“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful out of your insecurity. Love is not arrogant; it isn’t rude; Love does not always insist on doing things ‘my way’ on ‘my time’. Love is not irritable or put upon or resentful when you do something nice for other people. Love doesn’t rejoice when others make mistakes or turn out not to have their facts entirely straight. Love actually rejoices in even small victories when those around you show even a little bit of growth and promise. Love bears all things (especially when our loved ones are sick or dying, so maybe we could bear a little more just now); Love believes in people, even when they are shaky and not actualizing their potential. Love hopes and prays for the best, (especially for the difficult and the dysfunctional).”
As we turn towards a Holiday weekend, two headlines caught my attention, thinking about how our disparate families come together this time of year. The first one was Vice-President Dick Cheney’s girls. One of them, Mary, is gay and legally married. Her sister, Liz, is running for the Senate in the very conservative state of Wyoming. As you know, Liz, went on national TV, pronouncing her opposition to same-sex marriage, saying that she and her sister had ‘agreed to disagree’. She might have vetted that a bit more with her sister because her sister’s spouse and then her sister went on Facebook and posted material attacking her sister Liz for her retrograde views.
Can’t you see the former Vice-President carving the Turkey right now. So glad to have my girls home, even though they can’t even ‘Agree’ to disagree. How many of us had those dinners just degrade into controlled combat before the pumpkin pie gets served.
My father was something of a political mix. He was half Dick Cheney and half Donald Rumsfeld and my brother was is sort of mid-way between Teddy Kennedy and Che Guevara. In our twenties, before he quit drinking, he was very fond of prodding the old man, who fell for it every single time I have to say. No matter what the topic, it got louder and louder, more and more heated, usually with me in the middle, and each of them goading me ‘you don’t agree with him do you?’
I remember one time trying to say something conciliatory like ‘thank you for sharing your position with me’ but it came out ‘thank you for shouting your position at me.’ If the Redskins were losing that year, which happened a lot, I’d lean over to Kate and whisper, ‘get the kids ready and meet me in the car.’ Retreat! We didn’t know. We thought all families loved each other like this.
And the other headline was the feature article in the Economist on ‘How Civil Wars end’ that interviewed my son’s College professor. That is the title of his last seminar in Political Science, “How Civil Wars End”, fitting information for college graduates about to make their way in the wider world at present. The subject was Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and the many other hot spots around our globe. And they brought up the example of Lebanon in the 80’s and 90’s. As you know, Lebanon is divided between Christians, Shiite Muslims, and Sunni Muslims. And they tore each other apart for over a decade. By the way, that Civil War came to an end, as most of them come to an end, when outside countries stop funding the fighters. They run out of money pretty quick on their own and simply can’t continue the reign of destruction and are forced to the bargaining table.
But you know what else they found in Lebanon that was striking. It turns out that these divisions in Lebanese society are a whole lot more complicated than you might suspect from the outside. Once they started doing the studies on Lebanese families, the anecdotes turned out to be true. It turns out that, yes, the country is seriously divided between Christians, Shiites and Sunni’s. But it is also true that almost every single extended family has all three groups as part of their clan. Once the political leaders of the country disempowered the leaders of the militia’s, then they had the same problem that we all have, the challenge of getting our own extended families to make the peace with one another.
How do we blend these people together? I think it is a fitting example because it is happening right now all across our world. And it is a very good way to understand most of what you see in the Middle East today.
In 2002, I was on sabbatical in North Africa with my wife, daughter and niece. We had just left Tunis on a taxi towards a resort hotel on the Mediterranean and our driver wanted to stop for tea in a dingy little crossroads village in the desert. We got out of the car and I saw a girl, probably 12 years old, in one of the alley ways. She wasn’t in the burka yet, a tween, and she had on a European three quarter sleeved shirt, so I walked up a bit to get a better view. Here were these building, probably a couple centuries old in a society that has hardly changed at all in the past two centuries, with tea samovars essentially unchanged in the past thousand years poured by women with Henna tattoos, designs over a thousand years old as well. Nothing ever changes out here in the desert. I get closer to this girl and you know what it says on her T-shirt? Abercrombie and Fitch.
I thought to myself at the time, this is what these Mullahs are so alarmed about. They are losing the culture war to MTV, the world over. Burka vs. Surfers? Young people the world over are going with the surfers, much cooler.
10 years later, I was probably watching her on TV, now 22, protesting as the whole country of Tunisia had a momentary revolt against the stifling traditionalists in their country. Now they were all taking pictures of the movement with their cell phones, posting them on Facebook for the whole world to see. And just like that, some kid that had been exiled to the solitude of the desert in Africa, was connected to the rest of the world and totally transformed by this connection as well.
