Tag Archives: family

Never Let Go

Madeleine L'Engle reads with granddaughters Lena, left and Charlotte (now Charlotte Jones Voiklis). L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time” became a favorite of young people, Voiklis says today, because “kids read it and understand that they are not being talked down to.” Illustrates KIDSPOST-WRINKLE (category l), by Moira E. McLaughlin (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: From Crosswicks)

“No long-term marriage is made easily, and there have been times when I’ve been so angry or so hurt that I thought my love would never recover. And then, in the midst of near despair, something has happened beneath the surface. A bright little flashing fish of hope has flicked silver fins and the water is bright and suddenly I am returned to a state of love again — till next time. I’ve learned that there will always be a next time, and that I will submerge in darkness and misery, but that I won’t stay submerged. And each time something has been learned under the waters; something has been gained; and a new kind of love has grown. The best I can ask for is that this love, which has been built on countless failures, will continue to grow. I can say no more than that this is mystery, and gift, and that somehow or other, through grace, our failures can be redeemed and blessed.”

Madeleine L’Engle

In this day and age – family is sometimes all you’ve got. So many around us don’t even have that. Fragments are all that’s left. L’Engle describes her marriage as a construction project that travels like a roller coaster up and down through life. I get the sense that she felt it was something worth hanging on to – a relationship like no other that couldn’t be found elsewhere. A relationship that mattered, for the sake of her children, for the sake of her spouse and always – through the long haul – for her own sake.

  • We sometimes get exasperated with one another too quickly. Family has to learn how to stick it out to the bitter end. Take a long road trip together or get snowed in during Christmas.  Make sure there’s only one bathroom.
  • When you’re feeling sorry for yourself is the best time to start doing something for others. Families are where our children learn to live by seeing examples. Show them how to give instead of take.
  • Call your adult children and ask them how you can pray for them this week. Be sure you pray and then follow up, keep following up. Tell your children how they can pray for you.
  • Treat each moment together as if it were you last. That helps you to put things into better perspective. It helps you to stay in the moment and not lose sight of what is really important – right now.
  • The most important activity that members of a relationship and families learn how to do is to “get over themselves.”

The building of relationships is an ongoing project of success and failure. All that matters is that we never give up. Marriage and family takes work – a task that each generation has to put it’s shoulder to with a committed heart. No half measures will work. It’s encouraging to read the words of famous figures who affirm what a difficult journey it often is. It’s typically very discouraging to see every single week another famous couple calling it quits and then rationalizing their failure as a sensible decision. Your children have been raised watching this “play” over and over again. It will compete with the story you tell with your own lives together.

Building a civilization is accomplished in each daily decision to . It’s never perfect, it’s but a love built on failure, it is a mystery that can endure.

“In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts…”Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

The New American Family

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Research based on the latest census data indicate that the American family is no more. The dramatic changes in living arrangements, delayed child-bearing and longer singlehood mean that what we once thought of as a “traditional” family may be long gone.

But here’s something very interesting from a news report on the study:

Despite the negative changes in American families, one group has remained stable and most closely resembles what was once considered the American norm and that is the immigrant community. [This study] found that immigrants tend to be married at a higher rate, and divorce and remarry at a lower rate when compared to those born in the United States.

It seems like those on the road to becoming our newest citizens seem to look and act more like traditional Americans than even we do! Immigrants depend upon their families for so much:

  1. Economic support and launching into a new society – who but family wants me to succeed more?
  2. Remaining close in order to maintain important traditions and values during assimilation – while we’re becoming Americans, we want to keep cherished traditions from where we came
  3. Collaboration with other immigrant families from similar backgrounds for help making the social transitions – people who have come here ahead of us can help to show us the ropes. Family members help other family members.

As I think about it, what’s tragic is that we all need our families like this, still. It doesn’t matter if we are immigrants or native born. We all need help making it in the world around us. Family is supposed to fulfill that function.

More people in our country have terrible difficulty in life because their family just isn’t there anymore. Maybe we should look to our immigrant neighbors as examples?

 

How Good is Being Alone?

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I was reading the review of a book the other day. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by journalist Rebecca Traister traces the history and the changing role of single women in our history. According to the Census, there are now more single women than married. How did that happen?

