Deuteronomy 5:9, 10: “You shall not bow down to them or
worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing
the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth
generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand
generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
When I was young, my dad would take my sisters and me to the pool
at our favorite campground. It was a small pool and always
crowded, but to my young eyes it was enormous and quite frightening –
because it had a deep end. A really deep end. An
entire eight-feet-to-the-bottom deep end. I was simultaneously
enchanted and terrified.
Once in the water, I would scramble up to stand on my dad’s
shoulders, his hands gripping my ankles. Checking to see that I
was steady, he would turn and make his way into the deeper, quieter
part of the pool, pausing just once to fill his lungs before sinking
below the surface. He was completely submerged, but I, still
standing on his shoulders, was wet only to my knees. He would
turn around – still underwater – then slowly walk back into
shallower depths. When he finally resurfaced, he would let go
of my ankles and I would launch myself from his shoulders and into
Childhood tends to slip away, and the simplicity of the early
years is lost far too soon. Years bring the gift of knowledge,
but knowledge has a way of seeping into darker places, deeper
places. Pieces of family history rise to the surface, sometimes
intentionally summoned, sometimes unbidden, sometimes rancid from
wasted years lying buried in the sand of shame and secrets.
I learned stories about my grandfather, a man who worked hard for
his family and earned a Purple Heart in World War II. But he
paid dearly for his times as Protector. He had seen too much.
He was terribly wounded; an artificial leg replaced the one he lost,
and he walked with a cane for the rest of his life. He was
fearful and in chronic pain, and his family suffered along with him.
My dad grew up under my grandfather’s too-ready criticism and was
shaped by it before he learned how not to be. The heart of a
child can be far too malleable.
It fell to my dad, then, the courageous task of stopping the cycle
of family history, perhaps one of the most powerful cycles in the
world. It was he who recognized it for what it was and dug in
his heels. My sisters and I were the benefactors of his
bravery. Not once did he call us a mean-spirited name.
Not once did he shame us with his words. Not once.
But a family cycle is not so easily stopped. It is like a
flywheel of perpetual motion, creating its own momentum.
Deuteronomy foretells this very thing. These verses in chapter
5, while specifically citing idolatry, serve as a reminder to the
cold reality of sin. The Bible is wise in its dire warning that
a father’s decisions affect many generations, not because God
maliciously punishes innocents-to-come, but because that is the
nature of sin. Be aware, urges the writer of
Deuteronomy; know what to expect. That wheel will
eventually grind to a halt, but it takes a long time.
In my family, my sisters and I knew my dad to be a forever-loyal
ally, full of encouragement and belief and hope. But we also
came to know of other traits, remnants from his childhood, that he
could not help but pass on to us. We participated in the
slowness of healing. While not to the extent that my father
bore them, we had no choice but to bear the marks of our family
But he worked the hardest, and the harvest is ours to gather.
I find myself already surpassing him in some things. Not
because I am better. Not because I am smarter. Not
because I am wiser, or happier, or have a better attitude. The
only reason I can surpass him is because I am standing on his
My task, then, is to offer my own shoulders to my boys, to
continue the work that my father began. They, in turn, will
stand beneath the feet of my grandchildren. On and on we will
climb, always healing, always redeeming, always learning to forgive,
always forsaking the shame and instead telling our story so that we
will not repeat it. Then, one day, someone will climb high
enough. And then that person will jump wildly into the sun of a