The Glass Darkly

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Who is my family?

Fractured Families

Written by Graham Chipps, Pastor
International Christian Fellowship, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

(Some details seriously distorted to protect the more sensitive!)

Our family has family gatherings when we can. Even if my brother or sister, or my mother, or my son or daughter host the occasion in a way that is not my preferred style, I'll still join in most willingly. If they serve chicken when I'd much rather fish, I'm still there. If the background music is contrary to my mood, it doesn't matter. If one or other says stuff that I don't agree with or is personally uncomfortable, nothing will keep me away. And even if one of them brings a pretty unpleasant friend, it is not an issue, I'll stay till the end.

And when that weird uncle/aunt/niece/nephew starts talking too loudly, so what? They probably think I'm weird - so we're even!

If there are dirty plates piled up in the sink or on the floor, cat's fur on the chairs, dead indoor plants, people with body piercing or three piece suits, some who smoke without consideration of others, or vote for all those idiot politicians in that other party, or that freaky cousin who hands out fundamentalist tracts, or that retired health official who insists on wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, or the maiden aunt with a video camera fixation that she uses as a weapon of mass embarrassment, or even if they only serve de-caf, I will still be there.

None of this matters one bit. I'm locked in and even if everyone is a bit strange except me, I'll keep on making sure I get to be with them. I refuse to head off to the family market to buy into another one for a while in the hopes it suits me better for where I'm at right now.

They are family.

The ties of the Holy Spirit in the family of God as it gathers week-by-week are even stronger than the blood ties that we take so seriously. Church is where I go to be with my family. And like my other family, it has all the stuff of human weirdness! It has all the usual variety of people, culture, different tastes, disappointments, warmth, and joy. I don't go for the music, the conversation, the things I might learn, the pleasure I might experience. I go because they are family -- and that is enough.

God is present in my family. I see His miracle of grace in the face of each one. (which is one of the reasons I hate sitting looking at the back of the neck of the person in front as we sit in rows like machines). I am lifted up by how the ordinariness of human faith and ability is secondary to the extraordinary willingness of God to love such a bunch of people as we are! The more we want church to do different things really well, the more we easily miss out on seeing that God's grace is sufficient in human weakness.

Church as family (not programme or performance or ability) is the best place to see the vision of all that God's love and grace can bring.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Our Two-Year Old's Christmas Story

Entering the Christmas season with a two year old in America has been interesting and fun. We didn't really have a "Christmas experience" with our first two until they were ages 3 and 4. And that year we were still dealing with language and cultural readjustment issues as a family. A two-year old is just developing her language, so it is always a surprise to find out, "yes, she really does understand that!"

We put up our Christmas tree the other night. I handed our older two children their shoe boxes from the storage space and they ran with anticipation to the table to review its contents. These boxes contain ornaments from many different decades. Most of the ornaments are ones the children made in pre-school, kindergarten or first grade. They loved looking at each one and commenting on what they could remember about them or commenting on their little pictures on some of them. There are also ornaments which were from my childhood and the children ask about who gave them to us. My mother added some of her ornaments to our tree this year. Some have pictures of me and my brothers. Others are just fun ornaments which have weathered decades of Christmas trees. A couple belonged to my brother who died years ago and our children have always found that story worth reviewing. Each ornament represents a story or a person.

So the ornaments and their stories began finding places all over the tree. We don't really "decorate" the tree, I guess. It basically ends up being a place for all these little stories to hang for a month while we review them in our minds and enjoy the lights. The children did a much better job this year spreading them out . . . less clumps and more thought about what ornaments they wanted where.

One important consideration was our two-year old! Of course any of the ornaments that came out of the boxes carefully wrapped in newspaper were destined for the top of the tree. I didn't have to spend much time explaining why. Our little one immediately started pulling on the lights and wanting to examine each item. She was persistent in babbling on about each one. We allowed her to put a few of the "safe" ornaments on the tree: the soft stuffed ones, the wooden ones and a few of the hand made clothes pin types or plaster-types. Then we started the process of looking at each one, making comments and finally, making it clear if she was allowed to touch it or not. She got that down pretty quickly.

Beside our tree we set our "holy family." This year's nativity story has been another persistent conversation with our two-year old. She is at the stage where "mommy, daddy and baby" are the main characters in any picture she notices, whether it be of people, animals or even toys. Since Advent and Christmas are all around us now, she talks about "baby Jesus, mommy Mary and daddy Joseph" all the time. She can't bear to see a baby without its mommy, and if there is one, whom she perceives fits the role of "daddy," she insists it must sit next to the mommy. I find this intense order of relationships fascinating in such a young child. I suppose it is a security thing at that age??? There seems to be safety and comfort in that picture for her.

Well, it happened yesterday. We no sooner walked in the door from church and she marched over to the tree and started exclaiming about one of the ornaments. One ornament she can touch is a stuffed "mommy" gingerbread. She had suddenly spied a "daddy" version which was up high towards the back of the tree. The case was clear -- no choices in the matter -- the "daddy" had to be relocated down on the other side of the tree so he could sit beside the mommy.

