Posts Tagged ‘family’

As we end the holiday season, we could ask ourselves where did we see the face of Christ?

My attention was drawn to one kind of seeing his face this Christmas season, although someone had to take me in hand and point this out to me because I’m so obtuse sometimes. I saw Christ in my wife’s face, my friend’s faces and my daughter’s faces. There was a divine complementarity going on where his qualities found space in them. .

Those smiles, warm cheeks, those bright eyes and those wet tears — there were some of these for each of us — in these was Christ. Christ was with us also to console each other. My wife sat with me and comforted me I was in pain, stroking my face — the very hand of Christ touched me. I held her when she cried one day. The arms of Christ. I comforted my daughter on another day when she was sick. The comfort of Christ.

One evening we ate looking into a table full of dear faces, faces of church friends. We shared talk, games, laughter. We were Christ to each other. I played cards with Christ. He let me win.

Did you serve someone this season? You were Christ to them. Did someone serve you? They were Christ to you.

This will be acknowledged at the end of time in a profound moment when the King will say to you and me, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40

Jesus — he was pretty curious about things, interested in things other people weren’t.

He was fascinated by vacant lots, the things growing in them. He wrote the book on neglected areas; he catalogued the things living there. He hung out in disturbed areas; he knew the names of weeds.

Along this line I have a confession. One the books that has had a big influence on my life is Natural History of Vacant Lots by Wessel and Wong. Really!

I’ll give you a taste of it.

In the opening, the authors state that there are no so-called weeds but instead plants that voluntarily colonize disturbed and wasted areas. These plants are best referred to as ruderal plants or pioneer plants. No negative connotation. The authors consider them worthy of attention, study, notation. They have value as habitat, they are niche communities for a great variety of life.

The authors go on to talk about the vast, fascinating community of organisms that make up vacant lots — mustards, wild radishes, thistles, dandelions, pig weed, clover, mallows and flea bane. And then there’s the creatures, monarch butterflies, mourning cloaks, swallowtails, cabbage white butterflies, bee flies, crickets, western fence lizards, robbins and mockingbirds and hummingbirds.

Why know such things? Because life, life on the edges of the main stream, life in the ditches, life in the neglected areas, weedy life, ruderal life is life and it has value on the planet as part of the ecosystem we all inhabit.

Back to Jesus, back to people. Seeing, observing, identifying, naming and valuing the people on the edges, the people overlooked, the people that were not considered to have value, Jesus pushed that.

Check this out.

Jesus said to his [one of his hosts], “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Luke 14:12-14

Many of us will not hold such a banquet, although we might work in a food distribution, but the point here is that in every day life as we passed through life’s vacant lots — and everybody eventually resides in a physical or mental or social wasteland — we are to take note of, see, name and value the creatures living there.

The world is fascinating. Jesus thought so. The world is full of different types of landscapes, inhabitants. All around us are those wanting and waiting for us to know their names, call out their value, even the members of our own homes.

Look around. Note the edges, verges, borders, waste places in your family, your social circle. Note the weedy places in yourself.

What’s there?

Who is there?

Be fascinated. Be gentle with your own inner vacant lots and others. See what grows there, even your less attractive plants and creatures, your thistles, your bugs. They are part of you. Invite them to the banquet.

And as you pass along the road, through your family and friend circle, look to the edges. Note the cripple at the edge, your daughter, an uncle, someone who has moved away, a friend.

Don’t avert your eyes. It’s life, part of life, the vacant lots, the people living there, to be known, to be invited in.

Interesting that we call those places vacant.

They aren’t.

The lots are all full, for those paying attention, those with the loving curiosity of Jesus.

When I was growing up, I loved going out into the woods in the spring, looking down.

I was hunting morels, those delicious wild mushrooms that grow around old logs, in moist, rotten places that smell like damp soil, like mother earth, like tasty life.

They are the mycorrhiza, and they have a narrative.

The morel, the mycorrhizae, is a fungus that grows in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic or mildly pathogenic relationship.

Sounds like family.

Sounds like my family.

I well remember the warm, damp soil in which my parent and I and my brothers and I wove our roots together. It was good, symbiotic, mutually beneficial. I remember happily playing baseball with my brothers, quietly reading with my mom, going water skiing with my dad and brothers.

It was good!

It was also not always good.

Sometime it was competitive, combative, mildly pathogenic. I remember competing for the baseball win with my brothers, fighting down on the ground with them, arguing in the evening with my mom, being — in my mind — wrongfully and shamefully disciplined by my dad.

So looking back, which was it, my family?

Was it symbiotic and mutualistic or was it pathogenic and mildly harmful?

It was both.

It always is.

At an earlier and more naive stage of life, I thought relationships were one thing only, and stayed the same. I thought love was love.

It isn’t and they don’t —  the relationships —  remain the same. Relationships morph. Competition and jealousy and hurt sometime carry the day. We change. Over time we realize we are different. We bring some harm and some distance to each other. We unwittingly compete for the big thing — for love.

I love my family — they are some good people — but some of the relationships have slightly rotten edges.  They still exist as good, and as tasty, but also as mildly pathogenic.

Life — it’s not one thing. It’s a bit of a fungal narrative.


Posted: December 29, 2010 in friends
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Mostly we shot each other, with every kind of gun we could get our dirty little violent hands on. We often shot each other on Christmas day, after we had gotten a new kind of firearm. The best weapon I remember for blowing away family was a small hand gun that you filled with round silver bullets about three times as big as bb’s. Endless killing! You just kept pulling the trigger and watching your brothers fall. At a recent Christmas party in Los Angeles where everyone came and some were nasty, I thought of the old days and longed to fire away again, with perhaps a tranquilizing dart gun. But it wouldn’t work; I’ve lost my passion for sustained violence.

