Posts Tagged ‘dysfunctional families’

The holiday season is generally associated with the idea of bringing families together, but sadly, these gatherings have gained a reputation for frequently unraveling into a contentious, and at times hurtful, mess.  I wish I could make a solid case that this is an unfair stereotype, and in some cases it undoubtedly is; but many times it is not.  As I’ve pondered the reason for this unfortunate pattern I’ve begun to notice how differently people seem to handle familial relationships as compared to other associations.  Aesop asserted that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but I would say that it more often breeds complacency and presumption.  When interacting with family members we often presume to know their story, and thereby conclude that we know what they’re thinking or feeling.  Sometimes we even presume to know why they think the way they do.  We seldom seek to understand their position because we assume that we already know it.  And too often, we presume that our shared history and/or heredity gives us license to forego common courtesy in the way we express our viewpoints.  Most of us are apt to approach neighbors, classmates, coworkers, and even strangers, with a great deal more consideration than those who are closest to us.


I’m sure that most people can think of an obnoxious non-family member that they’ve been required to deal with, and chances are those folks were extended far more grace and patience than a parent, sibling or child might have received.  On a daily basis we associate with people who may be a challenge for us, yet we usually learn to deal with them in a way that at least preserves the necessary connection.  Unfortunately, we aren’t always willing to expend that kind of effort on our own families, even though those are the relationships that should be most valuable to us.


If you’ve ever seen a couple walk through a genuine period of courtship, it is a lesson in being invested in a relationship.  The best marriages I’ve seen are those where the spouses never quit courting each other.  The best parental relationships I’ve seen are those where the parents treat their kids with the same kind of consideration and respect that they expect from them.  But for too many, that’s way too much work.  It is easier to try to manipulate or to evoke some sort of positional authority.  Inevitably, we reap what we sow, and that is especially true within our families.  If we don’t like how family members treat us, it may be worth taking a look at how we are treating everyone else.


I continue to marvel at the petty little things that keep families torn apart, sometimes for generations.  Even though many would site the deterioration of the family unit as a root of a lot of of our social ills, there seems to be little sense of urgency in cultivating and maintaining the family bonds that remain.  In fact, the dysfunction of the family has become a punchline in popular culture.  At this point, our young people have been raised with the idea that this is just how families are.  I believe this is why so many of the emerging generation are no longer bothering with the institution of marriage, and that many of those who do take that step often do so for the purely pragmatic incentives of gaining insurance benefits and such.


As we head into the heart of yet another holiday season I would suggest that the greatest gift we might have to offer our families is a renewed commitment to the relationships of those who are nearest to us.  Instead of rehashing all the old issues that have kept us splintered, maybe we could remind each other of what makes each one precious.  Maybe we’re too jaded to get our families to resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, but surely we can do better than a rerun of “Modern Family”.

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I was my parent’s problem child, which isn’t to imply that my brothers and sister were perfect.  We all went through our rough periods, but I was the one who consistently struggled, and routinely required a lot of parenting.  To be sure, my low points reached far greater depths than I ever would have imagined, and looking back, it’s a wonder that I wasn’t more permanently damaged by some of my woeful choices.


Those struggles were not a byproduct of passive or poor parenting. In fact, my parents were extremely proactive in raising all of us.  I was just the kind of kid who desperately needed an abundance of support, guidance, accountability, and ultimately strong boundaries; all of which my parents readily provided.  I knew what was right and what was expected; unfortunately, I frequently chose to forge an alternative path.


If folly is bound up in the heart of a child, I seemed to be born with a double portion to work through.  Because of this, it was essential that one of the earliest revelations of my father was that of an authoritarian.  Though he was loving and caring from the beginning, recognizing him as the ultimate authority was pivotal to my early development.  Had I not been forced to adhere to some external standard, which I recognized as being greater than myself, it is likely that I would have continued to live out of the futility and chaos that has so often reigned within my own heart and mind.  I guess another way to say it is that because my will had to bend to his will, I learned that my will (e.g. what I thought, what I felt, what I wanted…) was never the final word.  Undoubtedly, few lessons in my life have been more valuable than that one.


Though I did eventually manage to become a fully functional adult, I also continued to make questionable choices in my life, which I believe kept my father’s paternal guard up.  Though he treated me with the dignity and respect due a fellow adult, to some degree he still had to view me through the lens of his struggling child.  Though I didn’t recognize that at the time, it became evident to me, when some years later, it changed.


That change occurred when I was in my early thirties, and the life that I had carefully built crumbled before my eyes.  As I cried out to God, my will finally began to genuinely yield to His, and my life began to dramatically turn.  As those changes took root in me, I noticed that it also changed how my earthly father related to me.  He was more relaxed, less paternal and more like a friend.  A few years later, when he became terminally ill, we had some amazingly frank conversations about God, life, death… where he spoke in an unguarded way; like you would with a trusted confidant.  Though my father passed away shortly after my fortieth birthday, I will always treasure those moments of friendship that we shared in his final years.  Though I was honored to be called his son, it somehow seems even more profound that he might also have considered me his friend.


Ultimately, I believe this pattern of relationship reflects what God intends for His children as well.  He says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  If we don’t begin by recognizing Him as the ultimate authority, and greater than ourselves, we never yield our will to His.  Though we may speak of Him highly, and even claim to be His, we live life on our own terms, guided by our own ideas, and going in the way that seems right to us (which the Bible says, “leads to death”).  When Jesus first gathered the disciples, they related to Him as Rabbi (i.e. teacher), which was a position of great authority in Jewish culture.  They called themselves His servants and referred to Him as “Master”.  It wasn’t until the night before His death that Jesus bestowed upon them the title of “friends”.


