Thursday, August 3, 2023

When Family Breaks Your Heart

When Family Breaks Your Heart


Romans 9:1-5
9:1 I am speaking the truth in Christ--I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit--

9:2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.

9:3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.

9:4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;

9:5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.


I empathize with the deep pain of families where either the children grow up to greatly disappoint the loving parents, or where the children, needing love, have parents who disappoint them by focusing on their own needs and disputes, treating the children like possessions, and later, as “bargaining chips” in divorce proceedings. These things are far too common, at least from what I observed as a pastoral caregiver. And doesn’t your heart just break when you read—as I just did today—of a toddler suffering and dying in a hot car when the “parent” forgets them and goes to work (or into a bar)? It’s even more heart-breaking when you read that it happened to an otherwise responsible parent, who has now had to both grieve the loss of a child AND undergo an investigation, let alone face their partner, if there is one in the picture. I should be thankful that I was never under the influence of chemicals—illicit or prescribed—or in such anguish over some event that I could have ever let something like this happen. I just can’t imagine. I’m also thankful that future technology is trying to prevent such horrible occurrences. Our new EV (electric vehicle) has a system that sets off all kinds of alarms if you try to turn the car off and exit the vehicle with ANYTHING in the back seat. Good for those engineers at GM!


Putting aside these “extreme” ways our family may break our hearts (or we, theirs), there are still myriad ways we may leave a wake of disappointment behind us. Just ask many transgender persons or others in the LGBTQ community about how their families greeted their coming out. Or the children of parents who divorced. As a pastor, I found myself sternly “correcting” parishioners in my counseling room who used “It will be better for the kids, anyway” as one of their justifications for filing for divorce. No, it will not. Unless there is emotional or physical abuse going on, it will NOT be “better for the kids.” Your children will suffer through a divorce and will never be the same. With adequate support and possibly even therapy, they will get over it, but it will be very hard on them. Believe me. I have met many an adult product of a long-since completed divorce who STILL harbors the hope—and even belief—that their “folks” will get back together. It just breaks your heart.


I’ll not spend much time on how addiction—on the part of the children, the parents, or both—just shatters one’s soul. Having had to offer care to families who lost a child to addiction breaks more than one’s “heart.” It’s bone-crushing for these families. They never get over it, even if they make all of the “right” responses to the tragedy. The death of a child due to addiction is paralyzing, and brings on a version of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that is all but untreatable. It’s not much better when the “loss” is not to death, but to the “tough love” act of writing the addict out of one’s life, in the hope that they may seek help, before they destroy ALL of the lives involved. 


I’m trying to stay “in the lane” of the heartbreak induced by bad decisions on the part of family members, but please don’t take away that I’m downplaying all of the other ways we may be shattered by loss. But the Romans text in today’s message is about the “tragedy” of choice.


Paul is deeply saddened and perplexed by his “family,” the Jewish people of first-century Palestine. Never mind that he had to experience a dramatic confrontation with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus before HE became a disciple of Jesus. He grieves that his family hasn’t yet joined him, despite his best efforts to persuade them. And as we see in his other letters, even when some do, they are hard-pressed to give up some of their former faith practices such as circumcision and kosher eating preferences, even when they divide the community. 


I find it interesting that Paul introduces this passage with the strong affirmation that he is “not lying,” for therein lies yet another way people break each other’s hearts, and not just in families! As I write this, we are learning more details about a national “drama” playing itself out in front of us all, namely the latest indictments of former president, Donald Trump. These federal indictments clearly accuse him of lying “bigly” to the American public about his losing the 2020 election, and most especially using these lies in an attempt to motivate his minions (and less self-aware followers) to do his bidding to overturn the results of that election. And now, he continues to lie, saying the indictments are a result of “political persecution.” The “good news” in all of this is that the final “judge” of who is right and who is lying will occur in a federal court of law, with the world paying close attention. On a more “micro” level, I’m sure we can all cite an example of where lies were employed in attempts to help someone get her or his way in a family or in a relationship. It never turns out well. Ever. 