We also  found fellowship in riding things, like the day my brother herded a small steer into the corral, his friend Lonnie working the critter with him. Inside the fence they trapped the beastly transport system in a corner; Steve edged close and jumped — onto its back. The response was immediate. The steer, as if fired from a rifle, charged out of the small enclosure, into the woods, and toad’s wild ride was on.

Steve bounced on along the bucking steer’s spinal column, into the wild, green woods, past one then another then another and then they were scraping his legs on both sides, and the steer went scooching through and “bam” Steve was on the ground, downed by trees too tight on both sides, and Lonnie was yelling, “Yahoo!” It was a ride to be repeated, and repeat it we did.

Some of the best rides were on our pet steer, Moosehead. The difficulty with Moosehead was that he was broad, and so the rides were spread-legged, rodeo wild and short. He was a fun guy, a hairy  brother who we had nursed with a bottle, so he loved us, and getting on him was easy. He was friend. I now think, after years of studying the science of friendship that perhaps steers and dogs and cats make the best friends. Looking back, I’ve had more fun with of my cats, in the shower, my pet fish in the pond filter, my dogs and their puppies than some of my friends, but who is really to say for sure. Eventually we all come to realize that no friends last forever. The Moosester didn’t. One day he was present, the next  gone! It’s like that with friends, especially on a farm, here and then gone, and we never knew why or where.

Growing up my two brothers were my best friends. Think brother steer.  This is because they were my only friends, and my only options for friends, most of the time. In rural Missouri, the nearest house was a half-mile away, and the nearest house with children who went to our school, was miles and miles away. There was no neighborhood, just  brothers. Someone once said that friends are family you choose for yourself. They were, literally, for me; I chose my family when there was no other choice. And we chose to have fun. C. S. Lewis speaks of friends as being people not focused on each other, but on a thing between them that they both find fascinating. That was us.

We focused on rideable things, things mobile, each other, the Shetland ponies kept at the farm for camp children to ride in the summer, the  rideable cows, goats, dogs, skateboards with metal wheels, bikes,  coasters we constructed, sleds, a toboggan dad pulled behind the boat, water skis and eventually the ultimate ride — cars. The ponies were an obvious choice to ride, but they weren’t that much fun; they had to be led away from the barn, threatened, goaded and yanked. You’d think that unlike Moosehead, they knew they were being led to the end, but they weren’t. It got better when you headed them back home. Suddenly they were all animated and joyful; they began to trot and then grow younger and  sprint when they saw the barn, and then at the end they would become deadly serious and risk their lives in the home stretch as they flattened out in a dead run for the goal of life —  no saddle and rest.

We also drove cars and trucks before we had driver’s licences. We drove the Timber Wolf, a big old truck used to haul logs for firewood.  Especially crazy and fun was the old car my dad cut the body from. When he was done, the thing was just a hood, front fenders, a motor, and an open frame from the dash back, no roof, no doors, no trunk, no rear fenders and no floorboard.  My dad welded a folding chair onto the frame behind the steering wheel, and we drove it around the campgrounds for errands and fun. Crazy! If we had fallen off the chair, we would run over ourselves with the back tires.

Friends are people who have wrecks together or know each other’s wreck stories. We brothers crashed. One evening, on our way home, on our bikes, flying down the dirt drive, dodging the rocks, I hit a big one, straight on with my front tire. One moment I was pedaling hard, the next moment I ascended through the evening air, up over the handle bars and down again,  into the dust, hit hard and rolled.  I remember sitting up, feeling sick, looking at my bloodied arms in surprise and then grabbing my bike and heading on home with the brothers, but not fast. It was no big deal, it happened, to all of us, the battering, the bloodied skin —  it changed nothing, our speed, our wild abandon, nothing. I remember later, when my brother’s moved on to cars, and smashed up several in a row, we took it all in stride too, except my dad, who didn’t like it. But he was in on it, destroying stuff. It’s friend and family glue.

One day dad decided to haul a steer to town, so we could have steaks again, and not having a truck, he ran the steer up a dirt ramp and into the back of a jeep station wagon. Not so good. Half-way to town the steer decided that he was tired of looking at the radio, six inches from his nose, and he turned around. That didn’t quite work out as  he had planned, and he broke out all the side windows of the jeep. Fearing for his own life, dad stopped at a little country store where a real farmer was consulted, and he explained that a truck with side rails was best for this kind of job, so they completed the trip thus. I think at that point they should have let the steer go. He’d made a point. I’m sure, he would have beaten the horses back to the barn. The other day, when my family was together for breakfast, my dad told this story again. We laughed and hooted and spoke of his decision-making during that era, how he had almost burned down the town we lived near during a brush clearing project and how he had put buckets of coals in the back of the jeep, on the floor board, to keep us warm on cold night when we were driving to church. This is how family and friendship are defined —  people with crazy stories that they have in common.

The other day, my dad told  us again the story of  how he’d gotten the job on the campground in Missouri. Dad and mom had both grown up in California, and early in their marriage they bought a little track house in Torrance. There they attended a small church where Maurice Vanderberg, back from the war and recently married, was their pastor. After a time, Maurice moved back to Kansas City to run the Union Rescue Mission that his wife’s mom  had founded, but then needing help, he called  and invited my dad to join him in the work. So my parents moved. Moves change things, for families, for kids, but they are never consulted in such matters. Old friends lost,  new ones gained — no choice. The  move to the midwest eventually put us on the campground, which was owned by the rescue mission, and put my mom and us boys in a  isolated place that profoundly shaped our family, our friendships and more. My mom suffered badly, a California city girl transported to a small rural cabin without a bathroom, kitchen, or heat or neighbors to raise three little children. She lost some years there. No friends were present for her, except the boys and we were way too male.  Significant stuff — my brother Steve married a Missouri girl, Joyce, who turned out to be a good deal.  When we did leave Missouri, and returned to California, it was because another pastor, who my dad knew from the old Torrance church, invited my dad to move to El Cajon to work him. Friendships form the web on which we move, and catch food and are ourselves caught and eaten.

