Tuesday, March 5, 2013

What Families Are!

Reading: Heretics, by GK Chesterton

Some sages of our own decadence have made a serious attack on the family. They have impugned it, as I think wrongly; and its defenders have defended it, and defended it wrongly. The common defence of the family is that, amid the stress and fickleness of life, it is peaceful, pleasant, and at one. But there is another defence of the family which is possible, and to me evident; this defence is that the family is not peaceful and not pleasant and not at one.

It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity. The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family, are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.

The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

Falling in love has been often regarded as the supreme adventure, the supreme romantic accident… Love does take us and transfigure and torture us. It does break our hearts with an unbearable beauty, like the unbearable beauty of music. But in so far as we have certainly something to do with the matter; in so far as we are in some sense prepared to fall in love and in some sense jump into it; in so far as we do to some extent choose and to some extent even judge — in all this falling in love is not truly romantic, is not truly adventurous at all. In this degree the supreme adventure is not falling in love. The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush.

When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.


Our topic for these chapel times has been family. Well, the subject of family has been on my mind a lot, probably because my wife Mary and I recently became parents. Incidentally, I somehow tricked my very lovely wife into being here today and I can’t resist pointing her out.  So we have a 14 month old little girl named Lily. We managed to survive the first year of parenthood which I think could be summed up with the frenzied expression “Oh my gosh! we have to make sure this thing stays alive!” 

Now, in this second year, we have a little human toddling around our house and it brings a rather stunning realization to Mary and me. Lily’s best hope--and her only hope I suppose--of becoming a healthy, well-adjusted, productive member of society is us. She doesn’t really get a say in the matter. She doesn’t get to shop around, interview various candidates and then choose the best, most-competent parents. It’s us. We are the “brigands in the bush” “lying in wait for her” to use GK Chesterton’s words. She’s stuck with us.

And as Chesterton points out, this is the situation all of us found ourselves in when we came into the world. We were all dropped down a random chimney and essentially stranded with whoever was down there.

And, of all things, this idea reminds me of the 5th commandment of the famous 10 commandments, which is printed on your sheet:

Deuteronomy 5:16: Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

To explain why these two things are connected in my mind, let me tell you about my family growing up. 

In terms of being dropped down a random chimney, I was very fortunate. I had two hard-working parents who loved each other very much and had a VERY high value for family.  My sister and I had a very stable suburban childhood. If I think through the valuable life lessons my parents taught me, I’m sure they’d be too numerous for me to name right now. 

Like many teenagers do, I had a rebellious streak as a kid. So I think I was actually fortunate to have a minor run in with the police when I was 13 (sorry, I don’t have time to tell this story now, but you can ask me about it sometime). This was actually a good thing for me because it scared me onto the straight and narrow... mostly. But I think there were certain ways that my rebellious streak lasted well into my early twenties.

Maybe rebellion isn’t the right word, maybe it’s too strong. I loved my family, but I wanted distance. I wanted to move onto bigger and better things than my very normal, average, hum-drum American family. It seemed like a lot of kids found themselves stuck in my hometown after finishing high school and I wanted out pretty badly. I didn’t apply to any schools in Texas, my home state and I had my sights set on either coast. I had wanted to go to MIT since I was in 5th grade. 

I loved my family, but what I really wanted was acheivement. I measured the value of my life based on what I could achieve.  And MIT seemed to offer limitless possibilities in this realm. So I came here to Cambridge and didn’t really look back.

My parents taught me the value of hard work and that was actually what got me through MIT. But once I graduated, I couldn’t help but notice something. The achievement strategy wasn’t really working out so well for me. I was forced to admit (and believe me I resisted this), but I was forced to admit that I was walking around with a pretty profound feeling of emptiness (not to mention lots of student loans).

The story of how I found a way out of that emptiness is actually my story of coming to faith in Jesus and the story of how I ended up being a chaplain here. That’s another story you can ask me about later. But a significant narrative in that story was my realization that relationships are more valuable than achievement, by many orders of magnitude if they can even be compared. 

Which meant, I had made a major miscalculation in most of my significant life choices because I had not factored my relationships into the mix at all.

Having this mental paradigm shift was one thing, but I had to decide if I was I going to do anything about it. Restructuring your life around a whole new set of priorities isn’t something you can do overnight. It was a scary prospect for me.

It was at this time that I started taking the 5th commandment seriously. I realized that If I was going to move forward into healthy relationships, I was first going to have to go backwards and sort out the frayed mess of my relationships with my family. It was time to undistance myself from my family, emotionally at least. 

This was not immediate or easy and is probably still ongoing in some ways. But I gotta say, that 5th commandment was super helpful in the process.  I think because it didn’t really feel like a commandment.  As the apostle Paul points out in the New Testament, it’s the first commandment with a promise. So in that sense it didn’t really feel like a duty or a moral obligation, but more a statement of reality.  Do this and it will go well with you.

That provided much needed motivation for all the difficult conversations I needed to have as I was learning how to be vulnerable and emotionally available to my family.

The surprising thing about this commandment is that it seems to be indifferent to the quality and competence of parents. It seems to be saying that our parents always have something good to offer us, regardless of how good at parenting they are. I’m sure there are undoubtedly heartbreaking exceptions to this, but within normal limits this is pretty interesting. It reminds me of what Chesterton was saying about the random chimneys. 

So even though I was pretty slow in coming around, I can really say that I’ve experienced that promise coming true in my life in the last decade.  Clearly, it’s too soon to tell whether or not I’ll get the “live long” part, but the promise seems to communicate something about God’s provision and abundance and I’ve felt that in a big way, beyond what I deserve or could have hoped for.

But you probably wouldn’t see it on my resume or in my bank account. The abundance didn’t come in the form of achievement. It came in the form of relationships: friendships, supportive community and most of all, family. Now that I have my own family, I’m starting to understand how much hard work and sacrifice and intentionality it takes to maintain a healthy marriage and a thriving household. It’s very humbling. 

But so far, God’s promise for abundance has really come through. Even though I spent all those years taking my family for granted, somehow I still had access to the benefits of the healthy family life that my parents worked so hard and so long to pass on to me. And now I have the opportunity to build upon that legacy and pass it onto my daughter. 

And, even if the day should come when she has her own extended season of wanting “distance,” I find myself trusting that she’ll still be endowed with this inheritance and find her way home.

Adam Reynolds
Chaplain, The Vineyard