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Traditional Love in a Non-Traditional Age

Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church
Eugene, Oregon
June 16, 2002

Genesis 21:1-14

History check. Can anyone here name the Vice President of the U.S. in 1992? Here's a hint: potato. Other than his unusual spelling, Dan Quayle is probably best remembered for making a TV character the villain of family values. In a popular sit-com, many of our adults will recall, Candace Bergen played a news editor, Murphy Brown, who gave birth to a child out of wedlock. The Vice President criticized the show as an example of the ≥poverty of values≤ that was/is tearing apart the very fabric of our society. You may recall that he took a fair amount of heat for his comments. Whether one agreed or disagreed with his viewpoint, he did us all a favor by initiating a tremendous amount of discussion on what family values actually are.

So here we are, ten years later. That discussion is still going, though perhaps not as strong today as a decade ago. On this Father's Day I would like to take another look at the issue, because I believe it is a topic that needs continued exploration and because the world is not the same world it was ten years ago. 

Our brothers and sisters from the religious right had been complaining for years that the break-up of the so-called traditional family was undermining our social well-being and moral fiber. In the 1950s, nearly 60% of all households consisted of an employed father, a mother at home and two or more school-aged children biologically related to their parents. Today only 8% of all households meet that description. 

The biggest change to that ≥traditional≤ family structure has been in the role of the mother. Though women have been a majority of the U.S. population since 1944, they have been a majority of college graduates only since 1979. Seven years later more women were employed in professional jobs than men. Over sixty percent of all women with school-aged children now work outside of the home. Thus Harriet Nelson, the TV ideal of motherhood from the 50s, gave way to Murphy Brown, working Mom, in the 90s. Even though women's wages remain about ten to fifteen percent below men's in the same profession, it is a significantly different world for women and mothers than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Even if we include working mothers in the traditional family, still only about one third of American families consist of two parents raising children they received, by birth or adoption, within their marriage. Divorce, of course, is the number one reason for the increase in children who live with one parent or a step-parent. Only 40% of children born today will likely be living with the same parents when they reach 18. Most alarming in this statistic is the financial effect on the families headed by a single mom. One year after divorce the average standard of living for women typically drops 73% even while it increases for men 42%. Divorce and the failure of fathers to support their children, the so-called ≥deadbeat dads≤, is the leading cause of the increase of children living in poverty. 

In addition to economic losses, there are a number of other negative effects from broken families. Seventy percent of all juvenile offenders come from broken homes. So too eighty percent of adolescents in psychiatric hospitals and three out of four teenage suicides. A government study of 17,000 children found that children living apart from a parent had a 25% higher rate of accidents and 30% higher rate of sickness than children living with both parents.

There are many other reasons for the decline in two parent families, including the effects of alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse and increasing numbers of mothers who simply choose to remain single. Birth out of wedlock now accounts for 20% of all births. And many of those are born not to young, unemployed moms, but career women and same sex couples. All this is to say simply that the look of the American family is changing rapidly. I should emphasize that not all of these changes are bad, but they are important for us to consider. One quick example: What are the implications for our efforts to strengthen families and to build ministries to and with families given than 28% of the households in our area are headed by a single adult? Developing supportive ministries for single parents should probably be one of our higher priorities.

Having saturated your listening capacity to the max with numbers, the good news is that I do not have a single statistic in the rest of this sermon! So what does it all add up to? The scene of family life in this country has changed dramatically, some for the better, some for the worse. Everyone has an opinion on what is broken and how to fix it. As a dedicated family man, I feel every bit as qualified as anyone else, especially as any elected official, to address the issue of family values. I have a spouse, who happens to be an ordained homemaker as well as an office manager, a son and a daughter, two cats and a dog, a home mortgage carefully calculated to remove all the spare cash in our checking account and not one but two mini-vans. (Well, actually three, but the VW camper is for sale. We bought my brother's Chrysler minivan, which is a lot more car and more luxurious than anything we have ever owned. My brother assured, me however, that it was the standard of soccer moms everywhere so we would fit right in!) If that doesn't qualify us as a traditional, all-American family, I do not know what does. I can also claim, with Judy, to have successfully raised two children to the know-it-all age of ten and almost thirteen, without either committing a major crime, yet. We, their parents, may have contemplated committing one or two in the course of raising them but all in all, we feel we have been very fortunate to have been so blessed with wonderful kids.

The family values I claim as the father in this small clan are those I learned from my father, being raised by my parents in a loving, Christian household where every child was wanted, treated with dignity and motivated by rewards for good behavior rather than punishment for bad behavior, which of course I never needed anyway! The essence of the family values I learned was not about the number or gender of parents, it was loving relationships beginning with a loving marriage. 

