The Way We Never Were
Families are the most elemental and beautiful of all social units. And yet, families are the most complicated and difficult of all social units! We are biologically designed to live in family, and for most of the course of history, an individual’s identity was of little importance. The most salient piece of information about you was who your father was and from what family or clan you came. Your very name – Jesus bar Joseph or Ben bar Randy – announced who your father was and, thus, revealed which clan you came from. The practice continues in many places in the world today. In India, the family you are born into still determines your caste – which, in turn, dictates every detail of your life to come. Closer to home, vestiges of this thinking continue. What is the first question you ask your teenage daughter when she announces a new boyfriend? Who are his parents? What kind of family does he come from?
Families are wonderful yet imperfect. The truth is “We can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them.” We want them around when there’s trouble, when we need to be known and accepted, when we need a soft place to land, but we’d just as well be left alone most of the time. George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family – that lives in another city.”
In my favorite Robert Frost poem, “Death of the Hired Man,” Mary tells her husband that Silas, the hired man, is back. He’s old, now, too old to do any work. Warren bristles. “I’ll not have that fellow back,” he says. “He’ll only run off again when we need him the most.”
“Be kind,” Mary says, “He’s worn out. Asleep beside the stove. But he has come home to die. And, Warren, he thinks of this as home. Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
So, today’s Bible story is about family. Joseph hailed from a dysfunctional family. His father Jacob – sometimes called Israel– had two wives and two concubines. Collectively, they had 12 sons who were brothers, and half-brothers, and step-brothers twice-removed. If that didn’t spell disaster, then consider that Jacob loved his wife, Rachel, more than the others, and that he loved Rachel’s son Joseph more than any of the other sons. His favoritism wasn’t a secret, and Joseph’s fancy coat was among the many gifts Joseph alone received from his dad. It naturally set Joseph up for a superiority complex – which, in turn, only fanned the flames of his brothers’ jealousy. And sadly, this dysfunctional family was not the first in biblical history. In fact, it was Jacob who cheated his own twin brother out of his birth right — for a bowl of soup!
Was there ever a time when spouses were like Ozzie and Harriet? When June Cleaver had but to say “Ward, I’m worried” and Beaver would straighten right up? When children sang in perfect three part harmony like the Von Trapps? When JohnBoy and MaryEllen called out “goodnights” to each other from their beds? Were we ever like that? Perfect families? //
No. That was the way we never were. Families are not perfect because the people who make up families are not perfect. Where there is fierce love, there is fierce jealousy, and fierce competition. Marjorie HInkcley says, “Home is where you are loved the most and act the worst.” We clean up our act, hide our emotions, control our outbursts when we are out in the public. When we get home, it all hits the fan. Our smile comes off with the makeup. We lock our manners in our briefcases and leave them by the door.
Of course, there are the triggers: Little ones like the dirty dishes in the sink, the litter box that hasn’t been touched in a week, a spouse’s sarcastic remark. But big ones too. The ones we don’t talk about. A partner’s drinking problem. Money missing from a wallet. A foreclosure notice. Another phone call from the school principal. A spouse wanting a divorce. Three more unpaid bills in the stack. A daughter who turns up pregnant. At times like these, home is not a warm, fuzzy place. Sometimes, it’s hard to be civil, let alone loving.
So, let’s dispel the myth – forget about Lucy and Desi, forget about the Cosby Show and the Brady Bunch. That’s Hollywood at its most rosy best. If TV offers us any model, it is Archie and Edith Bunker, or Modern Family, or This is Us. Our own families and our church families have much in common with Joseph and his crazy clan: We are diverse, imperfect, unfinished, jealous, and sinful. In short – we are human.
So, how do we love our biological families? How do we love our spiritual families – our church families?
The Bible doesn’t offer any direct, step-by-step advice about living in harmony in 21st century families. And I am not a marriage and family counselor. What the Bible does contain are stories about imperfect people – like Jacob and Joseph and his brothers—who, empowered by God, were able to endure more than they thought they could, to be more than they thought they would, and love more than they thought they should. They also learned, as we will discover next week, that God could use the most disastrous life events to further His plan. That what man intends for evil, God can turn to good.
But, first, how did they face family conflict, and how should we? How do WE love our families as Christ would have us do?
- 1 John 1:8 – ” If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” The verse reminds us that it takes two to tango and it takes two to create conflict. If we understand anything in the Bible, it is that God is God and we are not. We are sinful, selfish, and incapable of loving as we should. Humility tells us that we play a role in any conflict—and that we had better to be ready to point the finger back at ourselves. In some way, we have actively or passively contributed to the problem that we face at home or at church. If we admit the truth, we have somehow enabled or participated in the conflict at hand. No party is ever entirely innocent. The question is whether we are willing to admit it.
Jacob’s favoritism –for Rachel and Joseph– was largely to blame in the family’s conflict; Joseph’s arrogance and indiscretion didn’t help. They were not innocent victims.
In Matthew 7, Christ has harsh words for those who criticize others: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and not see the log in your own? And how can you say to your neighbor ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when a log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
- Secondly –and this is a big one– we cannot change someone else’s thoughts or behavior. Many wives have tried! We can only change ourselves, our attitude, our approach, our words, our reactions. If a family member changes, it is because he or she wanted to change. What we can do is give them to God and pray that they will allow God to change their hearts. And we know that nothing is too hard for God.
III. But let’s remember, also, that our adversaries in any conflict are not God’s enemies. God loves our spouses, our parents, and our children just as much as he loves us. As hard as it is to fathom, we are by no means God’s favorite. It isn’t about us! Instead, God has a plan for each of our loved ones just as he does for us. And God does not judge by appearances now is he deterred by someone’s faults, weakness, or inabilities.
In our conversation with our loved ones, it is powerful stuff to remind them that God loves them and has an amazing plan for them if they will open themselves to his leading.
- You see, our words and our thoughts have consequences –good and bad. As we have recently seen in the news, our words have the power to call action into being – to lead to reconciliation or to escalate conflict. Though politicians are fond of retracting or “clarifying” or “conveniently forgetting” what it was they said, our words cannot be taken back. Christ counseled, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” And as the mind thinks . . . so does a man go. So we must pick our battles and choose our words carefully. .
- Of course, using control and discretion takes strength. Love does not mean never having to say you’re sorry; it means being willing to say it a dozen times a day.
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you. You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask.”
Asking, prayer is our secret weapon and our source of strength. We do not have the strength to do what needs to be done, but God does. As the scripture says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us.”
- A final word of advice: When tempers are high or you are out of steam, remove yourself from the situation. We have no record of Christ ever having taken a vacation, but he was very fond of going to the opposite shore. Scripture. For some people the opposite shore is wilderness, nature, wide-open spaces or lush forest; for other people the opposite shore is a good movie or a good book; for others, a day out with girlfriends, a game of golf with the guys, or coffee with a good friend. I’m partial to time with friends. Because, as author Wayne Dyer reminds us, ““Friends are God’s way of apologizing for your family.” Whatever kind of shoreline you prefer, make it a frequent retreat, but not an escape!
Jacob –father of the 12 tribes of Israel—was not a perfect man. Joseph and his brothers –patriarchs of those 12 tribes—did not come from perfect families. Neither do you. Neither do I. Yet, we have an advantage that Jacob and Joseph didn’t have: We know Christ and have seen what perfect love looks like. We have a model for loving both our biological families and our church families. And thanks be the God for that. AMEN