“So that when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…”
You see, contrary to what a lot of politicians are saying nowadays, the family has always been in trouble.
The family has always been an endangered species.
True enough, the institution of the family at this point in time in America is under assault from all sides, but, then again, it always has been, more or less.
For in every age the family is always threatened from without by intruders, by unwelcome and unwanted pressures.
For the world, in the form of the IRS or telephone solicitors or the thief who wants to break in and steal your electronic paraphernalia, is always encroaching on the privacy of the family, and always banging at the door when the family would prefer to be left alone.
And in every age the family is perpetually threatened from within by eruptions of unhappiness and discontent.
For no matter how pleasant and cordial a family appears all dressed up for its Christmas portrait, there is persistently some degree of strife and warfare among the most beloved of family members.
For, as the Genesis story of the first aboriginal family tells us, each family member pursues his or her own self-interest relentlessly, and so it has always been in even the best and most affectionate of families.
The notion of “original sin”, as dramatized in the biblical story of the first man and the first woman, means that every person, from the beginning and origin of his or her life, persistently seeks the gratification of his or her own needs and wishes and interests, often to the detriment and disadvantage of others.
This is why, from the biblical angle, family life is always, to some degree, warfare.
This is why the family is perennially jeopardized from within–because no matter how much two or three or four people love each other and are devoted to each other, each person’s innate and irrepressible egocentricity will continually clash with the rampant self-interest of every other family member.
And no matter who we select as a partner or compatriot to settle down with, there is no family paradise in our horoscope.
As the story in Genesis puts it, an angel with a flaming sword stands guard at the entrance to paradise and prevents us from returning to the garden of innocence and contentment.
And what shock and disillusionment are in store for idealistic, romantically inclined young persons who come together to set up housekeeping as a family if they do not have some fore-knowledge of this universal human tendency to be at odds and out of joint with each other!
But despite threats from without and within, the family will unquestionably endure.
The form of family, the shape of family, will undergo various and sundry modifications–but the fact of family will persist beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Our need for family is only slightly less deep than our need for food or sleep.
We are inveterate, dyed-in-the-wool family makers.
No sooner do we condemn the family life of our parents in the suburbs as restrictive and limiting than we set up another kind of family life in a commune which has even more complications and entanglements.
We need a family because we have a constitutional need for the kind of intimacy that can only grow under the conditions described by the American Heritage Dictionary in its definition of family–”Two or more people who share goals and values, have long-term commitments to one another, and reside usually in the same dwelling place.”
Because of the exceptional conditions required for intimacy we can only be extremely and thoroughly intimate with a select few.
Because to be very intimate with others is to also be very vulnerable, and this acute vulnerability, letting others know us quite unguardedly, is something we can only manage with a few under the shelter and protection of a commitment that promises to love in all kinds of weather, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, through all manner of fits, moods, and spells.
A family, then, consists of those who make up a household, who come home to each other with regularity at the end of the day and who collaborate in the food gathering, animal hunting, market trading, money chasing, grocery collecting, and child helping, who work, love, play, and suffer together, who put up with each other.
So the family is always in trouble because it is a fragile arrangement that teeters and wobbles as it tries to sustain an impossible commitment over the long haul in a culture that often scorns faithfulness – and yet, at the same time, the family we will always have with us because there is something in our nature that impels us toward the venture of intimacy whatever the risks.
Suffice it to say, a family needs all the help it can get.
This is why we in the household of faith are singularly blessed and fortunate.
For our tradition furnishes us with two insights that to me seem indispensable for a family if it is to not just survive and endure but also to thrive.
We have already touched on the first insight.
For it is simply the realization, alluded to a few moments ago, that every person and every relationship is “fallen”
It is the view of biblical faith that every person and every relationship and every family is distinctly limited, flawed, un-whole, possessing only fragmentary and partial health, blighted by “me-first-ness”.
How can something that sounds so negative be a source of help?
Because to know, to really know in our bones, that there’s no such thing as “having it all” in any marriage or family, that every marriage and family and friendship are seriously flawed and destined to taste their share of unhappiness and grief because of the inevitable clash of immature selves, to really know this, is to be equipped with a crucial bit of survival knowledge.
People report again and again in marriage counseling that in the beginning they had, to use Dicken’s phrase, “great expectations.”
And then they relate that they have gone through a process of escalating disappointment and then resentment as their partner has revealed one unlovely characteristic after another.
Their romantic daydreams turn out to be ruinous illusions.
Likewise, parents have “great expectations” of their children.
We aspire for our children to live out our dreams for us, for they are an extension of ourselves and we naturally want the best for them and from them.
We devote ourselves to our children; we exhaust ourselves on behalf of our children– and yet, after all this, they disappoint us.
They aren’t sufficiently appreciative — and to boot, it eventually dawns on us that they don’t share our dreams.
We envision them taking over the family business, but they want to be carpenters or tug boat pilots.
We dream of them scoring the winning touchdown in the last thirty seconds, but by the 8th grade they have already declared their career choice as sculpture or movie-making and we shudder.
Or what’s worse, they try to fulfill our dreams just to please us, but heir hearts are not in it, and it becomes a half hearted charade; we realize it would have been far, far better if they had openly rebelled against our wishes.
Our children disappoint us.
We disappoint our children.