Part of the reason why the family didn’t always work for my mom was that destruction and violence provided most of the fun with my father and my brothers. I think that violence brought us closer to each other but  not to mom.  We blew up our little green toy soldiers with fire crackers, we killed the little clay spacemen by throwing their clay space ships onto the floor hard, we hit each other in the arms daily, we wrestled on the big, round braded rug in the living room until we either knocked over a lamp or somebody cried, and we eventually shot every kind of creature living in the woods nearby and caught, killed and ate every species of fish.

As I child, my favorite killing posture was not western style, the standing back-to-back, taking three steps, turning, quick drawing and firing. That cut the violence too short. I liked hunt-down-and-kill approach. It began with one of brother in one end of the house, another in the furthest extreme, the call, “Ready?” and both of us moving silently toward each other. Then the shooting commenced and proceeded until death. Shot in the arm, you had to switch your weapon to the other hand, shot in the leg, you were left with one hopper, shot in the torso or head, dead. I loved the final, trapped stand, both of us wounded, immobilized, having it at at close range, one behind the bed and the other shielded by the dresser. I loved it when a brother’s head peeked over the top of a bed and caught a round perfectly between the eyes. Then I would see him fall back, to the floor, man down and out with a final death rattle. You had to make a sound. “Cool, I just killed my brother.” True friends and loyal family are the people you can kill and then shortly after sit down to dinner with as if nothing happened. Your average American family does this regularly, the verbal assassinations followed by the evening meal.

When I got married and had my daughters, I continued in the same vein; I made my wife and daughters my best friends, built around our shared narratives,  games, interests and arguments. The thing missing was the violence, mostly. My girls and I did play shoot ’em up a few times. But mostly, in my own family, we gentilized. My wife and daughters and I have always shared a love for “getting out,” for water in all its playful forms,  for print and food and coffee and conversation in all their various addictive and nonadictive forms and we really like God, a lot.  There are other things, but fun has tended to glue us together. I see families where the members aren’t friends and it doesn’t look much fun to me. Some parents say you can’t be friends with your kids. I know what they mean, that you have to be a parent, which means sometimes being mean and saying “no” and doing things friends just don’t do. I know all that, and I’ve done it, and still do at times, but here is the deal. You can go back and forth, be parent, then friend; you don’t have to always play the same role with your children. I really like the times my girls and I are friends.

I took my daughter Rosalind to see the Little Mermaid for our first movie together when she was three years old. Outstanding fun, great Disney film, superb enduring memory for us. We still love the song “Kiss The Girl” and we love “Down by the Sea” and Sebastian the crab these many years later. Magical, the movie, our first father-daughter date, the many times since that we’ve reprised that kind of thing, gone out to eat, watched a football game together, played Yahtzee, taken a walk, talked long, wrestled on the floor and knocked over a lamp. The thing with friendship is not to define it too narrowly, within family or outside of family. We need it, we want it, in all its forms odd and familiar and normal and not.

I have a lot of different kinds of friends now, besides family.  I have friends from school. I have friends from work. I have friends from church.  I have friends in other countries. I have friends who are dead. I have friends who are not but pretend to be. I have friends who I meet for a tête-à-tête at Starbucks, and I have friends who add me on Facebook.

By friends we mean a lot of different things — people we got drunk with in high school but now have nothing in common with, a checker at Costco whose line we often choose, people who dabble in what we also waste time on, people who “get us” and leggo-people who used to get us but have now snapped off and don’t, furry friends, literary friends, our favorite dead poets, painters, novelists or philosophers, and lastly and most importantly, our real friends, the cherished soul-mates who hang on through it all and just won’t let go, like Taylor in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Pigs in Heaven, who won’t let go of little Turtle —  the mythic, profoundly archetypal lost child, “six pigs in heaven and the mother who wouldn’t let go.”  We all need a bit of this,  the will-not-let-go friend.

I’ve told my girls. There are all kinds of friends, from casual, even momentary, to life-long. There are all kinds of levels, and they change over time even with the same person. You can be close, then not close, then close again. And just because you are close, doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. It’s okay to let friendships change, even to let them go. Sometimes you have to.

Recently, my brother and I drove to a Idllywild, a mountain town half-way between our homes, about two hours away for each of us. We rented a room in a bed and breakfast and stayed overnight together. We talked shop, both of us being pastors, and we talked family and we ate good food. He had just bought a new sports car, a Mazda RX-8 with a 240 horse power rotary engine and so we took it out on the mountain roads to test its potential. It was the good old high-school days all over again, except we were driving fast Japanese rather than fast American, and  we weren’t drunk and there were no girls with us. What a shame, but maybe not. I’ve owned several sports cars and my wife claims that she doesn’t like being thrown against the doors in the sharp turns. So I slammed by brother against the door and went a bit too fast into a corner and missed a shift. It was all the same game again, flirting with danger, riding the steers, driving the cars.

