I sit on the Sydney to Newcastle train and feel like I’m living inside a Peter Allen song. This is the final leg of a journey home from Izmir, Turkey that saw me pass through Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, and Sydney. I can’t wait to see Sandy and the kids. “I still call Australia home” is running through my head and I feel like bursting into song.
I find there is nothing like returning home. In the last two weeks I have seen incredible things and met inspiring people. I visited the ruins at Ephesus and walked the same roads as the apostle Paul. I could sense the fear the people of that city felt when Christians came with their gospel proclaiming there was but one god and lord. The city was surrounded by thick walls to ward off attacks that would see the citizens carried off into a life of hard labour as slaves. Inside the walls were a series of temples, with the gods’ pleasure securing the safety of the city. Little wonder there was fury at Paul, for surely in the minds of many his gospel would cause people to neglect worship of other gods and so threatened the security of the city.
I was at a conference where I heard stories that inspired me. I met people from the Baptist movement in Romania who were running services for the gypsies despised by many; African baptists doing community development among their people; Lebanese and Jordanian Baptists ministering to the millions of refugees flooding their homelands. Learning that there are more refugees than citizens in Jordan certainly put the refugee debate in Australia into perspective!
Yet as rewarding as these experiences were, to me there is nothing that compares to coming home. Home is where I belong, the little patch of the planet that is my patch, the people to whom I am husband, father, friend. Home is the space where things are familiar, the culture the one that I share.
But my return is tinged with the reminder that home cannot be for me the place to retreat from the world, but the place that gives me the grounding from which I engage. For if my experience highlighted that Australia, and more particularly a certain house in a certain street in Macquarie Hills, is home, there is a wider sense in which the world is home and those Romanian gypsies, Turkish Muslims, Zambian farmers, and Syrian refugees are my sisters and brothers.
Today is my wife’s birthday, and it causes me to reflect on the extraordinary people we get to share life with. Sandy and I have been together since we were eighteen years old. She is without doubt the great love of my life, and I am humbled by the fact that she chooses to spend her life with me.
I want to say words that sum up who she is, but whatever I come up with seems inadequate. How do you reduce a unique human being to mere words? How can a few sentences capture the depth and breadth of who a person is?
What I can say is that my life would have been much diminished had Sandy not been part of it. She has been my friend, counsellor, companion, sounding board, and supporter; she has patiently listened to my ravings, gently (and sometimes not so gently) been my reality check; we have laughed together, cried together, fought together, made up together; she has graced me with her wisdom, her laughter, her fierce determination (do not be fooled by her gentle manner), her compassion, her generosity, and her time; she is to me a source of grace, love, hope, and encouragement.
In her I am reminded that the greatest gift we can offer to each other and to the world is ourselves, that we are each one of us quite extraordinary beings, that as we nurture our better selves we possess the power to help one another plumb the riches that life has to offer and traverse the challenges it poses, and that in the offering of ourselves we help others become the very best version of themselves they can be.
Lachlan and I spent the weekend in the Barringtons, glorious countryside just northwest of Newcastle, at our annual church camp. On Saturday afternoon all the boys went horseriding, but after a not-so-good experience last year, Lachlan decided he wouldn’t join them. Instead we spent two hours hanging out together. We played cricket, then explored the river. We skipped stones across it and threw large rocks into it with as much force as we could to generate as large splashes as we could. It was a wonderful couple of hours, a father and son enjoying each other’s company, chatting, laughing, amazing each other with our skills.
But so much more was happening. When Lachlan asked “Do you want to play cricket Dad?” I was talking over coffee with a group of adult friends. My “yes” to his request told him he mattered. When we’d finished cricket and returned to the shed for a drink Lachlan picked up his ipad and began playing a game. The eagerness with which he put it aside when I asked if he wanted to skim rocks in the river reminded me that technology cannot replace the hunger for relationship.
As he hit boundaries, caught high looping balls, made rocks skip across the river, hit targets we aimed rocks at, it was not only fun, he was testing and proving his skills and gaining the praise of his father. I remember doing similar things with my father.
These seem such simple things, but I suspect they are profoundly important to young boys. To his dying day my father was one of the most profound influences on my life and I want it to be the same for Lachy, Ash and Jess.
