Friday, May 29, 2009

Getting Along At Home

During Christian Home Month in May, I preached a message one Sunday morning on sibling rivalry.

That familial phenomenom can be a very unpleasant thing. I recounted one episode from my childhood about a long, tiring, hot summer family vacation to East Point, GA in the early 1960's(no interstate, no car airconditioning) when my middle brother, Don, and I must have picked at and fussed with one another all day in the backseat. Upon arriving at our destination I was so exasperated, I boldly exclaimed, in front of the whole family and our hosts, "You're not my brother anymore!" And slinked away and pouted.

Fortunately that spat didn't last long and soon we were playing together again. I don't recall that there was ever much ongoing tension between us. Sure, we argued and competed like most kids do, but we pretty much got along. Now my 2 brothers are among the most admired people and closest friends in my life.

Sibling rivalry can get ugly, though. Anger, jealousy, and bitterness among brothers and sisters often leads to scheming and conniving and not speaking and frantic attempts to be first.

It's interesting that this sinful relational pattern shows up in the patriarchal stories of Genesis 12-50. The homes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were afflicted with it in dramatic ways.It appears throughout the Bible. You'll find it in Cain and Abel and in the boyhood and later families of David. There's a hint of it between the 2 sisters, Mary and Martha, in Luke 10. It's certainly displayed in the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

This friction among siblings is perhaps most graphically demonstrated in Genesis 25:21-28 in the interplay of Jacob and Esau. It becomes clear here that in many cases parental favoritism is behind these outbreaks of rivalry in the younger set. Why is it that moms and dads often favor one child over the others? Or parents are split in their affections for the children in their home? Why is it that we don't appreciate and relish the uniquenesses of our kids, seeing them as God's gifts to us, and go on to love them all, differently but equally?

As Genesis 27:35-41 reveals, unresolved sibling rivalry can have terrible consequences. Fractured families, threats of violence, and bitter separations can result. Rebekah, who plotted and manipulated and deceived to secure a paternal blessing for her favorite son, Jacob, and then had to send him away to protect him from his brother's wrath, probably never got to see him again. What a heavy price to pay.

Jesus shows us a better way! He is, after all, our loving Elder Brother(Hebrews 2:11). In that intriguing story that he tells of a father and his 2 sons in Luke 15, he paints a picture of a beneficent dad who loved both of his boys, just in different ways. Jesus speaks of a father who took the time and made the effort to tenderly, truthfully, intimately communicate with each of his sons and delight in their presence. There was no need for rivalry in a home like that.

And Esau himself, the cheated angry sibling of Jacob in that Genesis narrative, illustrates a beautiful way to bring an end to simmering conflict between brothers. In chapter 33, he takes the initiative and moves toward his estranged sibling. God had been at work in his heart, apparently, and he evidently decided "enough is enough" and goes to meet Jacob with an embrace and tears and forgiveness and reconciliation. It is one of the most touching scenes in scripture. Somebody has to go first. Somebody has to make the attempt to break the painful cycle of distrust and suspicion and resentment. Then genuine healing can begin.

If Psalm 133:1 is true when it says "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity" then parents should foster this close, developing affection among their offspring and the steadily maturing children should perennially safeguard and maintain and cherish it. Life is too short for animosity and backbiting and division. Nothing is more satisfying than a peaceful, joyous family.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Family Secrets

Secrets in a family or church can have devastating results.

They concern those things that go on that nobody wants to talk about. They're like elephants in the room that everybody knows are there but refuse to confront. They create threatening shadows of suspicion and anxiety and tension that drain off energy and openness and joy.

Maureen McCormick could tell you something about the negative power of secrets. She's the actress who played Marcia on the TV sitcom The Brady Bunch 40 years ago. In her intriguing memoir, Here's The Story, she candidly recounts her decades-long journey through depression, drug abuse, self-image problems, and difficult relationships. She was very much unlike the ideal, happy teenager she portrayed on television and her trek into early womanhood was filled with disappointment and some destructive passages.