The status of women, families and marriage is undergoing dramatic change in our society. Here is an interview with Traister where she points out some of the most significant demographic changes that she has written about in her book. An important fact she points out:

One of the most startling statistics is that today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, and that compares to 60 percent in 1960. The other figure that I find very startling, in part because it was so resilient for so long, is the median age of first marriage for women. From the time they started recording it — which was 1890 — until 1980, that median age of first marriage for women fluctuated only between 20 and 22. … In 1990 it jumped to over 23, which is a huge jump from having been in that small range for so long. Today, for women, it is over 27. So if you’re just looking at the sort of historical picture, there’s this relatively flat line for almost 100 years and now there’s not just a jump over that line, but way over that line.

I’m a sociologist. When I see changes like this I want to know about what’s happening in other dimensions of our society. There’s an interconnection between all things. Higher levels of education for women, a transforming service/information economy, higher income equality for women, shrinking size of family, more family debt, higher levels of choice in all areas of life, exploding access to social media…phenomena like these all have an influence and even causal effect on why changes occur in marriages and families.

There’s so much changing all around us. Of course we will see effects of these changes in places like our relationships and institutions like family.

We are studying Genesis in my Sunday School class. God proclaims everything he makes to be good. Then he creates man and sees that he is alone and declares that this is not good.

Our society is now trying to figure out all sorts of ways to solve this eternal problem. Marriage used to be the best solution. Now only half of adults live with a spouse, the other  half are cohabiting, living alone or are in some other arrangement. 40% of cohabiters break up within five years.

It seems that we are trying to piece together fragments and shadows of something we know to be better. What we have ended up with are too many people alone – for whatever reason. And that is still not good.

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”  -Edith Wharton

Never Let Me Go

An older couple sitting on a grass bank

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot

I’m sitting here looking around and I notice people that are always present, but I suddenly notice something for the first time. Something I’ve seen over and over again, but just now, I realize its significance. Something has been taking place day after day and the light is just now coming on in my brain and I see it for what it really is. It’s so essential, it holds everything together. It matters most.

“Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.” – Goethe

There’s that couple struggling together with a crippling disease. They work as a team getting up and preparing to walk to their next stop. All that the rest of us do automatically, these two must carefully manage over and over. They live their lives intertwined, making life work because they have each other. This is one thing they know they will always have.

Over there is another couple. Now that time has passed, I don’t think she always knows where or who she is. But he is faithfully at her side, her duty bound escort, Prince Charming and devoted spouse through better and worse. Who would have planned this sort of experience for those golden years? But as I watch week after week I know that these two surely aren’t living their life according to plan, they are living their lives as they are. He is not a master of his fate, never was, but he is certainly a master of his heart.

Sometimes there’s a commotion. Children of all ages are scurrying about trying to find their place. I can sometimes see a few faces filled with giant smiles that stand out. Dark hair and darker complexions blending in with siblings that are fair and towheaded. It’s clear that these children were chosen, rescued from unfortunate circumstances and embraced into a loving family. These young lives aren’t supposed to fully understand what’s happened. Their job is to live, learn and love. It’s a marvelous reminder of an eternal truth.

We believe in God who has adopted us in the same way.

All around me, each and every day,  I see the reality that none of us can make it without others who love us. We need to have people who are committed to us in deep ways (like marriage, blood, and adoption) intertwined in our lives. At times we think about these people, we just don’t think about them enough. We always take one another for granted. We get blown over without realizing who it is that’s always there to hold us up. We let another day pass just assuming that those people in our lives will still be there tomorrow, as if tomorrow itself were so certain.

…to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part…  (From the Book of Common Prayer)

To Sir, With Love

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Actually, this was the title of a classic film from the 60’s. It had a famous soundtrack with a great song by Petula Clark. I’m aging myself, and that’s what this post is really all about. I’ve now noticed that everywhere I go people keep calling me “sir” – even old guys at church, gentlemen that I would refer to as sir – they are now calling me “sir” – what’s happened?

Have I all of sudden aged? Maybe. The past few years have been unusually severe. But I can’t imagine it would turn me into a “sir” – maybe a “bub” or “crackpot” – but whenever I hear “sir” I recoil with a slight shock. Are we as a society suddenly becoming very proper? I doubt it.

My students send me emails addressing me as “hey.” I’m not a professor so much as just another tweet. We had Christmas stockings hung in our college and all the faculty members had their first names only spelled out. All very casual. No danger of too much respect happening here.

Every now and then I run across a young man who will say “yes, sir” over and over.  He’s been well-trained and full of respectful interaction conduct. During those rare exchanges I feel like I’ve fallen into a military academy. Sometimes it’s a little over the top.

Is there a bigger application here? The last census reported that a third of our children live without their biological father. How do kids, especially young males, learn respect for authority figures like teachers, police, coaches, ministers and older relatives? How successful can this be in a single-parent home (usually a home with a single mom and no male father figure present)?

