Modern Families

I’m not generally one for making alarmist, apocalyptic statements worthy of a Hollywood voice-over, but indulge me just this once:

The year is 2016, and the family lies in ruins.

Perhaps a more accurate statement is that the traditional two-parent family is in ruins. Or the traditional two-parent-family-with-both-parents-of-all-the-children-still-being-united-in-a-heterosexual-marriage-type-of-family is in ruins. I don’t want to denigrate or deride families of other compositions. A family is a family, regardless of how it came to be. Stepparents often fill in the gaps left by birth parents in ways which far surpass the biological progenitors. Adopted children are loved every bit as much as those sharing the DNA of the adults in the family. These can be wonderful, beautiful things.

What I lament, however, is the absolute lack of significance granted to the family unit itself.

We all know the numbers. Over half of all first marriages end in divorce, and that percentage skyrockets when you get to second marriages, third marriages, and beyond. Why? No-fault divorce, mainly. Again, there are legitimate reasons for divorce, but most marriages today don’t end because of abandonment or abuse (the growing rate of adultery will be discussed later). They end simply because one spouse wakes up one morning, looks at the other spouse, and thinks, I don’t love you anymore. The concept of love as a choice is foreign to most people, particularly Millennials (my generation) and younger. The “for better and for worse” in their marriage vows (themselves taken lightly) means only the first half when actually put into practice. Contemporary society redefined marriage long before any court did, trading a sacrament of sanctification serving as the basis for a family for an agreement of convenience designed to make me (and only me) happy. Since no one can provide 24/7 bliss to another human being, people feel like their marriages aren’t what they signed up for — which they’re not, really — and tear up the contract.

But the rise of divorce is only part of the equation. Most people my age and younger don’t even marry, or, if they do, will live together first. The biblically accepted order to arrive at a family is 1) get married, 2) move in together, 3) have sex, 4) have babies. Nowadays the process is practically inverted: 1) have sex, 2) move in together, 3)have babies, 4) get married. The marriage is the result of societal pressure to become a legal family in the advent of pregnancy or birth of a child. (We used to call those “shotgun weddings” and typically frowned on them.) Marriage is viewed as unnecessary since you can enjoy some of the benefits (e.g. sex, companionship) without the commitment. (We’re a commitment-phobic society, really.) Some never marry the parent of their child — sometimes for good reasons, admittedly, but sometimes not.

The same logic spurring the rise of cohabitation has fueled a rise in adultery. “If my marriage isn’t sexually satisfying, I have the right to look elsewhere for that satisfaction,” they say, “since marriage is about my personal happiness anyway.” That’s just the basic, no-frills model of infidelity. But many marriages are “open,” meaning both spouses are free to sleep with whomever, whenever. Swingers are married couples who get together to sleep with each other’s spouses. Some (far from all, but some) bisexual people are permitted by their spouses to have sex with a member of the same sex since that’s a desire and means to happiness they, of the opposite sex, can’t fulfill. Or they invite the desired person to a ménage à trois. I was getting a haircut this week, and one stylist was telling another she (the other) needed to get back together with her ex. “But I’m with Y now!” “Is that the baby daddy?” “Yeah, and we’re married!” “Well he’s not as good for you as X is.” (You can imagine the awkward lull in conversation after they discovered what I do for a living.) But even that becomes acceptable when marriage is only about happiness — and so is sex. Then you have pornography use and its ilk, which for all intents and purposes is infidelity, too. Promiscuity among married folk: it may not be something new under the sun, but our acceptance of it and lack of guilty/shame concerning it certainly seem to be.

All of that to say: without a proper view of marriage, the family never stood a chance. Children are shuttled between custodial parents. Kids are effectively raised having two lives and, frequently, four or more “parents” and an abundance of step- and half-siblings, any one of whom may be gone at any given time to be with his/her other parent. No stability, nothing solid. Only change and shifting sands. Little wonder so many children have behavioral problems. Others have a stable home, but with only one parent or with their grandparents (birth parents optional). Beyond even the kids, though, is civilization itself. Can we thrive in an anything-goes world where no one has a sense of permanence even about their marriage, their identity, and/or their family role?

Well, enough complaining. What can we as Christians do about it? Here’s my less-than-comprehensive list of ten suggestions.