McCormick, now 52, traces a lot of her personal emotional pain and bad choices to an unpleasant family secret about syphilis, passed from her grandmother to her mom, that brought about severe psychological and physical effects for both of those women in Maureen's life. Maureen would only learn about this sensitive matter when she was a teen, and then simply because other family secrets generated by it started tumbling out. But she had sensed for a long time a heavy cloud over her family. Now for her there would be the stress of fear over whether she would inherit the disease. She found real solace on the set of the imaginary TV family in which she was a part since there was such friction and distress in her actual home. Even there, though,in that artificial environment, she struggled to maintain a perfectionistic image. These days, fortunately, she considers herself a survivor who has faced up to and worked through some of the bad stuff from the past. Odd, isn't it, how one little hidden secret can spin off such waste of years and lead down such lifestyle deadends.

Those things we can't bring ourselves to talk about, like abuse or alcoholism or affairs or mental illness or incest don't just go away. Sweeping them under the rug won't help. Try keeping a beach ball under the water! These family secrets have a life of their own and produce waves and vibrations of discomfort and discord that hang in the air. In churches, too, those significant issues that we've never resolved, like past conflicts or pastoral terminations or poor financial practices or episodes of immorality are unfinished business that color everything we attempt to do now and continually seem to haunt us.

This is not a new phenemenom. It shows up in the Bible, too. In fact, in the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph in Genesis we find many illustrations of secrets that had hurtful and in some cases harmful impacts.

For instance, on at least 2 occasions, in chapters 12 and 20, Abraham and his wife Sarah travel to other places and he actually asks her to lie to the ruling authorities and say that she is his sister rather than his wife so that should those kings desire her because of her beauty, Abraham would not be put to death so that they might take her as their own. Here, by the way, is convincing proof that God uses even flawed individuals--Abraham was known as a man of great faith and yet at this point he stumbles in a kind of ugly compromise. He was putting his wife at real risk with this deception. She could have been forced into a marriage with one of those rulers, had children with him, and endangered God's promise of a line of descendants through Abraham. You have to wonder if Sarah ever really shared her heart about this cowardly act with her husband or if it just set up something of a wall between them from then on. You have to wonder, too, if they ever told their son, Isaac, about this foolish mistake when he was old enough to understand. Maybe not, because in chapter 26, years later, he himself tells the same kind of lie about his wife, Rebekah, out of fear. Talk about multi-generational transmission of bad relational patterns!

You see another type of secret in Genesis 29 where Leah, caught in a loveless marriage, never seems to be able to express her unfulfilled longing for her husband, Jacob. Given by her father, Laban, to this man who really wanted her sister and eventually got her, too, she had children by her husband but never really won his heart. It's obvious by the names she gave to their children that she talked to God about her loneliness and hurt but you get the impression that she didn't open up in a frank, intimate conversation with her spouse and disclose her deep desires and affections and yearnings for close attachment with him. She lived in real misery. Jealousy and a sense of rejection tormented her. Why is it that sometimes we go through life without having those soul-to-soul talks with those close to us that might bring such inner connection?

Leah's sister, Rachel, Jacob's other wife, forged a secret that could have had horrendous consequences. In Genesis 31 we read of how she and her whole family are fleeing from her crafty, manipulative father, Laban, to return to Jacob's homeland. She clandestinely steals some figurines, some pagan idols, from her dad's house. When Laban pursues this departing entourage and finally catches up with them, he demands the return of these little statuettes from whoever took them. Jacob knows nothing about the theft. Rachel has not told him. He boldly authorizes the death of anyone in his party found to have them, completely unaware that he is putting his wife's life in jeopardy. Through a further act of deception, Rachel manages to hide the fact of her wrongdoing and keep the images, but the outcome of this undisclosed sin could have been most unpleasant. A family could have been violently ruptured because Rachel privately coveted and took something she didn't need and shouldn't have stolen.

Perhaps the most heartwrenching secret in these Genesis narratives shows up in chapter 37. Jacob's sons, bitter and angry over his parental favoring of Joseph, whom they see as arrogant and boastful, consider killing the young man but ultimately decide to sell him into slavery. However, they lead their father to believe that his pride and joy has been killed by some wild animal. The light goes out in Jacob's soul. His grief is overpowering. He has no idea that his son is still alive. And those brothers maintain that secret for many years. Imagine the loss of transparency that now existed between these sons and their father. Try to grasp the ongoing tension that these guys lived with daily not knowing if Joseph would suddenly return. Picture the heightened suspicions that flowed among these men as they wondered if one of them would break ranks and tell their dad and expose their evil deed. They paid a price for their clinging to a secret. It would be hard to live with much zest and focus.

