January 27, 2021

It Always Comes Back to Family

'Family portrait' photo (c) 1910, Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/By Chaplain Mike

Last year I took a bunch of folders and manila envelopes filled with papers from my father’s efforts to do some genealogical work on our family. I’ve been wanting to pick up on it, especially with the resources available now on the internet, but I have not gotten to it yet.

There are few things in life more intriguing than family relationships.

Of course, discussions about these relationships have become more prominent in Christianity over the course of the last generation. In the past forty years the evangelical world in particular has elevated the concept of “family” to the first tier of spiritual concerns. “Family” has become a codeword for cultural warfare, and for understandable reasons.

The cultural forces unleashed during the 1960’s, 70’s, and beyond have had a dramatic impact on family life as it was publicly validated in post-war America. The sexual revolution, access to divorce through no-fault laws, legalization of abortion, the politicization of moral issues, as well as the more benign factors of modern life–increasing mobility, suburban lifestyles that broke down our sense of shared community values and accountability, and the rise of pop culture and the pervasive media that communicates it–all these have led some Christian people and organizations to determine that faithfulness requires the church’s public response. It has been vigorously asserted that Christians should counter increasing secularization by “focusing on the family” and promoting “family values,” not only in the pulpit and pew, but also through increased involvement in the political process. Thus, we have the Christian Right, and the Culture War.

I am no fan of either, as IM readers are well aware.

Nevertheless, I share many of the same concerns about the stresses today’s families face. I grieve over broken marriages. My anger kindles at unfaithfulness and broken vows, spousal and child abuse. I cringe at much of what passes for acceptable entertainment and advertising. I have lain awake more nights than I care to imagine worrying about my own children, and some of my worst fears have proven valid. When I imagine what kind of a world their kids will face, looking ahead scares me more than looking around.

There is no “answer” to all of this, as though we could go to the store (church) and purchase a kit (or a Bible) that tells us how to solve every dilemma and address every concern. However, I do think it is important that we discuss the family as one of the primary contexts in which we live out our faith.

Last year, in a post on a novel set in a family context, I wrote:

'Family portrait, ca. 1925.' photo (c) 1900, Fylkesarkivet i Sogn og Fjordane - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/But, my dear children, what I really want to tell you… [is] that, in the end, life is all about family. It all comes down to the curses our families lay on our heads and the blessings they give to our hearts. Oh yes, and what we do to pass all of that on to our children. Bottom line, life is about how we deal with the family stuff, what we do with it, where we run from it, how we get reconciled to it.

…Somehow, it always comes back to family. Our relationships with the ones closest to us shape us most. This is often not apparent until we take time …to reflect on the journey and discover that the wide open world of choice and opportunity we thought was ours for the taking was, in reality, just scenery along the narrow path we were bound to walk.

And so, my children, I am afraid you are, to a large degree, stuck with what you’ve received. As I said before, that will be both a blessing in your heart and a curse on your head at various times throughout your life. And I don’t mean to imply that you are limited merely to live out a script written for you. …I believe in a living God who takes the material that is present and shapes it in ways most surprising and unforeseen. Yes, he works with what he finds, and none of us are made up of what you might call unblemished stock. But what he can do, children, what he can do!

The Bible is a book about families. But, to be clear, it is not about families in the way that that biblicists and moralists say. It is not an instruction manual that sets forth in detail how to have a “good” family. It just isn’t. For example, contrary to teachings I have heard (and held), it does not define supra-cultural “roles” for men and women within the family. Neither does it set forth any “perfect families” for us to imitate. In fact, the families it describes find themselves in all sorts of fallen conditions and predicaments. It does not even waste the space to be critical of most of the families it depicts, but assumes believers will have enough moral sense to work out wise patterns of family life within the context of the faith, and recognize that such practices as polygamy and incest (which appear even in the households of the biblical saints) are out of bounds, unhealthy, and unacceptable.

When I say the Bible is “about families,” I mean it tells stories about families–almost all of them stories that make religionists cringe–as one of the main contexts in which God works. These relationships provide the arena in which God demonstrates grace, encourages faith, enacts his judgment and salvation, and brings his promises to pass.

'Family portrait' photo (c) 2007, The Field Museum Library - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/So…

What I’d like to do at various times throughout this week is have us tell some family stories, to encourage one another that God is indeed “working with what he finds,” taking and shaping the material of our lives “in ways most surprising and unforeseen.”

Now, I know this can be tricky. I don’t want you to betray any confidences or share matters that you don’t have permission to make public. I will try to moderate carefully. Please be discreet, and if you need to alter your story somewhat to protect others in love, please do so. Just make the main point you are trying to communicate clear, even if you need to change some of the details.

Another way we can approach this is to have you tell about some of your favorite family stories from literature or theater or movies, ones that touched you deeply and caused you to view your own family and heritage in a new light.

Of course, if there is a family story in the Bible that has meant a lot to you, tell us about that too.

“Bottom line, life is about how we deal with the family stuff, what we do with it, where we run from it, how we get reconciled to it.”

How has “family”–for good and ill–provided fertile soil for God to work in your life?


  1. Family is about more than mother, father, son, daughter. Grandparent, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws – they all count as well, which I don’t get such a sense of anymore. Genetics works in funny ways, so we don’t know what the influences are going to be until they pop up unexpectedly. Maybe you get your weird sense of humour or bad temper or ability to talk to pigeons from a sideways, rather than direct, family trait.

    I take after my father’s side of the family, but I have my grandmother’s (my mother’s mother) wrists. My elder nephew, now that he’s a couple of years into his teens, looks an awful lot like my youngest brother at that age but he has a similar disposition to mine (which his mother, my sister, never tires of telling me about “Guess what your nephew did today? Who does that remind you of?”)

    And my youngest brother looks uncannily similar to Leonardo di Caprio (Leo has fairer colouring and different colour eyes is the main difference), to the point where, when “Titanic” was out and Leo’s face was splashed all over magazine covers, I kept seeing these out of the corner of my eye and going “Why is [insert brother’s name] picture on a magazine???” (It also freaked me out since all the girlies were – apparently – going “Oh, Leo is so dreamy!” and I was going “Ack! Incest! Cradle-robbing!”)