My point is that the fabric that holds our society together is stitched with all kinds of common values and practices. When we aren’t able to pass on much that we have in common, like how to demonstrate respect or live/work together in an orderly fashion, then we start to experience a kind of disintegration that keeps each one of us from thriving as well as we could. Those kids who were raised in fragmented homes end up missing out on valuable elements of social capital (habits, attitudes and behaviors) that benefit them once they begin their ascent into the larger society.

I’m not suggesting all our problems would be solved if we all started calling each other “sir.” What I mean is that all the little ways that we treat each other begins to reveal how well we’re actually held together as a society of real people. And… sitting around in a room full of strangers glued to your cell phone isn’t doing much to keep our fabric from fraying.

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Too Poor to Make a Family?

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A 2006 report, Charting Parenthood: A Statistical Portrait of Fathers and Mothers in America reveals some important connections between social class and family patterns.

Poor men and women were the least likely of any income group to be married, with the proportion married increasing as income increases. For example, 41 percent of poor men were married in 2001, compared to 66 percent of men with incomes at three or more times the poverty level. The marriage gap was even wider for women. Only about one in every three poor women is married, while about two of every three women with incomes at three or more times the poverty are married.

This difference undoubtedly reflects both the more advantaged backgrounds of those who marry, and the advantages of having multiple earners in the family that marriage can bring.

The percentage of poor men and women who are married has also been declining over the decade. Cohabitation is more common among poor men and women, declining markedly at higher income levels. Overall, 40 percent of all cohabiting relationships involve parents with children in the home.

There are numerous other facts, some alarming, many seemingly routine, but all ultimately describe an American family that is changing. While there are many reasons to explain current family patterns, the one that I wanted to point out here is the economic one.

Since the slow death of the great recession household incomes have still failed to rise. The number of people living in poverty and dependent upon the government for basic necessities continues to increase. Panic still plagues the middle class who are worried about jobs and taxes. These economic symptoms are causing people to organize themselves into different kinds of family patterns, new arrangements that harm today’s children and tomorrows future.

We are creating an ever widening gap between rich and poor. Our poorest citizens (with the largest birthrates) are raising children in broken families because the economy still isn’t working. These families will pay a brutal price right now as they try and manage families with children who stand a greater chance of:

  • A distorted self-identity
  • Poor health and obesity
  • Joining a delinquent subculture
  • Early exposure to sexuality and pornography
  • Lack of preparation for academic learning

But it’s our collective future as a society to which we must pay attention when we think about what’s happening now to these children.

Everyone is trying to solve the latest economic problem. We are American capitalists and the object of the game is to increase profits. There is nothing new here. But, Americans have also been very much concerned about the welfare of all our citizens, realizing that we’re all ultimately in the same boat. Raising the living standards of our neighbor actually helps us all.

As a significant segment of our population (45 million currently living below the poverty line) preparing their children for the future, it is our entire society that ultimately pays an even more terrible price.  As our leaders make economic decisions, let’s be certain to remind them that it’s our children and our future that’s really at stake.

 “Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.”  – Brennan Manning

 

 

Fragmented Identities

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Surely it wouldn’t take you but a minute to come up with a quick list of the most significant social experiences in your early life that helped to shape who you are becoming?

  • That birthday party
  • The fishing trip
  • Reading together before you went to sleep
  • Learning to drive
  • Christmas morning

Most of these experiences we take for granted. They were just part of the routine of our lives. The building bricks that helped prepare us for the next steps like our own marriage, college and the first job.

A recent article by Michael Barone in the National Review Online points out the social crisis that America is currently facing because our families are fracturing.

What is family fragmentation? The facts are easy to state. About 40 percent of babies born in America these days are born outside of marriage. That’s true of about 30 percent of non-Hispanic whites, more than 50 percent of Hispanics and more than 70 percent of blacks.

An American society that has destigmatized couples living together instead of marrying, out of wedlock births, divorce, and single parenthood is creating a two-tiered society. Children from these fragmented families experience:

  • less healthy lifestyles
  • poor education
  • higher rates of delinquency
  • less preparation for employment
  • little investment in college readiness

These fragmented families are mostly from a lower SES and are racial/ethnic minorities. This type of family fragmentation did not occur during the Great Depression. Fragmented families are producing an underclass that will cripple our entire society and no one is daring enough to say out loud, “your pursuit of happiness is damaging everyone else.”

