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All right, I will take a chance, I will fall in love with you. Bob Dylan, "Is Your Love in Vain?"
As a member of humanity, you are unique from everyone else on the planet, but you also have something in common with everyone else. No, it's not that regardless how early you get to bed, you still wake up the next morning feeling a half-hour more sleep would be just right. Or that all the food that tastes best on your tongue lives poorly on your heart, hips, and gut. Or that you can't figure out why anyone likes anything Star Trek (or maybe that's just me!).
What you have in common with everyone else is that you are a part of a family. Everyone is someone's son, aunt, sister, father, grandmother, brother, mother-in-law, daughter, husband, uncle, niece, mom, stepfather, or wife ... something. It's a requirement for membership in humanity.
Some of us have large extended families and some of our families are very small-perhaps only a parent and a child. Some families are remarkably close, and others don't get along well or don't see each other very often-or at all. A few people have no living family members. Whatever your story, we're all part of a family, and these relationships shape us in profound ways.
I grew up in the South in a family with five kids. Once my parents got married in the late fifties, they stayed married. My dad worked for the telephone company his entire working life while my mom ran our home. I had a pretty dependable home life.
Jackie, my wife, was much younger than her three siblings. Her father, Russ, died of a heart attack when she was nine. She tells me he was a very gentle man, and it's hard for me as a father to think of him kissing that precocious little red-haired girl good night for the last time and not seeing her again. Or of that girl remembering the last kiss her daddy ever gave her.
A brother and sister had already married and left the house when Russ died, so Jackie was raised in a single-parent home with another sister. Her mother never remarried and they had a very relaxed, loving home.
Jackie and I met in high school and got married as soon as we graduated. We've been married twenty-one years this year, have put each other through college, and have our hands full with five beautiful, creative, nutty little children. We have our moments (and sometimes days) of struggle and conflict with each other and our children, but our hectic life is usually very happy. Like you, our families have influenced us in many ways-for good and for bad-and we bring those influences into our current family.
Our family is very important to us. And it's a rare individual who isn't concerned about family relationships. We tend to care most deeply for those closest to us; for the majority of us, that's our family. We care about how our family members relate to us and how we relate to them, for what relationships can bring us more immense joy or unspeakable pain than family? If you took a minute to list both your most joyous and your most painful relationships, the people involved would most likely be family members.
This book is for people interested in living well-living Christianly-in their family relationships. It's for people who are curious about two primary questions and how they interplay in the dynamic of family life.
What is God's purpose in family life?
How do I live out my love for Christ in my family role?
Answering these questions helps people in the following three groups discover what is central to their idea of family:
those who already have a living, active faith in and love for Christ
those who are currently exploring this kind of life, but aren't there yet
followers of Christ who live in a family with loved ones who don't follow Christ
The goal is to help you understand how serving and loving Christ connects with living out your family role. In the Christian ideal, there's a very tight connection between serving your family in the craziness of daily life and serving Christ. God never intended these to be separate activities.
Briefly, what does this look like? In my family, a large part of living for Christ is realizing that when I made pancakes for my family this morning or as Jackie folds and puts away endless piles of laundry, we're just as surely serving Christ as we're serving our family. For people who have no faith in Christ, these are just activities. But for Christians, they're sacred, and we explore why in these pages. God has many riches for us in these seemingly mundane parts of family life. Frederick Buechner observed, "If God speaks to us at all other than through such official channels as the Bible and the church, then I think that he speaks to us largely through what happens to us." And I believe that, for good and for bad, these things happen most often to us in our family relationships.
God is up to something in your family.
Idealism Wrestling with Realism
To make conversation, strangers I meet while traveling or attending conferences will ask me what I do for a living. When I tell them I write and speak on family issues, I see a look on the face of my questioners and I know what they're thinking. They assume I'm a guy who has family life all figured out. Because that makes me uncomfortable, I come clean right up front.
My interest in family is not rooted in the fact that I have it all together. Quite the opposite. I've been a husband and parent for many years and I'm humbled at the beauty of my family. But for all my experience, the Stanton family is usually careening down the street in the opposite direction of that neighborhood called "having it all together." We've driven through that neighborhood a few times, but we don't own a house there. I don't have any friends who live there either. I'm not sure "having it all together" is a real place with permanent residents. Rather, it seems to be an imaginary land we assume other people live in.
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What's an Ordinary Family? British professor C. S. Lewis kept a longtime correspondence with a woman from America. In one letter, he sought to comfort concerns she had about being an inadequate parent. He told her the only ordinary homes "seem to be the ones we don't know much about, just as the only blue mountains are those ten miles away."
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To be honest, I'm often in exile from the having-it-all-together 'hood. I'm amazed (and ashamed) how easily and efficiently I get into trouble with my wife and children on a regular basis. Just the other day, I was downstairs writing in the living room (yes, this book on how to love Christ in your family). Jackie was upstairs trying to make sense of the little girls' tornado-strewn bedroom. It was lunchtime and the kids were crying for something to eat.
Because Jackie was making good progress, she called down to ask if I would pull something together for them. I told her I would ... in just a second. Some disputed amount of time passed (she says it was an hour and fifteen minutes, but it couldn't have been more than forty-five) and still no lunch. Jackie came tromping down the stairs with a certain resonance that got my immediate attention and compelled me to instinctively yell out, "I'm coming right now ... I've got it!"