  1. Love everyone regardless of their family make-up or lifestyle.
  2. Teach, preach, and maintain the biblical ideals concerning marriage, sex, and the family.
  3. Offer support groups for victims of divorce, including children (and adult children of divorce).
  4. Offer support to single-parent families. Make them feel welcome and help them get involved in the church as you help out with things they may need done at home.
  5. Provide support for grandparents raising their grandchildren. Help out at home, babysit, provide support groups for the grandparents and activities for the children to allow the grandparents some much-needed time off.
  6. Become advocates for adoption and support families with adopted children.
  7. Provide marital counseling to those in danger of divorce while encouraging proper responses to abuse and neglect.
  8. Connect hurting families to healthy families in your church for fellowship, mentoring, and listening ears.
  9. Offer programs on marriage and family to children and youth to show them healthy, biblical relationships and standards before they learn unhealthy behaviors elsewhere.
  10. Know the resources available to families in your community (counselors, pregnancy crisis centers, etc.).
  11. Bonus: Pray.

These things won’t magically solve the problems of modern families, but they may make a difference in your own corner of the world. God established marriage and family. It’s our job to fight for them.

F.A.Q.: A Consistent Ethic of Sexuality

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of divorce and cohabitation,
And fornication and . . . “

That’s not how that poem goes. That’s not how that poem goes at all. With apologies to Mr. Carroll, however, that’s how it will go for the purpose of this blog. The time has finally come to address the walrus — er, carpenter — er, elephant — in the room. One question I’m asked pretty regularly is why Christians spend so much time talking about homosexuality to the exclusion of other, seemingly more pervasive sexual sins. So here goes.

Short answer: the pot likes calling the kettle black. The other staple sexual sins — pre-marital sex, pornography, cohabitation, most forms of divorce, and adultery — are so common among churchgoers that pastors are afraid to say anything about them for fear of losing their flocks (and their pulpits). The LGBTQ community, however, is a much safer target, and so energies are diverted to speak out against homosexuality, transgenderism, etc. Such behaviors (NOTE: behaviors, not people) are fairly universally condemned from the pews as well as the pulpit, and so more lay Christians are likely to speak out about them. Instead of uncomfortably discussing our own sins, we say, “Let’s pick on someone who sins differently than we do!”

Again, that’s the short answer. The long answer is, well, longer.

Let’s begin by defining our terms. Under the biblical schema, many things are classified as sexual sin. The catch-all word for sexual immorality is porneia; I’m sure you recognize the root as the same for “pornography.” Porneia is a bit of a legal term in the sense it carries the full weight of the Torah behind it. Anything and everything the law of Moses classified as sexual sin is counted as porneia in the New Testament. Most of those laws are scattered throughout Leviticus, but they’ve largely carried over even in popular conception: incest, fornication (pre-marital sex), adultery, homosexuality, and transvestism (included here in its traditional place). Many people claim Jesus never talked about homosexuality, and he didn’t explicitly, but he did make reference to — and sharply condemn — the categorical porneia, so he really did talk about it.

Back on topic, though, porneia very soundly condemns the “church-approved” sexual sins. The only acceptable sexual behavior in either testament is heterosexual intercourse in the context of the marriage covenant. That pretty much excludes both adultery and fornication straightaway. A common argument in favor of the latter nowadays is “Oh, but we love each other, and we’ve promised to only be with each other.” Great! Put a ring on it. The full level of commitment prerequisite to sex shouldn’t be at all daunting if you’ve already made it as far as all that. Secure God’s blessing on your relationship through holy matrimony and enjoy your marriage bed. But until you do, you’re not married, the two have not become one flesh, and sexual intercourse is still out of bounds for you. (I would say I’m sorry, but I have a rule: never apologize for what the word of God says, even — especially — the hard parts.) So again: any sort of sexual behavior outside of a heterosexual marriage is sin. And some of the violent and demeaning sexual behaviors inside of those parameters are sin, too. But that takes care of two things, then, pre-marital and extra-marital sex.

On to another. Divorce is perhaps the most taboo, most difficult subject to teach on. Jesus actually made my job much harder on this score than both Moses and the rabbis in the time of Christ. I mean, one rabbi actually authorized divorce if your wife ruined your meal while cooking it.

“Darling, I burned the toast . . . “
“Well then I’ll see you in divorce court. Start packing.”

