What's Tony Thinking

Grace in Families


Our “Grace In Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life” webinar had its third session Monday evening focused on Zahl’s chapter on “Grace in Families.” Here’s a link to the recording of that session.

The church has often been criticized for being too family focused, which I understand. In some churches “Mother’s Day” is second only to Christmas and Easter. Sometimes we have promoted the “perfect family,” and neglected people who are single or elderly or whose family has been a source of wounding and trauma (which I suspect all families are in some measure). Clergy families in particular get hammered by this expectation to be the perfect family.

I recall the story of a couple of ministers at a seminar on “dysfunctional families.” The speaker said, “We estimate that 95% of all families are dysfunctional.” The one minister leaned over to the other and whispered, “I think that’s low, don’t you?”

If grace is to really mean something in daily life, family life and relationships are ground zero for many of us.

In the webinar I quoted a Buddhist saying: “It is easiest to follow the Way in the monastery. It is harder to follow the Way in the world. It is hardest to follow the Way in the family.” Lot of truth in that. Families can be a source of joy and meaning, and pain and bewilderment. They test us. Worse, they expose us.

So Paul Zahl’s focus on grace in families is important. And he is pretty down to earth. For example, he spoke of what happens in a  couple’s relationship when their first child arrives. The husband moves into second place in his wife’s affections and attentions. He even wrote about what happens when such a couple finally has a get-away. The woman wants peace and quiet, and time to read a book. The man wants sex.

A couple of things struck me in this chapter. One, predictably given my age/ stage, was the part on “Grace and Grandchildren.” It is common for grandparents to shower grace and affection on the grandchildren. But the ones who at that point really need grace, one-way love, are one’s own adult children, now parents themselves.

They are maxed out with child-rearing, sleepless nights, work and general chaos. We grandparents who dote on grandchildren, but neglect our own adult children, miss the mark. Give grace, that is love and support without judgment, to your own children, the parents. Don’t crap on them by saying or thinking they aren’t doing it right, aren’t doing it as well as you did. Here’s Zahl:

“What can happen with grandparents is that they become a kind of emotional dark cloud hanging in accusation over their children. The grandchildren are just a diversion from that judgment.”

Zahl also zeroes in on the way that Jesus made the blood/ nuclear family secondary to the new family created by the gospel. When his mother and brothers show up to talk sense to him and take him home he said, “Who are my mother and my sisters and brothers? All those who do the will of God.” We are used to hearing this. But it was and is remarkable, even revolutionary, as most human societies are built on the idea of “blood is thicker than water,” and you first obligation is to family, no matter what.

Here’s Zahl:

“Grace does not destroy the nuclear family. It does destroy the supremacy of the nuclear family. It reconstructs the bonds of affection between human beings on the basis of the prior grace of God to universally fallen people, rather than on the prior fact of blood relation.”

In other words, it is easy to make “the family” into an idol. But the family, while one of God’s good gifts, is like all else — a mixed bag where sin is present and powerful. The family is important, but it is not God. Only God is God.

Zahl covers a lot of other ground, but the bottom line is pretty much what the Buddhists said, the family is where we are really tested and where our limitations often exposed.

The point for Christians is not to idealize the family, but to see it for what it is, a place where our mix of motives, our own wounds and jumble of good and ill in us, are revealed so that we know just how much we need God’s grace. Knowing this, and receiving grace from a merciful God, we are able to share it with others — even members of our own family.

Next up is “Grace in Society.”



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