Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Family Perspective

…but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2Pe 3:18 NAU)

Growing up an only child, I always imagined that having a sibling would be a perpetual slumber party. We would be the best of friends, have endless adventures and never be lonely. Most importantly, I would never lack a partner for board games. Then I had children of my own. Watching them grow together, I was given a revelation from God. Having siblings is like living in a third world country: political strife, relentless competition for resources, and constant war brewing under the surface.

I suppose it’s not all bad. There are, of course, periodic moments of tenderness, harmony and forgiveness. There are certainly endless adventures. Unfortunately, they generally end in controversy and injury. And despite the presence of two other children, there is still the persistent ache of loneliness and a scarcity of partners for board games.

That’s why I always smirk a little when people use phrases like, “We are the family of God.” The metaphor itself causes me no particular difficulty. In fact, it is a wonderfully accurate picture of humanity under God’s authority and love. What troubles me is the temptation to take one half of the metaphor and ignore the other half.

It is true that the concept of family implies unity, but it is a unity amidst diversity and division. It is true that family supports one another emotionally and financially, but anyone who has any extended family knows that some will need a lot of support and that some, of course, will take advantage of it. It is true that family is an ideal example of love and loyalty and at the end of the day, when the muck hits the fan and all hell breaks loose, the underlying foundation of love and loyalty within the family of God is the only thing that will hold it together… if we don’t kill each other first. So, let’s make sure we’re honest with our metaphors.

Still, I think the family metaphor is the only one that stands a beggar’s chance of explaining all the different opinions, perceptions and obsessive-compulsive doctrinal statements that cause such strife within the Christian religion. Further, I believe it helps us to understand why religion misses the point of the Christian faith.

Imagine a father with twelve children (since we want to be biblical). The father loves all his children equally, but his relationship with each child is different and it is through that relationship that each child understands the father. One day at school, the children are asked to tell the class about their parents. The oldest child has a penchant for mischief and tells of his father’s discipline. The second child is self-conscious and fearful and speaks of his father’s encouragement and unconditional love. The third child, a daughter, relates the intimacy of her father’s embrace in the midst of her loneliness. The fourth child, with a kind and tender heart, tells of God’s justice and care for the hurting and broken. And so it goes, each child relating a different picture, some conflicting with others but all representing a truth - though somewhat distorted in emphasis - about the father.

Later that evening, prompted by their earlier classroom discussion, a conversation develops as they await their father’s return from work.

Mary: I wonder what it was like for Daddy before we came along? It must have been dreadfully lonely.

James: Well, he did have Mother after all. And besides, Father is an independent man and surely doesn’t need any of us to make his life complete.

Peter: But it does make me wonder why he made us in the first place.

Timothy: Yes, and why does he allow terrible things to happen to us? It’s been a whole month since my bicycle broke, and he still hasn’t replaced it!

James: Or more importantly, why he still hasn’t disciplined you for taking my skateboard without permission.

Timothy: Oh, get over it! I gave it back to you eventually.

James: But you never asked me for permission! That’s stealing, and Father hates sin!

Timothy: Then he must despise your prideful self-righteousness, you little snit!

Martha: Oh, knock it off you two! We have better things to do than listen to your whining. You’re both in the wrong and you know it.

Paul: Besides, the Father loves both of you anyway!

John: As long as you love each other… you know how important that is to Dad.

Mary: You don’t really think Daddy would stop loving us because we fight with each other, do you?

John: I can’t say for sure, I only know he commanded us to love each other or there would be consequences.

James: He also said that righteousness was extremely important… Timothy! You better be careful or… or… he might even kick you out of the family forever!

Mary: No!!!

Paul: I think that might be going a bit too far.

James: So, are you saying that we can just do whatever we want without consequences? Because if that’s true, then there’s no reason I shouldn’t do… this!

Timothy: Owww!! Why did you hit me!?

James: Why not?

Paul: Because it’s wrong. And I never said there would be no consequences. But saying father would kick someone out of the family forever is going too far.

Peter: No offense, Paul. But no one understands you anyway.

John: Besides, all this boils down to what Dad is like. He is love.

Timothy: Forgiveness.

James: Justice!

Paul: Trustworthy.

Peter: Righteous.

Martha: Responsible.

Mary: Daddy!

Inevitably the question emerges in any serious contemplation of the Christian faith, “How is it possible for Christians to have the same God but so many opposing convictions?” This simple thought exercise illustrates an answer to that question. It admits of our human inability to obtain perfect knowledge, of course, which is like urine in the baptismal water for some who want to believe that they have all the right answers. However, it demonstrates how genuine, faithful believers can be in an active and healthy relationship with God in Christ and still have different and opposing answers to fundamental questions of the faith. Our individual answers may be true, partially or relatively true or even completely false, but they were never terribly important anyway.

You see, our calling has never been to know more facts, but rather to know God deeper in relationship. In fact, Paul tells us in the first of his two existing letters to the Corinthians that knowledge “puffs up” while love “builds up.” Focused on our relationship with Christ (and expressing that love toward our fellow humans being), I suspect we will be drawn closer in unity than any theological argument will draw us to agreement.

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