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Appalachian Spirituality: “Family as Transcendence”


This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).

You can now listen to this blog. Thanks to my friend, Tony Van Duyne, for the idea of reading these posts aloud.

I cried so hard that night. I remember sitting and staring at the wall of my bedroom unable to come to grips with the magnitude of the tragedy that had crested over and crashed on my nine-year-old life. He was everything to me. The man to whom I looked up. The centering personality to which my world (a broken world that I thought was “normal”) was tethered. I’m now 24 years out from that singular event and I still feel tears well up in the corners of my eyes when I think about his absence.

J.D. Barnhart (Jennings Dodd) was known as “Barney” to many and still holds a place of high reverence and honor in my life. I loved him deeply. When he passed away in May 1993, my world was shattered. Being very transparent, I’m not sure if I have ever recovered. Death came into my world and stole a piece of my innocence.

In my office, to the right of my desk, is an old photograph of my grandfather as a security guard at Merck Pharmaceutical standing in front of a Merck ambulance. The photo is from circa 1948. He has a Barney Fife resemblance. He stands tall and smiles at the photographer. The juxtaposition of the security guard uniform and the inviting smile captures the tender authority that he had in my life.

The Appalachian family is subject to the same stresses and strains that affect all American families, and there is alienation, divorce, and abuse here as everywhere, but there is a strong attachment and commitment to the extended family in Appalachia that is becoming rare in a land where most of us live someplace other than where we were born. (Jones 1994, Kindle Locations 168-170).

My childhood was one in which multiple generations were always present. I enjoyed close, warm relationships with not just my grandparents but also my great-grandparents. There is a photo of me, around eight years of age, sitting on the lap of the uncle of my great-grandfather (J.D.). Eight years old and I lived in a world in which I could sit on my third great uncle’s lap. Such a world is nonexistent for many and is fading in our society. Family, as Jones captures, was not the myopic American, nuclear family.

Appalachian people are family-centered. Mountain people usually feel an obligation to family members and are more truly themselves when within the family circle. Family loyalty runs deep and wide and may extend to grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins and even in-laws. Family members gather when there is sickness, death, or a disaster. (Jones 1994a, Kindle Locations 156-158).

On the lap of my third great uncle, I experienced the closest thing to transcendence an eight-year-old could fathom. But when family is your transcendence, brokenness, divorce and death make it fragile. Appalachian folks, of which I am one, believe in a bigger “other” to their existence but the hardness and harshness of life makes that “other” fragile and/or fickle. As I looked at the body, the shell, of my great-grandfather in his casket a piece of my transcendence had been lost. Like a sailor at sea who suddenly loses the guidance of the North Star.

My spiritual director has asked me what I think God looks like. Difficult question to answer. As I struggled with it more and more, I began to get an image in my head as my director interrupted me. “What if,” he asked, “God looks like your grandfather?”

I like that. I like that a lot.

I know God is not my grandfather (for my hyper-Reformed friends). But, as A.W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” My grandfather was (and is) one of the most important things about me.

Periodically, when I travel back to Virginia, I will stand at his gravesite. A mere several feet between me and his body. I talk to him. I tell him I love him. I stare at his gravestone and think of how I would love for my kids and my wife to know him. I grieve him all over again. Thanks be to Jesus, that through the power of the Spirit, my transcendence is not shattered. One day, I will experience what my grandfather now knows as truth.

I miss my grandfather.

Next Post: “What is Proper?”

(My next post will not be on Monday, March 12. Instead, it will be posted on Wednesday, March 14.)

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