Social Identity Theory helps to explain that as we construct our sense of self we are very dependent upon the social groups to which we belong. Families are the first and most important group that each of us experience as we develop our identity. Children depend upon a stable family group to provide role models that they in turn use to construct their own identity:

  • Gender roles
  • Parenting lessons
  • Spousal relationships
  • Work ethic
  • Career preparation

Families provide children with a number of essential and ongoing experiences that both build an individual identity and prepare for meaningful participation in society as adults.

We are nearing a time when a critical mass of our children will not have a stable family nor enough time together with their over-busy family. Our children’s social identity will more and more be built from experiences they have at daycare, school, after school groups, neighborhood peers and the media. There won’t be a basic foundational family experience to support or contradict the messages gained from these additional social relationships. The family experience is the essential experience for healthy identity formation.

As family life is rapidly fracturing and our definitions of what constitute a family are widening, this is not only damaging to our social structure, it will also produce individuals who are less certain about who they are and how to form healthy relationships with other people. I guess that’s good news for all the social media conglomerates.

 

 

The Family at Christmas

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So many of us are surrounded by family during the Christmas holiday. Family is the social context in which the memories of Christmas are built. When you think about it, the arrival of Christ and the launch of his ministry was deeply integrated with his family. There’s nothing new here, just some reflections about the intersection of family and the advent.

  • God decided to visit humanity through the doorway of the family.  He had spoken and intervened in so many other ways in the past; a flood, a burning bush, mad prophets…but now it was to be through the ordinary lives of a humble and obedient family.
  • This family almost falls to pieces before it even begins its eternal purpose. But angels and dreams provide the assurance that all will be well. All families are just as susceptible to breaking apart. Now, just as it’s always been, communication and vulnerability are essential for maintaining family stability and strength.
  • Jesus becomes fully human within the context of his family. Just like the rest of us, those early experiences were essential to his development as a son, a brother, a friend and our Savior.
  • The way of salvation for all humanity is made safe and guarded by a frail earthly family. Dreams in the middle of the night and voice of angels kept Jesus the baby safe during those early years on the road and in Egypt (that place of exile). He remained safe in the arms of his mother and father. But not every child would stay safe.
  • His family remains until the very end of Jesus’ mission on earth – members of his family stick close to him and remain faithful up until his death. They are not necessarily seeking to understand but instead seek to demonstrate their love.  This is what families can do best, accept us and care for us, no matter the risks.

“The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved.”
– Victor Hugo

Something is Missing

“I wonder how much of the day I spend just callin’ after you.” 
– Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Didn’t you notice when you were a teenager and your favorite band had a knock down drag out fight and then someone left or got kicked out (depends on who’s telling the story). Typically it never seemed the same again. That original sound was gone.

Everyone always talks about Journey after Steve Perry left…Arnel is close, but…

We just had a number of deaths in our Sunday School class this past month – moms and grandmothers. There are also a number of other older family members that are frail and needing ever more attention. Families lose members as life marches onward, but it’s never without grief.

Then all of a sudden a young wife and mother who is a dear friend suddenly died. She left behind three children and her husband. They were all just starting the next phase of their lives, kids finishing high school and heading off to college.

People all around you are living in families that are missing someone. These days, according to our social trends, these are choices that people have made. Divorce, abandonment, single-parenthood, and living alone are all much more “normal” than they have ever been. When families fall apart or when they never get stuck together in the first place, something is always missing from our lives. A spouse, parent, sibling, and extended family connection are all holes that never get filled up with substitutions.

That missing piece never gets replaced.

The family is a system that accomplishes essential tasks for individual survival and for the health of our entire society. The individual members of that system; parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. all fulfill important roles.

We have never stopped needing dads. The National Center for Fathering reports this alarming trend from census data:

Children Living with Mother Only-bwh graph

  • Source: US Census Bureau, “Living Arrangements of Children Under 18″: Tables –CH-2, CH-3, CH-4. 1960 – Present. U.S.  Census Bureau July 1, 2012.

What about the costs to our entire society? The U.S. Army now reports that only 30% of 18-24 year-olds would qualify for military service. The rest, 7 out of 10, can’t qualify because they are too fat, didn’t graduate from high school or have a criminal record.  That’s a whole set of family related problems that effect our entire nation.

No system is perfect, but why sabotage it with promiscuity, divorce, single parent-hood, fatherlessness, and illegitimacy? These versions of family life don’t work very well. It’s been documented. We keep doing it because we are shopping for happiness and settling for what’s left.  Once you have children, it’s never about you again…they aren’t here to make you happy, you’re here to raise them.