  2. “It is not an instruction manual that sets forth in detail how to have a “good” family.”

    Chaplain Mike- I don’t want to be disagreeable, but you go so far out of your way to ensure that folks don’t associate you with “that bunch of yahoos who think the bible actually speaks to what is the biblicaly ordained model for a family” that you almost take all the relevance and authority away from the text, i mean if the bible really has so little to say why listen to it?

    You do at least, b/c current demographics and statistics on poverty, and crime are undeniable, give the cursury nod to the fact that the modern situation and the detoriation of the family unit is not good, but one gets the sense it almost pains you then to admit it b/c it might force you to associate with all those “family issues” and focus on the family types

    • Austin:

      I had those same thoughts too.

    • David Cornwell says

      The bible has lots to say. Family stories are everywhere. But– they are stories full of tragedy and sin, not a set of principles. We learn from them, and in the end we learn that it’s all about Grace. In spite of all that happens (and it will happen) God is here with the offer of unspeakable grace.

      All I ever learned from the “family values” people is Law. They say here is a set of rules, some principles, some steps, or a set of “how to’s.”

      In my own family, I’ve been involved in attempts to settle situations using the first approach. Then eventually I realized it never worked, and never will. It was all futility. It will wear you out, tire you to bone, and make you question your faith.

      Then gradually, I realized that God is still with us, with an offer of grace that never tires, never goes away, and loves with a depth that is that is far beyond what we law bound people have trouble letting in. Some things
      do change with time. Praise God for that. Some things seem seem to stay the same forever.

      Marge and I celebrated our 49th anniversary last week. We went out to eat, then went to see “The Tree of Life.” One scene early on — the father drawing a line and telling his son to never cross it– made me want to cry right then and there. I’m not sure this was a good movie from which to celebrate, but it certainly was one from which to reflect on one’s life.

      Law still tugs at my heart, and especially my will, but I’ve lived long enough to start realizing the meaning of Grace. Try preaching a sermon on this kind of grace sometime, and see how people react. Especially to a church full of people with younger families. Some will almost hold their ears against it, others will look amazed, and not know quite what to think. All they’ve heard is Law. Tell them about amazing grace.

      • David,

        Good words, but…..

        Having boundaries (I guess what you call Law) and having expectations on behavoir (again I guess what you call Law) are neccisary for the right ordering of society and families.

        Trying to raise kids without boundaries and expectations will lead to what I witness every single day teaching school.

        If by “family values” people you mean that telling husbands and wives to be faithful, that children are better off when they live in a two parent household, that in order to avoid living in poverty their whole life folks should wait on childbearing until they are married, sign me up for that. If that is Law, then I say Amen to it.

        • David Cornwell says

          Good luck with drawing that line in the sand. If you can achieve what you want with approach, in your family, then go for it. What family examples from the stories in the bible are you going to base that on? Start with the Old Testament, where the Ten Commandments were given. Then pick out a family that God uses as an example of perfect obedience. A New Testament story will do also. I wonder what Paul’s (Saul’s) family was like for instance? We could use him as an example of perfect obedience. Some of the Pharisees seemed to have it down pat. Jesus had a lot to say about them.

          Or– has “having expectations” solved the problem? I hope so. Or “telling husbands and wives…” etc. that they are better off with certain behavior. Good luck with the results.

          • David,

            I simply dont’ think it is an either/or reality. I think you have assumed a false dichotomy sp? that doesn’t have to exist. We draw the line, are gracious when it isn’t kept, but without the line, without the standard, without the direction, without the Law we don’t even know when the line was crossed.

            Good luck in return to having an ordered society with no lines.

          • David Cornwell says

            Austin, please remember I don’t want any of this to be taken in an offensive way.

            “Good luck in return to having an ordered society with no lines.”

            One of the functions of government is to provide law and order. I’m all for it. But U.S. prisons hold a larger proportion of its population per capita than almost any Western country. When law and order solves our problems some day, I won’t be around! Prime Minister Cameron is attempting to restore proper values to his country. I wonder how that will turn out.

            My daughter is a school teacher also. She teaches the 2nd grade. She laments the decay she sees in values, families, and tradition. Teachers do the best they can in rotten situations. Maintaining order in the classroom is one of their jobs. But no matter how much we clamp down, how much better is it going to get? I pray for her each day.

            You may be able to maintain outward order in a family. But if you look closer, its surprising what you might find.

            This reminds me of my dad and mother. They had only one rule that I can remember which was iron clad. No swearing. I also remember when I got up the nerve, while with my teenage friends, to say some of the most repugnant swear words I could think of. I half expected God to hit me with a bolt of lightning. Nothing happened.

            Not smoking was another one almost as ironclad. So– when I was 15 I had to try cigarettes. I had certain other friends and locations that I’d do it with. I hid them in the crocks where my rabbit feed was stored, down under the pellets. Luckily I never became addicted or found out.

        • I agree with the social effects you mention, austin, but I have to say that nowhere in the Bible do we get those prescriptions (maybe Proverbs, which is the nearest I can think of, but even that is more ‘tell your son not to visit prostitutes’ rather than ‘get married to one wife only’).

          Marry one wife only? The Patriarchs don’t match up with that – Jacob with Leah + Rachel, David with all the political marriages he made (and the one love match was Bathsheba, which involved getting her pregnant then killing off her husband when he didn’t fall for the plan to foist the pregnancy off on her), Solomon and all his wives and concubines.

          No divorce? David forced Michal, daughter of Saul, to leave her husband and marry him (in order to legitimise his dynasty as successor to that of Saul); see how her husband took this:

          2 Samuel 3: 14-16 “14 Then David sent messengers to Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, demanding, “Give me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed to myself for the price of a hundred Philistine foreskins.”