In the morning, we broke out a plastic bat and whiffle ball and played a few innings of baseball.  It was fun. Depending on how you held the ball and because off the holes in one side of it, you could throw a slider, a curve a sinker and a rising fast ball. But we weren’t practiced up, and so after I hammered a few of his hanging curve balls up over the limb of the nearest pine tree for home runs, he started pouting and didn’t try as hard. It seemed like we had returned to our childhood again, two brothers killing and being killed in mock battle. But then in a short while he regained his form and struck me out and slammed a few of  my sliders that didn’t slide out of the park, and we both cheered up again. Brothers, friends, in combat and not — still.

Other friends in life, interesting.  Why did I make the friends I did?  What does it say about me? Having left our families, most of us find people who function as family. We meet them anywhere, somewhere, and talk, and touch, in time, on the same web, the same thread of the web, and then we climb along together for a bit. In high school it was John, Lonnie and Jim. We fished, hunted, drove fast, avoided girls, and engaged in boy-brother wildness-mayhem. Upon my move back to California, those relationships ended. In California I met a college student named Steve, and we surfed together and philosophized. I also met Jim, and we shared an apartment together with two other guys. It was cheap rent. He was an artist, using clay, me an artist, using words. I still have some of his art pieces, but not him. After college I met Tim, a won’t-let-go friend. We bonded over insight, books, faith. He became family, so to speak, and was the best man at my wedding.  We are still close. We go to the same church and we share a common passion for truth and radical love and justice for our community.

Fishing, wilding, cars, surfing, art, books, faith — my friends have often been my playmates, but more and more they have become my thought-mates. Time makes philosophers of most all of  us, clowns and killers alike. My friendships are now conversations. We  meet over coffee, books and food, and we talk, and talk and talk, but not always. A few years ago, my friend Tim and I fired off some loud, flashing fireworks near the house, and then ran when the police came. We hid in a fast food restaurant, bought cokes for camouflage, laughed like boys and  then headed for home to brag to our wives and children over what we  had done.

Friendship is and always will be a bit of safe violence together, a fast ride,  fast run, or fast pitch together, a laugh, a movie shared, a book discussed, a trip together,  a home run, a crash and a fire and a story to tell again and again until it gets good.

As I grow older, and fascinate more and more over  life, its people and problems and beauty, I find myself making more and more and more friends, of all kinds, in all  places. I am shamefully indiscriminate. Most anyone can be my friend, execpt a few former assaasins. Want to talk? You are my friend. Have something fun you like to do?  Tell me about it; you are my friend. Have a problem? Let’s explore it! I love a problem and the typical nearby solution.

What am I doing?  I don’t like living alone. The friend thing is now under my control, mostly; no one is moving me.

And so Iam adding friends. They are the family I am choosing for myself.

Yesterday I watched Henry II re-imprison his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine in the tower. It was Christmas of 1183.

It is interesting, Henry’s decision. You can see it too by watching the movie, The Lion In Winter.

Eleanor, Henry’s queen, played by Katharine Hepburn is brilliant. When Henry II, knife in hand, threatens to kill their three sons, she eloquently rants:

Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little – that’s how peace begins.

For the love of God, can’t we love each other just a little? Good question for the family?

While it is noble of the queen to take responsibility for the problems, the truth is that she and Henry and their sons were very much products of their times. The succession of power deal was something they inherited, and it mucked with the softer family values of kindness and gentleness. They might have been a nice family, Henry, Eleanor, John, Richard and Geoffrey, like TV’s Addams family, but they had the dilemma of deciding who ruled next. In other words, they had to figure out who to hate, band against, betray,  bash, banish, imprison or kill, and who to crown the next worthy ruler of England. It was the ongoing problem of the English monarchy – who do we love, who do we murder? Think Henry the VIII and his six wives.

The kings of England were only relieved of this complexity when Charles I was beheaded on Tuesday, 30 January 1649, and the English Parliament took over the job of loving and murdering.

It got me to thinking – what creates the rules for a family’s use of knives and of towers?  Power struggles for royal succession don’t help. Favoritism either. Towers not much. Violence not much at all.  I know a girl who grew up with a bigoted mother. This girl is an amazingly open and accepting woman. She overcame the family knife. A family legacy is partially a choice.

I think about my own family.

When we were in grade school, my little brother and I played baseball with a golf ball one day in the field in front of the house, the field with the fire flies and cow paddies. What a cool idea. A golf ball hit with a wooden bat travels fast and far. I remember one of my drives to deep center. “It’s deep, way back, way back – gone. A home run.” I also remember another clothesline drive back to the pitcher’s mound. I swung, the ball sprung off my bat on a straight line, the pitcher, my little brother Lars, was down. I ran towards him. He was holding his mouth. We were in the car. We were back at home. He was lying on the couch with a blanket over him. His face was swollen; his teeth were broken; his jaw was wired closed. It was a moment.

I’ve told this story before. I’ve used it as a prop, an item in a series giving evidence of growing up crazy with my two brothers. It fit into the line, “I grew up tough. I shot my big brother. I clubbed my grandma unconscious in the laundry room, and I broke my little brother’s jaw with golf ball.” It’s gotten a few laughs.

But the golf ball incident isn’t really funny, and it remains for me as somewhat ambiguous. “We all have knives,” remarked Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The golf ball was one of my knives.  It was an accident, of course. But by it I harmed my brother. It was stupid to play baseball with a golf ball. My brother and I made a decision to play together, but I was older. And yet, I never imagined that he would be struck, and I didn’t want him to get hurt. I loved my little brother then, I still do now.

In the family, we make choices. Stuff happens. People crumple. They hold themselves. We hold them. It doesn’t change what happened. Every family has a history of violence or harm or disruption and every family must travel forward with a legacy both good and bad. But interpretation and re-interpretation is an important in dealing with our narratives.

