that Herman was the only child of Karl’s second marriage. Karl was married previously to Katharine and they had four children but all died before they turned one. Katharine died during childbirth with their fourth child, Wilhelmine, and the child survived another seven months.
Within a few months of Wilhelmine’s death, Karl married Franziske and then nine months later Herman was born. Karl died when Herman was 13. The records are silent until 1847, when Herman, who was 22 at the time, left home and sailed to America landing in New Orleans. Within weeks, He joined the army to fight in the Mexican American War. We don’t know much else till 1861 when he joined the Union Army. His company moved around Missouri and Tennessee, helping break the siege of Chatanooga and then marched with Sherman to the Sea. They then marched to Washington DC where they mustered out after four years.
The records are silent until 1869, when at the age of 44, he married his wife Martha who was 18. They would have nine children with eight surviving into childhood. Two of their children never married and only three would have children of their own. Two of the oldest brothers married two sisters of another large local German family. Most of Herman’s children were famers or married farmers. Two of the youngest, a brother and sister were a doctor and a nurse and worked together in the same practice for many years.
There is heartbreak and joy I’m sure behind these facts. But after all the research, I didn’t feel any closer to that part of my family. I guess I was looking for a deeper sense of belonging. As I continued the research and examined the idea of family and where I fit in it all, it occurred to me. Under all of this was the question of identity. “Who am I?”
Our family is one of the first places we find our identity: brother, sister, son, daughter. Then school, career and the like begin to influence our identity. In the West, it is so easy to allow those things to become our identity instead of simply being a descriptor of our activities. I’m not a person who writes code during the day but I am a web developer.
The Shaping of my Identity
Through most of my college experience I was so focused on what I was going to be upon graduation that it began to define me. I was going to be a missionary. My plan was I would go for two years, come back and go to seminary and return to the field after graduation. Somewhere along the way I would get married and start a family. That became who I was. I was just taking it step-by-step.
Then came the time to begin the process to go overseas. At the end, when I had to make a decision to go or stay, I realized my motives were all wrong. I came home and had to begin answering questions on why I wasn’t going. Part of me was thinking that I’d work through some things and then I’d go and things would be back on track. I believe this was the first breaking down of my constructed identity. With my plans changing, I needed a job.
I started work as a web developer. I think as I grappled to find myself, I made my career my identity. I worked for a university for a couple years and then got bored. In my efforts to become more of who I was, ie a web developer, I started my own business and it failed within a year. I had to take another developer job that was stressful and undemanding. I left that job after a couple of years. I actually quit while on a business trip after getting into an argument with my boss.
After I got home, I took a month away and at the end, felt it was time to go to seminary. So I packed up and moved to Texas thinking I was back on track. I would get to the identity I developed in college. I had just taken a hiatus. Over time, seminary began to be my identity. And in the back of my mind, I thought once graduation arrived, things would make sense and my life would get back on track.
I graduated and my future wasn’t any closer to that identity I developed. So I worked to pay off debt thinking once I was debt-free I’d have a clearer picture. I became debt-free and still no answer.
Again, my constructed identity was dying. So I looked around for something to prop it up. I “resigned” myself to “being faithful in the small things.” Some part of me felt like I was in a spiritual desert but like Moses, God would eventually show up and give me my marching orders.
Several years passed and I was stressed out and frustrated again. Then I lost my job because of a mistake. I found a new job and re-constructed that part of my identity. Then I watched a ministry I’d been a part of for close to ten years start to die. I had some leadership in the group and part of my identity had been tied to the ministry. So as it died, yet another part of my constructed identity died as well. Frustration and stress set in again. This time I had to do something. I had reached my breaking point. I returned to counseling.
An Unfulfilled Identity Fulfilled in Christ
This brings us to today. I’ve spent the last few months examining my past and the state of my heart. I have worked through the grief of losing things I’d held so tight. I also found that my expectations for how my life should go have fought with God’s promises and his plan for my life.
I’ve been looking to other people, my career and fantasy to the find my identity. I’ve been looking in all the wrong places. I have the book knowledge to know that looking for my identity in anyone or anything else than Christ will lead to frustration. However, I had put so thick a spiritual veneer on my problems that I couldn’t see them for what they were. I’m being reminded, that like dealing with my depression, understanding and living in the midst of my identity in Christ is a daily thing. It took all these things falling apart for it to start to penetrate into my soul.
So as I look forward each morning I need to remind myself that I am not my career, my family, or peoples’ expectations.
I am a slave who was dead but who is alive and been set free. I am a citizen of heaven, and ambassador to the King, and a fellow heir with Christ. I am a new creation, made in the image of God, and God’s workmanship built into the temple of God. I am more than a conqueror over all the things that want to keep me from remembering who I really am.
In the end, if my family is what defines me then who am I if they are all gone? If my career defines me, then who am I when I lose it. If being a writer or a deacon or any other label is removed, then who am I? All these things are good but they are ephemeral. Finding my identity in the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and End, the Eternal God, is the only identity that is true and will last.
But like Paul, I’ve not completely grasped and understood all these things, but I will keep striving to find myself in Christ more and more and less and less in my titles and career.