So, Paul goes almost “postal,” declaring that he is not lying to his people about the glory and joy he has found in Jesus Christ. However, he does not condemn his people, and if you read Romans throughout, you will see that he pronounces them “safe” in the covenant they already have with God. He is sorry for the joy and freedom they are missing out on, in not accepting God’s pardon and grace in Jesus, but he does NOT believe they are condemned by it. “May it never be,” he exclaims in Romans 11:1, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? May it never be!” God’s people Israel is “saved” by their faith and the covenant they already have, but are they missing out on some of the freedom Christians experience? This is a tough question, in that my Jewish friends ARE joyful people, and those who take part in the life of a synagogue or other Jewish gathering/community of faith offer all kinds of ministries of justice and compassion to the world. Judaism has evolved since the days of Paul, and maybe we judge it too harshly when we apply Paul’s critique of it to the modern Jewish community? When we do this, I think we are pointing the finger in the wrong direction!


If Paul were here with the church now, I fear he would be laying out a case against US, for the same reasons he was upset with his Jewish siblings in his day. Has the church not ALSO spent more time on being judgmental? More time on drawing “lines” as to who is “right” and who is “wrong” about everything from how we read and understand the Bible, to the social issues before us? Have factions in the modern church not continued the practice of schism, thinking it will solve problems, rather than just divide? How would Paul treat this contemporary truth that has led to a divide within many denominations today: “I just don’t want to be in the same church with YOU, and what you believe.” Why, if the modern “nuclear” family were to behave like the Christian church has, every time one of its members disagreed with the “beliefs and doctrines” of the family, they would trash their bedroom and go out the window! And then would hope that the family they left behind would fail, so they could pronounce that infamous benediction, “I TOLD you so!”


Families of any kind are complex systems and must be understood in this manner. As I have said many times before, one of the most useless, and even heart-breaking, analyses of any family “crisis” is oversimplifying what is far more complicated than we often see, on first read. And if we continue in this direction, we “spasm” and craft an overly-simplified “solution” to the presenting problem, which usually makes things worse, even after at first appearing to “solve” the issue. Oversimplification should be the “thou shalt not” of the eleventh commandment. A cheap “solution” to a complicated problem just makes things worse, and often leads to a judgmental attitude that adds gasoline to the presenting “fire.” And, of course, any of us with more than a ten-minute short course in human psychology and family systems knows full well that the “presenting” problem may not be the real issue at all! Remember when President Trump suggested that maybe ingesting or injecting BLEACH might be a solution to the COVID-19 problem? This ludicrous idea is akin to the problem we face in the church today. 


It was heartbreaking for Paul to see how his “blood” family, the Jews, were often “at war” with his adopted family, the church. It didn’t have to be. And it doesn’t have to be today. The same could be said for other religions and the church, as well. The Good News of Jesus Christ was not meant to be a “call to arms,” but a healing balm for the divisions infesting humanity. And the answer is NOT devising or distilling doctrines that must be “accepted” by all others before we will call them “brother” or “sister.” The answer, while most certainly complex, begins with acceptance, tolerance, and an understanding that we are all seeking God’s favor, and what is best for the creatures of the creation, both human and otherwise. 


It is said that the late, great football coach, Vince Lombardi, used to begin his training camp for the Green Bay Packers by holding up that well-known leather prolate spheroid and firmly toning, “Gentlemen, THIS is a football.” Maybe the church needs to go back to such basics? Paul thought so, beginning with the most basic truths of love and grace. Even Mr. Wesley said:

“What religion do I preach? The religion of love—the law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves, and to make them like God, lovers of all.”

Paul goes back to the “basics” of Jewish faith history. Jesus brought a new “word” to us—“You have heard it said, but I say unto you…” John Wesley appealed to love and acceptance of “the other.” Friends, this is OUR football. May we head the words of Paul the Apostle, speak the truth, and stop breaking each other’s hearts! Amen! 

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