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Sara Wenger Shenk
“It’s become clearer and clearer to me,” Mary Pipher, family therapist and best-selling author said in an interview, “that if families just let the culture happen to them, they end up fat, addicted, broke, with a house full of junk and no time.”
Families, Pipher writes, were once powerful institutions, strong enough to withstand assaults. But now almost every force in our culture works against families. At one time, she says, we helped kids differentiate from enmeshed families. Now we need to help families differentiate from the culture. “You cannot survive as a family if you just let the culture happen to you.”
For the first time in history children are not being socialized by their parents, she claims. Essentially they are being raised by appliances. And (shout a loud lament) multinational corporations have become our culture’s primary storytellers, teaching children what life is all about!
When I listen to Pipher talk about differentiating from the culture, I remember all the talk about “separation from the world” in my growing up years. We had it hammered into us that we were to be different “from the world”; with distinctive dress, rules on appliances, and plenty of talk about obedience and submission to community norms? Many of us fled what we felt were legalistic impositions on our creativity and freedom. And then we formed families that came to look a lot like everyone else. And ironically, many of our children now, rather than needing to break out of “all that stuff” and free themselves from the burdens of guilt and social control we fled, are looking for meaning, for guidance in making moral decisions, for accountability, and for communities where they can truly belong.
Pipher observes that many North American families today live in “houses without walls—at least walls that offer any protection.” Technology has brought the outside world into the living rooms. The media forms our community. The electronic village is our hometown. Yet ironically, with more entertainment we are more bored. With more sexual information and stimulation, we experience less sexual pleasure. With more time-saving devices, we have less time.
We need to disconnect families from forces that harm them and connect them to stories, practices and people that will help them. Where do we begin? Pipher suggests that we need to build walls that shelter families—walls that protect time and space, walls of rituals, celebrations and traditions. I think this metaphor is a helpful one, but I prefer to think of walls like cellular walls; protective but permeable membranes that keep the cell in balance; that regulate what comes in and out; that define the boundaries of the cell, preserving life.
Are we back to where we were a generation ago, separating ourselves off from much of the rest of the world? Not many of us will elect to be that radical. But I believe we as a church community must become counter-cultural with a renewed intentionality; not countering with a self-righteous over-against-ness; but countering mass-media culture with holistic, embodied practices and strong stories—with a culture that finds full expression in our homes, but is sustained by a vibrant, Christ-centered faith community.
So what are the protective membranes we use to shelter and nurture our families? How do we equip families with practices, stories, celebrations, daily rhythms that are supple and wise, crafted by generations of families seeking and finding what it takes to thrive?
The Shema, considered by some a “canon within a canon”, and surely a primary touchstone for familial formation, provides guidance that transcends all ages. It invites us into a full orbed alertness to God’s presence in our daily lives and the practices that form us—body, mind and soul—in this awareness: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NRSV
History can be read as practices that sustain human communities over time, write Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra in their book Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. “Christian practices are things Christian people do together over time in response to and in the light of God’s active presence for the life of the world.”
The good of all people, they say, may depend on our ability to order our lives well; to order them with practices that are concrete, physical, down-to-earth; gestures with which we touch, feed, wash, honor, heal, celebrate and release one another. Ask people to discuss a practice in the concreteness of their own lives, like morning and evening rituals, holiday festivities, picnics, gardening, singing, saying good-bye, and stories tumble out. Tears and laughter erupt. Connections are made. Admittedly, some of us feel trapped in practices that are stifling; practices need to be evaluated to see how truly life giving they are and regularly revised to better promote our well-being.
Practices are the stuff of which the good life is made. I’ve enjoyed revisiting Romans 12. “Do not be conformed to the world . . .” loudly reverberated in my childhood community. Now I hear that injunction only as a preface to: “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And the entire chapter bubbles forth with animated recognition of the abundance of good practices that characterize faithful families and communities.
A paramount practice mentioned throughout the Old and New Testaments is the Sabbath, a practice that holds great promise for us as families; a rather hidden and unsuspected promise, perhaps, but with huge prospects for transformation. Why Sabbath? Isn’t that about legalistic impositions and strait-laced rigidity? Sabbath is at the top of my list of practices to be recovered—not as a hard, unmoveable wall, but as a protective, breathing membrane that will keep our lives in balance. Why? Because our ability to revitalize life-giving practices is all about our relationship to time and the purported lack of time that is at the root of so many of our current ills. In the frenzy of our schedules, we often experience time as the enemy. Sabbath, writes Dorothy Bass in her book Receive the Day, is a practice for opening the gift of time.
Rest and renewal are expansive good gifts stewarded from the very dawn of time; built into the story of Creation itself. Sheltering space for Sabbath allows for many life-giving practices: assembling together for worship, giving and receiving forgiveness, celebrating the Lord’s supper, testifying to God’s faithfulness, offering hospitality around our tables, visits with extended family, relaxed space for conversation, long walks for reveling in God’s natural world, love-making, family games, afternoon naps, journaling. . .
Eugene Peterson observes that “If there is no Sabbath—no regular and commanded not-working, not-talking—we become totally absorbed in our own doing and saying, and God’s work is either forgotten or marginalized.”
I keep on my desk a wonderful quote from Leo Tolstoy: “One can live magnificently in this world, if one knows how to work and how to love, to work for the person one loves and to love one’s work.” I would suggest that Sabbath is for remembering who it is that one loves, so that one’s work (whether at home or elsewhere) is a work of love. Isaiah 56 and 58 offer powerful litanies reminding the people of Israel and others who joined in that the Sabbath is about covenant, joy, belonging, loosing the bonds of injustice, sharing bread with the hungry; Sabbath is when we come to delight in the LORD—and “ride upon the heights of the earth . . .” Is 58:14 NRSV.
Imaginatively reinvigorating practices that shelter families isn’t about adopting new church programs for ministry to families. It isn’t about providing therapy for dysfunctional, enmeshed families (or whatever other label we may impose). Inviting parents, families, and faith communities to actively cultivate practices and daily rhythms holds great promise for empowering them in relatively simple, attainable ways to shape a life they choose; to counter the overbearing pressures of an invasive, consumer driven mass culture by remembering how life-giving it is simply to go for walks together, to read and tell stories out loud, and to have neighbors over for a potluck. Families can readily be shown how to turn off the machines, to disconnect from forces that harm them and reconnect with stories, practices and people that sustain them. This is frontline missional agenda for faith communities.