“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).”
I was reading an article this week in the Economist, with a title that was apt for the moment ‘How Civil Wars end’. That is the title of the course my son took as his last seminar in Political Science at Columbia University. I remember thinking “How Civil Wars End” might just be the topic best suited for this generation of college graduates about to enter the work world.
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, the Civil War in Lebanon 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 dis-empowered 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 mend these people together again? I think it is a fitting example because it is happening right now all across our world.
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 four centuries old in a society that has hardly changed at all in the past four hundred year, 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, the world is getting smaller now, more interconnected.
This is what these Mullahs are so alarmed about, even in the middle of the desert in North Africa. 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, she would have been 22 then, protesting “The Arab Spring” 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 in the West 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.
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 for the Star Ledger supporting same sex marriage a while back. I was responding to a religious leader that had argued that gay marriage would undermine the ‘traditional family’.
This is what I said, “In our extended families, there is no such animal as the ‘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.
I was thinking of families like the Ferrante’s. He is an Italian Catholic father who married another Catholic woman from the Philippines when they were in medical school. They adopted twin girls from Korea and are raising them at Christ Church as Protestants, largely because we are committed to diversity, with inclusive support and acceptance.
I was thinking of the Trangucci’s. He 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, 23 and me DNA sample, includes Irish, Italian and Eastern European Askenazi wings. With their adopted daughter, they also have a black Baptist wing.
I was thinking of Scott Nelson and Giao, two gay fathers, one from the U.S., the other from Europe who have adopted two bi-racial sons. 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, but we need those traditional values applied 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 than us. We need the traditional value of compassion to meet others where they are, (gay, straight, transgendered) and the traditional value of 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 traditional vision of peace where we are all normal, blended, and a work in progress.”
So next weekend, when you join the teeming masses in transit to all points out of New York for Memorial Day weekend 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 at your reunion, 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).”
May you embody those traditional values and let’s mend the Civil war all around us with love. Amen.