Faith & Family: YIKES!
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, May 8, 2022
Reading: Mark 3:19b-21; 31-35
Mother’s Day is our opportunity to say a much deserved, “Thank you.” Of course, Mother’s Day as we know it is an American holiday that only came into being by an act of Congress 115 hundred years ago (in 1907).
Britain celebrates ‘mothering day’ in March, expressing honour and gratitude to mothers, grandmothers, and all the women who have poured into our lives.
The Church has had a long emphasis on Christian Family Sunday. Whatever – Mother’s Day, or Family Sunday, it appears that Jesus didn’t get the memo.
Listen: “Whoever comes to me cannot be my disciple unless he loves me more than he loves his father and his mother, his wife and his children, his brothers and his sisters, and himself as well.” Luke 14:26
Tough words from Jesus, and frankly part of me is thinking: What is he on about? REALLY! He doesn’t seem all warm and fuzzy about family. But then, surprisingly many today don’t find Jesus’ words painful or shocking at all! Angus Reid pollsters tell us that 63 percent of Canadians, while happy in their family also feel that Canada’s families are in crisis. Yet, there is all kinds of hope. There ought to be. With each generation, God gives our world another chance – a fresh opportunity – a new beginning.
Let me tell you, after 45 years trying to live the Christian faith, I am completely convinced that making Jesus your role model will actually make you a better parent, or son or daughter, co-worker, or employee. But it will sometimes cause a clear difference in life choices – even within a family.
I know a young woman who grew up in a stable, successful home. She was sent to the university to be trained in business, to join her father and her older brother in the very successful family investment firm, but she did not graduate and return to the family business. Her junior year, she left school and now works in a program with First Nations children.
Her parents were shocked and angry, and they pulled away from her. They hardly speak to her anymore. They took her decision to follow Jesus out to the reservation as a rejection of them and their values. I think that young woman would read today’s gospel and say “Yes! That’s it. That’s just the way it is when you follow Jesus. It costs something. It’s expensive.” She’s right.
Now listen, I know that what I am saying creates real problems in some of your minds – It does in MY mind. I love my family. Like you, I would do almost anything for my family. Some of you already know that my dad is one of my hero’s, and for four decades, Nancy and our children have been the centre of my universe. And yet, there is a constant danger of the immediate clan being idealized and “idolized” and adored at the expense of the rest of the world. This is symbolized in the biting prayer,
Bless Mom & Dad, sis & me,
We four, no more. Amen.
That’s not what God intended! Instead, God intends something much broader, deeper, diverse, and the church is where we become part of something much bigger and richer than any genetic clan, whether it’s relatively healthy, or dysfunctional.
During the UN’s International Year of the Family, a study done here in Canada showed that strong religious beliefs play an important role in family happiness. Furthermore, Angus Reid reported that religious beliefs are more strongly influential than two factors normally associated with influencing happiness: household income and education.
Okay? But what is it that religious beliefs give, that enhance life? I want to say vision and purpose, and I want to get at that by telling you about Helen Keller on the one hand, and a 10-year-old suburban boy on the other.
A century ago, there was a woman named Helen Keller, who was both deaf and blind. Somehow through the patient teaching of a remarkable tutor (Anne Sullivan) this blind, deaf child learned to read, and speak, and write. She matured with a wisdom and a depth of perception far beyond that of normal children. As an adult, she became internationally famous, a lecturer and a writer. One day Keller was asked if she could think of anything that was worse than being blind, she answered, “Yes, being able to see and having no vision.”
What did she mean by that?
To have sight, but have no vision, was, for Keller, a life without purpose, direction, or challenge. It is life lived in shallowness, in trivialities, in randomness. Your optic system may work yet you move through the years blindly – wandering, groping, stumbling. No goal in sight, no purpose to strive for, no intentionality other than amusing yourself to death!
God wants us to be agents of change in this world, to “see” what our lives can achieve or contribute.