What if the golf ball had carried a little higher? I have never really thought of this before, but perhaps I didn’t want to. We don’t think much of “what if …”, and we don’t unpack our family stories that often. For many of us, these stories remain largely unexamined, left in the semi-rational closets of our minds, un-actualized and un-interpreted. Could the result have been worse? Yes, it might have been worse if the ball had hit him square between the eyes, or square in one eye?  I am very grateful to God that this didn’t happen.

But the incident doesn’t stand alone in my childhood. We did so many foolish things growing up. We also played baseball with rocks. We jumped off a high bridge into the river, flying down through the air, plunging into the fast brown water. And we did lots of fast driving in cars, over this bridge and around the country, and some drinking and driving.  We could have killed ourselves. A number of young people in my high school did so, destroying themselves and their friends in alcohol related accidents.

Life isn’t safe, but we who survive into adulthood with our siblings have much to be grateful for. I think the family, even broken, is something to be grateful for. I think the family, even with a negative narrative, has something to be thankful for. My little brother and I survived. But we had so many good moments growing up together. We swam together, road bikes together, played ping pong for hours on end together, ate together, water skied together. How many times did we laugh together? I’m not sure but it was enough that the good thoughts outweigh the bad. My brother called me last week to ask for my advice on what telescope to buy. I enjoyed sharing my expertise with him. Family is precious.

I remember shooting little spring load guns at each other in the hall, firing little round silver balls down the hall into each other. We shot each other, we laughed when we took a hit between the eyes; we fired and laughed again. It’s family, both the hits between the eyes and the laughing.

I re-watched The Godfather again the other night. It’s a superb movie! Scenes stick with you: the famous scene where Michael Corleone is present at his nephew’s baptism juxtaposed with the scenes of his gangsters carrying his orders to murder his rivals. The camera is stationary, coldly objective, with short close ups and mid-shots — the water running down the fragile baby’s soft head, the bullets ripping into the soft bodies of the rivals. Michael renounces Satan as he murders the families of others. Coppola edits for us the holy and unholy in one person. We see that violent cruelty and tender love can exist in the same man at the same moment. It is an interpretive stroke of genius. It is life as we know it in the family.

I spoke with a twelve year old girl last week. She has to make adult-like decisions about her family. Why? Perhaps, she is the most responsible, mature person in her family. I’m not certain. She was wondering something fairly significant for a young girl —  where to live. It was an honor to witness her wise sensibilities concerning her family. But what was this — twelve and parenting herself? This is not unusual. There are an estimated 10 million children in sub-Saharan Africa orphaned by AIDS. They have no biological parents. They remain. And what shall they make of this? And we?

What do we each one do with what has happened to us in our families and in our communities?

I believe that every community has a tower, and every family has a knife. Every family has a sense of succession, an inheritance, even if only social and psychological. Each family is in danger of being put in a tower by other families living nearby them, and they are in danger of  locking some of their own family members in a tower. To understand this, we must choose to see this, and we must think more about this. And we must process the destructive past; we must move away from it and move toward it again. We must go exploring.

I grew up white in the Midwest in the sixties. I was an inheritor of the dominant narrative of America. Succession to the throne was a given. We never questioned our right to go anywhere we wanted, to eat anywhere we chose, to become anything we desired. My parents were actually poor, but I didn’t know it. Their Christian work didn’t pay well, but there were perks, free housing, free food and some vehicles provided for us by the Christian campground my parents ran.  I had as much or more stuff than the farm kids that lived near me, and so I didn’t have much of a sense of class consciousness.

One thing sat in the back of my mind that discriminated. We were from Southern California living in Missouri. My parents had a past with avocadoes and tacos. They had lived in Los Angeles. They were more cosmopolitan than rural, more aware of diversity than uniformity. They were displaced persons. They tried to join the local Southern Baptist Church. They were told that they would have to be re-baptized. Their Presbyterian baptisms wouldn’t work. They decided not to join. We were outsiders. I never forgot that. And I think as a result I have never had much of a stomach for intolerance, for narrow-mindedness, or sectarianism. But I love church. I love the church. I believe that the church is part of how God shows himself to us. It can be made into a tower, to lock people in, and to lock people out, but when it is at its best it is an open family, open to more and more siblings, able to absorb and adopt and love all different kinds of people.

I believe that we were meant to live kind, tolerant lives, accepting  differences in the church and in our families. But we must not get too sappy about this. Jesus said that he came to bring a sword to the family, that family member would rise against family member, in conflict over Jesus. And this has happened. The conservatives should not claim Jesus as the poster boy for family values. Jesus disrupted the family. He said that his family wasn’t simply made up out of his nuclear family but out of anyone who would follow him. But he loved his family too. He made provision for his mother to be taken care of after he died.

It’s something to try to understand. I’m sorting it out. Whatever conflicts and wounds occur in our families, I believe strongly that we must take responsibility for our choices. I am a devotee of Soren Kierkegaard. He believed that, “Wherever there is a crowd there is untruth.” He believed that in the end we are individually responsible for what we chose. We will stand alone in heaven to answer for what we have done. I believe that too. I believe that we are responsible for how we treat family, and how we interpret our families once all is said and done. It can get rough.

Once my father was asked which of his sons was better at public speaking. He quickly indicated that it was my older brother. I will never forget this. I was standing within hearing distance when he said it, but he didn’t know I was there. It stabbed me, unexpectedly and hard. I make my living by writing, teaching and speaking. It is my identity. The same is true for my older brother. The same for my dad too, at one time. “And the award goes to, the older brother!” For me it was, in part, a kind of succession. It felt a bit like the law of primogenitor or the divine right of kings. The older recieved the nod, the blessing, the oratorical crown. It was competition, and it was preference. It was Henry II and it was Eleanor. It was a knife, and it was none of these things but merely a poorly thought out response on the part of my dad.