 “The home is the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose, and that is to support the ultimate career.”   – C.S. Lewis

Today, all I can think about are my friends who are trying to figure out how to put their lives back together as a family without their wife/mother.

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I held a Jewel in my fingers
And went to sleep
The day was warm, and winds were prosy
I said, “Twill keep”

I woke – and chide my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own

– Emily Dickenson

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted…”

 

What Is Linklater’s “Boyhood” About?

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“He promised us that everything would be okay. I was a child, but I knew that everything would not be okay. That did not make my father a liar. It made him my father.”  – Jonathan Safran Foer

Did you see native Houstonian Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking film Boyhood yet? If you haven’t, then go see it THEN come back to read this post…

Everyone is talking about Boyhood because the film is a “documentary” of the life of Mason Jr. as he develops from a 6 year old until he arrives at college. The film took twelve years to make because he documented the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) throughout his progression through his “boyhood.”  This is what seems so remarkable to everyone. While watching the film one is dazzled at how seamless the transformations occur as Mason grows into adulthood. Of course we have all been raised on special effects and nothing should amaze us anymore. Perhaps what makes audiences so appreciative is the fact that they are witnessing a normal human process take place right before their eyes. A process that everyone witnesses all around them every single day, but probably takes for granted.

What was amazing to me about the film was something else.  While Mason was growing up in a single-parent home (as more than 40% of American children today are) he experienced many of the problems associated with this kind of life. Ultimately, upon reaching adulthood and launching off to college, Mason seemed completely lost and lacking any sort of direction and connection to meaning. For me it was a tragic story because I read the reports and know that this movie was probably very similar to the real experience of many of today’s teens and young adults. The most bitter aspect of this tragedy is that our society seems oblivious to what’s happening to our children because of our fickle commitment to family.

  • Mason was an unplanned birth by two young parents who divorced and did not maintain a healthy communication with one another.
  • Mason’s father was eager to create a meaningful relationship with his children but his own lifestyle prevented much stability. He only made sporadic visits. His children were unable to watch him model as a parent.
  • Mason’s mother, like most single moms, worked hard to make ends meet and ultimately decided to go back to school to increase her chances of a better paying job. This meant less time with her children as they were growing up. When she was with her children, time was not spent providing order and discipline but trying to create a close friendship.
  • The family, like most single families had to move and the children had to leave friends and schools behind. This created a level of constant chaos and emotional anxiety in their lives.
  • New stepfathers and step-families were created along the way as Mason’s mother tried to provide a better life for herself and her family. This often ended up exposing her children to unhealthy relationships, more abandonment and cynicism about adults.
  • Both Mason and his sister were initiated into drug use, alcohol and sex at an early age. Their mother seemed to condone the behavior, maintaining a friendship being her ultimate goal.
  • When Mason did have experiences with adults who tried to instill in him useful social values it was typically someone who he did not respect or who sounded like a step-father from his haunted past. Mason’s own father encouraged him as a free spirit while he himself was selling his hot rod and buying a mini-van.
  • An ironic scene in the film, Mason’s mother is teaching a college course in psychology. The lecture she is giving in this scene is about British psychologist John Bowlby and his attachment theory. Infant’s healthy attachments to primary caregivers (mothers and fathers) are essential for their later emotional development.
  • The actor who played Mason Jr., Ellar Coltrane, experienced the break up of his own family while he was making this film. He reports that one of the film crew ended up teaching him how to drive when it came time to get his license. That’s an important rite of passage for a son.

For me it was a very haunting experience as the film ended with Mason walking through the Big Bend scenery at sunset. He has traveled to the end of his childhood and was just as lost as a baby would have been. He was never given the healthy grounding in reality, the basic lessons about life, the foundational experiences of love and acceptance that all children ought to have in order to make a healthy and strong start to live.

I’m not naive, I realize that teens rebel and college kids can get really flaky. That’s not what I’m talking about here. Linklater wrote a script that seemed to present Mason as a harmless, sweet, genial yet completely lost young man once he journeyed off to college. He didn’t have anything to rebel against. In the film Mason’s mother and father never really spent the consistent and constant time instilling into him by their presence and practice what it means to love and be loved.

No one has a perfect family to grow up in. That’s not the point. My large point is that we are witnessing the disintegration of the core social institution in our civilization and no one seems very bothered. Less than 20% of American households are made up of a married couple with children. No one is raising any alarms. No one is calling it what it is – The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

When the film ended I was sitting in the the theater trying to catch my breath and process what I had just witnessed. I could hear people around me standing up and clapping.

“Civilization is a race between disaster and education.”  – H.G. Wells