          15 So Ish-Bosheth gave orders and had her taken away from her husband Paltiel son of Laish. 16 Her husband, however, went with her, weeping behind her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, “Go back home!” So he went back. ”

          Wait on childbearing until married? Faithful husbands and wives? I’m not seeing a whole lot of those.

          • just b/c you are not seeing them in practice, are you saying you don’t think the scriptures teach against, adultery, polygamy, fornication, illegitmacy?

          • Harvey Cooper says

            The scriptures give a mixed message on polygamy, to say the least. Visiting prostitutes is also sometimes presented as normal. And let’s not get into levirate marriage…

            • The fact that the Bible describes God working with people in the midst of various historical settings and cultures does not imply that God condones the practices of those times.

        • Austin said: “If by “family values” people you mean that telling husbands and wives to be faithful, that children are better off when they live in a two parent household, that in order to avoid living in poverty their whole life folks should wait on childbearing until they are married, sign me up for that. If that is Law, then I say Amen to it.”

          But those instructions are simply based on life in middle-classed America. They could be derived simply from secular sources and would apply to everyone from Atheists to Zoroastrians.

          The Scriptures are really not clear on the issue of polygamy. Paul states that a polygamist should not be a church leader, but I don’t know that there are other references. Of course, the Patriarchs either had wives, concubines, or whatever the weird Abraham/Sarah/Hagar lifestyle would be called. I have not read the Rabbinic commentary on polygamy. Obviously modern day Jews do not practice it. My guess would be it would be an equity situation that when the genders are evenly matched, allowing one person to have multiple wives deprives others of their opportunity to marry.

          Fornication was spoken out by Paul. It was frowned on in the Torah but not nearly as much as adultery (either of married or betroathed persons). Of course, in that time, most folks would have either been betrothed or married.

          Illegitimacy was only relevant as far as proving an adultery case. If the mother was Jewish, so was the child. I also don’t remember Paul referencing it.

          Waiting on child bearing is only relevant if there is an opportunity cost to waiting. There is a large opportunity-cost to middle class and upper women in not waiting. There is a far less one for poor women. They are simply going to have less opportunities in life so the cost for waiting is not as high. They are also going to have less access to quality spousal material so waiting for the right guy may actually involve not having children at all.

          • cermark

            there is a community in Utah looking for you:)

          • I’m sure they would open their arms to a radical gender egalitarian!

            And actually the FLDS illustrates the equity point. In order for the men to have enough wives, they had to remove surplus males from the population. I’m not sure how the AUB, the Centennial Park, and other Mormon fundamentalists who aren’t quite as micromanaging of their members, manage this situation.

      • I’m largely with David on this. I’ll agree with Austin that we may need a line in the sand now and then, but it should be sparing. I’d rather err on the side of Grace. Law seems to come altogether too much from some of the “family values” crowd.

        I think I’ve mentioned here that I’ve learned more about parenting from Bill Cosby than I ever did from James Dobson. The Cosby Show came along shortly before our girls were born, ran into their early childhood, and I’m lately realizing how much of a role model he was.

        Our three girls are now in their 20s and people keep telling us how impressed they are (I am too, and I don’t want to wake up if it’s a dream) but we don’t really know what it is that we did right. I’m beginning to think that it was the right combination of grace and guilt (grace on my part; guilt-trips on my wife’s) and a lot of prayer, which is ongoing.

        Another small factor (more or less negative) was about 12 years ago when a couple from our church taught a Sunday School series on Gary and Anne Ezzo’s “Raising Kids God’s Way”. I don’t remember much about it except being slightly annoyed (not quite appalled, as others were), but I just found this quote on their website, so I’ll share it in the Ezzos’ favor: Only by the Grace of God Can the Task of Parenting Be Achieved “The duty of Christian parents to instruct their children in the knowledge of God cannot be achieved apart from His grace. . .”

        Go with the grace end of it. Make it clear what you expect and stick to it, but give ’em a little slack.

        • I would heartily endorse my own parents’ style of grace filled parenting. They led by example, not proscription – so they didn’t have a rule against swearing that I know of, they simply never did it, so it was obvious that we weren’t supposed to either. (I was so shocked at age 10 when my mom uttered one profanity word upon dropping something glass on her bare foot that it was like the world ending in miniature.)

          I remember in particular their rule about staying home from school sick. They would back you up to the end of the earth on it, but only if you refrained from leisure activities too. They figured if you were really sick enough to give up the fun stuff, you were sick enough to skip school as well. But if you went out that night, you were going to school the next morning unless you were hospitalized.

          On the whole I think what they really taught us was responsibility. We could do more than many kids our age, but we had to clean up the results, too. Dad would rescue us from just about any fool place we got stuck, but if stupidity led us there, we owed him the gas money. They encouraged us in doing good, but let us have the hardest landing from bad decisions that our age would allow.

          I’ve tried to follow the same strategy with my niece. (My sister and I’s families live together and we share the parenting.) She can absolutely bounce around in puddles. We can pray and thank God for making puddles. But age 4 or not, she has to then scrub the mud off of her sneakers, because that’s the price of puddles.

    • Austin, I am not saying the Bible contains no moral or relational teaching or material that is pertinent to families. However, I am trying to exercise pastoral love here, because when people turn to their Bibles hoping to find a blueprint or list of detailed instructions on family life, they will be disappointed and wonder what is going on. Much of what the Bible has to say on this and other practical questions falls under the category of “wisdom” not law. We do Christians a disservice if we don’t tell them that.

      • Chaplain,

        Blame my obtusness. That phrasing makes sense to me that way. A hearty Amen.

      • I can see that…especially when you read stories in the Bible about the following situations in families:
        on and on it goes…

        Where of where is Focus on the Family when you need them? 😉

    • Austin,

      I agree with you 100%. Without law there is no sin or grace. God gave us the law (and there are some instructions in there about families) so that we would know both sin and grace. The mistake made by many Christians is that when they see the law is true, they try to live by it with the help of behavior modification methods. Bad choice, as there is no power in that.