Ironically, and providentially, it would fall to Joseph to clean up a lot of this relational dysfunction that had wounded this family for generations. According to Genesis 39-50 this young man ended up in Egypt and after many twists and turns, ups and downs, he becomes a ruler there. When his brothers come to that country years later, seeking food in a time of famine back home, they stand before the brother they'd despised and abandoned unaware of his identity. He recognizes them, though, and begins a process of healing and reconciliation with them. It's done with tears. It's done with truth. It's done with time. This loving confrontation was hard work but Joseph took the initiative and stepped up and broke the cycle of rivalry and dishonesty and pain. The secrets were out. Everyone could breathe again. Mending of tattered relationships could take place.

Tender, open, intimate dialogue in our families and congregations could pave the way for stronger, healthier, closer ties among us. Harboring secrets keeps us in the dark and distant from each other, which in turn breeds all kinds of evil strategies and addictions and manipulations to help us cope with the insecurity and alienation that we feel. Life is so much freer and fuller and more relaxed when we're not hiding stuff. Granted, you don't want to spill the ugly garbage of a lifetime all at once and without sensitivity to the age and maturity level of your listeners, but gradually and gracefully turning loose of long locked away emotional and relational toxins will revolutionize your life. You won't have to live on pins and needles. You won't have to be constantly looking over your shoulder.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Genesis Stories And Church Health

I'm encouraged by the fact that there has been renewed emphasis in recent years on church health, not just church growth.

A sick congregation will usually find it very difficult to grow, and if it somehow manages to, it will simply be spreading toxicity.

It's interesting that some of the events in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-50 illustrate inappropriate and ineffective ways to deal with issues in church life. Key personalities in those ancient stories demonstrate approaches in handling concerns that actually foster relational pathology when utilized in modern day local assemblies.

Take, for example, the destructive power of keeping secrets. Jacob could tell you a thing or two about that. In Genesis 31, his wife, Rachel, steals the set of household idols belonging to her father, Laban, as she and her family stealthily flee his home. She does not tell her husband what she has done. When Laban catches up with them and demands back the stolen figurines, Jacob authorizes the death of anyone in his party found to have them. Fortunately they are not uncovered because of further deception on Rachel's part, but this episode obviously could have ended very badly. Years later Jacob again found himself the victim of a devastating secret. In Genesis 37, some of his sons lead him to believe that his favorite son, Joseph, was killed by a wild animal when they know that he is really still alive, sold by them, in their jealousy and hatred, to slave traders. Jacob would now live in unnecessary grief and sadness and darkness. The brothers would experience a psychological wall between them and their dad, and shame and guilt and suspicions and fears among themselves. The whole family would be haunted by this for years.

In congregations where critical underlying issues are never brought up to the surface for exposure and illumination and resolution, fellowship will suffer. When only a handful of members is privy to pertinent information that could make a difference, doubts and questionings will arise and a lack of intimacy and team spirit will result. An unholy spiritual bacteria will invade the ranks that will generate distancing and loss of joy. Secrecy breeds darkness, which in turn provides a setting for all kinds of undesirable consequences.

Some churches, and the individual members who make them up, choose to run from problems. Once again, Jacob offers some insight because it seems that he was always running. In Genesis 27-28 he's fleeing his home due to the murderous rage of his brother, Esau. He gets far away, to the home of his uncle, Laban, but he finds there, in addition to some blessings, a whole new set of disturbing issues. Plus, there's still a lot of unresolved stuff inside him that hasn't been worked through yet. After many years, Jacob takes off once more, again in a clandestine way. Only a gripping encounter with God and a beautiful reconciling experience with his sibling, recorded in chapters 32-33, get him to the point where he really starts to face up to crucial matters and change and grow up.

Church members who flit and hop from church to church at the first sign of trouble or because they aren't noticed or appreciated enough or because their "needs" aren't being met or because they had a falling out with someone do themselves as well as the next congregation to which they link up a real disservice. There's no way we can advance in spiritual maturity if we're always on the run and not dealing with the internal heart issues and the external relational concerns that we find where we are now. And carrying our unfinished business and emotional garbage to the next church we join can hurt them. Local assemblies that push significant matters and conflicts under the rug without confronting them and handling them with loving truthfulness will usually be stymied and will often atrophy.

