Family can be a blessing or a curse. At times, it’s both at the same time. Harper Lee wrote in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You can choose your friends, but you sho’ can’t choose your family.” Each family seems to have at least one that we wouldn’t choose. In some contexts, I’ve been the odd man out with my family. I wasn’t trying to be obnoxious (Okay, I’m occasionally guilty of trying really hard to be obnoxious.), but I’m different than the norm, thus I can be obnoxious without trying. There has been the occasional uncle or grandfather with a short temper. There will always be someone like my mother who knew your job better than you did. But there can be great joy in family gatherings, great comfort when times are tough, and great assistance when you need another set of hands. Those good things about families are what we call ‘blessings’, but we can sometimes be guilty of relying upon family instead of God.
I had two siblings, but since they were so much older, I could claim to be an only child, kind of a second family. My wife is second in a long line of nine children, the oldest daughter. We’ve each lost a brother, and all our parents are gone now. The problem that we have with family is having them and not being there.
When I was in the army, we felt self-sufficient, especially in Europe during the Cold War. The phrase for World War III was “when the balloon goes up.” We lived with that constant thought, and our neighbors were family. We didn’t need to be near our birth family. When I got out of the army, I went for what I thought was the best job, with promises of rapid promotion due to having been an army officer, a proven leader. When it didn’t work out, it was a double curse. We did not live near family and my career did not progress as I had been promised. Then the third curse was that the jobs near family dried up. So, we became tumbleweeds. We didn’t have family for baby-sitting, for an established garden that grew excess vegetables, or for a shoulder to cry on. You don’t think you need family until family is not there for you. We, now, live beyond a day’s drive to any of our relatives. We have two sons, but again neither lives close by. We hear others at church brag about their grandchildren. They ask us how many we have, and we say “five”. Our church friends say that we’re blessed. We are blessed, but we’ve never been to any of the older kid’s band concerts or watched them in the band at halftime at ball games. We’ve seen them open presents at Christmas and on a rare occasion for their birthdays. But being so far away, we’ve missed too much of their growing up. Blessed? Yes, but it’s a melancholy blessing knowing what we’ve missed.
My mother chose to never move away from home. My parents tried it when they first got married (about 100 miles from home), but when my Dad joined the army at the start of World War II, my mother moved home, vowing to never leave again. She did leave briefly when my Dad was stationed in South Carolina during the Korean War. They were back home by the time I was born. All their siblings moved. We have cousins in Washington state and Florida and several places in between, but I am the only one from my family to live most of his life outside the family homestead, or nearby. My sister’s husband was in the Air Force, but before he retired, she had moved home and then he joined her. My mother could never understand leaving home to follow your career. She constantly fought me, suggesting that a garbage job was open in town, but she insisted that I go to engineering school. There are few engineering jobs in rural Mississippi. She had to know that I would not live nearby.
Since my wife and I have lived so far from family, we see our church friends differently than most would see them. Most people who have a lot of family nearby never feel utterly alone. Those that do are really sad. It boggles our mind that some people who complain about being alone have brothers and sisters that live ten minutes down the street. What could have happened to cause siblings to not make the effort?
My wife fondly remembers closeness within her family when she was growing up. Outsiders didn’t mess with any of them. You had to deal with all nine children as a result, but a lot of water has flowed beneath that bridge since the last school yard scuffle. Her memories of their camaraderie reminds me of Israel’s sons (Genesis 34).
I had none of those memories. When I was in second grade, it rained one morning and my mother dressed me in a rain suit. What is cuter than a second grader in a yellow coat, matching yellow pants, and matching yellow hat, all made to repel the rain? He looks like a rubber ducky. What is more embarrassing than being the kid in a rain suit? He looks like a rubber ducky. It quit raining soon before the bus ever got to school. On the way home on the bus, a fourth grader stole my hat. My brother sat on the back row of the bus, being cool. I fought all comers as they played keep-away, a game I did not understand. In my mind, I was fighting a gang of thieves. When the bus finally stopped at our house, the miscreant gave me back the hat. I got off the bus and started crying. No, I was sobbing. It wasn’t until then that I realized that my brother could have stopped everything with one word. After all, he was a junior in high school and one of the captains of an undefeated football team (three years with only one blemish, a tie). Instead, he now said, “Stop it. I was proud of you until now. You hung in there. Quit your blubbering before Mom sees you.” The next day, the principal called me into his office. The fourth grader was already there. He asked me for my side of the story. I told him what happened. The principal asked me if I wanted to see the other guy get his spanking. I said I did not, and I ran back to my classroom after he said, “Don’t fight on the bus or you’ll be getting spanked next time.” I didn’t misbehave in school again until I cut up in Spanish class in the eighth grade and spent an afternoon in detention. The reason that I cried when I got off the bus wasn’t for losing the fight, but for my brother not helping me. He was nine years older and I idolized him.