      But, though powerless to produce righteousness, the law is still true. So just as bad a choice would be to deny the law’s existence and truth. I may be misunderstanding the posts but I think some of what I read here tends towards that. We can’t escape the law by ignoring or denying it. Only acknowledging the law’s truth, receiving grace, and offering grace to others will set us free. The miracle, as I understand Scripture, is that in doing that we are both free from the law while progressively living in accordance with the law through no power of our own.

  3. Family for me was defined by a wonderfully different relationship with my father… once-upon-a-time painful, but now both profound and intimate.

    When I became a teenager during the sixties I imbibed heavily in some of the popular myths and lies of the age. In other words, I not only smoked it – I also inhaled. For my father, a conservative, committed Christian, it became overwhelming to have his youngest son become “one of those.” So, in 1969 I was given the option of changing my lifestyle, leaving home or having him call the police.

    In 1971, while living in some woods and growing natural herbal remedies (or, a natural remedy) for retail sale, I began to read the Bible. In the process I discovered that Christianity was not in fact a “no-no religion”, but, instead, an opportunity to experience authentic life with eternal purpose.

    By the way, I was egotistical (and historically illiterate) enough to think that I was perhaps the first one to make this particular discovery in the Bible.

    Biblical Christianity became the pathway through which I entered into a relatively sane life and a genuinely restored relationship with my father. He naturally supported me in my new found passion for Jesus, but he also accepted me for the “who I was” by that point in my life. In other words, I do not remember him ever complaining about my shoulder length hair, music, friends or general “world weariness.”

    Today, 40 years later, I am only beginning to realize the tremendous privilege I have had of having a father filled with both truth and grace. He is now 89 years old and facing tremendous challenges in life. Still, he and I talk naturally, honestly and as two best man-friends. Although we have lived in different countries for most of my adult life, our relationship is alive and vibrant.

    I do, however, have one complaint about all of this. Many people can blame their life style decisions and errors in life on faulty parenting. I do not have that privilege. Instead, I have to accept the blame for my own decisions. Sometimes it is painful not to have ready excuses.

  4. I find American Christians who oppose the government’s legalizing of same gendered relationships on the grounds of a definition of marriage and how much Americans value marriage to be a hollow argument as American Christians in general have not displayed a deep value on marriage and family in practice.

  5. Let’s try to focus back on stories, ok?

  6. My parents were married in the late 50’s. They were mismatched in temperament from the start. He a Jewish scientist, with the cool rational temperament to match. She an Irish woman with Christian leanings and an elan for living and fiery passionate unpredictability. They stuck it out for 19 years and had children. I’m the last.

    Their marriage broke up (as I suspect it was destined to do) in the 70s. Since there was no no-fault divorce at the time, and even if there had been they had children so it wouldn’t have likely been available, they had to go before a judge and have a highly unpleasant legal squabble. I remember being required to leave the courtroom along with my older sister when “things that young ears should not hear” were discussed. My sister and I stood out in the hallway (or rather she stood to look through the cracks while I got on the floor and attempted to look through the gap under the door) and discussed the probability that the topic was Mother’s irregular living situation (she had moved in with a gent).

    During the court action, I was asked by the judge (separately in a room which I would now identify has his quarters) with which parent I would choose to live. I chose my father as I am my father’s daughter with the same personality. Also, he was the one who usually had seen to my care. He went to movies with me (the poor man, I think I made him attend all the Disney movies), he taught me to ride a bike, he took me shopping for school supplies, etc.

    My mother was expecting this decision and was neither surprised nor seemingly hurt. Of course, as I write this, it occurs to me that it must’ve hurt even though she was expecting it, and that she never let on. We did manage to have an estranged relationship through the 80’s, largely at the urging of my confessor (I was Catholic at the time) and most of the 90’s and managed to improve it a bit as we both got older during the 2000s. In the week before she died, I stayed with her, and spoke and prayed with her and read from the Psalms with her, even though she was insensate most of the time. If it hadn’t been for a wonderful priest encouraging me to try to have a relationship with her, I think we both would have missed out on something.

    My father and I are still close. When I converted to Judaism, he was there at the Temple and he and I have attended when we could at the same time and place (we live some distance away). He has been a somewhat secular Jew for ages, but he seems to be more interested now in living the faith. I’m not sure what importance religion has played in our relationship. He has always been my #1 supporter, and he has sacrificed for me when he as a single parent. I will always love my father as he has always been there for me and has even been humble enough to accept us (me and the sibs) being there for him on occasion.

    And, of course, we are both members of a select cabal of people with a long tragic history, odd rituals and a strange language–yep, we’re both Cubs fans as well.

    • I am not sure if religion or faith played a great part in my family – at least on the Irish side which I have spent time researching. From the time my gr-gr-grandfather left Ireland in 1843 (county Cork Martha – rumored to be specifically from Skibereen though no proof – so in case you run into some Coughlin’s in that area or variants there of – they could have a long lost relation in Pittsburgh) it seemed at least my strand remained Catholic even if Sunday meant visiting the old patriarch (those old irish guys seem to shrink and shrivel with age). instead of going to Church. I got my Catholic foundation instead from my mother – a second generation Slovac who did have a strong faith, though quiet, private and reserved. There were some on the Irish side though that became priests and nuns (a Benedictan, Not sure of the nun’s order).

      My immediate family of origin (since my mother was the quiet one) seemed to be more interested in ghosts, UFOs and science/history than matters of faith. It was mostly my wife that accelerated my journey back. Cermak_rd – did you follow yor faith walk into Judaism because of your father’s influence (you mentioned he was a secular jew so I am assuming not) or were you led in that direction through life’s guidance – just curious, having spent my first eleven years of my life among Catholic and orthodox/conservative/reformed jews in New York….

      • I would say yes, he did help me back. I was sharing with him some of the frustrations of dealing with where I was with Christianity, and he suggested perhaps I should investigate Judaism, as being a faith that might suit better.

        Father may be a secular Jew as far as keeping kashrut or going to Temple is concerned, but when it comes to the ethical teachings he lives the life. Laws such as not keeping two scales (one for the customers, one for the suppliers), he expands to being honest in his taxes (not keeping 1 set of books for himself and 1 for the Feds) and in fighting against injustice and in providing for the poor. He provided that example to me, not as a follower of a faith, but just because these were the standards we live by.

