A vital element for building a family is instilling a healthy sense of heritage--an appreciation of family roots, both earthly and spiritual. Yet it is increasingly common in our world for children to have no such sense of continuity or regard for family history. Too many feel that they have come from nothing and are bound for nothing--and this goes for Christians, too. Family heritage is a subject of neglect that is in need of rehabilitation. It is one of the disciplines of a godly family.
Psalm 127:4 compares children to arrows. Parents, like archers, launch their children into the future, aiming toward a distant target. Some parents take clear aim, and their arrows are well directed toward their future mark. But other "child arrows" are fired from undisciplined bows by parents who are, at best, ambivalent about where they came from and unsure of their aim. Their arrows waver and falter, then finally succumb to gravity with no mark in sight. They tragically prove the adage, "If you aim at nothing, you'll surely hit it."
One essential element in giving direction to one's children is heritage. Understanding where we came from, and even more, having some appreciation for it, will help us supply healthy direction.
All our heritages are flawed, of course, some far more than others. Modern men and women are so sensitized to this that many have come to use the sins of their parents as a cloak for their own sins and parental deficiencies. As Robert Hughes wrote in Time magazine, this has brought "the rise of cult therapies teaching that we are all the victims of our parents, that whatever our folly, venality, or outright thuggishness, we are not to be blamed for it, since we come from 'dysfunctional families.'"
[Footnote 1: Robert Hughes, "The Fraying of America," Time, February 3, 1992, 45-46.]
Tragically, we have known second- and third-generation Christians who have bought into this misguided and erroneous logic. They nurse deep bitterness because, for example, their parents were rigid legalists or hypocrites. These hurts become convenient excuses for the skewed trajectories of their own lives. And then, because they themselves are so far off course, they further misdirect their own precious arrows, producing children who falter without stability and direction.
The reality is that all of us, of every generation, live in families that are dysfunctional in varying degrees. We all make mistakes; we sin against our children, and they against us. Life is often (perhaps for most) unfair and even cruel. Although we are not to blame for others' actions against us, we must assume responsibility for our own actions and failings. To focus on injustice is to provide a grim, corrosive heritage for the next generation.
THE DISCIPLINE OF BUILDING A
POSITIVE HERITAGE FOR YOUR FAMILY
Families can prove highly skilled at nursing a bitterness regarding some wrong suffered. Consider the fictional case of the Doe family. Early on, each new child in the family discovers that your father's Uncle Ted can't be mentioned without evoking a negative response: "He was the stingiest miser in Iowa." In reality, back in the 1960s he refused to give a loan to his brother (your grandfather). But he also has a great sense of humor, takes his nephews fishing, and gives all the children their first piggy bank. Nevertheless, the bitter epithet is beyond erasure. Uncle Ted is condemned to be a "tightwad" in the family's eyes no matter what he does.
The Discipline of Forgiveness
The discipline of forgiveness is essential to building your family and enhancing your heritage. As a girl, Barbara learned some important lessons about forgiveness through difficult experiences with her father. She recalls:
I was just fourteen years old that warm June day as I readied myself for graduation from Stephens Junior High School. I was about to receive the Daughters of the American Revolution Award for citizenship, scholarship, and service to one's school, and I was to address the graduates. Nervously, I scanned my notes and straightened the hem of my new blue organdy dress, which Grandma Barnes had lovingly made for me.
As I began to ascend the platform, one of my girlfriends ran to me giggling, "There's a drunk man over there!" Dad's noisy arrival was unavoidably conspicuous. His clothes were a mess, and he was so intoxicated that he had difficulty staying on his feet as he walked to his place. Dad's struggle with alcohol had always been a source of fear and pain in our family, but now it was the cause of my personal public humiliation.
