So the logic with this series of posts is to go ‘slightly wacky’, then, ‘serious’. This is the serious one after parkrun. And it doesn’t get much more serious than this. Now that I have a little more leisure, I am hoping to complete this series within a week or so, so watch this space!
Most of life I could do without. I could do without work, perhaps do without food, do without networking, without the rain (right now!), do without decaffeinated coffee, do without mobile phones. Okay, I admit, it’s a rainy afternoon and I am in that kind of mood. BUT I just cannot do without this ‘best thing in the world’. It’s family. I will do parents, the family unit, then life partner!
Let’s start with the ‘accursed progenitors’, as Beckett called them in his dark play ‘Endgame’. Parents are inescapable. We cannot separate ourselves from their influence on our lives if we want to, and when we try, we often define ourselves by being different. When I became a parent, I noticed that many of the things I say to my children were said to me before. ‘Little birds in their nests agree, or they fall out.’ ‘It takes two to make a quarrel.’ I’ve often pondered on how these observations lead to no action, particularly, except perhaps ominous threats. I loved reading to my son the other day the poem ‘Jim, who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion and noticed how he started sitting up and listening when it described in detail first his toes, then his heels, are ‘slowly eaten, bit by bit.’ Why do parents love scaring their children? Why do children love being scared by their parents? Perhaps because they know that they are safe, and that they can cuddle in Daddy’s arms.
Thank you parents, for all the cultural capital you passed on. For the support blanket that you were in all my trembly and lost moments. No one can pity another, and screw up everything in their heart and give it to another, like a parent can to their child. I know that both ways now, and it’s both the most wonderful thing, and the most fearful. Just the thought of harm to one of my children is a dangerous thought, I know that now. Thank you too for the launchpad that you were, for the identity you gave me. Thank you that in a way you are behind me, and yet you reach out in front of me. That even when you are gone, you will still be with me, in the memories, in my thoughts, in your actions, in your prescience and wisdom. What an unspeakable privilege to have had wise and godly parents. Also, to have lived so long and still be able to share with them. Long may it continue.
Larkin said there was something ‘so sad‘ about home. Our family home was sold and gone now – but every time I see something that came from my childhood, it stirs something up in me. The copy of a book I knew, a piece of furniture. Things become part of family, don’t they. We can get caught off guard if we’re not careful. I have grieved my childhood a hundred times. It gives me an odd feeling of pleasure, slightly guilty, to grieve my childhood, that it’s gone. Did I really live it? Did I just dream it away? Who knows now…
There are so many great things about family. They can be so kind to you when you are down. Also, a whole family REALLY looking forward to something, e.g. a day out, family holiday, and the excitement just building and building. Equally good, a spontaneous day that just turns out perfect (as opposed to all those days where you’ve dragged the family somewhere and they didn’t want to go, and everyone’s tired, or sick, or cross); also the way a family cheers one family member on when they are doing something exceptional – the way a family cheers its members on MAKES whatever they are doing exceptional – and it’s actually the encouragement that matters. The achievement itself is forgotten in the euphoria of knowing that your kid or your wife is so pleased for you.
None of this is unique to family – but family is like a built-in guarantee of these things, and these things more often in your life, than perhaps anyone deserves to have – certainly me. Even a taster of it from a distance; joining in someone else’s family’s waterfight – being at someone’s birthday party, sharing in a family’s joy, brother’s family, sister’s family, is also a wonderful thing. Being part of a REALLY BIG family unit, and knowing there is SO MUCH life in it, and so much future and promise – something that will carry on, that HAS to carry on, even after you’re gone. This is a reminder that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves. This is good.
I have just finished reading an unusual book for me, a chatty, popular biography of Phil Collins, Not Dead Yet. What runs through the whole book is the bitter regret that in the pursuit of his career, he was not able to give his family the time and love that he should have, with dramatic and painful results. Even so, his family (including his children) were there to help him through his darkest days, and kept him going. Coming back from that narrative, where Collins picks up and puts down family so often along with telling the story of the next album and the next tour and who he’s worked with; and being able to help my young son get dressed, or spend time on holiday with my own wife and children, makes me so glad to be normal and not pursuing a glittering career.
