Friday, November 21, 2008

To family or not to family, that is the question

I have a question:

In "The Last Temptation of Christ," Jesus' last temptation is to get down off the cross and live a calm, happy, private life with Mary Magdelene and their children, working as a carpenter. In an episode of Millenium (did anyone else watch that TV series from a decade ago?) an emissary from the dead, presumbably from the devil, tries to persuade the series hero to retreat from his work fighting evil and embrace a quiet life with his family, his head buried in the sand. The apostle Paul, while saying it's better to marry than to burn, advocated the single life as the higher course. This path was embraced by the Roman Catholic church and led to people like St. Francis of Assiss and Mother Teresa, who did immense good in the world. Clearly, from its earliest days, the Christian church has understood the "happy family" as a stumbling block to serving God fully.

Yet, at the same time, the family is valorized in Christian circles. Nothing is more important than building strong families and putting your family first. How often is "I have to take care of my own children" accepted as an excuse, even if the "care" is frivilous, such as taking one's child to soccer on Sunday morning? In the early 19th century, Quaker meetings criticized Elizabeth Fry for throwing care of her 12 children onto the meeting while she pursued God's calling her life of prison reform. Would we be any different? Would we be worse? Would Elizabeth Fry today actually BE in prison for child neglect instead of doing God's work in the world?

I'm certainly in favor of strong families, and I understand that 35 percent of children are born to single mothers and that divorce rips families apart. However, and here's my question: How do we reconcile the message of family as a "temptation" that prevents us from doing God's work with a notion of family as all important? Do we make an idol of family? And if we do, how do we support strong families while not turning that goal into an idol?


Bill Samuel said...

It requires transformation of what it means to have strong families. The temptation is to adopt the world's view of it, ignoring that this view flies in the face of what our Lord and Savior taught.

My parents were often criticized for being irresponsible parents, because they insisted on following Christ's leadings when that resulted in poverty and very difficult challenges for the whole family. But what they taught can not be bought by money or elite schools or anything the world hlds up as needed. They taught what it is actually like to follow Christ. They taught that God's blessings come amidst the trials and tribulations that inevitably come with following Jesus.

I would not wish for a moment that my childhood had been one of material plenty and the "best" schools instead of one of learning about following Jesus from the real life examples of my parents.

Diane said...

From Peggy,

upon something that I ponder regularly ... so here you go!

I believe that being married and having children (the two do not necessarily go hand in hand, as in the case of fertility or other physical issues) should more often be thought of as a "calling", just as being single is seen as a "calling".

I was single for a long time, as I married late enough to be called an "elderly primigravita" when my first son was born. LOL! It was a difficult time for me being a single woman -- approaching the oft-dreaded "spinster" status -- primarily because my local church just did not have a vision for the usefulness of a dynamic, single woman. There was tremendous distress concerning why I was not married and raising children. This was a serious stumbling block to me....

By the age of 35, I had come to an agreement with God that I would forgo marriage and children for whatever plan might be better for the Kingdom. This was no small event, sister.... And within one year, I met and married my precious husband, father of our three sons!

I know that there were many Kingdom opportunities that I missed because I did not persevere and get over the stumbling block of the prevailing church culture. I have paid....

I also know that there are many Kingdom opportunities that I have (and will continue) missed because I am now a wife and mother of young sons. And when the last of my children reach 18, I will be 63 years old. Who knows how much vitality I will have left for "empty nest" service? (I do plan, Lord willing, to maximize the 120 year lifespan God mentioned. :^) )

But I know that God found a way, six weeks after my first son was born, to have my home church agree to ordain me to the Christian ministry -- no limitations added. And that when I was pregnant with my third son, he finally called me into pastoral ministry at our church. I would not have chosen that time, or that sacrifice for our young children. But it was both an amazing provision from God for our family (another whole story) and an amazing time of Kingdom ministry that I could not have imagined.

I must say that I have come to a much deeper understanding about God as Father through this later-in-ministry-child rearing than I believe I would have without children. This form of "yada" knowing is priceless to me.

There is no better proving ground for one's faith than the challenge of marriage and children -- and the challenge of letting that fire purify your faith and strengthen your steps in Christ is one that too many do not embrace, IMHO.

In the end what I think is important is to hold the two in tension -- yet another seeming paradox that our faith calls forth. It is not that one is "better" than another for "everyone". It is, rather, that one size does not fit all.

We each much be willing to submit first to love Jesus as Lord (as in the Jesus Creed) and to love others as ourselves. Too few really get this right at the beginning. More's the shame, eh?

It is the responsibility of the liege Lord to equip the vassals to serve the best interest of the Kingdom culture -- which will, by definition, serve the best interest of the individual.

Then, with apologies to the Apostle Paul, we can say to have families is Christ, to be single is gain. Because we know that all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purposes.

Sorry for the length ... this is very much where I live my life and answer my call to the Jesus Creed.

Anonymous said...

The "valorization" of the family, as you put it, began in the fifteenth century with the Reformers, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and so forth. It was an inevitable result of their overthrow of the medæval merit system, in which the "best" Christians were presumed to be the monks who acquired merit through poverty, obedience, austerities, and abstaining from the defilement of sex.

Luther himself took off his monk's robes and married a nun, setting a model for the replacement ideal he advocated, in which the pious, virtuous, charitable householder obedient to the instruction of Church and the commands of the State was to be the "best" Christian.

Quakerism's traditional disciplines, which you can find in The Old Discipline (a book from Quaker Heritage Press) follows Luther's logic faithfully, laying out the same sort of householding life as the ideal to which every Friend would be held.

The Last Temptation of Christ, however, is not a product of the Reformation tradition. It was originally a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis, a Greek Christian in the Orthodox tradition. The Orthodox world never participated in the Reformation, so in that world, the idea that a monastic renunciate is the "best" Christian still holds sway.

Francis of Assisi was pre-Reformation: he lived and died long before Luther was born, so he was certainly never affected by Reformation ideas. And "Mother" Teresa was Roman Catholic, and thus immune to the Reformation's charms.

I personally think it's important that we have some understanding of the assumptions (mainly Platonic and Indo-Iranian rather than Biblical) upon which the old monastic ideal rests, as well as of the assumptions (mainly political rather than Biblical) upon which the Reformers' householder ideal rests, before we make up our own minds which is the true "best" Christian.

If we think the Biblical tradition might offer some worthwhile guidance, we might want to note Jesus's own saying that whoever (monk or householder) fulfills the two great commandments, to love God and neighbor, will be saved.

Care for one's family is obviously a part of care for one's neighbor, and thus mandatory according to Jesus's teaching, but Jesus's sayings about willingness to forsake family for him are indicative of the fact that he did not want care for one's family to be transformed into an obsessive loyalty to one's family. One cares for one's family, but one gives one's loyalty to Christ.