Essay

Navigating The Hard Family Conversations After An Election

By November 15, 2016 5 Comments
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by Chuck DeGroat

“How in the world do I do Thanksgiving this year?” my friend asks, with tears in her eyes. Can you relate? No matter the election result a week ago, family conversations were sure to be tense.

After the many really wise blogs on The Twelve this week, I’ve been asked by friends and students to offer something practical. I’m not much for how-to’s, but I’ll do my best to provide some navigational tools for you. Forgive me, in advance, if this post is a bit longer than usual.

Honoring and Hating Mother and Father

There are many fascinating apparent contradictions in Scripture. How about this one? In Exodus 20, we’re called to honor our mother and father. Yet in Matthew 12, Jesus asks, “Who is my mother/brothers?” In Luke 14 he makes hating our family a prerequisite for discipleship.

To honor our parents is to see them as God’s image-bearers uniquely bonded to us as kin. We do not easily dismiss a relationship with a family member (I’m never, ever coming to Thanksgiving with you again!) like we may a work acquaintance. However, while honor implies respect as a kin and image-bearer, it does not require agreement. Moreover, it absolutely does not mean submitting to abuse of any kind. Perhaps this is why Jesus makes his case so forcefully. In Christ, a new family/community is being formed (Galatians 3, Ephesians 2). Those invited to the table in this new Kingdom/family don’t have the time for intramural family disputes. They are the poor in Spirit, the weak, the lonely, the marginalized. They are the refugee family in your community, the Muslim family in your cloistered white neighborhood, the blue collar rust belt family feeling left behind.

I told my friend, “Nothing in the Bible says you need to go home for Thanksgiving.” She sat in stunned silence. “It feels so dishonoring to my family. How do I decide?” she asked.

Do Your Inner Work

In my friend’s family, to miss a holiday is an unforgivable sin. Families have many unwritten rules. Call regularly. Don’t challenge Mom or Dad. Never fight. Vote correctly. My friend realized that to miss Thanksgiving would violate an important rule.

She’s been doing the important work of differentiation, though. In other words, she’s becoming an adult – finding her own voice, owning her own feelings, engaging God and others not from a posture of what she should do but what she wants to do. In a healthy family where members are differentiated, difference is held, respected, and valued, and mere appeasing, avoiding, or convincing is rejected. She was anxious about her family, where avoidance is privileged until Dad decides to share his indisputable opinion on something.

We walked through a paradigm I used in a book I once wrote. It’s a paradigm on wisdom and foolishness. It goes something like this: A wise person is able to engage the tension, hold differences, and relate compassionately. A fool is unaware of his blind-spots, refuses to see them, and relates from a place of certainty. The variations in-between are many. She said, “I fear that my family relates more foolishly. I can’t imagine anyone ever apologizing and they’d never take the time to listen to me, especially right now.”

She made a hard decision, one that is sure to cost her in the months ahead. But within a day she had invited a refugee family to her apartment for Thanksgiving. Her choice was to sacrifice the intramural family games for a Kingdom family opportunity. She arrived at it reflectively, through prayer and counsel, and with a commitment to the do the hard work of honest conversations with her family in the weeks ahead.

Prepare to be Misunderstood

My friend remained anxious. “I just hate feeling misunderstood,” she said. “Plus, this feels lonely and isolating.” We talked. She said that in her family painful or negative emotions are almost always ignored. She told me that two of her siblings tolerate toxic marriages because the value is staying together, staying loyal. Because she voted differently than her family and because she was choosing to miss Thanksgiving, she feared gossip and judgment. “Our family is a mess, and suddenly I’m the black sheep,” she said through tears.

Prepare to be misunderstood. Hold that tension. We all long to be understood, and we will go to great lengths to get people to hear us.

“What do you fear?” I asked my friend.

“I fear they won’t want to know what I feel, put me in a box, label me, and discard me, but never, ever look at their own issues,” she said.

“What do you need?” I asked.

“My church community – the people who know me. I need to be heard and understood.”

What do you need right now?

