Pollyanna Western Christianity

I have noticed something about western Christianity lately. Across all perspectives, from conservative through moderate to progressive, there is an assumption that we all live and always have lived perfect lives. They act as if we are all the family from Leave it to Beaver or from Cosby. Parents are always wonderful, they are never divorced, everybody has plenty of healthy friendships and platonic dating relationships, nobody struggles with addiction or mental illness, unemployment and domestic violence are unknown, nobody is slinging drugs on the street corner or shooting up your street. Therefore, parents are a lovely image for what God looks and behaves like, the Trinity tells us about how God exists in (healthy) relationship, heaven is just like being in church for eternity, and on it goes. They are mystified that their metaphors fall flat.

More than sixty percent of American children experience at least one of ten possible adverse childhood experience or ACE. Around fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, eleven million families (32%) with children under eighteen are single parent families, one in fifteen children are impacted by domestic violence and ninety percent of those children witness that violence – and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite all of this, many if not most Christian teachers and organizations continue to assume that Pollyanna examples based in an almost completely nonexistent worldview speak to anyone. Remember that the Cosby family on television was headed by a serial rapist when everything came to light. If you want to lead with the idea that the love of God is mirrored in the family, you are going to lose more than half of America in the process.

A healthy spiritual life engages reality rather than running from it or hearkening back to glory days that never existed. A healthy spiritual life also addresses real problems in real life, using relevant spiritual teachings that speak to contemporary circumstances. Teaching that God’s love is just like the love of parents when in truth one parent may very well be absent or addicted and the other neglectful simply isn’t helpful! In fact, it is damaging! Much more helpful would be proposing a God who suffers with us when we are transgressed upon and who motivates people to work in the helping professions so children (hopefully) may encounter them when those adverse childhood experiences occur. This would be a good first step, but it is far from adequate. Much work remains to be done as we build religious and spiritual systems that work for the future, but if we don’t do so in a way that speaks realistically to the lives and struggles then our efforts will be in vain.

What if you died and nobody cared?

My father died a couple of weeks ago. I found out last Thursday, but he died the Friday before that. The only reason I found out is that my brother’s ex-wife lives in Florida a few doors away from someone who used to live in the same town outside Milwaukee where my father and his current wife lived. Somehow this woman heard, and expressed her sympathy to my ex-sister-in-law, who then got in touch with my brother, who told me. As if that wasn’t convoluted enough, my father’s wife died two hospital rooms away from his and within eight hours of his death, but we aren’t sure if he knew she was in the hospital with him.

You might be thinking how sad and tragic this story is, but it isn’t. At least, that’s not why it is sad. It’s sad because, with the possible exception of my father’s sister-in-law, nobody cares.

You can’t live your life running away from every conflict and being concerned only with your addictions to work, booze, cigarettes, and money and expect people to be broken up when you pass away. I have been estranged from my father since I was eighteen years old. On my eighteenth birthday he flew into town, took me out for a drink, and told me he was never coming back. The next morning he told me he wouldn’t trade his travels for work for anything, even his family and children. Since that time I have had less than a dozen interactions with him. The last was especially egregious, but that isn’t really my story to tell. When people I met would occasionally ask if my father was alive, I would honestly say that he might have died and I wouldn’t know. It turns out that was prophetic. If my ex-sister-in-law hadn’t moved to that particular city in Florida, we might still not know.

My father was born to parents in their late thirties at a time when people didn’t have babies that late in life. It’s fair to say they didn’t plan to get pregnant. His mother was domineering and his father was a great man everywhere but at home, where he acquiesced to his wife’s demands at every turn. His father was a football coach and he was not a football player, setting up a dynamic where disappointment was a recurring theme. Not surprisingly, my father married a domineering woman. As they sunk deeper and deeper into addiction, she would verbally batter him every night and he would take the beating passively. Finally, he got up the courage to leave and never looked back – at any of us.

He was a man who could be wonderfully social, likely because his career required it, but the moment he left the party he forgot about everyone there. As he got older he developed a slightly paranoid bent, convinced that people were after his money. Perhaps he sensed that was all he really had to offer since he couldn’t feel, relate to others, or allow himself to become vulnerable. He is proof of the hole in the American Dream. He worked hard, made a lot of money, had a lot of toys, and found all of his validation doing those things. In the end, he died alone in a hospital room with nobody knowing he was there. Fitting, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder how many others there are just like him. I suspect there are more than a few.

Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.