Divorced women at the time had no rights and no property. So when Jesus tightened the regulations governing divorce in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:1-12, he did a great deal to help women. He greatly reduced the valid reasons for obtaining a divorce — as in the number changed from “infinite” to “one,” namely infidelity. Paul nuances this a bit in 1 Timothy 5:8 (as most take it), saying infidelity also includes a failure to provide (up to and including abandonment by most interpretations). And most interpreters take that provision to include safety, so abuse likewise becomes a valid reason for divorce. That’s it, really: infidelity, abandonment, and abuse. The only three reasons the New Testament gives us for divorce. Anyone divorcing for any other reason and remarries both commits adultery and causes the other ex-spouse to do so as well.

This is a hard saying.

Now add the fact lust is equivalent to adultery (Matthew 5:27-30) and you have even bigger problems.

Let’s kick it up another notch (BAM!), a notch brought to you by 20th-Century technology and 21st-Century demand: pornography. There is nothing redemptive about porn; there’s nothing anyone can say to make it less evil. As the saying goes, the only difference between pornography and prostitution is the camera. Both are paying people for sex, yet we only really consider one of them to be evil; why? How? Add to that fundamental thought the aforementioned sinful status of lust. Now consider the rise in demand for violent pornography. Now think about its connection to sex trafficking. And don’t forget the way it warps views of sex, women’s bodies, men’s bodies, women’s personhood, men’s personhood, and everything else it falsely portrays. After all, porn is a lie. Now let’s mention the addiction, the porn-induced sexual dysfunction, the shame and guilt and . . . Finally getting the picture? One last thing, then: if fornication is wrong, and porn requires fornication, then at its most basic, it’s simply a recording of sin. If your spouse asks to watch it together, remember: it will only hurt in the bedroom, never help. I’ll say it again because it bears repeating: there is nothing redemptive about porn.

There. A consistent sexual ethic to cover sexual immorality in all its various guises, inside the church and out. I realize some of you are pondering the topics of polygamy and levirate marriage in Scripture, thinking they’re permissible by the biblical “meta-ethic.” Short answer: no. Longer answer: apples and oranges. Longest answer: that’s another blog for another day.

Let’s be good to each other, folks. Speak these truths in love. The sin is not the person; the sin is a mistake the person made. Love that person with all you are — just as the Lord loves you.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Next week will be American Thanksgiving (I refuse to call it “Turkey Day” on principle). It will be a day of food, of family and friends, a day in which we, those who have been incomparably blessed by a magnificent and glorious God, simply say “Thank you.” It is a day in which we become living eucharists, and we would do well to remember the Great Thanksgiving and the whole of salvation history as we tuck in to our overflowing plates.

But this year, things will be different for countless families. They will, for the very first time, observe the holiday without a family member. A parent has died in the last year, a sibling disowned his or her family, a spouse did the unthinkable and the other was forced to end the marriage in a bitter divorce. Chairs across the country will be empty, and those who remain will remember the ones who once sat across the table.

They never really leave us, do they? Grandparents and parents in particular live on in their families. We share traits with those who have gone on, little quirks that always remind us they’re not truly gone. My sister buys raisin bran so she can pick out the raisins and have frosted bran flakes (like our grandfather did). I have a fondness for chocolate-covered cherries (like our grandmother). A cousin has her mother’s eyes, a father carves the turkey with the same knife his father used, and on and on and on. It’s those little moments of recollection which give us a twinge of memory, a faint smile, and the hope of one day sitting around the table with them in the age to come.

Others have a more difficult time of it. Families ripped asunder by divorce may sit in awkward silence, a mother dreading a child asking why a father isn’t home this year. A man who believed he had found “the one” sits alone in the only apartment he could afford and wonders why she suddenly stopped loving him. Holidays are hard days.

Regardless of the nature of the missing, those people will still be missed; they will be conspicuous only by their absence, but that absence will be felt. Even though they’re gone, they remain a part of us, and we carry them with us throughout our lives. I’m reminded of a Wordsworth poem, “We Are Seven.” It’s a bit long, but it’s worth the read.

“We Are Seven”

———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”
“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”

 

Take time this Thanksgiving to offer thanks for another year with a family intact. Take time to remember those who face an empty chair but whose hearts still say “We are seven.” And give thanks to the God who gives us all things, the creator and sustainer of all which is seen and unseen.

If you still have time after that, go eat some turkey.