Husbands disappoint wives, and vice versa.
Everyone disappoints everyone else.
And the Gospel intercepts this endless cycle by telling us straight out — everyone is indeed disappointing, which is another way of saying what the apostle Paul seems to be saying when he declares that everyone has come short of the glory of God.
And if we truly hear this, if we really assimilate it, then we will cease to be shocked and undone by the disappointing we all do to each other.
We will still be hurt and bothered, but not crushed.
We will cease to search for the mate or friend or boss of mentor who perfectly understands us.
It will give a whole new sense to the phrase in the marriage service, “for better or worse” — and this applies equally to any friendship or relationship of substance.
For to persevere and endure in a relationship “for better or worse” means to tolerate and bear each other’s disappointing ways which are sure to show themselves again and again.
And this leads to the second, and even more crucial, revelation that the Gospel tradition places at our disposal for meeting the crisis of family.
This one is old as the hills and as sure and dependable as the hills.
It is the reality without which no family or even friendship can stay alive very long — without it the very air a family breathes becomes poisonously toxic with resentment.
It is absurdly simple, this thing that Jesus of Nazareth seemed to stress above all else.
This simple, but extraordinary, thing, which cannot be supplied by manuals or workshops, is FORGIVENESS.
To be able to forgive each others’ harshness, wounding, blood-letting, or just carelessness is the necessary, essential miracle which alone enables us to love each other joyfully and wondrously in spite of everything.
It is the ONLY thing that can soften and heal the sting of our intentional and unintentional blunders that sometimes only bruise but at other times cut to the quick.
But then the question arises, how do we come by the ability to forgive those who have aroused our resentment by injuring our sensitivities and causing us grief?
Because it is far more natural for us to cling stubbornly to a delectable self-righteousness or an even more delicious self-pity than respond forgivingly to those who have offended us.
We can say that forgiveness runs counter to our natural instincts, that we are naturally inclined to nurse grudges and grievances indefinitely or at least keep them in reserve for a time when we can use them as ammunition.
So where does it come from— this power to forgive that reconciles us to one who has sorely hurt us?
Therein lies the mystery—for we really can’t account for how our resentment toward someone can be defused and dissolved by forgiveness—how the ability to forgive unexpectedly arrives and sweeps away our ill-will.
But we can say this—that in the midst of our resentment toward another, a moment of illumination, a moment of clarity, can come to us—this is a moment in which we suddenly glimpse the breadth and depth of our life, the abundance and plenitude of our life—this is a moment in which we realize how much beyond our deserving we have received from a host of others—this is a moment in which we appreciate how graciously and generously others have dealt with our blunders and offenses, how often we have been treated forgivingly—
Yes, this is a moment in which we are overcome with gratitude for the blessedness and fullness of our life and suddenly our resentment and grievances against others seem inconsequential and even comical.
This is a moment in which forgivingness surges forth in us and releases us from the stifling grip of resentment and alienation —this is that miraculous turn of events in which we are once again able to behold the face of the one who has caused us anguish as our companion and friend rather than adversary.
This is a moment of sheer grace that comes to us from beyond ourselves and transforms our vexation into a forgiving state of mind.
The following remark was attributed to Jesus — “he who is forgiven little loves little. — he who is forgiven much loves much.”
So how does true love grow in a family?
We know all the answers that our modern society gives to this question?
True love grows, they say, by making money and looking good, by getting a good education and absorbing culture, by working hard and rewarding family members for conspicuous achievement, by praying together and playing together, by reading how-to books and self-help manuals, by going to marriage enrichment seminars and Lenten discussion series on the state of the family and listening to a spiel by a “professional”.
But how does true love grow in a family according to the Gospel?
By one way and one way only.
By coming to know ourselves as “fallen”: by plunging into the terrible and magnificent risk of intimacy and through the festivity and peril of intimate sharing, through the pinch and pressure and contentment and heartache of our life together, coming to know ourselves and each other as fallen, needful, egocentric creatures.
And, then, by forgiving each other for all we’re worth.
And to the extent we forgive each other our hurtfulness and hatefulness, both great and small, to that extent, love will flourish and bind us together.
Earlier I referred to the dictionary definition of what a family is.
But in the gospel of Mark, Jesus actually re-defines the meaning of family when he poses the question. “Who are my mother and brothers?” and then goes on to say, “Anyone who does the will of God. That person is my brother and sister and mother.”
This declaration of Jesus casts the concept of family into quite a different mold.
For we learn that the bond that runs the deepest and strongest is not one based on lineage and genes at all but on an altogether different kind of kinship — a kinship rooted in the experience that there is let loose in the world a power that can mend our Humpty Dumpty hearts and minds and that the absolutely most important thing is to receive and share this.
“Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.”
What does this do to our usual, conventional sense of family based on blood lines and genealogy tables?
It might mean that we continue to pay our respects to those with whom we’ve been raised, that we continue to honor birthdays and anniversaries of close relatives in the spirit of good will and civility, that we continue to entertain the visiting aunt, whether with eagerness or a stiff upper lip — yes, that we pay this family into which we happen to have been born our respects — but that we save our ultimate allegiance for that family that is grounded in and born of the Spirit.
The Rev. Robert B. Dwight
1st Sunday in Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
February 25, 1996