A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. (Psalm 68.5-6)
Survivors of the “generation gap” era that spawned its own industry, family therapy, vividly remember pioneers in that field writing bestsellers and populating TV panels. After they dazzled the world with complex theories and diagrams of “the family dynamic,” their advice inevitably wrapped around two words: boundaries and communication. Members of functional families, they said, respected each other’s limits and maintained a healthy, two-way conversation between them. This was wisdom of the best sort—simple, obvious, and therefore simply, obviously true. What it lacked, though, were comparably simple and obvious strategies to deal with the parent, child, or sibling who had “boundary issues” or “poor communication skills.” Unless everyone worked at the paradigm, the paradigm didn’t work.
At first, communication became the sore spot. You couldn’t talk to someone who wasn’t available—literally available. By the time kids reached an age they could speak plainly about their feelings, many families had scattered. When Dad wasn’t working, he was relaxing on the golf course or somewhere else. Mom’s respite from responsibility also centered on getting out of the house. Teenagers threw themselves into extracurricular activities or killed hours at the mall. “Apart” meant out of touch, while together usually meant “at home,” behind bedroom doors or hunkered down in front of a TV, watching sitcoms about dysfunctional families and their creepy opposite, perfect ones, neither of which resembled real life. So one would think in this age of connectivity, with families tethered together by mobile phones, text messaging, email, and IM’s, a lot of the old gaps would have closed. We’d speak more freely together, know each other better, and be more comfortable with one another. I pray we are. But I’m not convinced of it, because connectivity isn’t communication. That requires availability of the emotional kind, which fosters a different breed of boundary issues—namely, removal rather than respect. We can’t communicate without first removing our emotional divides.
Widows and Orphans
The Bible typically calls out two groups when addressing familial isolation: widows and orphans. In our culture, people bereft of partners and parentless children are our first concerns, and we’re grateful for that. But this was not so for hardscrabble ancient existence, when drought or flood or marauders could destroy an entire family without notice. The harsh realities of life boiled down to this: if you brought nothing to the table, you weren’t welcome at the table. Since property rights were consigned to male side of the family, when a wife lost her husband, what he owned reverted to his closest male relative. Widows were at the mercy of sons and in-laws, who often heartlessly tossed them aside to provide for their immediate families. The most fortunate orphans got sold into slavery, which guaranteed their masters would house and feed the children to protect their investment. Most often, orphans were abandoned to fend for themselves. Relatively few of them reached adulthood.
“How could a society do this?” we ask. Our compassion for widows and orphans is so primal we can’t conceive any human deserting their own. Nearly everything we read in Scripture about these customs indicates this was learned behavior—a conscious stance of emotional unavailability toward family casualties. In Isaiah 1.16-17, the prophet rails at Israel: “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” Stop. Learn. Seek. Encourage. Defend. Plead. This goes beyond social reform. It’s a call for change of heart. Isaiah wants Israel to feel the plight of those they callously turn away in the interest of self-preservation. He’s urging them to be emotionally available in family matters. He stresses this because family matters.
When Families Fail
The extent to which family matters can be gauged by Psalm 68.5-6: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.” (Emphasis added.) When families fail by isolating those most needful of their nurture and care, God intervenes. Yet note where intervention occurs—“in his holy dwelling.” Where might that haven of hope be? Before we scramble for directories of faith-based institutions, let’s revisit Christ’s teaching: “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17.20-21) We are God’s holy dwelling. It’s in us that orphans find parents, widows find care, and others cast aside by familial neglect find homes. That means authentic emotional availability—removal of all boundaries that might prevent us reaching them or them reaching us. Connectivity, keeping tabs on how they’re doing, isn’t enough. Communicating with them, listening and speaking from the heart, then backing up our conversation with action, is the only way we can demonstrate our boundaries are gone.
Consistently, when we’re urged to attend the most needy among us, a severe warning follows the admonition. Psalm 68 adheres to this pattern. Verse six concludes: God “leads forth prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.” Just as Israel justified its emotional isolation of widows and orphans as avoidance of taxing encumbrances, we often withhold emotional access to alienated people to guard against getting trapped in their mess. We even talk about being “held hostage” to their problems. And if we offer ourselves to them for any reason other than inviting them into God’s dwelling, we will find we’re captives. But when we open our arms to draw them into the Presence in us, God leads us forth with singing. On the other hand, if we close ourselves off from those in need, we’ll eventually find we’re isolated, living in a sun-scorched land. God sets the lonely in families. He places them with us, in us. Family matters.
We make ourselves emotionally available, opening our arms to those in need to draw them into God’s dwelling inside us.