        • …ah Temple… I would assume then reformed (if my memory serves me correctly the orthodox and conservative had a kinipshin when those of the reformed faith referenced synogogue as ‘Temple’)…. and I would assume you began your faith journey with Catholicism because those Irish, especially County Cork folk were so stubborn about that sort of thing – even if they didn’t really practice…. cool…

          Thank you for sharing cermak_rd….

      • County Cork, huh? Perhaps a big less boggy than my mother’s family’s County Fermanagh.

      • My family in Montana could trace their roots to County Cork, Ireland as well. Aye!! 😀

  7. Charles Fines says

    At least for purposes of perspective I would toss in Jesus’ injunctions to his disciples to leave their families to follow him. Desert them really, if you look at it. And not even wait half a day to bury your father. And further to hate all that family values would hold dear. Sure we can soften those with contorted explanation, but there they are. Harsh.

    Whatever else the Bible may be, it is the family story that tells where Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah, came from, how he got here from the very beginning. Like many family histories you find murderers, horse thieves, whores, and scoundrels. Real people. Some of those ancestors we only know their name and no more about their life than that they fathered a particular child. Possibly the only significant thing they ever did in their whole life, and if they hadn’t we wouldn’t be here having this discussion, or at least it would be a different story.

    It is, after all, our own family history, warts and all. It’s how we got here.

    • I have always wondered what the ending of that story was. I hope the guy went home and did the last duty owed to his father and buried him.

      • The way I have understood this parable is that the father was was still well within the land of the living. We get the same concept today when someone says “I can’t go to such-and-such a location because I have aging parents that I need to take care of.”

        • I’ve heard that explanation too, but then it seems even worse. Then it’s suggesting that the one support this aged man had should be taken from him. It seems to be encouraging a dereliction of duty for the young man.

  8. I heard Paul McCartney singing the “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” song on the radio today and decided that I was going to look online and finally find out those lyrics that I could not understand. In doing the internet search I came across this, “”Uncle Albert was a real uncle of McCartney’s who would quote and read from the Bible when he got drunk. The only time he read from the Bible was when he was drinking.”

    That got me thinking of my Uncle George. He wasn’t really an uncle…he was a cousin but he was much older so I and my siblings and other cousins always called him Uncle George. He was quite a character and drank a lot. We have an interesting family photo of him holding a duck under each arm with a cigarette dangling from his lips. A drink is being offered to him and he is looking at the drink with a look that may be saying, “How can I take that drink, keep smoking, and not let go of these two ducks?”

    My mom was one of 10 children and my dad was one one of 9 children so we have a large family and for the most part get along well, particularly on my dad’s side. I am so happy to have two sisters and two cousins that I am particularly close to. We have some good times and laughs and share the sad times too.

  9. Okay, you asked for examples of how God has worked through imperfect families. One member of my extended family, through his human frailties and the bad example of a co-worker, had an extended affair. His wife knew about & barely tolerated his infidelity for years. He was not a happy person when I met him, or for several years after. He seemed hen-pecked, trying to do maintenance with 2 families, and not pleasing either one. He later told my spouse that he really didn’t like how he was living, and was not in love with the woman he was living with, but he did confess that he felt responsible for the two children he had fathered with this woman. There were many difficult circumstances, both before I met my spouse and after we were married, but one thing that struck me was his sense of responsibility. Many men who found themselves between 2 women would have dropped one (and their children through her) and left them to fend for themselves. He did not do this, but took care of everyone. Even in his will, I could see how he arranged it to keep the one woman from suing the estate, and provided completely for everyone. We have 2 additional brothers in the family (and my children have 2 uncles) that we would not have had if this had not happened. Was it ideal? No. Was it due to human failing? Yes. Did God work through it? Yes! As my spouse’s grandmother said to me once, “No matter what has happened, the kids cannot be blamed.” Non-believers could point to it and say, “Look at this! you say you’re Christian, and look at this!” while I could say, “Yes, look at this. He took care of everyone, and we all get along and care about each other.” God did work through it, even though, from the world’s and church’s viewpoints, it was a first-class mess.

    As for a favorite family from literature, I would say one of my faves is the Austin family in many of Madeleine L’Engle’s books. My daughter and her family just finished visiting with us for a week, and my daughter borrowed several of her books to take back home with her. I love Ms. L’Engle’s writing,and feel that one of her initial novels, “Meet the Austins,” is one of the best books about family ever. It shows them with all of their failings and foibles, yet it is one of the strongest “pro-family” books I’ve ever seen. (Shudder… how I HATE that term!!!)

  10. The Bible does say His law is written on our hearts and I know it takes a lot of Grace to raise a family.

  11. In my immediate family (my wife and kids) we talk and practice our faith (we even say grace in restaurants). As my children are getting older (I have seven) some are testing their indepencence (the college age kids) and some are questioning and wanting to make their own choices. And to that I say GOOD – they need to make the faith their own instead of a cultural thing. I am the blacksheep of my Irish side – since I did not conform to my allotted role early in life, my wife is the blacksheep of her italian/slovenian family so there has been alot of prayer to get us through family functions over the years. It was especially hard at my mother’s funeral – when my wife could take the shunning from my Irish side no longer – they got to see how the italians deal with conflict in a very direct way…and it actually made things better – for a few days anyway. Bottom line though is that most of the expended family, aside from my wife’s father – only pay lip service to faith – or are completely on the other side of it.

  12. I’ve noticed that I, probably like most of us, could tell my family story as either a tragedy or a comedy. I could recount terrible, hurtful, destructive things and make you think I had an abusive upbringing. Or I could describe affection and challenge and richness and understanding, and that would be true, too. Although my childhood was difficult in many ways, there is one thing I am deeply grateful for: I knew that my parents and siblings loved me as much as they were able. They weren’t always able to achieve perfect love or the conditions for perfect love, but I know they loved me, and that has enabled me to see all the difficult years as mostly blessing.

