Fruitful Families

Yesterday was my Grandmother’s birthday.  She passed away over 20 years ago, but I still cherish the memories I have of my time with her.  She was a woman of quiet dignity, gentle wisdom, and deep love for her family and neighbors.

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While I was still in my late teens and early twenties, my Gram started getting me interested in genealogy.  She had amazing stories that had been passed down through several generations, but she was unsure how many of them were “true” and how many had devolved into legend and half-truth.  Her stories became the first framework I used to research our family’s roots.  Over thirty years later, I have books and charts and databases filled with names, dates, stories, photos, mysteries, dead ends, twists and turns, surprises and more.  I have traced my own family, my husband’s family, related families, possible connections to famous people in history, and mapped out many of the locations where our families lived over the centuries.

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God created and instituted families, and I’m so grateful for mine.  In spite of the many tragedies and skeletons I’ve found along the way, one thing is clear.  God’s design for families is good and leads to hope, security, and fruitfulness.

All families are unique, but the design for families– the traditional family model–has been pretty consistent throughout the centuries and even across cultures.  It may not always be the “nuclear” family of a mother and father and two or three children in a single household.  Sometimes it is made up of multiple generations or nuclear groups sharing a house or living communally, and there have always been blended families, or single-parent households, but there is a consistent expectation of being able to trace one’s mother’s family line and father’s family line through at least two or three generations– knowing their names, where they were born, and when they lived and died.

As technology is advancing to make this kind of genealogical research even easier, society is pulling away from the traditional family model and making it harder and harder to find one’s “roots.”  Children live with a series of adults– “aunties” and “dads” who bear no biological relationship and no lifelong commitment to them.  Children whose fathers are nameless, faceless DNA donors, or whose parents left them to chase a career, or be with a new lover or a consuming addiction.  Grown children rebel and leave their families behind to mix and mingle with other free-floating adults, never desiring to continue a legacy of family ties.  Many people look upon this as “progress”– changing the definition of family…ironically, they use the term “relative” when talking about values and definitions, even as they redefine what it means to be a “relative.”

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God doesn’t love us less if we don’t come from a traditional family– certainly, He is the God of the orphan, the fatherless, and the widow.

Psalm 68: 4-6: (NIV, courtesy of biblegateway.com)

 Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
    extol him who rides on the clouds
    rejoice before him—his name is the Lord.
 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
    is God in his holy dwelling.
 God sets the lonely in families,
    he leads out the prisoners with singing;
    but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

God wants us in families– He wants us to grow and be fruitful.  “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” is a phrase often used about family members being alike in their thinking or actions or habits.  And so it is with families who grow and live together.  We may “fall” away from our birth families, and move miles away, but we will produce a new tree with the same fruit– fruit that nourishes communities and societies and new families.

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However, when we lose the pattern of families as God set them up, we lose a lot of other good things:

  • A sense of belonging–sure we all belong to the entire human race, and we shouldn’t become exclusive and tribal at the expense of our neighbors and others, but there is a point at which we want to know where we “fit” in the scheme of things.
  • Support and encouragement–I love my family; and I even like most of them!  But I recognize a bond that cannot be broken lightly, and it keeps pulling us together in good times and bad.  We are there for baby showers, funerals, weddings, house-warmings, graduations, and reunions.  As our family has grown, we can’t always be at every event, but I will never be without anyone.  There is a horrible epidemic of people who ARE living and dying alone– no family to visit or be visited; no family to talk to, or argue with, or share memories.  This breaks my heart, and it breaks the heart of the God who made us to be “relational.”
  • History and legacy–My life has a purpose and fits into a plan.  I am uniquely “ME”, yet I am also a daughter, sister, wife, step-mom, grandma, aunt, and cousin (and second-cousin once-removed, etc.).   I didn’t just appear out of thin air, and I won’t disappear without leaving a trace.  The choices I make don’t just impact my life.  This is important regardless of my history–I am the one who can change a bad legacy into a great heritage, or ruin a heritage and leave a legacy of pain for those I leave behind.