I began to pray. And that prayer helped me to get through the painful situation. My trembling legs nearly gave way as I rose to speak, but inside something solid and good was taking place. I wasn't experienced enough to fully comprehend it. But I did understand that my father, my daddy, was causing me pain and that my heavenly Father had taught me to forgive: "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matt. 6:12). So as the principal presented the award, tarnished now of its anticipated glory, I made a decision. By the grace of God I would not hate my father. I would forgive him. Then I began my speech.
At the ceremony's end, while we were congratulating one another and saying our summer good-byes, I took my father by the hand and introduced him to my favorite teachers.
There was no way Barbara could know how momentous her decision was, but her life would have taken a far different course had she become embittered. God's grace was adequate to help her, and because of his forgiving mercy, her heritage did not sour. As Christians, we must discipline ourselves by God's grace to forgive and forget the wrongs done to us.
The Discipline of Being Positive
Forgiveness is closely related to the discipline of cultivating positive attitudes. In the years that followed Barbara's graduation, her father's drinking weighed terribly on the family. Her father finally landed on skid row in Los Angeles, where he remained until he was diagnosed with advanced emphysema. He returned home as an invalid, and his wife cared for him for eleven years before his death.
That decade provided our children's memories of their grandfather. During that time we determined to emphasize the positive about Grandpa. We talked about his great sense of humor (he was outrageously funny), what terrific chili he made, and how good he had been at fishing for shark off Rainbow Pier. We laughed when he tried to yodel, croon, or play chords on the old piano. We entranced our own children (and Grandpa!) when we scooped them up and danced the two-step that he had taught us years earlier. Today we all extravagantly make a fuss over babies--any babies--partly because Grandpa did. He was so utterly captivated and charmed by the sweetness of infants that whenever he held one, he was a delight to behold. And he passed that on to us. He also loved to garden--something that has become Barbara's passion.
This is but a small part of his legacy to our family. Our children never learned about that painful graduation day when Barbara was fourteen until they were grown and Grandpa was long since in heaven. We experienced the benefits that come from the discipline of being positive about our family heritage.
The Discipline of Focusing on the Good
As a boy, Kent suffered a major deficiency in his upbringing. His father, Graham Hughes, was killed in an industrial accident when Kent was four years old. Kent's memory of his father is a flickering, candlelit vision of a slender man with red, wavy hair, "asleep" on the champagne satin of his casket. Kent was bereft of a male role model and destined to be raised with his little brother by his widowed mother, widowed grandmother, and widowed aunt. He had no male to teach him manly things.
Being raised in an all-female household could have been a great disadvantage, except for this: Kent's mother consciously made up for it by taking her boys camping every summer at Big Sur, teaching them to fish with Grandpa Bray's fly rods, and presenting them with Grandpa's guns at the proper age. Young fathers also took an interest in Kent. Eddie across the street showed him how to dress game, and Jim, who lived with his young wife in the apartment behind Kent's family, taught him to build model planes. And of course Christian men of his church took special interest in him during his teenage years: his pastor, Verl Lindley; his youth sponsor, Howard Busse; and Robert Seelye, who shepherded him in his college years. Divinely tailored benefits issued from a terrible loss. Kent has a unique, enviable, godly heritage, allowing him to echo what David said in Psalm 68:5-6: "Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home."
The Discipline of Beginning Something New
Obviously, when the two of us came together and began a family, we did not come perfectly equipped for the job. One of us had no father, and the other had what today would be termed a dysfunctional father. We had to start where we were with what we had. But what we had was substantial. We had the powerful, quiet examples provided by our mothers, who had daily laid down their lives for us, and we had the promises that God makes to those who follow him. We were beginning a great adventure, and the last thing on our mind was self-pity or remorse over what we didn't have. There was fresh land before us to clear and settle, and we brimmed with hope.
Today we minister in a church that is 130 years old, rich with heritage and tradition. But thirty years ago we pioneered a brand-new church. Absolutely everything we did that first year was "original." We were privileged to decide which traditions the church would be practicing for many years into the future. We saw that as an opportunity to make an impact on the church for generations to come. And that's exactly how we viewed our family. We got to start something new. Our deficiency was the ground of our opportunity.