So my wife. Marriage. The bedrock of family is a strong relationship with your other half. This has to be good. I remember when I was perhaps 17 or 18, sitting at a wedding breakfast after my cousin had got married, and he said: ‘I can recommend it!’ with a wink in his eye. I can as well. To have someone who knows you in your weakest moments, but also loves you in your best. Who forgives and overlooks your faults, but at the same time does not give up on you overcoming those faults. For me, when I get down on my knees and pray (which is not as often as I’d like) the first thing I hear the Father saying to me is: Love your wife! Cherish her! It talks in Ephesians 5 about laying your life down for your wife, as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. It also says: For no one hates his own flesh but loves and cherishes it. Part of being ready for marriage is being ready to accept yourself. No one is going to sort you out if you’re not able to know that you are good enough, somehow, in a rough kind of way, at least!
Why is having a life partner one of the best things in the world? Don’t get me wrong, you can get by without it. And sometimes if you’re not prepared to work on the relationship, or if your partner isn’t, then perhaps it’s wiser to steer clear. We can do each other a lot of good in family life, but we can also inflict pain on others. Sometimes the sensible question is: what’s the least damage I can do? We hype ourselves up in our most egotistic moments, hoping to be able to leave a lot of good behind us; but I think that as we mature and get older, our prayers become more humble: help me not to hurt others too much; limit the emotional and physical pain that I cause other people.
Perhaps as we realise, a few years down the line, that the painful comment that a family member said to us still hurts us, still restricts us rather than helps us trust that we are loved; perhaps we bite back that hurtful comment a bit more often than before. Perhaps we think about saying the considered, but meaningful thing a little bit more. Not the hollow: You’re just great! But rather, ‘You were really thoughtful for making breakfast for me in bed. I appreciate the little things you do for me.’ We don’t need to throw out our grateful comments on social media, but we do need to say them to our family face to face, so they know we mean it.
St. Paul knew what he was talking about in 1 Corinthians 13 when he talked on love. Love keeps no record of wrongs. This is so important in family. Without forgiveness, family becomes bitter and a well of discouragement and pain in our lives. It also says that love ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things’. A little more of this childlike expectation about those we love would fill our lives with more joy. Can you seriously ‘bear all things’ about your spouse? Can you ‘believe all things’? Do you expect that because they have failed in that area before, they will always fail? Do your words put them down? I will leave the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians here to read as the end of my post (in the Message to keep it fresh), but let me just say, three cheers for family. Who’d want to live without ’em?
And looking at 1 Corinthians 13 has reminded me: the very best thing about family is that it gives you a reason to get up in the mornings. A reason to keep going when you don’t really want to. Because you care enough about your children, about your wife, about your parents or siblings, to go out of your way to help them. The best human instinct is not selfish, but is actually to help others. This has to be extended beyond family, but it needs to start with family. If I can’t get it right with those closest to me, I won’t get it right with strangers. The apostle John puts it well in his short letter 1 John; if I don’t love my brother whom I have seen, how can I love God whom I have not seen? Love begins with the person nearest to us.
So for those of you a bit short on family at the moment, don’t be scared to find commitment with other families and with friends. Because families all need others to come in, and friends are an extra special ‘best thing about the world’ that deserve a post of their own. By the way – what would be YOUR ten best things about the world? Any suggestions? Eight more to come – the next one will be ‘wacky’.
The Way of Love
13 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
8-10 Love never dies. Inspired speech will be over some day; praying in tongues will end; understanding will reach its limit. We know only a portion of the truth, and what we say about God is always incomplete. But when the Complete arrives, our incompletes will be canceled.
11 When I was an infant at my mother’s breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good.
12 We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
13 But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.