I spoke to my dad about this later. He too was wounded by what he had done. He apologized to me. It was a very painful moment for both of us. I forgave him. I still think of it sometimes. It still wounds me a little. But I am largely over it. I forgive him, as he must forgive me for the mistakes I made growing up. We are good, different not prefect in unity, but good. I choose to love my father. He is a good man, and he was a good dad to me.

My daughter Laurel is very smart; my daughter Rosalind is smart too, but in  a different way. Rosalind has brain damage, and she can’t read very well, but she is smart with her heart. Rosalind has a good life, but it is painful, her limits, and yet it is beautiful, her uniqueness.  Our family has space for the differences. As a father, I have made a conscious choice, along with my wife and my daughter Laurel to do no violence to the close juxtaposition of contrasts in our family. A family is a place where significant difference should be able to exist without judgment. A family is, I believe, a place where certain comparisons simply should not be made.

My daughter Laurel is studying in London this semester. She visited the holocaust museum there. This week she sent me a poem that she had written.  It’s a poem about her sister.

The Unforgotten Crime

Honey Nut Cheerios

tumble into my older sister’s bowl,

twinkling round O’s matching her big blue eyes.

We laugh loud and I pour her milk,

insurance against the chance of an embarrassing spill.


I am her prevention policy against frustration;

I spoon her sour cream, set minutes on the microwave,

and towel- dry the glass dishes;

a dropped plate

often results in crystal shards and tears.


My own eyes well up as I trudge through the breathing rooms,

still with their secrets.

I pass Hitler,

and the smell of burning books wafts to my mind as

faded yellow Stars of David on blue breast pockets droop

behind smudgy glass panes.


I glance to my right, and a gleaming white table

rests haughtily on its haunches,

taunting me, sinister

and slick,

clean white metal hiding dirty black deeds.


The dark room propels me forward,

betraying me,

forcing me to stumble unwillingly towards my foe.

I stand before this thing, and –

I read it.


“Mental retardation…genocide rehearsal…unfit for society…sterilization…experiment… T-4…



The words blur together and I turn

to the table,

its dead red eyes reflecting

children’s screams and their naked

exposure to white-coated probing,


flashing cameras and sharp instruments,

scientists taking detached notes and

emotionlessly practicing their

cruel sciences under the guise of research and –

I see my sister’s face in the scared eyes of the littlest ones.


Sobbing, I sit on a bench in the darkness and grieve,

while those sterile and sightless scientists

sit next door, still and silent in their frames,

the horror of their actions forever frozen.


Would you have thought differently, I ask them,

if you poured her cheerios every morning?

Laurel read me this poem the other day as we were talking with each other on Skype. At the last line the eye wiping began and didn’t stop for a few minutes. I couldn’t really say anything for a short time. Hitler was so messed up. He knew not a thing about my daughter Rosalind.

They wouldn’t have done what they did, the murderers, they wouldn’t have done those experiments on our family members, they wouln’t  have laid precious ones onto cold tables and into unmarked graves, they wouldn’t have done any horrible thing they did if the differently abled ones had  been their sons and daughters and they had poured their Cherrios and they had had the courage to even begin to understand what being a human family really means.

What is a family? I am still trying to figure that out myself.  I confess and grieve that my family and all of our families are places where the sacred and the profane exist side-by-side. In me and my kin, the holy and the unholy co-exist. The character of Michael Corleone is not an abberation, although he is an extreme. There is a bit of Henry II and Eleanor in all of us.

But I am beginning to believe that the family can choose to be a place that moves away from violence in every one of its twisted and damaging forms. And I believe that it can be a place that allows for differences to exist side-by-side without judgment. And I believe that it is wisdom to chose to forgive what should never have happened. Think Rwanda and Burundi — some families there have forgiven the unthinkable in their neighbors.

“For the love of God,” cries Eleanor with anguish over her family,  “can’t we love each other just a little?”

I believe that we can.

It’s weird, but sometimes the people we love the most we hate the most.  We don’t really hate them, but we sometimes have the strongest negative emotions that we have ever felt, toward them. At a moment of conflict, it feels like hate.

This is something we don’t want to admit. It sounds wrong, but really it’s quite normal. Feelings of love and hate live closer to each other than we may want to admit. We act the dance between the two out. We yell at a spouse or child, criticizing them for something they did or didn’t do, or we simmer inside, silently furious that they have neglected or hurt us, but afraid of our own emotions and afraid of conflict. And yet at the same time, we know we profoundly love them and are committed to them.

Why do we sometimes feel so strongly against those we love? There is so much at stake. Close, family relationships have a huge impact on identity, who we are or think we are. In these relationships we gain a deep sense of worth, and that this can be enhanced or damaged by the loved person. Family relationships also control us, adding to or limiting what we get from life in the crucial areas of money, sex and power. Either gain or loss of what we need amp up our emotions and stir fires of deep calm or anger in us.

We may conflict in a casual relationship without much consequence, but we know that a fight with a spouse or child matters. Our feelings in these relationships flash on brightly, like red lights at busy intersections at night.

What do we do with these feelings? We should honor them, we should accept them, we do best to lean into them. They help us. They are our friends. They tell us that we care. They tell us that these relationships matter. They are normal, and we normalize them by not denying them. And we honor them by acting on them; yes, we act on them by having the needed talk, by working out the needed negotiation, by giving time to process these valuable feelings.

This is life. Feel. You  love. Feel. You  matter. Feel. You have relationships that are important enough to fight for, to care for, to resolve.

Feel. You are alive!

Catch Happiness

Posted: January 27, 2008 in family
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Happiness is hereditary.  Your kids can get it from you.