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  • Role models–Having roles within a family prepares us for having roles at work and in our communities– we learn to speak out, and to listen; we learn to ask for and offer help; we learn to respect others and earn the respect of those around us.  We don’t learn these lessons perfectly, because there are no perfect families.  But families provide a structure and pattern for teaching life lessons that is time-tested and approved.  Busy parents are aided by grandparents, uncles, and older siblings and cousins in modeling good behavior, correcting bad behavior, and answering questions ranging from “the birds and the bees” to how to braid hair or tie a necktie.  When that structure is missing, young people fall through the cracks in ways both small and crucial.
  • Seeing how God’s love works through the ages.  God doesn’t just love in spurts and impulses.  God’s love is eternal, and meant to be shared from generation to generation and spread from family to family.

 

I pray today that, just as my grandmother encouraged my love of family, that I will leave a legacy of love and faith for others in my life– those who are family by blood, and those who have become the family of my heart.  And I hope that others will pray for our families to stay true and strong and fruitful, too.

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M.I.A.

Yesterday was Father’s Day.  Father’s Day can be very difficult for many people– in my case, it can be a reminder of how much I miss my Dad, who passed away 20 years ago.  Some of my friends have had recent experience in losing a beloved father.  For some, the hurt is still there after 50 years, or 70.

For others, it is a difficult day, not because they grieve the loss of a father to death, but because they grieve the absence of a loving father– an absentee father, an unknown father, an abusive father, or a distant, cold, or critical father.

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At this point, I generally point to the Father who is eternally loving and faithful– Our Heavenly Father is God of the fatherless and the orphan, the God of restoration and reconciliation.  No matter where our earthly fathers are or have been, God is always right by our side.

All that is true, but I want to share something that’s been bothering me.  I scrolled down my FB feed, and listened in at church, and talked to a restaurant owner, and looked at the card section at the store.  And there’s something missing.  It’s not that we don’t honor fathers.  I saw a lot of wonderful tributes to dads, husbands, brothers, and sons.  I saw sons sitting with their recently widowed father at church; a son honoring his father by taking him out to eat; fathers and sons wearing awesome matching shirts with fun messages, and lots of old photos of dads with their families in years past, as well as newer pictures of dads with goofy toddlers, and pretty girls in prom dresses, and holding newborns.

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We honor fathers, but we do not honor Fatherhood.  We seem awkwardly proud and surprised when fathers actually show up and do their job.  We make it seem easy, even brainless, in comparison to the work of a mother.  In fact, there are those who argue that Fatherhood is not necessary for family life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is POSSIBLE to rear children in a single-parent household (male or female).  It is possible to raise strong and healthy children without the presence of a father (or mother).  But that doesn’t make it desirable or advantageous for a child, or for society.

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What are we losing as a society when we engage in (or stay on the sidelines for) a war on Fatherhood?  When we make excuses for bad fathers or mothers who choose to denigrate the men who gave life to their children?  What happens when “dad” becomes, not the name of a single influential person in your life, but the name of whichever man is currently living with mom, AND also the man who sees you every other weekend?  What happens when the media consistently portray moms as hardworking and wise, and dads are the comic relief?

We are losing the next generation of fathers; the next generation of men with drive and passion to work for something beyond their own whims and wants.  We are losing the next generation of women, too– as they struggle to be both mothers and fathers, or choose to be neither because it’s too much trouble to do it alone.  We are losing a sense of what it means to be a Father– the honor, the responsibility, the joy and pride, the reward.  Worst of all, we are losing the examples of fathers who through their words and actions, are pointing others to our Heavenly Father.  God is not a baby-daddy; He is not an absentee father or an every-other-weekend Father.  He is not a faceless provider of money for new clothes and college textbooks.  He is not a goofy guy who tells bad jokes and pats you on the head once in a while.  He is not the one who never shows up for your game or your dance recital because he’s too busy playing golf with the guys.

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This isn’t universally true– and I’m so grateful for the men, young and old, who are staying the course, setting the examples, and standing out like beacons of light.  And I don’t wish to belittle the women who have had to be both mother and father due to death or other circumstances beyond their control.  But we desperately need good fathers.  We need fathers who will fight the good fight; not fathers who are Missing In Action.  We need active, responsible, faithful Dads.  But we need to pray for them.  We need to honor them.  We need to encourage and support them.  More than just one day a year….

The Legacy of a Praying Father

My father was a quiet man.  He loved music, and jokes, and animals, and peaceful summer nights listening to crickets and sipping tea on the front porch.  My father was not a man of lengthy, eloquent prayers.  His prayers were often short, and sometimes punctuated with emotional tears.  But my father prayed.  He led our family in prayer and devotions; he prayed in church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.  He spent much time, head bowed, talking silently with his Savior.