Unfortunately, modern philosophies on parenting favor the idea that parents ought to relate to their children as friends over the more traditional authoritarian approach; but in practice this generally creates dysfunctional family relationships.  Children raised in this manner remain self-centered, compulsive, demanding, and disrespectful.  As in so many other aspects, Western Christianity has mirrored the culture by frequently trying to introduce the heavenly Father as “friend”; but like the earthly counterpart, this does not produce a legitimate or functional family.


If we do not first recognize Him as Lord, and come through the cross of Christ, we have no incentive to die to ourselves and to live through Him.  We might call Him good, and look to Him for provision, but we live in our own strength, and by our own sense of righteousness.  Though I do believe that God ultimately wants to be able to relate to His children as friends, I also believe that this is a distinction that we must grow into over the course of time.  As it was with my earthly father, I would be forever humbled to one day be counted a friend to my Father in heaven.

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It’s amazing to realize that “Thanksgiving” is already upon us.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that while the days don’t pass any quicker, the months and years seem to fly by.  This year has moved by so rapidly that I feel as though I’ve missed much of it.  As we come into what ought to be a special season, I can already sense the dread that many people feel during this time of year.  On the surface it all seems bright and shiny, but in recent years I’ve begun to notice how few people really seem to enjoy it.  Though our calendars fill up with “special” activities, I don’t sense much “peace on earth”, “goodwill toward man” or “joy to the world”.  Even within the church, I don’t see a lot of genuine excitement at what should be, for Christians, a time of worship and celebration.

Sadly, we all tend to get caught up in the busyness (e.g. cooking, baking, shopping, holiday parties, traveling, guests, holiday programs…) and miss much of the richness this season has to offer.  While we’ll be the first to proclaim that “Jesus is the reason for the season”, He doesn’t always get a place of prominence in our holiday activities.  So as we launch into yet another holiday season, God put it on my heart to stop long enough to gain some perspective.

I believe that at the root of much of the seasonal angst is unfulfilled expectation; whether that comes in the form of past disappointments or the present dissatisfaction with where we find ourselves.  The inherently nostalgic quality of the season can often stir up more painful memories than warm thoughts.  Those who grew up in dysfunctional homes often come face to face with that dysfunction again, whether it is gathering with their families or intentionally avoiding the pain of such a reunion.  Those who are in the midst of difficult situations often feel more isolated in this time, because presumably everyone else is full of holiday cheer.  Those of limited means struggle, because we’ve all come to believe that Christmas cannot be complete unless it comes with boxes and ribbons.  Many of us wrestle with the notion that if we can’t give our kids what all the other kids have, we’ve somehow failed them.  For others, it can be the uncertainties of a new year that keep them from partaking of the joy set before them.  Ultimately, if we are dreading the holidays, we will almost certainly have a dreadful holiday season.  For those who are in the world, these are simply the seas which toss souls about; but what about the children of God?  Are these the forces that should be shaping our perspective?

If we could look at the reality of where we are today, apart from the disappointments of the past and our fears for the future, we might see that we are a genuinely blessed people.  Regardless of our situations, God has provided for us and continues to sustain us.  We may feel as though we have lack, but if we can see past what we don’t have, we will likely find that we have unnoticed abundance all around us.  The Psalmist spoke of how God wants to teach us of His ways and he beseeches that we not be like the horse or mule, which must be controlled using a bit and bridle.  That picture is one of needing to use pain as a way to get our attention.  I believe that if we will look for the blessings He’s laid aside for today, we will find them; if not, we often must suffer a painful lose before we can understand how truly blessed we were yesterday.

Do we really have to become homeless before we can be thankful for a warm house; even if it isn’t as big or as nice as we’d like.  Do we really have to lose someone we love before we can be thankful for the other people in our lives?  Do we really have to get sick before we can be thankful for our health?  Do we really have to become fugitives or prisoners before we can rejoice in our freedom?  Sadly, most of us tend not to appreciate what we have until we lose it, but this season offers us an opportunity to live differently.

Truthfully, this season was never really meant to be about us anyway.  We’ve unconsciously allowed the world’s thinking to distract us from the central issue, which is Jesus.  While some might regard that as rather obvious, I would guess that most of our holiday attitudes don’t reflect it.  When we talk about the sacrifice that Jesus made, we most often speak of the cross.  Rightfully so, but before His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus sacrificed His deity; not only to become a man, but to become a man of sorrows, who was acquainted with grief.  He sacrificed His perfect fellowship with the Father to come to this earth as a sacrificial lamb.  He sacrificed the glory of heaven for a manger, the rejection of man and a cross.  Make no mistake; the sacrifice Jesus made at Christmas is no less profound than the one He made at Easter.  It was the day that our redemption was set in motion and it certainly warrants a seasons worth of rejoicing.

So as we step into this season, I feel the Lord challenging our motivations and asking what will drive us in this time.  Will it be the hurts and disappointment of seasons past; will it be the struggles that we’re facing today, or maybe our fears about what awaits us down the road.  Maybe it will be the vain hope that if we just find the right combination of songs & gifts & food & people & decorations, we’ll find the joy of the season.  I’d submit that the Lord would like this season to be a season of awe and wonder at the love of our Father in heaven; a season of gratitude for all that He is and all that He’s done for us; a season of renewed relationship with Him and those He’s brought around us.

Who knows what the New Year will bring, but as I stand here today, I am blessed and thankful.  He has given and done more than I ever deserved and more than I ever could have hoped for.  I pray that you and your family will find His joy and have a wonderful holiday season.  God bless you

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