    • I always wondered whether our perceptions have something to do with personality. I have always felt i was loved in my family, though upon reflection it was nver said and some of the behavior could leave an outside observer with a different opinion. Yet there is no denying that on any given day- no matter how rotten I might have been feeling about myself or about a situation or others, I knew deep down I was loved. My wife continues to ask me, after experiencing my family for 20 years, how I ever came up with that feeling. My twin sister says she never felt like she was loved. So from this unskilled observer sometimes I believe our perceptions are subjective – kind of the glass half full/half empty thing.

  13. My wife is big into genealogy, and it amazing how “complicated” the lives of our ancestors were, long before the nuclear family supposedly collapsed in the 60’s and 70’s. I think there is nothing much new about modern complicated families.

    • Would you give us some examples, Allen?

      • I’m not Allen, but an example I could give is when married men immigrated to America, they went with the understanding that they would save money to bring the family over. Well, sometimes, they had a hard time saving that money. And they sometimes met people on this side of the ocean. And they married them and “forgot” about the family back home. I would imagine the same may have occurred on the other side as well. There are some stories in the Jewish newspapers of the time regarding bogus gets (divorce).

        Another example is children born on the “wrong side of the blanket” (or out of wedlock as we now call it). Wales allowed such children to inherit as long as their father had acknowledged them in his lifetime. Such lines had the Family name prefixed with Fitz (e.g. Fitzgerald). That such policies existed probably means that it was not an uncommon scenario.

      • On my wife’s side her great grandfather came over from Italy (married – kids back in the mother land) and met another woman who was married with kids back in her country of origin as well… they set up house together until the husband’s original wife came over looking for him…

        My wife also had a strand of the family (her Pennsylvania dutch strand) that came over in the 1750’s on a ship – Mother, father, children , Uncle… there was some kind of plague or flu on the ship and all in the family succomed except the Uncle and one of the youg sons – when they ported in Jersey (or maybe Philadelphia and then into Jersey) the Uncle sold the son into indentured servitude…

    • Many stories are confusing, and sometimes it is not clear if the census worker made errors or there were complicated families. Genealogists see examples of a man having one wife in one census, and another in the next census, with the 1st wife recorded with another husband. Due to high rates of death among men (especially during the Civil War), there are many examples of multiple women being recorded as residing with one man.

      Extended families were the norm, not the exception. A wide variety of in-laws and widows may all live in a small house.

      Often orphans were “adopted”, but the adoptions were really a family picking up a child as a servant more than an additional son or daughter.

      To modern moralists, some of the most amazing indications of morality were shotgun weddings or out of wedlock births. What we call teenage pregnancy today was the norm, with the main difference being a forced wedding.

      The stories that most amaze me is how much people moved. Americans have this “Little house on the prairie” attitude, but we see many examples of families moving county to county and even state to state many times, not just once or twice. Instead of settlers, many in the 1800s were wandering nomads.

      • textjunkie says

        I’ll second this. I had a friend who went through his family tree only to discover that somewhere in the 1700s to 1800s there were several generations of mothers only passing on the family name, no fathers recorded. Single parenting–though he pointed out it probably meant he was descended from a long line of prostitutes and streetwalkers,who successfully raised their daughters to adulthood.

        In my own family we have a grafted branch a few generations ago when a wife died and the housekeeper became the 2nd wife, and her sister’s family was raised with the first wife’s kids as cousins. The death and remarriage–the existence of a first wife–was kept a secret for almost 80 years, with the first wife’s kids being young enough that they didn’t actually quite remember they had a previous mother. It was quite a shock to me and my extended cousins when we finally put it together and said huh, we’re not actually related. 🙂 But by three generations later, who cares?

        Though I was just having this discussion last night with some friends, that we have Sumerian texts complaining about the breakdown of society and the loss of order, and how “kids these days” just are not doing what they should… Ditto for the Greeks and Romans. Confucius was arguing the same thing, if I recall correctly. With every society complaining about the breakdown of society and the family throughout history, you’d think we’d have ceased to exist by now. 😉

      • On my wife’s side the Pennsylvania dutch strand moved with a group of families from Jersy to Lancaster, PA to Ohio, then to Illinois during the 1800’s.

        On my Irish side my gr-gr-grandfather seemed to move alot – but then he lived in Brooklyn and probably rented. Many died of TB or flu – I have recorded many children and young adults dying. He was married twice- first wife having died. Babaies were dying at a phenominal rate. He had one daughter who at age 15 got married to a 62 year old Irishman… maybe he lost her in a card game or something…within three years of their marriage he was dead too.

  14. when i look at my immediate family, aunts+uncles from both maternal & paternal sides, it is my family of 4 siblings that have all been divorced…

    my parents divorced when i was 17. and each of my 2 brothers & 1 sister divorced. only one aunt on my mother’s side divorced. interesting when i look back on my own relational challenges…

    cousins? yes, the track record there is terrible. within the one generation we became products of divorce…

    were my aunts+uncles luckier at finding compatible spouses? were their choices somehow better or graced or blessed?

    i do not like the idea that the generational tendency of divorce will haunt my children when they decide to marry. it is so rampant & disruptive & they are the victims of it themselves. it is a sad part of that “hardness of heart” condition Moses addressed when he permitted divorce to become an option for the children of Israel.

    in spite of its rejection & stigma, my mother never let it sour her outlook on life or her faith in humanity. she never said a bad word about my dad. never revisted the divorce or wanted it fresh in our minds. she was the one aunt that my cousins could confide in no matter the failures they went thru. she was always supportive, nurturing, loving, accepting & merciful…

    i miss her… 🙁

    • On my father’s side my grandmother was divorced after or just before the birth of her oldest child. She remarried and had 9 more. Of those, 4 of the boys kept their first wife ’till she died (in all cases, first wife died first). The other divorced after 19 years. The girls? They each had at least 1 divorce within the first 10 years of marriage.