I don’t buy the argument that it’s quality time that matters, not quantity of time. I think my children need large quantities of quality time with me. It’s not the movies they watch, the friends they have, or the technology they utilise that will have the greatest impact in their lives. It’s me. And their mum. It’s from us more than any others they’ll learn they’re valuable; their values; their wisdom; that there are soft and safe places in the universe; how to love, forgive and fight.
Skipping stones with Lachy reminded me once again that skipping stones, passing a footy back and forward for half an hour, catching a movie together, sharing meals, are all really, really important uses of my time.
“Family values” have become synonymous with a Conservative Christian agenda. The family is boldly proclaimed the God-ordained and fundamental building block of society, which, given such a grand status, must be protected at all costs.
The only problem with this is that Jesus seems to have considered the family highly problematic. Not only was he unmarried and childless, but he claimed that he came to divide families; called people to leave their families to follow him; said we should call no human “father” but look to God alone as father; and when his mother and brothers, concerned about his mental health, come to take him home declared that they are not his family. Rather those who do God’s will are his brothers and sisters.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.Matthew 10:34-36
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:25-26
But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Sure doesn’t sound like Jesus thought the family was the God ordained foundation of society or that it needs to be protected!
Before we all start busting up our families a little context will help. In the first century Mediterranean loyalty to the family trumped almost every other claim on people’s lives and every public interaction was about increasing the honour of the family. This meant that rather than devoting its resources to building a community where the poor were assisted, the marginalised welcomed and the vulnerable protected, it was deemed better to use those resources to serve the interests of the family. Indeed lower status people were ignored as they had nothing to offer the household.
We see this in Luke 14, where guests at a dinner party jockey for seats indicating high status. Jesus challenges their preoccupation with status and the focus of their lives
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Families all too often were what prevented this type of community being created.
Compounding these difficulties was the patriarchal nature of the family. The identity of each household member was bound up with the family and each was expected to show total obedience to the patriarch, the oldest male. Women in addition were expected to confine themselves to the domestic sphere and subordinate themselves to their husband. The hierarchical nature of the family meant two competing centres of authority and identity: the patriarch and God. All too frequently the obligations owed to family stood in tension with the obligations God’s kingdom imposes on us.
This is evident in this particular episode
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ responses seem harsh. Why would he deny a person attending their father’s funeral or saying goodbye to his family? Kenneth Bailey has shown that there is much more to their requests than this. The phrase “let me go and bury my father” did not indicate the man’s father had just died, but reflected the notion that a son should stay with his parents until they died, contributing labour to the household and providing income support in their old age. The request then is to follow Jesus in the distant future once the man’s obligations to family have been fulfilled. Similarly, when the third would-be follower requests permission to say good-bye to his family, the cultural context demanded that to say goodbye, or take leave of, one’s family, a person required permission of the household head. In his replies Jesus scandalously calls his would-be followers to defy the expectations of the patriarchal household. The call to follow him took precedence over family obligations.
This was particularly true for women. Luke 8 reveals Jesus had a number of women in his itinerant disciple group. By following Jesus they move out of the domestic space that patriarchy assigned them into the public sphere thought to belong to men. Their behaviour would have been perceived as scandalous and shameful, but they were committed to following Jesus.
Far from being a supporter of family values Jesus saw the patriarchal family of his day as one of the greatest impediments to the creation of the sort of community God desires and to a fully engaged discipleship. To embrace the way of the kingdom of God meant a lifestyle that clashed with the expectations of the patriarchal family.
This didn’t mean he wanted to end the family. He affirmed marriage (Matthew 19) and saw important responsibilities existed within families (Matthew 15:1-9).
Families are a network where we should discover what it means to be loved unconditionally, learn to set moral boundaries, gain wisdom and understanding, and more. But like all good things, families can become an idol. I think this is true in Australia. For most Aussies the good life is one in which we enjoy as much as we can in the company of family and friends, and we devote almost all our time, energy and resources to this. Jesus vision of the good life is so much more than this. It is to join with God in the remaking of our communities and our world. Our families should be vehicles for this not an alternative to it.
This is why I think we should be suspicious of the “family values” agenda. All too often it is code for the idolising of the family. What I want is for Jesus’ values to so permeate my family that we become a mini community of faith, grace & love, open to one another and to our world, participants in the divine revolution of love, justice and equity.