So I'd like to say just a little about that.  In a marriage I performed yesterday for one of our new, young couples, I was reminded of the wisdom of Wilfred Peterson on ≥The Art of Marriage.≤ Peterson said that a good marriage ≥is not only marrying the right partner, it is being the right partner.≤ The number one advice I give to young couples contemplating children is to take care of their relationship as a couple. If you do that, if your need for love and affection is met by that other person, your soul mate, then parenting will take care of itself. Well, maybe not entirely, but it sure is a whole lot easier when you don't project upon your children the emotional needs only another adult can fulfill. So my wisdom, as little as it is, for new parents is to be a good parent, be a good spouse. The same principle applies for single parents, namely to be a good parent, be a good, single adult. In other words, be a whole person who is there to meet your children's emotional needs and not the other way around. My hat is off especially to single parents who successfully do that, for it is no easy task.

The major reason why a higher percentage of those in jails and psychiatric hospitals come from broken homes is not so much that a parent was suddenly absent during a critical moment of their childhood, but because of the strife in the home which unavoidably diminishes the positive attention and energy a child needs. In other words, divorce is not the problem, rather marital conflict is the problem. That is why divorce rarely solves the problem, for all to often the strife continues long after the marriage has ended.

The number one thing you can do for your children, therefore, fathers and mothers, is to model healthy relationships with the other adults in your children's lives. Where the marital relationship is intact and healthy, the family will be healthy. I guarantee it. If unhealthy, the family will suffer. Those who try to stick it out for the sake of the children do no one a favor, least of all the children.

Kids are amazing, they have the most incredible senses, picking up on discord before parents even note something is out of tune. And they will do almost anything to try to fix the problem. It is a terribly cruel thing we do to children, to make them feel responsible in some way for our adult problems. So instead of sticking it out for their sakes, work it out for their sakes.
Men, if we would be willing to spend as much time, energy and even money on our relationships with our wives as we do on our hobbies, cars and other big toys, the divorce rate would drop by half overnight. Note I did not say on our wives, for that is different from spending money on the relationship! And as more and more women become the primary breadwinner for their marriages, the same could be said for them.

So much for my wisdom. What about the Bible? The topic of family values in scripture is actually a very complex one. Most of the primary male figures in the Old Testament either have multiple wives or a wife and a concubine. The model king of the nation commits murder in order to commit adultery. Hosea marries a harlot. Jesus says ≥A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,≤ a verse often used in weddings, and then goes on to make adulterers out of anyone who marries a divorced person, a verse usually left out of weddings, especially when marrying divorcees. His other sayings about families are even more difficult: ≥I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother,≤ ≥Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.≤ And within hearing distance of his family, he says, ≥Who is my mother and who are my brothers? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.≤ 

In the text for this morning from Genesis we see a very touching family story of an older couple who have no hope of descendants, but then wondrously receive a child. Sarah's joy is shown by her laughter. No doubt Abraham, now 100, found it pretty funny too, about as funny as comedian on the Titanic. But then this heart-warming, joyful story of a new family takes a rather dark turn. Sarah, who had earlier given up any prospect of bearing children and therefore, suggested that her husband have a child by her handmaid, Hagar, suddenly has a change of heart. She can't stand the sight of this woman and fears that her son, Ishmael, will usurp some of the inheritance due Isaac. So she insists that Abraham get rid of Hagar, which Abraham does by setting her out with enough food that last a couple of days. End of problem. Talk about deadbeat dads! This is a troubling story, and it gets even more difficult when Abraham receives instructions from God to sacrifice his son.

It is the difficult stories like this which invite us to examine the ambiguities and contradictions of our own beliefs and cause us to examine the central core values of our faith. Do we or should we teach that we are to hate our family members to be good disciples or that we should be willing to sacrifice our own children to satisfy some perverse curiosity of God? Of course not. Why not? Because the Spirit of Truth which guides us, the law written upon our hearts, tells us that something is wrong with these stories and sayings, or at least with our superficial understanding of them. Common sense tells us that Abraham's treatment of Hagar and Ishmael is not a model for responsible parenting, rather it is a story the faithfulness of God who rescues both of Abraham's children in their time of greatest need. 

If I received anything from my family growing up, it was a healthy strong family attachment, a sense of trust and being valued as a child of God in the community of God's people, mutually responsible to one another. As a Preacher's Kid I suspect I spent more evenings at home without Dad than I did with him and we never had weekend trips to go camping or skiing like many of my friends did. But you know what? It never occurred to me then and still doesn't now that I was short-changed. Why not? The kind of relationship I had as a child and continue to have as an adult with my father is one that far too many lack. I can only pray that I have and will continue to have the same kind of relationship with my children. Loving relationships are the key to healthy family values, no matter what the makeup of your family is. No government agency, no school and not even the church can make that happen for you. It is solely up to each one of us. So I am taking this Father's Day to spend quality time with my family: two weeks and 2,000 miles down the West coast in a Chrysler minivan. And I hope to laugh all the way.


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