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I spoke of a mother’s prayers last month, and they are important.  But fathers play a different role.  My mother’s prayers always seemed to wrap me in a cozy blanket of affection and hope.  My father prayers were more like an umbrella– spreading out over our family to seek God’s protection and grace.  Even if Dad’s voice wavered in prayer, his vocabulary was bold, filled with a rock-solid faith, and a deep sense of God’s power and wisdom ready to be poured out on our family.

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But the most lasting impression I have of my father’s prayers is that of Dad’s reverence for God.  I never, EVER, heard my father take the Lord’s name in vain.  (Not even when his favorite baseball team was losing– again!)  I never heard him express doubt of God’s care, His provision, or His wisdom.  He approached the throne of grace with awe and deep gratitude.  He never lost his sense of wonder at God’s creation, or his sense of awareness of and need for God’s mercy.

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We need men of prayer.  I am so grateful for a husband who prays– regularly, fervently, compassionately, and boldly.  What would happen in our world if more men prayed daily in the quiet of their homes or places of work?  Our society makes fun of men who pray on public platforms, praising themselves as much or more than they praise God.  It denigrates prayer as weakness and hypocrisy, but what if more men of faith led their families in daily prayer?  What if, with trembling voices, more men sought out wisdom and strength to meet the challenges they face, instead of putting on a brave but false face of independence and self-sufficiency?  What if, instead of excusing vulgarity and cursing, more men took the challenge to clean up their language and set better examples.

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If you know men of faith– take some time this weekend to let them know how much their good example means.  Encourage them to finish the race, to keep going, and to leave the kind of legacy that matters most.  And don’t forget to lift them up in prayer!

Jephthah or Jabez?

There are many great examples of prayer throughout the Bible, but there are two that are often used out of context and applied wrongly.  One is found in the book of the Judges; the other in the Chronicles.

Jephthah was a mighty warrior– the son of a mighty warrior and a prostitute.  He had several half-brothers, but they wanted nothing to do with him.  He was an outcast for much of his life, but when things got tough, the people of the region changed their tune and begged him to be their leader and help deliver them from the oppressive Ammonites.   Before going into battle, Jephthah prayed, and made a tragic vow.  In fact, his vow has become a model of what NOT to do in approaching God.

Judges 11:30-31 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
30 Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

Upon returning from his success in battle, who should come out of the door of his house, but his only daughter, singing and dancing in celebration of her father’s victory!  Having made such a rash vow, Jephthah now has to fulfill it, and sacrifices his only child on the altar.

Many people read this passage of scripture and are shocked– how could God be so cruel?  Why didn’t he stop Jephthah from making such a rash vow?  How could he hold Jephthah to such a vow?  Doesn’t this prove that God is either clueless or deliberately cruel?  Either God knew that the tragedy would happen, and failed to prevent it, or he had no idea  of the outcome.

But I think this is a misreading of events and a misrepresentation of God.  Just before Jephthah makes his vow, the text states that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.  He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced upon the Ammonites.”  People make note of the first part of verse 29, that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah prior to his making the rash vow.  But we should note that God’s Spirit did not require Jephthah to make ANY vow.   Jephthah’s vow was rash and ill-considered– these are not attributes of God or of His Spirit.  And God’s Spirit came upon Jephthah before he crossed his own native territory– territory he had fled early in life.  In crossing back through lands that now welcomed him after making him feel unwanted and ashamed, Jephthah gets cocky.  His vow is not about saving his nation from harm and oppression, or about bringing God glory.  It is about himself.  He mentions himself five times; his enemies, God, and his sacrifice, each twice; Israel never.  Jephthah had an incredible opportunity, not only to save his nation, but to redeem his reputation and become a leader of might and integrity.  Instead, he is remembered for his rash vow.  I believe that God could have stopped Jephthah from making such a vow, or kept his daughter from coming out of the house that day of her father’s return.  But I don’t believe it was cruelty that prevented him from acting.  I believe God is both omnipotent and good.  Jephthah learned the hard way that his rash self-promotion had disastrous consequences.  His daughter, who was innocent, could have berated her father, or cursed God– instead, she honored them both in a way that reflected her culture and teaching.  We are given a shocking reminder not to play games with our unknown future.  God does not keep us from our own folly, nor from its consequences, when we fail to seek His wisdom above our own pride.