Some years ago, a man took his son and daughter to an impoverished 3rd world country where a school and orphanage had been started with his help. He was a professor of sociology at an Ivy League school, getting a top salary! Yet, he and his wife decided to live a simple lifestyle and send a lot of their family money down to Haiti, to be spent on the building of this little school, which now had 50 students in it. After a number of years, when their children were old enough to remember and understand, they took them down to the impoverished Caribbean island. The two kids had never been to the school before. Land at the airport, into a jeep, over dirt roads, then across fields, to a clump of trees – there waited 50 kids, who let out a scream! They swarmed the two kids, grabbed them, hugged and kissed them. Then they lined up and sang a song that they had learned in English:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world,
red & yellow, black & white,
they are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
(Not really politically correct, but theologically accurate)
They spent the day there, playing and engaging at the school. Later, as they drove back to the capital city, the father looked over at his two normally talkative children who were sitting very quietly.
He asked, “Son, what are you thinking?”
A slow smile crept over the boy’s face, and he said, “Dad, there isn’t anything you could have done with that money that would have made me happier than I am right now.”
That was 25 years ago, and I can tell you that boy is grown up now, and today he works full time with inner city children, helping them to develop hope and a future out of an impoverished city slum. He caught the vision of who he was, and what great things he could do with his life.
I’m laying a heavy on you right? Am I saying in all this that you should load your grandchildren and the neighbourhood kids onto a plane and fly them to a refugee camp in Dnansk, Poland, or the border of Syria, so they can feed starving children? No! But I guess I am challenging all of us to stretch our vision of who we are and what we can accomplish with our lives and then pass it on to the next generation. Every one of us as adults can make a difference: teachers, employers, scout leaders, uncles, and aunts, next door neighbours – but especially mothers and fathers. It is at home where it must start. Mothers! Parents! Grown-ups! Know how valuable you are and how influential you are for the future of this planet!
At a social gathering a somewhat misguided businessman, when introduced to a full time mother asked (in a condescending tone), “And what is it that you do my dear.”
This Mom knew that she was impacting the human race by raising two children who would build a better world so she smiled sweetly and answered, “I am socializing two Homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in order that they might be instruments for the transformation of the social order into the kinds of eschatological utopia that God willed from the beginning of creation.” Then she asked, “what is that you do?”
The reply came back very subdued: “I’m a fund’s manager.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
Still, that mom has it right, recognizing the tremendous impact on the future that two well-raised offspring can have!
I have had my goals poked into a better direction by a little statement I have on my travel mug. There’s a picture of a little boy, standing with his hands in his pockets, looking out along a shoreline, and the text says:
“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
Exactly. The challenge is that we have to deal with reality, and the reality is that there are no perfect families. An accurate definition of marriage is two sinners living under the same roof. Ouch! But it’s true.
An accurate definition of family is multiple sinners living under the same roof. All of us will inevitably fail at some point in our family life. The flip side to this, of course, is grace. God’s grace that restores and redeems.
I’ll tell you what really gives me hope: Jesus grew up in a family and look how he turned out! Granted, it was a pretty good family. We know his parents were stable people of faith. Yet Jesus family life was not always perfect. The scriptures tell us that early in his ministry, after he’d started to become famous and had done some sensational things, “his family… went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’”. Mark 3:21
Any of you experience pressure from your family because they disagree with the direction of your life?
Jesus also, seems to know about tensions and resentment between brothers. Remember the story (parable) he told of the Loving Father who had two sons, one who was reckless and rebellious; the other who was resentful and bitter. I wonder – did Jesus observe that kind of behaviour in the neighbours next door, or some cousins, or his own brothers? He saw it somewhere and tucked it into his story.
Look, a day like this, with an emphasis in the Church on Christian families, and an emphasis in society on celebrating mothers, is valuable and important; yet, at the same time, it can put a lot of pressure on us with a sanitized image of the perfect family. The truth is: Most of us live within a mix of family life that morphs and evolves in quality over the years, and some of us endure genuinely bad and harmful home experiences.
A minister I know received a letter from a woman in his congregation. She is a woman very much in the process of healing and growing, some of her wounds are still open and the scars great: Listen:
My earliest memories are of severe abuse and neglect…I was well into my 30’s before I realized that MY concept of God was that of an unreliable, untrustworthy and punishing figure, and that the true God may be none of these things, but I had confused Him with my early experience of authority figures… The concept of patience and kindness towards myself … never seemed real… Until at church,… the kindness shown to me was so absolutely tangible, it became very real… Even in my middle years, it’s still difficult to dream… and to discover my purpose in God’s plan.