      On my mother’s side, no divorce until my mother’s generation. Those married prior to the 70’s hit the 70s and then the marriages hit black ice or something. Of her 7 sibs, 4 were divorced after long terms of marriage (19 years, 20 years, 20+ years), and one after 5 years (she married later than the others after living with other partners). Of the other 2 one never married and the other (the one son) is still married.

      The next generation? Oh boy! My sibs have, between them, yielded an impressive 5 divorces. The minimum appears to be 2 divorces. I am odd one out, with the same partner since 1997. Of course, I was older when I first married and because of this we had more resources (both monetary and emotional) to work stuff out over time. We also lived together before marriage as just about everyone in our circle does these days. After having observed that marriage was for sure not a happily ever after affair, I was very apprehensive of the idea.

      We will see with the next generation. I am hopeful that they will see the relationship mistakes made by their elders and use that info to pick and keep their partners. We will see.

      • On the Irish side it just wasn’t talked about – so until I took up geneology in the late 90’s I thought that side of the family were all once and done, until I dug a bit more and found out all othe marriages were second marriages…Both my parents and my wife’s parents are still married, though both sides have a spouse that is very difficult and the other like a saint for putting up with it….

  15. I think the most wonderful way God worked in my family was to give me the family I had. My parents had been married for nearly 15 years before they had a child, but that child died shortly after birth. My mom was beside herself with grief. One of their parish priests suggested they adopt, so they did, and that was how I came to them. Just as they were getting ready to pick me up my mom got pregnant, but that child also died shortly after birth. Nine years later, my sister was born and lived, which could be called a miracle.

    I came to my family in the days of closed adoption records. I know a few non-identifying facts about my biological parents. The only other information I would like to have is some idea of health concerns. I’m grateful to my birth mother; I’m sure it was a very painful decision to give me up, and it tells me that she loved me very much. However, I’ve never had a burning desire to find my “real parents”; my Real Parents are the ones who raised me. Blood is most definitely not “thicker than water”. It’s Love that is stronger than death, not anything else.

    My parents had foibles; they did things that hurt me and had negative effects in my life. I reached a point in my life where I had to acknowledge that and forgive them. Doing so was a great help for me, and in my relationship with my mom (my dad had died by then). My parents strove, each in their own way, to be as giving and as loyal as they could, considering the burden of their own pain; both lost their mothers at a relatively young age, my dad was a WW II veteran of all the worst Pacific battles, my mom was a very capable person but not very confident in her ability to be a good parent. Yet, they were reasonably emotionally healthy, and both were very devout Catholics; my dad went to church every Sunday, and older Catholic readers will know how rare that was in the ’50s and ’60s. I fared no worse than other children; and, on getting to college and hearing my friends’ stories about their families, I very quickly came to the realization that I had it a lot better than most of my peers. My parents didn’t run off any cliffs.

    The main thing I want to say is that I was very much accepted by my extended family. I have a photo of me as an infant, in the arms of my great-aunt (who would have been the “matriarch” of my Italian family at that time), with my great-uncle standing next to her, looking on. Both their faces have a look of tender pride. That’s emblematic of how it was with all my relatives; not one of them thought any less of me or treated me differently for not being a “natural” child.

    I know the depth of the psalm: The Lord adopts the orphan for his own.


    • As an adoptive mother I love reading these perspectives. I am too often flooded with the negatives. Thanks.

  16. Even though there seems to be more of a breakdown of families in this day and age, there were internal unspoken breakdowns years ago. Today things are more out in the open than years ago. When I was a child in the early 60’s my “Christian”, very religious father began sexually abusing me. It was kept quiet, hushed up and I had no place to turn. People weren’t talking about things like that back then. We didn’t even have a name for it and no one to talk to and no one would have believed me anyway.

    Thankfully, I have since found counseling and support through my healing process. Thankfully I have a husband who has stood beside me whatever I’ve gone through. Thankfully my children are healthy and each have a growing relationship with God. Thankfully God has given me the grace to forgive my father even though my father denies all of this. There have been many rough times through the years but thankfully I continue to have a growing relationship with God and I’m amazed at God’s grace to walk with me, my husband and my children through difficult times.

  17. David Cornwell says

    “Even though there seems to be more of a breakdown of families in this day and age, there were internal unspoken breakdowns years ago.”

    That’s definitely the case Amy. Marge and I both know of such situations in our family backgrounds. My paternal grandfather, for instance, was a very successful owner of general store in a small Ohio River town. He also had a ferry boat that took anyone across the river that needed to go. However he was also an alcoholic who drank some poison booze during prohibition and got very ill. He abused his wife, who eventually had a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. Then also he eventually lost all his money and accumulated wealth. My mother always thought he was an evil old man. And I think she was pretty close to being right.

    My grandmother never had a chance to get out of that situation. Divorce would had left her totally alone and unable to care for herself. She was a refined person, could write very good poetry, was kind and caring. These virtues she was able to pass along to her children. But she lived in a mental institution for the last 15 or so years of her life, and died there.

    We both suspect other issues that were never really spoken of in our families. Issues like sexual abuse.

    Even today some fundamentalist pastors attempt to prevent members of their churches from getting professional help. And these things also involve sexual abuse and incest. I know about these cases. Wives are told to go home to their husbands and stay with them, no matter what. And also not to speak of these things, especially to outsiders.

    Amy, I’m very glad you have found some healing.

  18. My own story is fairly complex, now that I think about it. I never knew my birth father, and only recently saw how quickly my mother married my stepfather. And then when I was 6 or 7, she died and about two years later, my stepmother married into the family.

    Stoner and Irma did the best that they could, but two extroverts have trouble understanding a shy introvert.

    There are a number of things that I wish could be changed, like making sure that I and my nieces and nephew were close. That they had a better understanding of how hard it is being the smartest kid in your class at school.

    I’m extremely grateful for the Bible knowledge that I had while growing up, it has made me a better Catholic. GRIN.