Listen and Act

I was surprised…maybe even shocked…on Tuesday night last week. I didn’t expect Trump to win. My black brothers and sisters were not surprised. I don’t like being surprised. I’m supposed to know better! (More ego to do battle with…)

I’ve committed my last three years to reading and listening outside of my echo chamber. In my arrogance, I thought that I had a bead on things. Many of my friends have expressed the same. And yet, now my reading (and listening) list is growing to include books and articles on rural realities, including JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

You see, underlying our political policy commitments are hopes and dreams, fears and concerns. These are what animate our passions. A friend of mine has strong opinions on climate change, but what animates him is his longing to see a groaning creation renewed and restored. Another friend is passionately anti-abortion, but what animates her is her own story of terminating a pregnancy. I was surprised to hear her say that she gets frustrated with pro-life activists who talk big but don’t champion the healthcare of young women, particularly in urban contexts. She is a champion of under-privileged women. Still another friend is passionate about seeing white, privileged folks like me have their eyes opened to the scourge of implicit bias and institutional racism. She said this past week that her commitment to the Kingdom is unwavering.

I listened curiously to three Trump supporters this week. Each conversation was encouraging. To my great surprise, each of them said things I wouldn’t have expected because of pre-judgments. Each longs to see corruption in Washington end, and hopes a Trump presidency will be the shake-up the system needs for reform. Each expressed a disgust for the incidences of racial and sexist violence, and pledged to speak out against it. And each asked me: How are you doing?

A friend sat with me in my office on Friday. He saw my sadness. He knows me well enough to know that I’ve got a contemplative-bent. I’m a deep drinker of the mystics and practice contemplative prayer. He said, “I guess you’ll close your door when I leave and do some meditation.”

I responded, “Yes, and probably more than usual. But in the name of Christ and for the sake of the Kingdom it’s also time for me to roll up my sleeves.”

I told my friend that I made the mistake of trusting that the government could fix injustice, that our first Black President would end the scourge of racism and call us all to become our better angels. He laughed. “I think a bunch of folks are thinking the same way about Trump right now.” I realized that now may be a time not just of grief but of repentance for me, personally.

A bit earlier that day I’d been reading from Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well. I asked him if I could read an excerpt to him. We sat in silence after I read it, with a common sense of desire that we could become the kind of Christian community this second-century apologist wrote about. I’ll leave you with the words from the Epistle to Diognetus with the hope that this kind of new family and new community might become our reality, as well…now more than ever.

Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle. While they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh”, but do not live “according to the flesh”. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life. Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.

 

Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Chuck DeGroat

Chuck teaches Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His sojourn as a pastor meandered through Orlando and out to San Francisco, where he started church counseling centers in both places. Chuck is a church consultant, a therapist, a spiritual director, and author of four books. He’s married to Sara and has two teenage daughters.

5 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This is excellent. I have heard of so many “We can’t have Thanksgiving” stories already.

  • Fran Siems says:

    Has it not occurred to any of you theologians, professors, etc., that perhaps the election result was God’s will, and that, in His wisdom, it is His plan to try to teach us something?

    • Not all of us believe in the meticulous sovereignty of God. Just because God COULD control everything doesn’t that God MUST control everything. Sometimes, bad things happen, and I think it’s unhelpful to attribute those things to God and to do some sort of mental and theological gymnastics to make our God the God who starts fires so as to get the glory for putting them out.

  • drewpop says:

    Yes, excellent post. Thanks for this Chuck. In a superbly narrative way, you have articulated some of the core aspects of differentiation … of spiritual and emotional maturity.

    And I wonder if you understated the importance of this: “a commitment to the do the hard work of honest conversations with her family in the weeks ahead.” As I read the narrative, it was given such little attention that it almost seemed like a passing comment. Yet, if she does not do this hard work, her actions represent anything but differentiation.

    I also wonder: Do you need to explicitly state what you are NOT saying? i.e., do you need to explicitly state that avoiding Thanksgiving dinner because you’re anxious is NOT an act of mature differentiation? in the case you presented, she thoughtfully and prayerfully considered all this. in the end, she acted out of principle instead of anxiety. But, so many others will read this with a filter that interprets differentiation as “finding my own voice” and “doing what I want” staying connected to others and allowing them to have their own voice.

    Really thankful for your testimony about listening to Trump supporters in the final section, but still wondering if this is prone to misinterpretation. Your thoughts?

  • NIce job, Chuck. Good words of wisdom and adorned with grace, peace, and love.

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