I’ve been experiencing a sort of renewal of late with regard to the pragmatics of family life. To be able to make sense of what that renewal is looking like, I’ll need to build some background.
The first piece of background is something you’ve likely heard me harp on before. Individualism is silly. Not evil, not the root of all evil. Just stupid. Incongruous with reality. I’ve been saying that for years, but it’s critical to understand. The Enlightenment, which insisted (rightly) upon the value of the individual has been taken to its extreme in the West, where affluence has put people in a position where we can each take a crack at self-realization without needing the resources of our communities and families. And by affluence I mean the financial situation of the rich, middle, and lower classes in America, with the exception of the extremely poor. Having lots of disposable income has given us opportunity to buy into (literally) the myth of the self-contained human individual. In reality, there is no such thing, and the rapid dissolution of the social fabric of Western societies (far faster than any prior empire in human history) is testament to the fact that humans were never designed to live as individuals. I recall God once saying that – “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
Second – and I’ve always known this – family is important. God works through families. God saves the world through the family of Abraham. Here in Narnya, we seek families coming to trust in and loyalty to Jesus together (for several reasons). God made families. God loves families.
In my heart I’ve really pushed back against this one, though. Not because I disagree with the premise, but because I’ve been pretty appalled by the incarnations I’ve seen of this value. Leading in a church for nine years I heard the word family used in terrible ways.
“I’m looking for a church that can meet my family’s needs.” Ok. Would you like a side of fries with that? Can I supersize it for you?
Or, “We need to get back to the values this country was founded on – God and family.” That would be fine if it were a politician saying that while presenting a compelling platform. The trouble is that when I heard this (and I heard it often) the “we” referred to believers or the church. I don’t even know how to say all that is wrong with this sentence. The Way of Jesus does not exist to sustain America or the nuclear family. Nor is America God’s solution to the problem of global sin and dislocation. I’ll just stop there.
At the core, what bothered me was that when the Western church said “the church needs to help families” it tended to mean that the church’s function – ergo, the gospel’s function and God’s function – was to rescue/improve/build my family. My family didn’t exist for a greater purpose…my family was that greater purpose that God, Jesus, the Bible and the church were supposed to serve. This notion is totally contrary to the clear teachings and example of Jesus.
With each way that I heard “family” used to mean “an extension of myself” or “the consumer unit you should serve” or “the unit that you must protect from the world by cloistering it away safely”, I got less and less interested in thinking about “family”. Again, not because I didn’t love family or care about the notion. But rather because the word “family” had come to mean something different than what God means when he says it, and because it was being offered as a primary competitor or obstacle to us actually healing the world. I didn’t like that, but I didn’t know what to do with it.
So, so far we know that 1) individualism is dumb and we know that family is important to God, both as a unit to save and as a unit through which he wants to save, but 2) I have had trouble with it because no model I had seen or heard of was itself salvific – it always ended in what’s best for my family. Which is exactly the opposite of what Jesus said and what Jesus did.
That brings us to the third piece of background. Living in Narnya as an apostolic worker, the work in this particular cultural milieu can be really disintegrating for a family. Men and women live fairly segregated lives, so there hasn’t been a ton of ways for my wife and I to work together. On top of that, we’re a gajillion miles from our extended, so our kids are prone to feel even more rootless – and identityless – than we do. Our team goes a long way as a surrogate family, but we all know there is a difference. So, in recent months I’ve been praying for ways to integrate the apostolic task and our family thrive. We want our family to work together in the apostolic task in ways that increase our effectiveness, and we want the way we engage the apostolic task to increase our family’s thrive.
So, with those three pieces of background, here’s what God has been doing with us to help us along. Most of this I’m actually learning from a new friend in the Way named Jeremy Pryor. Check out his stuff at pathsofreturn.com if you’re interested. What I was missing was a compelling vision of family and of my role in it, and I was missing some practical tools.
So, what if my family isn’t a group of individuals that I nurture to adulthood, when I’ll set them free to go and make disciples and whatever? And what if, conversely, my family is not the community I’m primarily to protect from the world until they are old enough to go out and create cloisters of their own? Neither of those visions are compelling to me, and they don’t make a bit of sense when lined up with the Bible, the God of the Bible, or the Christ of God. What if my family – my household, which is larger than my nuclear family, but we can start there – is my primary team, and I’m the coach and/or team captain? We don’t exist for ourselves, or for the individual success of one or more of our children. We, as Team Vagabond, work together to bless and to build people and communities until Jesus fills the whole world with himself.
That’s been the primary renewal-engendering shift: identifying my family as my primary missional team. They are not so much my primary ministry as it is that we are the people who take care of each other while we together work to heal the world. And we engage this task in ways that are compelling and that have resonance with each and all of our gifts and wirings. To make a shift like that you need new rhythms. Here are some of ours. The first three have been staples in my household for a while, the fourth is a new addition, and the fifth is a future project that I’m praying toward right now.
> Nightly bible reading/discussion and prayer. We like to use the Jesus Storybook Bible.
> Weekly Sabbath wherein we try hard to do no work and we focus on resting and allowing/encouraging one another to come to an all-stop. In a culture like Narnya, the environment sometimes doesn’t allow an all-stop (the water lines burst, the neighbors pound on the door, the police come, etc.), but we see about a 90% hit rate on this one. Without Sabbath, people de-humanize one another and begin to treat each other as units of labor – valuing one another based on what we did or didn’t get done or do right or do good enough. That can kill a family.
> Weekly huddle time (me and my lovely wife), where we check-in and plan for the coming week’s work and ministry. Usually this is on the first day of the week, but we might move it to a lunch out later in the week to get a jump on planning the kids’ inclusion in our work for the coming week.
> (Almost) daily morning Team Vagabond meeting. Here the kids review the most recent Bible stories in clusters. This helps them keep a sense of the metanarrative. We also talk about that day’s strategic goals (ministry goals or family needs), we assign the kids tasks to contribute to our family achieving those goals, and we talk through the impact that doing those tasks (as well as maintaining generous, kind, patient attitudes) will have on our success with those goals. Then, we pray toward the strategic goals and through each of the tasks. The goals could be as vague as”Today we’re going to give extra time to praying for Mr. Nick,” or as special as “Tonight Miss Junia is coming over, so we need to practice hospitality together so she can feel the welcome of God,” or as mundane as “We’ve had lots of team mates over this week and mommy needs Team Vagabond to really step up and help out today in getting the house back together.” This one addition to our rhythm has done a TON for our family and for me as I seek to lead well and to connect deeply with our kids.
> Using travel. A super cool apostolic ninja has been coaching me. He has made clear that a dad’s travel is morally neutral – it’s not bad or good for a family. It’s how it’s done that matters. As I am called upon more and more to travel to coach, teach, train and help other workers in other places, I want to take one kid with me on each trip, and occasionally the whole family. This will allow us a neat way to take advantage of our apostolic assignment to build our family, and to do our apostolic work together as a family. I’m praying for a few donors who feel with me the value of something like that and want to help us pay for our kids’ travel when I bring them with me. We’ll see how the Lord works that one out. Feel free to drop a line if helping this way rings your bell 😉
These five practices, along with engaging the task as a family team and engaging the family as a team-on-task, is what we’re doing these days. And I’m loving the effects.
I’d love questions on this one, and especially any practices or paradigms that you parents out there have found helpful as you seek to incorporate your family in the healing of the nations!