The idolizing took a serious blow when my brother told me that he and some friends had placed some ‘floats’ in the upper pond. I could use them when I went swimming, but I was not allowed to say anything to my parents. My brother was in college by this time. He had already received his ‘call’ to be an ordained minister. The ‘floats’ were about forty watermelons out of the neighbor’s watermelon patch, including the two or three that he was entering into the competition at the county fair. My brother called it ‘snitching’ watermelons, thus he did not violate the commandment “Thou shalt not steal.” He didn’t steal them; he snitched them. Even though I had not dedicated myself to Christ at the time, I had been raised in a Christian environment. I stayed awake for months wondering if my brother had chosen the right vocation.
My mother was into genealogy. She asked her father about his side of the family. He refused to answer. He said, “Don’t ask. You might find a horse thief.” When Rudolph Hess died, the adjutant at the prison made the announcement to a worldwide television audience. His last name was Purdon, same as my mother’s maiden name. My aunt wrote him at the prison. He replied that his family had said, “Don’t ask. You might find a horse thief.” She wrote back, “We’re related!” In all the other branches of the family, my mother made great progress. I’m related to a long line of preachers on the Henderson side. I’m a descendant of the sheriff of Albemarle County, VA during the Revolutionary War, defended by his first cousin, Thomas Jefferson, when accused of being a Tory. My Dad’s family dates back to the first settlement of the Jamestown colony. All this research got my mother and sister into the Daughters of the American Revolution. My mother’s mother called her daughter and granddaughter “uppity women” when they joined the DAR. (not saying that my mother and sister were uppity)
Since the First Draft
I had to delete a lot of my original writing. My wife and I have lived to be self-sufficient in the world’s eyes, but that can be a problem. In our retirement, we are finding how much we depended on each other and how our relationship could have been much greater if we had relied upon God more rather than each other.
When this was first written, my mother-in-law was still alive. She had been the glue that kept the family together. With her gone, only time will tell what will happen. Since my brother and both parents died in a four month stretch, my sister and I are closer than we’ve ever been. I’m not saying that we are close. We are both introverts that enjoy privacy, but we talk on the phone several times a year. Before, it might be once every other year. You don’t know what you have until the rest is lost. Please, don’t have that attitude toward God.
The ‘laundry list’ of blessings at the beginning mentioned family and friends as two separate things that could be both blessings and distractions from our total faith in God. We could look over these pages and substitute friends for family. In some cases, best friends can be a stronger bond than family. In one case, you have the blood bond. In the other case, you choose that bond. We know more about the relationship between Johnathan and David (1 Samuel 18-21, 23 and 2 Samuel 1) than we do between David and his brothers (1 Samuel 17).
Mark 3:20-29 (NIV)
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
Note that the first argument was from Jesus’ family, thinking He’d lost His mind.
Luke 12:49-53 (NIV)
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
We see Jesus’ words talking about family members that will divide over the issue of what was to become Christianity.
My son became an expert on table top games, writing reviews on the internet. He designs games and will hopefully soon get them published. He got his passion for the subject from the happy times growing up when the family sat around the table playing games together, something that video games don’t provide. What is your fondest memories from when you were growing up that involved family togetherness? Examples being family activities, family projects, vacations, holidays. Try to pick something other than vacations and holidays to discuss. For most people, those are low-hanging fruit.
Did you have a much older sibling who you idolized? What happened when you found out they were human? If no sibling, maybe a celebrity or sports figure?
Have you loaned any money to a family member or taken money in loan? Was anything ever repaid?
Are you distantly related to anyone famous? Does that make a ‘hill-of-beans’ difference in who you are?
Did you have a close family? If so, what events show their closeness? If you were not close, what drove you apart? Are you still close (or distant)?
If things were really bad for you, who in your family would help without hesitation? If no one, refer back to the previous question.
Did you need toughening up? Did your parents involve your siblings in the toughening process, as my brother did on the school bus, not helping just to see if I could fight my own battles? Or did you always have a sibling who had your back?
Do you remember the black sheep in your family? If you don’t, were you the black sheep?
If your parents or grandparents have passed away, how were the assets divided? Did one person get something of value that outweighed the rest of the property? I can still remember when my mother’s mother passed away. Everything was divided eight ways (two daughters and six grandchildren). The property was sold. But, a distant cousin got Mawmaw’s car, because he had expressed interest in it. It was an antique, Chevy Impala, 1959, with the sharp tail fins, and in excellent condition. My Dad ranted for weeks, because the antique car was worth more than everything else put together. But when he and my Mom died, the property was deeded before my mother’s death (thus, not part of the will). My sister got land with some improvements and buildings on it. My sister-in-law got the ancestral home (worth more than the rest of the inheritance put together). And I got acreage in between, no buildings, no improvements, with either steep hills or nasty swamps (in other words, unusable).
Have you had to stay quiet about a family member’s indiscretions?
If you were required to do so, could you put all your faith in God, leaving all your family behind with little or no chance of ever seeing them again? For those who respond in the following manner to this question, why did you think that? (The response: But God would never do that!) Note: In Mark Batterson’s book, All In, he starts an early chapter with missionaries who went into the mission fields about 100 years ago. As they went onto the ocean liners, they placed all their possessions in a coffin instead of a steamer trunk, to signify that they were not going to return. God called them. He does do that.