When I was writing plays prolifically between 2003 and 2005, one of the more intriguing plays I wrote about my childhood was called Vater Gott. Vater Gott, one of the few works I have written with a German title , means “Father God” in German. The play was written about the ways in which a high-spirited and somewhat sensitive young man grows up fatherless, reflecting in part on the challenges of authority and becoming a young man, extending from elementary to high school age. I wrote the play, as I often write in general, as a way of reflecting upon my own life and drawing insight from the act of observing and reflecting upon something rather than merely having experienced it. There are different insights one gets from standing inside a problem, where one sees what is messed up and develops empathy towards others and passion to ameliorate or reform the conditions of this present evil world, and from standing outside a problem where one can gain a sense of understanding of patterns of behavior and of the systems that cause so much misery to the lives of ourselves and others.
It has been said, perhaps most memorably by Leo Tolstoy, that every happy family is happy alike but that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Yet I would argue that this is quite the reverse of what is true. Happiness comes in many different shades, but the grimly unhappy and the tragic has a sense of inevitability about it and a sense of dreary similarity that one knows what is coming long before one has to hear every sad aspect of such a story. After one reads a book like Another Chance, for example, about the distressingly stereotypical nature of co-dependent families, it is hard to avoid looking at people and saying: that troubled family has four kids, is the oldest child (or “functional firstborn” in some cases) an overachieving hero(ine) who wants to leave home as soon as possible, is the second child someone who gets into trouble, is the third child practically invisible to others, and is the youngest child a fun-loving and sociable person? If so, is it possible to infer that there is an alcoholic at least somewhere fairly close up the family tree? One can equally profitably, if less completely, play the same with troubled families with two or three children, or even one’s own family. Such behavior is deeply unkind, and more than a little bit awkward and unsettling, but it can be done largely because of the deeply stereotypical nature of troubled families. Families that are succeeding at life have room for the quirkiness and diversity of their children, for children are deeply quirky people, but families that are in deep distress only have roles available, of a somewhat two-dimensional and cardboard fashion, with ominous names like “The Hero,” “The Scapegoat,” “The Lost Child,” and “The Mascot,” or “The Enabler,” or “The Addict.” We all deserve to be seen as people rather than as mere roles, but distress has a way of flattening out our identity to those around us and focusing attention on a few elements, precisely those elements where we do not want others to put their attention.
Happier families have much better stories to think about, and they are far more quirky than that. For example, last night at the time that I write this, a couple of my friends hosted me and four other young men from our local congregation for a night of geeky role playing . While the wife of the house was at home putting the finishing touches on the dinner and taking care of an unhappy newborn who had been waking up every two hours, the husband and the older daughter were at the local grocery store getting whipping cream for the dessert, where I was tagging along with them. As we stopped at the cashier, I could see the husband looking at the flowers that were near the express aisle, and his toddler daughter noticed it too. I asked if he was thinking about buying his wife flowers, but he commented, as an engineer is wont to do, that their cats tended to eat the bulbs and blossoms, and so that he would not. And he did not, but he thought about it, and the workings of his mind and the focus of his thoughts and attention were noticeable both to me and to his own daughter, who might now have some sort of association between the romantic love of spouses and flowers, just the sort of thing that would be of use to a girl who already adores Disney princesses. Lessons and learning moments come in many ways, many of them as ordinary as experiences at home or at a grocery store, where patterns are established and lessons learned, even without ever having been formally taught.
How does one grow up to be a man or woman? A great deal of the learning that we have is implicit knowledge. To the extent that our families model adult life in a good way, children learn implicitly good things. An older child might see their parents taking turns changing diapers and taking care of younger siblings and showing a great deal of thoughtfulness and love to each other, and then would tend to assume that this is the way that they will treat others and be treated when they are older. Younger children will see the way that older children are given gradually more respect and responsibility, and will seek that for themselves. Little of this will be a matter of anyone sitting down and making the learning explicit, it will happen simply because it will be observed and noticed, and even if no one says anything about it, the lessons will be learned as well. For those whose family backgrounds offer less possibility for these lessons, there are other lessons that can be learned implicitly, such as the struggle against logistical limitations, the experience of dealing with longing, or the understanding that sometimes in life there are no good options, only a choice between different bad options. Those who desire to learn better lessons than they can from observing their own families of birth tend to be forced to make what happy families learn implicitly into a subject of conscious study and learning, whether through books or through intensive observation of the behavior of others, choosing mentors who are further along in life and seeing how they handle with life by explicitly watching what they do, asking what they are doing and why, and reflecting and communicating about such matters in the hope that they may acquire such good habits for themselves for the future.