What I didn't do communicated far more clearly than what I said. My lack of action told Jackie her work and progress weren't important to me. It told the kids their needs weren't important. What was important was what I was doing. And Jackie wasn't so mad about this particular incident, but rather that this incident was the latest in a consistent succession of such Glenn-centric behavior. Self-centeredness can serve to choke the souls of those around you. And it did in this case.
Some days we live closer to the ideal than others. The trick is to try to have more days in that direction than not. However, the greatest thing we can learn is that those events in family life that exist outside the neighborhood of perfection are some of God's most valuable tools in accomplishing His transforming work in our lives. Think about the most important changes you've made in your life. Conflict with or gentle badgering by a family member probably forced it. Why then would we want to exclude conflict from our lives when we have so much to learn from it?
I write honestly out of the reality of my own family life as I seek to live in and understand the perilous balance between the desire for the ideal and the struggle with the real. With that confession out of the way, let's see how God uses the real to get us closer to His ideal.
Who Is Christ in Your Family?
If we're going to explore how to love Christ in our families, we must ask ourselves the question, "What does it mean to be a Christian?" This helps us be sure we focus on the real deal and not settle for some smaller story. The question of what it means to be a Christian is primarily rooted in who we believe Christ to be and what He desires for us, for Christians have historically been referred to as "Christ-ones," little Christs. And if we are going to be like Christ, we have to have a proper understanding of who He is.
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What's in a Name? Christians weren't always called "Christians." The citizens of the Syrian town of Antioch first gave them this name (see Acts 11:26). It was a term of derision referring to the "Christ-ones" or "Christ-people" who were always talking about loving and serving this man from Galilee. The Christians soon adopted the name as one of honor because this is exactly what they were: "Christ-ones."
To be a Christian in your family means to be a Christ-one, someone who seeks to show forth the character and love of Christ in every part of life.
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There are many views of the person of Christ. Some are true to who Christ is. Others are true to who people want Him to be. Sometimes our view is too limited. We seek to put Christ in a box that makes sense to us, a box we can control. And Christ will have none of it.
As Dallas Willard makes clear in his wonderful book The Divine Conspiracy, "History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrong doing or wrong-being and its effects." He calls this the "gospel of sin management," and it's much too small a picture of what Christ desires for and from us. Willard is right. We often fall into the misunderstanding of either the Pharisees or the disciples.
For the Pharisees, pleasing God was all about behavior, about making sure they had the externals nailed down. For many Christians today, it's much the same way. Christianity becomes merely behavioral and directional. Such Christians have little concern for anything but making sure they're going to heaven when they die (the directional) and managing their sin until they get there (the behavioral).
Regarding the attitude of many of the disciples, Willard explains that they were concerned with something else: the social injustice of the Romans. They saw Christ as their political liberator. He was going to lead them to a just and good society. Other Christians today hold this view. Rather than being concerned only with how people act in their personal lives, they're concerned primarily with social justice-how people act toward others. According to these two spiritual views, Willard says, "A Christian is either one who is ready to die and face the judgment of God or one who has an identifiable commitment to love and justice in society. That's it."
Now let me be very clear here. Neither of these is wrong, for Christ is holy, and He wants us to be holy. He also deeply desires for us to share the eternity of heaven with Him, and He loves justice. The Christian life is not less than these things, but it is certainly more. His followers should seek these things. What we get wrong is the "that's it" part. Christ is after much more from us than being good, being just, and going to heaven. According to Willard, what Christ seeks in us is "personal transformation toward the abundance and obedience emphasized in the New Testament, with a corresponding redemption of ordinary life."
Willard quotes Anglican Bishop Stephen Neill for further clarification: "To be a Christian means to be like Jesus Christ.... Being a Christian depends on a certain inner relatedness to the living Christ. Through this relatedness all other relationships of a man-to God, to himself, to other people-are transformed." A Christian is someone who seeks to see Christ's majesty lived out in every area of life. This includes every aspect of family life.
What does this mean for my everyday family life? It means that the stuff and substance of my Christianity is much more than what I do or don't do, strangely enough. It's more than the movies or shows I don't watch, the words I don't say, the music I don't listen to, the political positions I do or don't have; it's more than the rules I make for myself or my children. Rather, it's about who I love and what I am becoming and helping my children become. Are we becoming like Christ in every part of our lives, the religious as well as the everyday? Is my family life a growing picture of Christ in the world today?
Spiritual Success in Family Isn't a Formula
As we think about what it means to be a Christian and what Christ does in our lives, we must recognize that He meets us as individuals. We can't fashion false christs to our own likings, for the whole substance of the Christian story is that this transaction happens in the opposite direction: We do not make Him into what we want Him to be; He makes us into what He wants us to be. Christ draws us to Himself, redeems us, and transforms us as individuals according to His own good pleasure. Our task is to surrender to Him and cooperate as He does this work in us and our family members.
Therefore, we must understand that spiritual growth isn't some prepackaged formula; instead, it's as different as we are and as vast, as creative, and at times as mysterious as God. There is no one-size-fits-all spirituality just as there is no one-size-fits-all family. Regent College Professor Gordon T. Smith explains in his helpful book on spiritual transformation, On the Way: A Guide to Christian Spirituality, that as followers of Christ we should all be free from "feeling obligated or burdened by the spiritual pattern of our neighbor.
Excerpted from My Crazy Imperfect Christian Family by GLENN T. STANTON Copyright © 2004 by Glenn Stanton. Excerpted by permission.
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