Thursday, February 19, 2009

Risking Family

Genesis 17:1-8, 15-22[1]

Families. What can we say about them? It seems we either love them or hate them. Given the necessities of biology, everybody has some kind of family somewhere. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everybody wants to have anything to do with their family. In a day and time when the word “family” is glibly thrown out as a political campaign strategy, I think it’s high time we admit the truth—we’re all pretty ambiguous about our families. I guess what you’d have to say about families is: “you can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em!”

Thomas Moore has an interesting twist on the family in Care of the Soul. He talks about family in terms of the risks each of us takes in order to engage in family life. Fathers take a risk—you don’t just automatically become a father by procreation! The process of becoming a father is a long and sometimes precarious journey.[2] Motherhood is also a risk—the role of a mother is wonderful but also painful, because in the end you have to let your children go down the paths that could very well destroy them, but it’s the only way for them to find their own individuality.[3] Children face risks: sons have to grow up with an imperfect father, have to set out on their own journey to find out what it means to be a man with their own flaws and foibles that probably resemble those of their fathers.[4] Daughters have to find a way to be a woman in their own right, without the voice of their mothers telling them what they should do differently![5]

It’s interesting that the “first family” of the Bible, the family of Abraham and Sarah, has so much “exposure.” All their dirty laundry is on display in the stories of Genesis. First there’s Abraham, the “prototype” of the kind of faith that God desires from us all—and we see him passing off his wife as his sister in order to save his own skin—not once, but twice (Gen. 12:10-20; 20:1-18)!?![6] Then he sends one son out into the desert to die (Gen. 21:9-14) and takes another son up a mountain to “sacrifice” (Gen. 22:1-13)!?! Sounds like a family I’m not so sure I’d want to be part of. Sounds like a family just like yours and mine!

With a father like Abraham, it’s no wonder Isaac follows in his daddy’s footsteps and puts Rebekah at risk in the same way (Gen. 26:6-11). And in turn, his two sons, Esau and Jacob, wind up estranged from each other over their inheritance (Gen. 27:19-29).[7] Jacob successfully “cheats” his brother Esau and leaves home—only to be cheated in return by his uncle into spending 14 years of indentured labor (Gen. 29:12-30)![8] Then Jacob’s own sons are so resentful of the favored son Joseph that they throw him in a pit, initially planning to kill him, but then they “only” sell him into slavery (Gen. 37:12-28)![9] Sounds like the kind of family we could very well do without![10] And yet, this is the family of promise, the family through whom God determines to bless all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3)!

Thomas Moore reminds us that one of the most important lessons we can all learn about family is that in a very real sense we cannot choose our family—we’re stuck with them. It’s a lesson most of us have a hard time learning, because we spend our lives in the futile effort to escape the influence of our families—after all, in one respect our families are programmed into our very DNA! But the frantic attempt to escape the influence of your family is a little like trying to cut off a part of your own self! You never can quite accomplish it, and all you’re doing is hurting yourself in the process.

A healthier, happier, less stressful approach is to simply accept our families as they are—warts and all! In a very real sense, we can only be “comfortable in our own skin” when we come to terms with the fact that, for good or for ill, your family is the only one you’ve got! In fact, one of the greatest obstacles most people face in accepting themselves is accepting their family. The sooner you can accept that they are yourfamily, the sooner you’ll be on the road to wholeness.

Although all families have their shortcomings, it is those very challenges they present to us that make our lives rich and meaningful. [11] Like the fires that purify and refine precious metals, the disappointments and heartaches of the family becomes the very means by which we can forge a life for ourselves that is beautiful and precious and fulfilling.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/19/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, 34-39.

[3] Moore, Care of the Soul, 40-49.

[4] Moore, Care of the Soul, 34-35.

[5] Moore Care of the Soul, 43-44, 47.

[6] Of course, we should recognize Abraham’s great faith in other respects of his life, but one wonders where it was when he was so afraid for his own life that he put Sarah’s at risk! We are used to acknowledging Sarah’s “lack” of faith in that she laughed when God promised her a son; perhaps it is time to recognize that both Sarah and Abraham showed both faith and frailty in the course of their life’s journey.

[7] Gordon J. Wenham Genesis 16–50, 214–16, points out that the Genesis narrative is surprisingly restrained in that it does not condemn any one member of this tragic family for their role in it.

[8] Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 237–38, suggests that Jacob’s subsequent experiences seem to fit poetic justice for his own previous deceptions.

[9] Wenham, Genesis 16–50, 351, points to Jacob’s favoritism as causing a complete breakdown in his sons’ relationship with Joseph! Of course, Joseph’s actually recounting his dreams to his brothers suggests that his own selfish absorption must have contributed toward the problem; cf. Wenham, 359-60.

[10] Cf. David L. Peterson, “Genesis and Family Values” Journal of Biblical Literature 124 (2005):14, where he says (or perhaps understates?), “The final chapters of Genesis describe a family in disarray.”

[11] Moore, Care of the Soul, 26, reminds us that “to some extent all families are dysfunctional”! See further, ibid., 27-32.

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