Putting the Fun in Dysfunctional

I haven’t written much about family.  To put it in euphemistic psycho-speak, family is a personal growth area for me.  To be more blunt about it, I am tangled up in a bunch of splintered, fractured, impaired and unresolved relationships, and the only commentary I’m equipped to offer is more like that of the junior reporter in a rain slicker staggering against the wind and rain as she reports on the approaching hurricane than that of the news anchor safely ensconced in the studio.  My husband (the second one) likes to say we put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

I have come to realize, perhaps reluctantly, that family, for all its messiness and imperfection, has inescapable spiritual significance.  Hospice chaplain Kerry Egen explained it as poignantly as anyone in an article she wrote about what dying people talk about.  Early in Egan’s Harvard Divinity School training, and having just started work as a student chaplain in a cancer hospital, a professor asked her what she talked about with patients.  She said patients mostly talked about their families and she mostly listened.  The professor derided her not only privately but also in class for failing to address big spiritual issues like God, religion and the meaning of life with people nearing life’s end.  Although ashamed and full of self-doubt at the time, 13 years later Egan says she would answer his question exactly the same way but with confidence.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

Egan points out that family is where we first experience love.  It’s where we are first cared for and where we learn to care for others.  It’s where we learn to trust and where our trust is first betrayed.  It’s likely to be the first place we were hurt by someone we love.  For many people, it is where we receive our deepest wounds.  Some people respond to the wounding by repeating hurtful family patterns, while others respond by creating families that become the ground for healing and hope.  Family is where we confront our spiritual reality in the midst of our daily living.  It’s the framework in which we wrestle with the big spiritual questions about God and the meaning of life.

Egan shows us that this crucible where life’s journey begins is also where we return at the journey’s end.  Our experience of family—the brokenness and the healing—gives us our most descriptive language for expressing the content of our human souls as we encounter the divine.

Join the conversation.  What significance has family had on the search for meaning in your life?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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Holiday Tension

The holidays are a time for family togetherness and joy.  Few families enjoy that ideal, however, without some effort.  Those who struggle with strained relationships may feel particular sadness, grief or disappointment in the state of their relationships.  The holidays are a time many ask themselves:  Is there more I could or should do to heal past hurts or to ease family stress?

Families are a peculiar phenomenon.  Earlier this week a circumspect friend was sharing her feelings about attending church across different life stages, and we got into a discussion about what it means to be “spiritual but not religious.”  To my mind, there is a common thread weaving through the fabric of both family and faith community.  The common thread is people do feel a yearning to connect, but past experiences can present obstacles, and sometimes people give up and look for connections elsewhere.

The analogy I use is a professionally trained a musician who plays the piccolo or viola or kettle drums—not a solo instrument.  He devotes thousands of hours of disciplined practice to master the instrument, and to what end?  The goal is not to perform alone.  The goal is to perform as a body, as an orchestra.  When a hundred individuals who are passionate about their art gather and share that passion together, something magical happens.  Think about it: how many times in the past week have you been among a hundred highly skilled individuals completely absorbed in something they feel passionately about?  It is an extraordinary phenomenon.  What happens when the musician feels this adagio is too crisp or that movement gets a little repetitive or one arrangement isn’t as good as another?  Does he go looking for an orchestra elsewhere?  Does the musician play because he likes every little detail of every program?  No, he plays to experience the magic of it.  He rises above any disagreement of this or that detail to experience the thrill of the symphonic phenomenon.

No doubt, there is much to criticize in any religion, institution or family.  They are all of human making, after all.  We have a few players in my family who are chronically out of tune.  But like musicians, we don’t have to have the same opinions, personality or style to appreciate the mystery of family.  We don’t have to approve of every church policy or like every piece of liturgy to appreciate the mystery of corporate worship.  Expecting everyone in a congregation or a family to share the same preferences or ideas is like expecting every musician in the symphony to play the same instrument.  It is precisely because of our differences and the tensions between us that coming together is such a powerful spiritual phenomenon.

I want to leave with you the thought that tension is vital because it connects us.  Tension is often what holds things together, or at least what makes things interesting.  When you fly a kite, it’s the tension on the string that keeps it aloft.  Have you heard the expression “pushing a rope?”  No tension indicates no useful connection.  As you wade into Advent as a season of waiting, introspection and hope, be attuned to the tension.  Changing circumstances, such as the youngest child leaving home, may cause some tensions to dissipate but create opportunities for empty nesters to draw each other into new tensions.  As you exist in the tension, feel where connections are tense and where they are loose.

Join the conversation.  Where are tensions robust and where are connections loose in your relationship with God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.