    My religious background includes family that owned a copy of “The Trail of Blood.” And a Christian Scientist reader. I have dysfunctional family on multiple sides, including family that didn’t want their single daughter marrying a widower (who also happened to have been divorced before his second marriage). A mother who didn’t want their daughter to join her husband in the Kentucky countryside. And a grandmother who outlived two sons and a husband. (I hope that I take after her in longevity).

    I have a painter in the family who had her own business in the 1920’s, before she married. (and some of her china that she painted)

    But, on the religious side, I am also sorrowful. I see most of my kinfolk in my generation not very active in church, and some who have rejected Christianity altogether. I know of hurt, and that has caused rejection. And I wonder why some who are hurt reject the faith and others cling on.

    Yes, I would like family to join me on my journey, both physical and spiritual, but we never developed the ties when we were young and the distance is far too vast now.

  19. I’m thinking about the earlier mentioned bible story asking the man to follow Jesus, instead of waiting to follow until he’d “buried his father”……this is what popped up for me:
    For many years, my family attended the same church as my parents. We often sat together at worship, supported each other’s church work, etc. It was the church that ancestors had founded. This church was involved in a messy split this past year. About half of us left and started a new church of a different denomination. My parents stayed behind because it was their home. My family left. Other extended families in the church had similar splits.
    We’ve had to work this out—-both within my extended family and within our two churches. It isn’t far enough down the road to be smoothed out yet.
    For my parents and I, we walk lightly on this issue. No bragging about how well things are going at our respective churches, no accusing. I’ve been to a couple funerals at the old church. They visited new church once, and said we were so friendly and nice. As churches, we’ve shared a bit, carefully, too.

    I do think that God calls us to Him, even beyond our family loyalty. I struggle even more with the knowlege that my beloved children are not really mine, but God’s.
    My youngest loves to think about me as her sister in Christ—equal—-alongside me being her mom—an authority over her.

  20. It should be about THE Family, i.e. the Holy Family. Even radical population control advocates realize this – attacking Christianity for enshrining motherhood, children, and family because of the Incarnation. Moralism does not inspire. it takes seeing ones family as a symbol of something greater than oneself and ones needs to inspire faithfulness and commitment through the tough times.

  21. Harvey Cooper says

    A lot of religion makes more sense in terms of tribes than of families.

    Interesting new genetic research shows that members of tribal bands are NOT mostly related. This suggests an important function of marriage–not just knowledge of who one’s father is, but knowledge of who one’s other relatives are. This in turn encourages bonds between mostly unrelated groups, by means of the few people who are related with the other group (a pattern that can only arise with the diffusion of relatives.)

    On the other hand, a recent study of female orgasm (the book is called “Sex at Dawn”) suggest that monogamy is unnatural, and that tribal groups rather than couples or families were the salient form of organization. In other words, our foremothers would have had sex with a number of suitable males in the same tribe, and this is why female orgasm is more vocal (in order to advertise availability).

  22. I stayed in southern California to finish high school as a senior while my family moved to Arizona. I was so involved in school, I begged to stay. They let me. I never really returned home. I missed growing up with my younger brother and sisters. Don’t really know them now.

    Dad died when I was 1500 miles away (car accident). Mom is now in an assisted living facility 1200 miles away. My grown kids don’t know the rest of my family. Except for a few brief visits, my sons have no concept of an extended family or the nurturing, love and support they can provide. Looks now like we will be spread from North Carolina to Montana to California. My wife and I are facing retirement, wanting to be near kids …looks like Missouri would put us equidistant from all of them and too far from any of them.

    So …what’s life like in a 5th Wheeler at 5 miles to the gallon?

    • my dad’s parents both died before he ever married. i did not get to know my father’s side other than his 3 sister’s & one uncle married to the oldest sister. family identify on the paternal side a bit sketchy. my maternal side a very family gathering Portuguese group that simply got together at least weekly after Mass on Sunday & had a meal together at my grandparents until they died…

      my boys know little to nothing about my father & that side of the family. my parents divorced when i was in high school & i did not have a close relationship with my dad after that. any visit i made was short & not very comfortable, so if my boys remember anything it would be a memory without any emotional connection, just like i grew up. it was an emotional vacuum since my dad had his own issues he was dealing with…

      the family connection & identity for my boys will be my mother’s side of the family. and then they pretty much grew up in the shadow of their mother’s family as they all lived in the same town & become for us the main family connection & influence. my divorce was mercifully (if one wants to consider it as such) after they all were adults; 2 off to college & the middle boy still at home going to junior college. no child support issues. no family disruption during their developmental years…

      they are still young men finding their place in this topsy-turvy world. one day they too will marry, settle down, have kids. i wonder if i will be able to remain an intregal part of the grandkids development & family identity. i hope so. looking back i see just how influential family unity & a loving, supportive, healthy environment is such a blessing to the youngest generation. it is the most important blessing one generation can provide for the next one: maintaining family ties & allowing the youngest ones to enjoy it when possible…

  23. Well, I’ll mention a couple of obvious films about family…The Godfather movies (at least the first two, the third can be skipped). They are of course excellent movies that can be analyzed on a number of levels. One dynamic I find particularly interesting is that Vito Corleone truly does love his family and wants to secure their future, even for some of them to be able to live legitimately unlike him. And yet the very criminal empire he builds to help ensure his family’s prosperity is what ends up tearing apart and destroying his next generation.

    • And that’s without even getting into Michael’s tragic journey. The flashback scene at the end of the second movie where he announces he’s enlisting in the army is just heartbreaking.

  24. I certainly love and value my family and am very grateful for my upbringing. But we have never been a terribly close family in daily life, and now we live far apart and don’t see much of each other.

    This and my lifelong singleness have, I think, encouraged me to become a bit impatient with the idea I sometimes hear put forward that family is the ONLY civilizing force or foundation of community. Where does that leave single people? Only children? People whose close relatives are distant or gone? People who live alone?

    People working together form relationships; people with common interests join clubs and associations; people participate in neighborhoods, and people become part of churches. While I would not elevate any of these above family, I think that too much emphasis on “family” ignores the very real and fruitful ways God works through all the other types of relationships to build loving and strong community.

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