Families want to be happy families.  Sociologist, George Barna, reports that one of the greatest needs expressed by adults is the need for a happy family.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with my brother Lars and his family.  As we walked along the boardwalk of the St. Claire River in Port Huron, Michigan, our eyes were lured from the impressive 800-foot freighter passing by to something that seemed even more eye-catching – it was Lars’s two teenagers strolling along in front of us, arm-in-arm, chatting with each other and laughing.  Pointing to his kids, who were thoroughly enjoying each others company, Lars remarked, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

A few tips

Many of us want a happy family, but how do we get there?  To be honest, no family is happy all the time, nor need they try to be, but there are some simple things we can do to improve the odds.

Don’t compare your family to other families


Live comparison free.  Don’t compare your husband; don’t compare your kids; and don’t compare your in-laws.

My family is so different from my brother’s.  His daughter Rachel graduated as a valedictorian, a straight A student,  an accomplished flutist.  Awards for spelling bees, awards for academic excellence, and scholarships from the Young Educator’s Society decorated her journey toward becoming a teacher.  Rachel is a wonderfully successful  young woman.

My daughter Rosalind travels a different road.  Rosalind has accepted by the San Diego Regional Center, an agency providing services for the developmentally disabled.  Rosalind has epilepsy.  She is in special education classes in community college. Rosalind will never win a spelling bee.  She won’t be the valedictorian of her class.  Our family has clapped for her, but we’ve cried for her and with her too.  We are choosing, everyday, not to go through life comparing Rosalind with other girls.  That won’t help any of us. 

All of us are tempted to compare.  We might think our families are not as fun, not as healthy, not as spiritual, not as complete, not as wealthy, not as smart, not as you-name-it.  We often tend to compare ourselves with those who we think have it better.  But in the Bible, 2 Corinthians 10:12-13, it is wisely written, “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. Good advice. So our family will stick to bragging about Rosalind’s success in Special Olympics. We couldn’t be more proud.


Have fun together 

Don’t underestimate fun.  Proverbs 10:1 says that “a wise son brings joy to his father.”  A primary goal in the family is to bring joy to each other.  The wise have fun – together.

I don’t have a perfect family, and I’m not a perfect dad or husband.  But I make ’em laugh at home.  I consider it my fatherly duty to be as wild, unpredictable, and outrageous as necessary to make lighten up the house. We should hold nothing fun back at home.  We should dance in the living room to loud music.  We should stay up late and eat all the ice cream. We should all travel together farther than we think we should. 

I once asked some high school students, “What is your best family memory?”  They said: “When my parents surprised us at Christmas and took us to a theme park.”  “When we went to Wyoming.”  Their answers almost all involved family vacations.  I asked my daughters about their favorite family memory.  For our family, our kids will say it was our trip to Hawaii, snorkeling in along the Kona coast with the sea turtles.

And families need to party together.  Someone told me recently:  “I don’t remember the gifts my parents gave me for my birthdays when I was young.  But I remember the parties.”

How much fun are you in your family?  Be crazy. Joke more.  You’ll feel better.  So will the people who live with you.

Set clear goals


Set goals, then get busy accomplishing them.   To be happy, human beings need something meaningful to do.  Goals stir us to rich living.  Isaiah 32:8 says, “The noble man makes noble plans, and by noble deeds he stands.” 

One of the goals in our family is that all of us will develop meaningful lifelong interests.  Rosalind plays basketball.  Laurel sings  Linda swims and sews.  I read.  These things make us happy.

Evidence suggests that few families make “noble plans.”  George Barna reports that only 4 percent of  families have goals.  Perhaps many of us don’t plan because we are naively hoping that the things we want for ourselves and our kids will just happen spontaneously or naturally, like growing wisdom teeth or getting pimples.  But good things don’t always come to those who wait.

Charles Shedd  has written some great books on parenting and marriage.  In his book You Can Be a Great Parent! Charlie explains how he and his wife set clear financial goals to guide their relationships with their teenage children.

“By your junior year in high school, we want you to manage yourself financially.”

 “By driver’s-license age, we want you in your own car.”

Setting goals promotes teen responsibility.  Such an approach could make for some very successful young people.

What about some spiritual goals?  Here’s a simple one:  I will talk to my kids about God.The church isn’t responsible for our children’s relationship with God.  We, as parents, are responsible for our kids’ spirituality.  I’ve had a great time with my daughter, Laurel, reading and discussing Old Testament stories about Ruth, Esther, David, and Elisha.

How about goals related to productivity?  Here is one:  I will teach my children how to work hard.  I will gift my children with chores.  Why?  Because if my children learn how to work hard, they will be wanted.  And being wanted is part of being happy.

Catch happiness, it’s hereditary. And then pass it on to your kids.

Creating Respectful Families

Posted: January 23, 2008 in family
Tags: , , , ,


The 5th Commandment: Has It Been Forgotten?

 Suddenly Laurel jumped up from the school lunch table.  With her lipsticked, fashion-clad girlfriends watching, she ran down the corridor past the bathrooms, caught up with me, and threw her arms around me.  “Daddy, I love you!” she gushed, eyes sparkling.  The she punctuated her enthusiasm by landing an unusual public kiss on my head.

I reeled all the way to the car, a huge smile taking over my entire face.  On the elementary school campus in front of her peers, the daughter who had lately asked me not to walk her “all the way” to school had charmingly fulfilled the Fifth Commandment. With affection and appreciation, she had publicly done just that.

Honor your father and your mother,” reads the fifth of the Bible’s Ten Commandments.  And in those few words, lie one scripture’s greatest pearls of relational wisdom.  It’ a great goal, but today many families struggle to decorate their relationships with respect.

