Family ties give us identity to live by
During wintry months in frosty sections of our country, we don’t always appreciate relatives. Around Christmas or Thanksgiving we find ourselves crammed into rooms too small to hold everyone related by blood. Sometimes conversation becomes icy. We really want to heave a snowball at a relative who is obnoxious and will not stop yakking at a decibel level making our ears ring.Summer is a better time to enjoy relatives. Many families meet in parks for picnics. They play games in wide-open spaces. Hot dogs and hamburgers from the grill taste almost as good as a prime steak. We throw a Frisbee and toss a baseball. Something about more room to roam at family gatherings in the summer make them easier to take.The family has survived thousands of years of internal strife and external chaos. We wonder how durable the family really is. Some conclude that this beleaguered institution seems to be buckling. Like a wobbly boxer hanging on until the bell sounds to end the round, the family seems to have rubbery legs, too.A biblical sage taught: “Whoever walks with wise people will be wise, but whoever associates with fools will suffer” (Proverbs 13:20). Sometimes we wonder who really are the wise ones in our families. We suffer too long the fools who squander our time and bore us at reunions.Bad families produce bad situations. Life and literature provide countless examples of this fact. Ernest Hemingway detested his mother, who turned around and repaid the compliment by hating his father.The pieces begin to fit in the Hemingway puzzle when readers discover that his novels are generally peopled with disagreeable women.The playwright Eugene O’Neill suffered a lonely and embittered childhood. Ill feelings spread like a nasty cancer as he grew up. They burst into violent and depressing expression in a play of his mature years, “A Long Dayís Journey into the Night.”The stories of bad families are like appearances of foul weather day in and day out. They are legion. The Bible doesn’t offer as many positive examples of strong families aswe might expect. So many biblical stories are of family members who kill, seek revenge, fight with each other, and run away from their parents and siblings. Scripture does offer sound principles about how to mold strong families, but the stories themselves of family members interacting are usually dysfunctional tales.Happy homes are hard to come by. They are gifts few receive.One of Robert Frost’s character’s remarks, “Home is a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I formerly thought this a positive insight. When the world turns a cold shoulder to us, we at least see a light in the window at home.Frost saw the home he described as lacking warmth. A family begrudgingly opens the door a wee bit to let you slide through. What a cold, loveless picture of home that is. It is a dungeon to flee from, not a warm, inviting habitat toward which we turn for solace.Some Christian homes bring into a frigid and callused world a homespun sense of identity, meaning and belonging. No matter how sophisticated and grown up a person believes he is, deep down that person has a little boy or girl inside wanting to be loved, cared for and needed.Since members of a Christian home belong not only to each other but also to God, they can experience being wanted, needed and loved. Seldom does a child from a Christian home need to feel like the girl in Sherwood Andersonís novel, “Winesburg, Ohio,” who tried “to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.”If there is one splendid truth the Christian home polishes on the rough-cuts life gives us, is that Christians never live nor die alone.They are members of the most permanent home in the universe, the home of God’s love of which our homes are often faulty reflections.Homes may offer many gifts. One that counts the most is simple kindness. People really do listen to our concerns. We can say whatís on our hearts, knowing it will not be peddled on gossipís trail.”It is the history of our kindnesses that alone makes this world tolerable,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. “If it were not for that, for the effect of kind words, kind looks, kind letters I should be inclined to think our life is a practical jest in the worst possible spirit.”Leo Tolstoy begins his novel “Anna Karenina” with a striking sentence. “All happy families are alike, all unhappy families are unhappy in different ways.” Dispute that claim if you dare. What it says to me is that a firm handshake, a long-awaited embrace, a compassionate tear dribbling down a crimson cheek or an aggressive bear hug from a family member make for precious gifts.They are the kindest gifts most of us will ever hope to receive. The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister with Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship with story telling and dramatic presentations.