Life has been very hard for this courageous woman, because of the family she grew up in; yet she is deeply committed to the process. She`s dealing with issues, going through counselling, asking the right questions, and associating with fellow spiritual seekers.
That letter shows what an incredible impact our early lives, and the families we grow up in can have on us. Jesus knew that; he benefitted from a good family background, while also being a keen observer of normal family stresses and strains. So, what can we learn from Jesus that might help that hurting woman overcome her tough childhood, and strengthen our family relationships?
I`ve got two ideas I want to try on with you:
Get the Right God at the Centre of Your life!
Some of us need to re-evaluate what kind of God we believe in. I often think of the story of the little boy who came to church with his mother and giggled throughout the entire first half of the service. His mother was embarrassed, then she was cross, and then she was both embarrassed and cross, and she felt sure that everybody was looking at her. When they got home, she gave him a little talking to and this four-year-old boy replied (very maturely), “But Mom, I am not sure what the problem is?”
She said, “You mustn`t giggle in church. It is a solemn place. Everybody was looking at you. The minister was looking at you.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ll tell you what happened. I told God a joke – and God and I were laughing about it.”
This completely bamboozled her theology. She had been brought up in a different era and hadn’t realised that it is possible for children to tell God jokes and for God to love them – both the children and the jokes – even if the parents don`t.
I love that story because of the great truth. We must get our theology right. How wonderful to correctly realize that the true God is light-hearted and loving. Wouldn`t many families be much more fun if that God were at the centre of them. Clearly, that God is all about healthy relationships – that include giggling, sharing, affirmation, love, and partnership.
There’s one more thing I want to say.
For many of us, a large part of the deal is done, we’re grown, and our children are grown. What do we do now? Especially, what do we do if the family system you grew up in was unhealthy and even damaging? Or maybe even worse, if you are haunted by mistakes, you made long ago?
With the Right God, You Turn your Scars into Stars.
Look, we’ll all make a few mistakes, and we’ll all endure the mistakes of the generation that raised us. Still, we need to be bolstered by this great truth: “There’s no way to be a perfect mother, and a million ways to be a good one.” – Jill Churchill
Find ways to grow out of your past, to put it behind you, and then even to use it for good. If you think about it, God has always been on our side, taking family wrecks and bringing something good out of them. Some of the families in the Bible were the most dysfunctional, murderous, incestuous bunch you can imagine. Right from the time Cain killed his brother, Abel, through Jacob stealing his older brother, Esau’s inheritance, and Joseph being sold into slavery by jealous brothers, through David’s affair with Bathsheba. Then an incestuous rape by one of David’s sons, and an attempted violent coup by another, on through the likes of the prophet Hosea who married a prostitute… friends the Bible is chock full of God taking mixed up, messed up family situations and bringing good out of it.
The question to ask is: Will our wounds and pain make us bitter? Or better? I vote for better. Forgive and move on – let it go!
Don Henley of the rock band The Eagles gets it right in The Heart of the Matter:
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone;
you know they let you down, you know they hurt your pride;
You better put it all behind you, baby, ‘cause life goes on,
you keep carrying that anger, It’ll eat you up inside; baby
I been trying to get down to the heart of the matter,
But my will gets weak,
and my thoughts seem to scatter,
But I think it’s about forgiveness
Bingo! Exactly right. We all have a choice, what to do with our wounds and pain. Bitter or better?
Let it go and make something new and good.
I have a friend in another part of the province working with the treatment of alcoholism and addictions. She said that when people come into the treatment centre, the first thing they are asked to do is write their autobiography. She says most of them have come out of oppressive, harrowing childhoods. The pattern has the potential to repeat. But that same person said to me, “You know, it’s odd. I grew up in the original ‘dysfunctional family of the year.’ My father and mother were both addicted. I was molested as a child by a relative. I have got the biggest mess for a family. Yet here I am today trying to help other people dig out of that same kind of mess I grew up in. Isn’t that odd, somebody like me, with a past like mine, working in a place like this?”
I don’t find that odd at all. Maybe it’s because I know so many Bible stories where God reaches down into some of the biggest messes we can create and draws from it healing and goodness. So, relax. Give yourself to the God Jesus called Abba/Daddy. Giggle and grow with this good God. The good news is that God is determined to have you and your family and all of that, woven into the story of his loving ways in the world. Amen.