Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Family Matters

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)

Emotional Divides

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.


Lloyd said...

Great post. I would like to make it clear to you that as a believer in our Lord Jesus Christ, I love you as a brother, but you must understand that "sin" is "sin" in God's eyes and we all must ask God's forgiveness when we sin against Him. God's blessings. Lloyd

Tim said...

Lloyd, thanks for your comment--and welcome to Straight-Friendly. I scanned your blog quickly and admire your faith, kindness, and personal strength. (I love "The Solid Rock," too; one of my favorite hymns. If you've not heard Walter Hawkins and the Love Center Choir's arrangement, I heartily recommend it. It will lift you out of your chair!)

I'm grateful for your compassion and concern, and I can empathize with it wholeheartedly, as a similar burden for hurting, disillusioned believers was placed in my heart long ago. I agree, "sin is sin," which is why it's incumbent on all of us striving to follow Christ to walk closely behind Him, study His Word, and live lives of integrity and compassion that please our Maker.

It's apparent we differ on our opinions about "sin," but that shouldn't prevent us from loving and uplifting one another, as our opinions are just that, our opinions. The One Who made us sees our hearts. As the Psalmist says, He knew us in the womb, before we were knitted together.

Most of all, I believe it's imperative that we walk humbly before our Maker, examining ourselves to ensure we are fulfilling His purpose in shaping us as He has. His wisdom is beyond all understanding, a thing I'm truly grateful for because if grace and mercy were left to me, we'd all be in a terrible fix.

So I covet your prayers, even as I pray God's continued strength and guidance for you. We are all sinners, saved by grace. Accepting God's grace begins with knowing and accepting who we are, and then loving one another--in spite of our differences--as Christ commanded us.

Blessings, my brother. And thank you for your thoughts.

claire said...

It's in us that orphans find parents, widows find care...

I completely agree with us on several levels.

One thing I have discovered working with my friends the homeless is that many of us are homeless, symbolically, because we are not a home for ourselves.

In the sense that possibly I do not accept myself as I am and so lives ever somewhat outside of myself -- if this makes any sense.

Thus, to welcome people to my home I must have a home to offer, not only a physical home but also an emotional home...

Sometimes this takes a lifetime.

Blessings. You are an inspiration as always.

grant said...

re: "We are all sinners, saved by grace. Accepting God's grace begins with knowing and accepting who we are, and then loving one another..."

I wish there was an easy way to share songs across the internet ... for now this will have to do - go to this page and click "Embrace the Mystery" in the Music Player...

Behold what you are
Become what you receive
Take up this bread and wine
Embrace the mystery

amen! - thanks Tim, as always

Tim said...

Claire and Grant, I apologize for the delayed response. I was away from the computer yesterday and am just now catching up.

Claire, your observation is both profound and pragmatic. I totally agree, we must work at "making a home" in ourselves, which is a lifelong task for many of us. And I think it's extremely important we realize this is what's happening, so we're always mindful that what we're "building" is for us, but also for others who need to find shelter in us. The insight you've provided here moves me deeply. Thank you.

Grant, my great musical compadre, I'll head there pronto. And it blesses me that you, Claire, and I are all "humming the same tune" of self-acceptance as an act of grace!

Blessings to you both,

TomCat said...

Another good one Tim. Jesus' example is meet the neediest at the point of their need, unlike the inauthentic example of Supply-side Christianity.

Tim said...

He not only exemplified it, Tom. He came right out and said as much: "It is the sick who need a physician." All we need to do is open our doors to those in need. The healing they seek will be found in the Presence dwelling within us.

Thanks for the comment. It's always a joy to hear from you.


TomCat said...

You're most welcome Tim. I'm not as vocal about my faith as many are. I try to teach by reflection.

Tim said...

Ah, Tom, different gifts, one Body, no?

TomCat said...