There are times when parents are faced with the choice of remaining as they are or engaging in difficult personal change. There are cases where one parent is forced into the choice of either remaining in an abusive situation or leaving. Even if we agree on what ideal situations look like, with self-restraint and self-mastery and outgoing concern for other people and their well-being, we may know that sometimes the ideal is simply not an option because others are unwilling to act in a loving and understanding fashion, no matter what we may wish for. The fact that we may act as we believe is best does not mean that such situations are good, or that they are without damage. Let us not kid ourselves. Sometimes the only choices we have are what sorts of damage we will allow ourselves and others to suffer, and what we will do with that damage. We live in a world broken by thousands of years and many generations of sin, and the sins of billions of people, ourselves included . To suffer is often inevitable; the choice is what sort of nobility do we suffer with, and what do we gain from that suffering both in hard-earned wisdom in how to live, and how not to live, and in empathy for others who suffer either in silence that may be possible to ignore or in painfully obvious and noticeable ways that we cannot help but see. To the extent that we can avoid unnecessary suffering, it is wise for us to do so, but that which cannot be successfully avoided must be patiently and nobly endured. I often wonder to what extent we are held responsible for how we order our own lives to avoid so much of the pain and suffering we find, and to what extent God will be merciful to us for being somewhat incompetent in such matters.
Our ultimate desire, though, is not to be well-functioning broken people, even if that may be a far step up from poorly functioning broken people, as we may often feel, but to be well-put together, to be as we were made to be, to fulfill our purposes as human beings as part of a great cosmic plan that we may not fully understand. The Eternal often draws attention to His presence as a father in the scriptures. In Psalm 2:1, a messianic psalm quoted in Acts and at least twice in Hebrews, David writes about his descendant: “I will declare the decree: The Lord has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.” Occasionally God draws attention to the way in which He disciplines us, as in Hebrews 12:7-11: ” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” We may, in seeing this passage as a classic defense of the authority of parents, and therefore pass over it without thinking about it reading about it closely, neglect to notice just now neutrally this passage views the authority of parents even as it defends the subordinate authority of parents as modeling God’s own behavior in our lives. Our physical fathers “chastened us as seemed best to them,” reminding us that what seemed best to them may not have been the best overall, but was the best that came to their own minds. We are not dealing here with a standard of perfection, or even of goodness, but rather of having done the best that they could. Now, it must be candidly admitted that sometimes when other people, our parents included, do the best that they can, that sometimes that best is not very good. The same will be true from time to time, sometimes far too often, for we ourselves. Yet our parents, be they good or bad or mixed, were merely seeking to model, as best as they could, our Father above.
One of the issues that people who come from broken and dysfunctional families often have is the bitterness of feeling as if their parents deliberately set out to screw their lives up. This is the sort of issue that comes up whenever we see dysfunction in our lives and dysfunctional behavior on the part of those around us in the workplace, among friends or loved ones, as well as our families. The truth is far more humbling, and perhaps alarming. Very rarely do other people seek directly to screw things up, whether their lives, the lives of those around them, or the institutions that they ruin with their incompetence and bungling. Most of the time dysfunctional people simply do not think of others at all. Far from having hostility towards others or glorying in the damage they cause in their wake, they may have some fondness in their hearts for those they cut and abuse, and may even think that they are doing a good job. Lest we be too uncharitable towards them, the same may be said of we ourselves. Writing a memoir, to take a fairly low-hanging fruit, is an immensely self-absorbed naval gazing task that can make one particularly nearsighted about one’s own life and one’s own personal concerns. Yet just as other people may cause immense difficulty in our lives because of their own mypotic self-absorption, the same is all too often true of us as well, and by the same standard that we judge others, we will also be judged. Conversely, just as writing a memoir can be a task for relentless and often unpleasant self-examination and self-revelation, so too it can become a way that in examining ourselves we may become more empathetic to other people, seeing them as engaged in struggling as unsuccessfully with their own burdens as we do with ours, yet hopefully building strength of character alike, so that we may be one as God and the Father are one, in unity of purpose and in shared love and concern. And may our families here below mirror the love of the Family to which we long to dwell in for all eternity as sons and daughters.
 See, for example:
 See, for example:
 See, for example: