Friday, June 06, 2014

Blue Bloods and Bloodlines

“Family is the most important thing in the world.” (Princess Diana)
“Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” (Lilo and Stitch)
Whether it’s the personal opinion of a famous celebrity or the theme of a Disney movie, society is not about to run out of bon mots about family anytime soon.

I picked a couple of comparatively moderate ones, the sentiment dialed back to 3 or 4 on the goo meter. If you are in any doubt just how saccharine and cloying such expressions can be, try finding a Hallmark birthday card that accurately reflects your thoughts about spouse, child, parent or sibling. You’ll catch on quickly.

But I read this morning that just 26% of those between age 18 and 33 are married. The current generation is building families approximately only two-thirds as quickly as the generation before them, and at roughly only half the rate of the generation before that.

To put the decline in scientific terms requires that I employ a few of my less-frequently utilized brain cells, but unless I’m right out to lunch, that makes the half-life of the family somewhere between 15 and 30 years.

So there’s more than a little bit of disconnect between what society says about family and what we’re doing about it.

Big surprise there.

Change the Definition

The modern solution, as is often the case, seems to be to change our definitions, in this case the definition of “family”. So among the usual Facebook sentiments we find things like this:
“Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile and who love you no matter what.”
Such oleaginous platitudes allow us to maintain the cheery talk about family without unnecessarily freighting it with the traditional commitment, legal ties or responsibility involved.

And on the face of it, how terrible is that really? I know people with horrible families who struggle to maintain the relationship out of duty or innate decency. I know people who are estranged from their families. I have one friend who was abandoned then adopted, and now views his adoptive parents as family. Who’s to say he’s wrong? I know of other adoptees that, upon discovering they had a living birth parent, exhausted considerable resources and emotional energy attempting to bridge that dead family connection.

Viewed against the dysfunctionality of some families, modern sentiments about being “loved no matter what” and “for who you are” may seem appealing. But modern talk of “acceptance” and “love” carries baggage it never used to. Such words, like “pride”, frequently have a hidden subtext. Sometimes — happily not always — they are code for the abandonment of standards entirely.

Using the name “family” to describe friends who are too lazy, distant, uninterested or fearful of our rejection to pass moral judgment on us may simply be a way of avoiding being called to account by those who know us best when we do things like, er ... sin.

Christianity, as it often does, provides a sane alternative to two extremes:

The “Abandon the Family Concept” Extreme

On the one hand, the teaching of the Bible is the antidote to such modern definitions of family as we encounter on Facebook. It is impossible as a Christian to shrug off the duties we owe to those to whom we are blood relatives in favour of spending our time and money exclusively on people who make us feel good instead and pretending they are our families.

The Lord taught the importance of duty to our blood relatives. While the Pharisees allowed a son or daughter to take the financial support they owed to their parents under Old Testament law and give it to the temple or synagogue instead, the Lord rightly condemned the practice. He called it “rejecting the commandment of God” and “making void the word of God”.

Paul reinforced the importance of duty to family to Timothy:
“… if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 
He also made it clear that the believer’s responsibility to family goes beyond mere financial help, telling the Romans: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”

So the Christian position requires a much greater concern and diligent, practical care for our natural families and blood relatives than is currently in vogue simply as a starting point in the Christian faith and as an expression of our love for the Lord.

If we were to mine only this particular vein of family teaching, we might come to Princess Di’s conclusion that “family is the most important thing in the world”. Happily, the Scripture provides an antidote to the opposite error as well.

The “Worship the Family” Extreme

While they are much rarer these days, I think we all know families that are so obsessively cliquish and occupied with togetherness that they have no time for anyone else. The weekly four-generational Reagan family meals on TV’s Blue Bloods have a sort of nostalgic appeal — but also represent a particular kind of danger. One sometimes wonders how eldest grandson Danny, his wife Linda and their two boys have any kind of family dynamic of their own. Danny wears his “son” or “brother” hat at the near-ubiquitous family gatherings when, at forty-something, he might be better off to occupy himself first and foremost with being husband and dad. It’s no wonder he often acts like a spoiled brat; he still needs a visit and a whiskey with Dad in order to solve nearly any problem he encounters.

One wonders how a real family with this level of time commitment to one another would maintain any close friends or attachments outside of the clan or show hospitality to anyone at all (the Reagan family meals are notoriously free of outsiders). The Reagans perform their time-bending miracles against a backdrop of reasonably devout Catholicism, but I would love to see anyone who commits more than an hour a week to his or her Christian life pull off this sort of extravagantly ritualized extended family life without other aspects of their Christian walk getting short shrift.

Yes, I realize that this is TV, not real life. The Reagans gather at Grandpa’s house all the time primarily as a convenient framing and storytelling device. But there are people who actually live like this.

They have enshrined their concept of family to such a degree that they are permanently unavailable on holidays because of “family obligations”, will not marry or consider a change of job or career if it might take them out of town away from the clan, and customarily air differences between spouses in front of the in-laws. The whole extended family sits together in church, goes home together afterward, and its members interact minimally with other believers while there.

Again, the teaching of Christ provides the cure:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
(You may notice the Lord never advocates the leaving of wives along with “brothers or sisters or mother or father or children”. Wives are in a different category, but that’s a whole ’nother post.)

But I don’t believe the teaching in this verse only applies to missionaries and those who travel to other countries for the sake of Christ.

It seems to me that it has something to say to individual believers and immediate family groups who live in the same town or even attend the same church as those with whom they would naturally spend most of their time, but instead commit themselves to doing the Lord’s work first.

So maybe instead of making a ritual of a weekly Reagan-style family gathering, the individual families and family members within the clan opt to show hospitality to others in their own homes, visit with their unsaved neighbours or step out for coffee with a co-worker in need of counsel, and so on — all in the service of the kingdom — and elect to reserve extended family gatherings only for special occasions. Sure, it rates as a minor sacrifice by comparison to becoming, say, a missionary to Zambia, but might this not be a legitimate way of “leaving brothers or sisters or mother or father or children” for the sake of the gospel?

And whatever we give up for the Lord, no matter how trivial, he promises back a hundred times over.

I know whereof I speak on this subject: These little sacrifices are characteristic of many friends and members of my own extended family. And without exception, I can confirm that they receive nothing but good things in return for the little “family” things they have given up for Christ.

Family Isn’t Always Blood

But is there not a sense in which the “family isn’t always blood” folks are (kind of) echoing the words of Christ?

After all, didn’t he dismiss his own earthly family when they came to see him, and say of himself that “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”? Clearly he taught with both words and actions that “family isn’t always blood”. Should we not be imitators of him in this respect?

The Lord certainly taught that there is a family relationship among believers that transcends blood relationships. But relationships with our “church family” and with other believers differ from the type of pseudo-familial relationships advocated by the non-nuclear family-embracing crowd in these two respects: (i) motivation, and (ii) outcome.

The “family isn’t always blood” philosophy accepts you for “what you are”. It claims to “love you no matter what”. In accepting you for what you are, it acknowledges that you never need to change in any way and abandons any effort to modify your conduct except when it becomes especially irksome (in which case it may on occasion lose its philosophical composure somewhat). In “loving you no matter what”, it means simply that you may do anything at all, no matter how wicked, without being harassed about it — provided of course that you are on-the-ball enough to remember to do it to those outside the pseudo-family.

Church family relationships, on the other hand, like those of the disciples to the Lord, are entered into and enjoyed to the extent we “hear the word of God and do it”.

If you are truly saved, you can never lose your salvation. That, too, is another post. What you can certainly lose is the pleasure and appreciation of fellowship with other believers when you insist on clinging to a cherished sin.

Where the world, often falsely, offers to accept you “as you are”, Christianity (if it is doing its job) will indisputably and persistently seek to change you into something much better than you are.

And if you choose that sometimes-more-difficult road, I can assure you that there is very little in this world as consistently challenging, intellectually stimulating, rewarding, encouraging, supportive and comforting. There is very little for which I would trade the rewards of life in the family of God.

Certainly not for the forlorn and false hope of being accepted “as I am”.

1 comment :

  1. Yes, just so. Interesting to note that the word commonly used for 'hospitality' in the Bible is 'philoxenos' - meaning love of / kindness toward strangers. I take this to mean that much of what we call 'hospitality' involves opening our homes or lives to those who are already family or friends and isn't - in the strictest sense - Biblical hospitality at all. Rare indeed are those who would open their doors to the unknown and the unloved and welcome them in.