I wrote this piece for the Renovare Book Club. (www.renovare.org)
What is your family narrative? If someone asked you to describe your family, to tell your family story, what would you say? What stories define you, encourage you, connect you with the larger narrative of your family history? Given that there are thousands of families stories to draw on, what stories do you choose to tell?
A pastoral colleague once said that if you want to change a culture, you change the stories you tell. My guess is that is true for families. Think about the stories that were told as you were growing up. What did they tell you about who was in and who was out, about how success was evaluated or failure regarded, about what was acceptable in relationship and what was anathema. If you go back a generation or two, has the storyline changed? If so, what caused it? Who was willing to tell a new story? How were they received?
When my dad told his father he wanted to be a pastor, he was sternly rebuked. You see, my grandfather was the only one of thirteen children to immigrate to the United States from Norway. He came with nothing, working his fingers to the bone so he could provide for his family, and build a superficially, successful middle class life. He was self-made. He didn’t need God. He had to figure it out on his own. So why would his son commit his life to this religious nonsense? Why would he jeopardize the financial stability of his new family pursuing this silly religious dream?
What happened in one generation? The family narrative changed. Of my mom and dad’s five children, four are ordained Lutheran pastors and the other has worked for church consultants for years. We don’t think of ourselves as self-made for we have watched the self-sacrifice of our parents. Faithful service rather than financial stability is our ultimate goal. The narrative changed.
Now, I don’t want you to think it was an easy transition. The changing of family or cultural narratives is like the grinding of tectonic plates. Often the result is an earthquake or tsunami of critical events where destruction rather than production seems to win the day. But the result, if the family or community survives, is a resilient, connective core that can bind the hopes and dreams for generations upon generations.
Think about the Advent stories. They are stories of waiting and anticipation–a thousand year old promise hangs in the balance. The prevailing cultural narrative of the time speaks of power through coercion and threat. The new story is lived when power emerges through weakness, the weakness of a fragile child who becomes a broken man on a cross. The prevailing cultural narrative divides into haves and have nots. The new story draws together shepherd and king, peasants and rulers, and gathers them together around a humble manger scene. The prevailing culture seeks to promote its image of grandeur. The new story seeks to live into the image of a towel and a basin, a servant who loves.
So what is your family narrative, however you define family for you? Does it need to change? What new story can you tell? Then embrace? Then live?
Many months ago I read an article in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler about families that survive and endure and thrive. Propelled by a number of struggles in his own family, Feiler began to wonder, “What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?”
In his own words, “After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” Citing a partner in his research, “The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges.”
What I found fascinating was his description of family narratives. Feiler assets that every family has a unifying narrative that takes one of three shapes:
Ascending Narrative: We built up from nothing.
Descending Narrative: We had it but we lost it.
Oscillating Family Narrative: In his research, Feiler describes this as the most healthful narrative. It goes like this: “We’ve had ups and downs in our family. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.”
I wonder if that is what allowed the faith to endure over the generations. The biblical narrative is replete with murder and violence, deception and despair, infidelity and injustice yet the parallel storyline of love and grace, honesty and hope, faithfulness and justice also emerges. So, the people were willing to wait, not because present circumstances gave the reason to hope, but because the arc of history and God’s faithfulness gave them reason to hope. When the new storyline of “Good news of great joy for all the people” was announced, they were open and ready to receive.
It’s Monday. What’s your family narrative? How does it connect to the biblical narrative in this season? What stories define you? What stories do you need to tell again? What new stories will emerge? Peace. Kai