This doesn’t have to be so. There are ways to gain the respect and affection of our children.  Children who honor their parents can be the norm.  From inside out, children can learn to prize their parents highly and offer their warm affection. And the exciting thing is that parents can do a lot to help their children with this.

Be Honorable


First, we must be honorable parents. Parents who live honorably influence their children to live honorably too.  Thomas Watson, the popular 17th century London preacher, captured the essence of this truth when he wrote, “The father is the looking glass which the child dresses herself by.”

My wife, Linda, works a few hours a week at the public library.  One morning, our younger, Laurel, plopped down on the couch beside her mom.  “Mom,” she said, putting her hand on Linda, “I like your skirt.  I like your boots.  I like your sweater.  When I grow up, I’m going to work at the library.”

Laurel wanted to be like Linda.  What an honor – to be your daughter’s looking glass!  Linda’s self-respect, her strength, her ability to do many things well – these things caught Laurel’s attention.  When parents are honorable people, then it is most natural for our children to honor them. 

But when parents are not honorable, it is difficult for their children to honor them.  A friend of mine recently shared her traumatic childhood with me.  She didn’t find an accurate looking glass in her parents.  When she was 9, her mom lost her temper and hit her in the head with a screw driver, causing her to require stitches.  Not long after that, her biological father came to her house at night, shattered a window, and kidnapped her.  Most terribly, when her mom remarried, her stepfather molested her!  As she told me her story, she cried.   I asked her, “How do you honor that?”

 “I can honor only as much as I can forgive,” she said.  “Sometimes, honoring means letting go of the hating.”  Parents can reduce honor that much.  Parents have everything to do with how difficult or how easy it is for our children honor us. The parental goal is to live so honorably that respect comes naturally to their children.

Teach Children to Honor


While living honorable lives is important, it is not enough.  We must also teach children to honor. In the Bible we find several disastrous family situations that were the result of parental indulgence and passivity.  Eli, a priest, had sons who broke his heart with their greed and corruption. Part of the problem? Eli was too tolerant.  He waited too long to correct his sons. King David’s son, Absalom, crushed his father with rebellion; and yet David, morally weakened by his own adultery, didn’t question or correct Absalom.  As difficult as it may be, parents must accept responsibility for their own failures so that they can also hold their children responsible if their children disrespect them.

Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul,” advises Proverbs 29:17. True, but too often we understand discipline as standing outside of the problem and bringing correction to it. Real, loving parental discipline does more than that.  Discipline that brings peace in the relationship involves intentionally entering into children’s problems, empathizing with them, problem solving with them.

Sandra, a young mother, recently told me of her struggle with her fifth-grade daughter’s disrespect.  Her strong-willed daughter constantly pushed the limits and was extremely uncooperative and disobedient.  One day, unable to stand any more disrespect, Sandra broke down.  She lay face down on the bed and cried deep tears of frustration and disappointment.  Hearing her mother’s anguish, the daughter was drawn to her mother’s room.

“She saw my pain,” said Sandra.  “Then she, too, began to cry.  She came and hugged me.  It was a very special moment for us.  I told her that she would always have a strong personality, but that she must learn to control it.  We prayed together.  It was a life-changing experience for both of us.”

Make Honor the Norm


Honor is a team sport.  Every relationship in the family must be honored.  As parents, we must honor our parents in front of our children.  We must honor our spouses in front of our children.  We must honor each child equally in front of the others.

This is a challenge, but we can do it.  In one home, a wife struggles with her husband’s lack of warmth or sensitivity,  but she always supports his role as father in front of the children.  In another home, a husband finds it tough not to critique his wife’s “strong reactions,” but he always backs her up by requiring the children to respect her requests.  In yet another family, one child excels above the others, but the parents do not make this child the “redemption” for the other children’s failures.  In these ways, families subtly, yet powerfully, establish a climate of team honor.

Recently at the end of a game with my older daughter, Rosalind, I realized that she had let me win!  She had noticed over the years that I had often let her win.  This is the way life should be in our families – taking turns letting each other “win.”

Seek the Honor Promise


We should seek the promise that comes with honor. “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you,” says Exodus 20:12. This is the only one of the Commandments with a promise, the promise of long life.  How interesting.  In what way does honor promote life?

I once attended a memorial service for a young mom who died of cancer.  At the service, everyone felt the terribly empty spot left by her death, and yet the impact she had made on all of us was so present. When her children talked, we saw again how she was  beautifully present in the strength she had given them.  She was there in the “mom” and “friend” stories we told. We all laughed about how often she would remind us to get our “tails” down to the gym and exercise. We joked about how she used to stop by our houses and talk too long. People commented on how even in the face of the unthinkable she constantly choose not to give up. 

When parents live honorably, no matter how long they live, their children inherit the promise of “life” in the form of their values, attitudes, and character.

The Fifth Commandment is wise instruction we should not forget.  Honor is a behavior we parents can motivate, and it is worth our time to do so.  The next creative move we make toward gaining our children’s respect may win the sparkling reward of their honor.

The day Laurel ran me down on the school campus and honored me with a hug and a kiss and an “I love you, Daddy,” I had simply brought her a “cool” lunch from a favorite restaurant.  Honor was a great deal that day!  But when isn’t it?

A Code of Honor


To help your children honor you, teach them these things:

  • To show you respect whenever you are present
  • To respect your values even when you are not present
  • To accept your requests without complaining
  • To know how to disagree with you without showing disrespect
  • To come to you with their struggles
  • To care for your when you struggle
  • To do things the first time they are asked
  • To pitch in and help even if they are not asked
  • To ask God for help whenever it seems difficult to be respectful