We know how much our children have been changed by inner-connective technology, but young people in these traditional societies are being changed even more. Our culture has had 500 years to go through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Each of them were gut wrenching changes in the way we viewed the world and the values that we have. These societies are having those changes over 500 years compressed into a single generation, perhaps two. Just imagine what those extended families are going through.
We all know what it is like when part of our families go to college and the others don’t, how differently they see the world, how differently they value things, like Archie Bunker and his son-in-law. We know how differently it is when your Aunt has the old traditional religious faith- for most of us here it is Catholic- and the younger people in the family that want to be spiritual but just can’t accept the old way of thinking and the old ways of piety from yesteryear. Multiply those frictions by several fold in all those families across the Middle East. The Civil War is not going on between people far away from each other, it is people in every extended clan as well.
The challenge is that we are all blended families now. We all have a very similar challenge of how to get along when we are really different. I wrote an op-ed earlier this summer for the Star Ledger supporting same sex marriage, noting that the religious argument against it was that it would undermine the ‘traditional family’. This is what I said, “In our extended families, there is no such animal as a ‘traditional family’. There are only blended families. I can’t think of an extended family that doesn’t have a divorce or two that complicates the picture, or a family that doesn’t have a couple who have adopted children often from other nations.
Of the families that attend our church, I am hard-pressed to think of one that doesn’t have interfaith or intercultural challenges. What binds them all together is their common quest to live in meaningful, loving relationships with one another, hopefully helping each other to thrive and find our place at the table.
Last Sunday at coffee hour, I spoke to an Italian Catholic father who married a woman from the Philippines when they were in medical school. They adopted twin girls from Korea and are raising them as Protestants, largely because we are committed to diversity, with inclusive support and acceptance.
Another father was raised Catholic, married a half Jewish woman, had two children of their own and adopted a third child who is African-American. So their extended family includes Irish, Italian and Eastern European Ashkenazi wings. With their adopted daughter, they also have a black Baptist wing.
So when I talked to two gay fathers, one from the U.S., the other from Europe who have adopted two bi-racial sons, it seemed to me that they have more in common with the other blended families around them than differences. All of them are seeking to ground their children with an identity, a place, a belonging.
All of us want to give the next generation a set of values that can help them find their way and negotiate the moral complexities life will surely throw at them. And all of these children want to be accepted for who they are, with their families helping them to develop a story of how they are uniquely appreciated for who they are.
In my Christian tradition, we are taught that God loves all of us and that we are all children of God, first and foremost. Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet, where we all have our place at the table.
Perhaps it was easier for us to get sidetracked with the argument for the traditional family back when we lived in County Cork or West Texas and were surrounded by people like us, pretty much from the same ethnic background with the same religious and cultural sensibilities. But we haven’t been living like that for quite a long time. And the process of blending has been much more interesting than the quaint segregation of yesteryear, has it not?
No, we need traditional values more than ever to genuinely blend our families with love. We need the traditional value of gratitude for the uniqueness of each person and generosity that reaches out to include people who are different. We will need the traditional values of compassion to meet others where they are, and the love that helps them bloom from within.
We need the traditional value of reconciliation that softens the very real edges of difference to work toward an extended family that we can all call home. We need a vision of peace where we are all normal, blended and a work in progress.”
So this week, when you are on the commute Wednesday, surrounded by the teeming masses in transit to all points out of New York, and your thoughts turn toward the extended family reunion with all of your quirky relatives and in-laws, I do hope you will remember that almost all of them are like that.
I hope that you will have a moment of reflection, a moment of resolve, that you are going to be more of a thermostat setting the emotional and spiritual temperature with those around you and less like a thermometer, simply registering and reflecting back the spiritual and emotional mood of your extended clan. May you radiate God’s love to those around you from the center of your being and not simply reflexively respond to oft used triggers that your family fires at you on autopilot. May you be a beacon of grace and acceptance beguiling your people to engage their better sides. And may you creatively figure out a way that everyone around you can find a place at the table that you’ve been privileged to share with those that you love.
St. Paul was right. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful out of your insecurity. Love is not arrogant, it isn’t rude; Love does not always insist on doing things ‘my way’ on ‘my time’. Love is not irritable or put upon or resentful when you do something nice for other people. Love doesn’t rejoice when others make mistakes or turn out not to have their facts entirely straight. Love actually rejoices in even small victories when those around you show even a little bit of growth and promise. Love bears all things (especially when our loved ones are sick or dying, so maybe we could bear a little more just now); Love believes in people, even when they are shaky and not actualizing their potential. Love hopes and prays for the best, (especially for the difficult and the dysfunctional).”