Certainly in churches where there is political manipulation, such as that cooked up by Jacob's mother, Rebekah, in Genesis 27 in order for him to get his father's blessing or where there are calculated attempts to get a group of people to conspire to achieve their own selfish ends, as we see with Joseph's brothers in chapter 37, anger, pain, hurt, and division will eventually surface. Deception and backroom manueverings seldom have positive conclusions in congregations. Little cliques and small groups of bitter folks who take church matters into their own hands usually make a mess of things.

We probably can best learn the right way to function in church life if we look at the example of the final of the great patriarchs, Joseph. He managed to straighten out years of multigenerational dysfunction and ultimately bring his family together in healing and reconciliation. And he didn't sacrifice truth to do it. Tears and the often difficult work of honest, loving confrontation pulled it off. See for yourself in chapters 42-50.

Maybe that old, old book of Genesis is the best manual we could ever find as we try to develop strong, healthy, thriving local fellowships in these challenging days!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Making Music

I had a delightful experience Monday afternoon and evening this week.

On my way home I stopped by First Baptist Church to take in some of the Virginia Baptist Senior Adult Festival of Praise being held there. Choirs of older saints from congregations around our state met to individually perform and to make up one big mass choir that would work on and present a short musical. I thoroughly enjoyed the 6 hours I gave over to this event.

The fellowship with some old friends and the making of some new acquaintances was marvelous. On hand was our own Rachel Pittman, who serves as Music secretary at FBC and who obviously worked hard in making many of the preparations for this gathering. Also there was Roger McGee, the very creative Minister of Music at my brother Don's church in Alexandria along with his "Jubilee Singers". Jana Wolfe, the lovely and gifted Music Minister from Mount Hermon Baptist in Danville, Don's former pastorate, was present with a contingent of her choir members. At dinner I sat with choristers from Liberty and Memorial churches locally, and across from Suzanne Buckingham and her pastor-husband. Suzanne used to come to my home church in Suffolk from Hampton to sing when her brilliant father, the late Dwight McSmith, would venture over to speak to our youth group or in that pulpit decades ago. It was a real privilege to meet David Schwoebel, the incredibly talented Minister of Music at Derbyshire Church in Richmond, who served as the piano accompanist for the large-group rehearsal times. He is known nationally as a composer of choral church music, and played my very favorite instrument with such delicacy and grace.

I suppose the highlight of the day was getting to see and hear Bob and Esther Burroughs again. I was first exposed to them over 30 years ago when I was a student at Samford University in Birmingham,AL and they were a part of the faculty, he in the School of Music and she as Director of Student Ministries. Even then he was recognized as one of the premier musicians, composers, and arrangers in Baptist life. She has gone on to become a leading speaker and writer and Christian communicator all across America. Bob, who has crafted songs sung by millions of us Baptists, was the guest clinician Monday. He was fun to listen to and watch. He directs with flair and exudes grace. He would alternately chide, playfully, that large choir, and gently teach musical techniques and mix it all up with the sharing of personal experiences from his long career. Esther was magnetic as she led out in the devotional times and spoke on themes appropriate to senior adults, such as grandparenting and mentoring and keeping laughter in your heart. She shared from the wellspring of a rich, full life. It was an honor for me to personally take the opportunity to thank them, separately, for what they have meant over the years to the Baptist family.

I went on home Monday night with my cup full. My soul was refreshed and inspired and invigorated. I guess somewhere down deep in my spirit that old dream of mine was rekindled yet again--that dream of getting to Heaven one day, instantly learning all there is to know about music, and becoming a concert pianist to the glory of God, traveling all over the universe presenting programs of praise. Or getting the chance to be a choral conductor who leads massive choirs all through the distant galaxies age after age in lifting musical adoration to the Lord. Or just being a simple, single part of that heavenly chorus whose membership is without number. Preachers probably won't have a job anymore over there...but musicians will! Eternally.

Thank you, good new friend Tom Ingram of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, for designing such a wonderful event. May it grow year after year. I wish more folks saw the value of taking a few days off each year to get with a couple hundred other Christians to just, as Bob Burroughs said, "make music."