So this year's Christmas message from our two-year old's perspective is about family. There is a "complete" picture of family and a "broken" picture of family that needs to be fixed. As I think about it, in some ways Jesus was born out of wed-lock, a sign of brokenness. I wonder if this incomplete picture of "family" is disturbing to other young children, whether they can express it or not. What a blessing that Joseph was willing to step into that picture and be the "daddy" figure for baby Jesus . . . be the daddy that stands next to the mommy to partner in the task of parenting.

We all need people to surround us as parents, and even more so for those who are parenting on their own!!! What a gift it can be to have others who are willing to step in to support the efforts of parents and share their love and comfort with the children. I can't help but think of all the broken families we know and how many of those children need the security of a "mommy" or "daddy" figure in their lives. I also know people who have found ways to fill in those gaps in society, maybe not exactly in the way Joseph did, but nontheless in meaningful ways that help to bring a sense of security and safety to children: foster care, supporting single parents and their children, mentoring a young person, adoption . . . I have learned in a more real way just how children need the security and love in their home and how caretaker roles can take many forms. I have also heard countless stories in which people indicated a special person who "was like a dad" to them. Or I have heard people refer to someone as a "spiritual mother" or an "adopted grandparent." These roles are so ingrained into our human fiber that without them, we feel incomplete and in need of security.

Jesus entered a picture of brokenness and out of that brought completeness to our broken pictures and those of the people around us. We never know, we might be the very ones He calls to be His presence . . . "filling in the gaps" and bringing a sense of security and comfort to someone or a family who needs it. Thanks to my two-year old for the reminder.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

How Long Must They Suffer?

Ok - I'm beginning to think I shouldn't watch movies anymore. After years of living in Cambodia, I had gotten to the point I couldn't take dramas anymore. Emotionally I was spent after days of seeing and living with the trauma of a post-war society. So my husband and I resorted to renting comedies, romantic, satire, or otherwise, to get our minds off our work and the stress of life there. Afterall, it only cost about 50 cents there - a pretty cheap coping mechanism! But recently we rented a couple movies from Blockbuster, one about a former ruler of Uganda and tonight just a funny, ridiculous story about pregnancy. The first one was gruesome and traumatic as it relayed parts of a true story. The second just resurrected my dread of the year I was pregnant with my youngest child. Being pregnant made me realize how selfish I really am -- I didn't like being taken over by, what felt like, a foreign object! So, long story short, both movies left me feeling sick and sleepless.

Maybe I've become overly sensitive to things. Maybe I'm dealing with a slight case of PTS disorder myself, like my friend Brian who is taking a year break from Cambodia to recoup in Washington state. I don't know. Maybe my hormones just have me weeping about everything . . . but that's supposed to be predictable to a certain extent, right???

I was looking through pictures and headlines of this past week in national and world events. In the back drop to the pregnant woman who lost her baby after being stampeded during a Black Friday rush, there were the attacks in Mumbai, India . . . people from all over the world were victims in that scene. And the death toll rises due to the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, where a ruler who lost the election is too busy protecting his power to notice his people dying by the thousands of starvation and now disease. Thank goodness he has finally allowed aid workers back into the country. And then there was another bombing in Iraq killing 20 people. I wonder how many people noticed that on the news. Twenty doesn't sound like such a big number unless it is your wife or child or grandchild who was one of them. I looked at the pictures and I could not stop crying. The faces of grief and anguish, of sorrow and desire for comfort.

And what made me cry more is knowing that no one else I knew here was crying for them. In fact, I felt afraid to admit that I was crying. I feared someone telling me that, to help myself, I should stop thinking about those things. I don't like the helpless feeling in the words, "There's nothing you can do about it." I don't want to hear that I need to go on with my life. My life is here and that is there. No one says these words, but in the silence, I feel them.

And thinking those thoughts, whether they are true or not, makes me angry. Angry at myself for living here. Angry at how easy my life is. Angry when I hear people here in the U.S. worry about safety or how aweful 9/11 was. The faces I saw in the pictures this past week were grief stricken and I am sure that many of the faces around them trying to comfort them had seen this pain before -- maybe even yesterday. And they know that maybe tomorrow the pain could be their own. They live with this pain day in and day out. These thoughts make me cry out to God on their behalf . . . "how long, O Lord!"

The words to Psalm 13 have been flooding my mind and heart in relation to people suffering around the world today and this week:

How long, O Lord, will you forget them?
How long, O Lord, will you look the other way?
How long, O Lord, must I wrestle with my thoughts
And every day have such sorrow in my heart?

Look on me and answer, O God, my Father!
Bring light to their darkness, before I see them fall.

The last part of the Psalm brings comfort to me and I pray it for all those who need to feel God's comfort:

But I trust in your unfailing love
Yes, my heart will rejoice

Still I trust in your unfailing love

You have been good to me.

Comfort Your people, O Lord, with Your love and goodness.
Help them to see You in their darkness
so that they can have strength and peace in the painful times.

Lord, have mercy on Your Creation.
Bring your redemption to all people and all places,
for the sake of Your Name and Your Kingdom.


And now Lord, help me sleep!