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In contrast, we see another prayer in 1 Chronicles:

1 Chronicles 4:9-10 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez saying, “Because I bore him with pain.” 10 Now Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep me from harm that it may not pain me!” And God granted him what he requested.

Once again, this prayer is sometimes taken out of context and misused to suggest that God is like a genie in a bottle, and that a pain-free life and expanded riches are ours for the asking.  If we pray the prayer of Jabez, and we don’t see an immediate change in our circumstances, we sometimes question God’s goodness and His provision– doesn’t He care about our needs?  Doesn’t he hear our prayer?

Jabez, unlike Jephthah above, is described as honorable.  His prayer is more balanced and conscious of God’s sovereignty.  Jabez mentions himself five times, just like Jephthah; but he mentions God three times in supplication– asking God to be with him, help him, and bless him, rather than vowing what he can do for God if God grants him victory.    Notice also the context of the preceding verse.  His prayer is partly asking God to remove the sting and curse of his name, which meant “pain.”  He is not asking for enormous wealth or power, so much as asking for God’s presence and blessing.  There is a subtle, but important difference here.  Jephthah is playing at making a deal with God– If you grant me a victory, I will make it up to you by offering whatever comes out of my house.  Jabez comes with nothing, and asks God to be his portion and protection.  He makes no bargain with God contingent on God’s answer.  There is nothing in this prayer that assumes God’s riches will be his or that God owes him anything; only the faith that God is able to bless him, and that God, in his goodness can keep him from harm.

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Jephthah, or Jabez?  Two examples…two very different outcomes.  May we have the wisdom not to confuse the two, or lose the lessons they teach.

Our Father

Dad.  Daddy.  Pops.  Papi.  Da.  Father.

During my youngest years, I called my father “Daddy.”  Daddy was someone to hold me when I was tired, or frightened, or just in need of a hug.  Daddy had all the answers; he could turn my tears into giggles, my pouts into apologies.  His stern word could melt away rebellion; his smile could fill my heart to bursting.

As I grew older, he became “Dad.”  Dad was wise.  Dad gave good advise– even when I didn’t always take it.  Dad listened and showed interest in what I said.  Dad challenged me to do better, think deeper, try harder, and work smarter.  Dad didn’t pick me up and carry me, but he was there beside me when I needed someone to lean on or lend a hand.  Dad was my coach and advocate.

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As an adult, Dad sometimes became “Pa.”  Pa was someone who had “been there”.  He had experience, and wisdom.  He had patience and compassion.  But his days of coaching and propping me up were fewer; his days of sharing his own faults, his unfulfilled dreams, his regrets–commiserating rather than commanding– grew more and became more precious to me.  He was still my father, but he was also my friend– a fellow traveler on this road; one I knew well and loved dearly.  One I respected and trusted, even though he was not perfect.

I was blessed to have a father who was good and kind; a man of integrity and humor; a man who loved his family more than life, loved his neighbors, his community, music, nature, animals, and good food.  Most of all, he loved God.  Not with fire and brimstone fanaticism, but with humble astonishment that God would send his son to die for him.  He lived in the wonder of that truth– that “whosoever believeth (in him) should not perish, but have eternal life” included him.

I say all this, not just to honor my earthly father, or to thank my heavenly father for that relationship, but to point out how prayer is often a reflection of how we view fatherhood.  Some people have a difficult time praying and trusting God because they have never known an earthly father; or they’ve only known earthly fathers who were distant, unapproachable, or abusive.  If this is the case for you, may I encourage you to ask God to reveal himself in a fresh way, with a name and vision that is personal and distinct from the earthly father you have known.  Some people view God as “Daddy”–someone who fixes everything, holds us close, and keeps us safe.  And he is all those things.  But he is also “Dad” who wants to challenge us and coach us to grow and develop our character.  He is “Abba”, and “Senor”, “Lord,” and “Father” and “Papa”.  He is not “Pa” in the sense I knew my father, in that we are not his peers when we reach adulthood.  He has no faults to share, no regrets.  But he wants to share that precious intimacy that comes with time and familiarity–he wants us to develop trust and love as we get to know him better, however we call him.

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There is one clear difference between God and any of our earthly parents– God is GOD– he is the creator and ruler of galaxies, and of microcosms,  omnipotent and omniscient, omnipresent and eternal, holy and sovereign.

And when I pray, I pray to him– almighty King of Kings– and my Father!

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