Monday, September 22, 2008

Family and Gratitude: Reflections on a Birthday

Imagine this: some morning we awake to the cultural consensus that a family, however else defined, is a sort of compact of mutual loyalty, organized around the hope of giving rich, human meaning to the lives of its members. Toward this end they do what people do – play with their babies, comfort their sick, keep their holidays, commemorate their occasions, sing songs, tell jokes, fight and reconcile, teach and learn what they know about what is right and wrong, about what is beautiful and what is to be valued. They enjoy each other and make themselves enjoyable. They are kind and receive kindness, they are generous and are sustained and enriched by others' generosity. The antidote to fear, distrust, self-interest is always loyalty. The balm for failure or weakness, or even for disloyalty, is always loyalty.

–Marilynne Robinson

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Growing up in a loving family is not normal.

Having every need met, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise, is not normal. We live in a world in which it is a subversive, countercultural act to be and stay married, to live in lifelong monogamous fidelity, to desire and receive and welcome children into the world, to keep steady employment, to live in (relative) locational stability, to have extended family on which to depend, to have a father present in the home (much less the parenting), to graduate from high school (much less higher education), to be raised in and formed by a faithful church home ... so many things that can be taken for granted that simply are not aspects of life familiar to most persons living in America or the world. But, of course, all of those dynamics lead to increased wholeness and health of mind and body, potentially leading one to forget that they are not normalities to be assumed or taken for granted.

I turn 23 today. Thus, it is good on days like today to remember the good gift God has given us called family, and to be thankful for such a gift we could never have expected. Through family God gratuitously gives us more than we need, more than we could ask for. Through family God forms and sustains and provides for us; through family God reveals to us one of the primary metaphors by which we know the character of God: parent. As the best mother and father are to their children, so even more is God to his human creatures on the earth. Similarly, through family we learn what it means to be God's people: brothers and sisters made adopted family by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even further, through family God comes to us in the rhythms of daily mundane life: meals and prayers, sleep and work, rest and play, births and funerals, anniversaries and parties. (There is an unspoken word here for a future post: memory.) The hospitality of the family that welcomes children into its midst mirrors the hospitality of the church that welcomes (read: adopts) new members into its life and worship.

There really is no end to what family is, to the wonderful mystery God has given us in the blessing of family.

It can be difficult for those of us who "take for granted" family being cohesive, supportive, noncoercive, loving, interdependent, and Christ-centered to simply accept the gifts (great and small) from family as if they are "due" us, as if we are "owed" them or it is "just normal."

No, it is not just normal; no, we are not entitled to it; no, there is no gift too small or routine for which we ought not to be extravagently grateful. Every single day is a gift, and whenever God reminds us, through the mundane reality called family, that we are not abandoned or alone, let us be thankful. Let us thank God and thank our families for such unique and caring graces, that we might be a part of a mystery we assume is normal.

Family is not normal, but neither is the God we serve. And thank heaven for an abnormal God.

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