Like dry sponges, we soaked up every bit of wisdom we could gain from experienced Christian families. There was much trial and error. Nearly everything we did was done imperfectly. It wasn't our adequacy that God used to accomplish his purposes in our family, nor will it be yours. Rather, God's work begins for everyone, regardless of circumstances, with an attitude of disciplined dependence on him for what is necessary to live the Christian life. The accompanying virtues of such dependence are faith, prayer, and obedience--faith that God will accomplish what he has promised, a life of dependent prayer, and a determined obedience to do God's will.
BUILDING ON YOUR ETERNAL HERITAGE
In building a heritage, Christians have a vast advantage over those who do not know Christ. Scripture says, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17). Gone with the old are a life dominated by sin and the power of destructive relational habits that inhibit a healthy heritage; come are a new heart, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and a new moral sensitivity and power to do right. No matter what your past heritage, all is new in Christ. Christians have a deep reservoir of heritage from which to draw--one that is grounded not in fleeting life but in eternity.
At the heart of our heritage is the paternity of God, who is our devoted, loving Father. A telltale sign of our relationship with God is the powerful inner impulse to address him as our dearest Father: "You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!'" (Rom. 8:15); "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Gal. 4:6). This awareness of God's paternity is meant to instill a sense of continuity and security in us as cherished members of God's household. J. I. Packer has written:
If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God's child, and having God as his father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God the Father.
[Footnote 2: J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 19-20.]
Relating to God as Father can be difficult for those who have had extremely poor earthly fathers, but it is not impossible because everyone can imagine what a good father is like. As parents we must discipline this blessed reality into our minds as essential to our heritage--right now, in this world. We must passionately believe it.
With a disciplined focus on God as Father, we will experience an increased sense of heritage in the church, which is God's eternal family. Our mutual paternity, our shared impulse to cry, "Dear Father," enhances our sense of belonging. To call God "Father" means that in the body of Christ we have spiritual brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and children (see Mark 10:29-30)--a sublime heritage that is closer than blood relationships and will grow yet sweeter and sweeter.
In praying for his Ephesian family, Paul prayed that "having the eyes of your hearts enlightened ... you may know ... the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints" (Eph. 1:18). Paul wants us to see that we are God's riches--his glorious inheritance, his heritage. Christ's heritage is our heritage, and our heritage is Christ's. If this does not make our hearts sing, what will?
DISCIPLINES THAT WI L L HELP YOU GET STARTED
Whatever you and your spouse's backgrounds--even if you have no spouse and feel hopelessly alone--you can build an enduring sense of heritage that will extend to your children and their children. Here are some disciplines to help you get started:
1. List the deficiencies and injustices of the past, then choose to work toward forgiving them. The following Scriptures will be helpful in forgiving others:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.--Col. 3:12-13
Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.--Phil. 3:13-14
2. When you have made this choice, don't attempt to accomplish it in your own strength. Draw on the grace of Christ every single day, lifted up by Bible passages such as these:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.--Phil. 4:13 But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.--2 Cor. 12:9
He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.--1 Thess. 5:24
3. List the good things you received from your parents. Even if your situation was almost totally destructive, you still received the color of your eyes and hair, your physique, your innate abilities, and life itself. Now thank God for those gifts, with verses such as these filling your consciousness:
Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.--1 Thess. 5:18
Giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.--Eph. 5:20
With thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.--Phil. 4:6-7
4. Now make a wish list of all of the things you would like to pass on as a legacy to your children and grandchildren--attitudes, spiritual inheritance, interests, etc.
As Christians, we all stand on level ground before the cross. We are all new creatures with a God-given sense of paternity and family.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Are all families dysfunctional? Why? To the same degree?
What does the phrase family heritage suggest to you? If you were asked what your family's heritage is right now, what would you say? What do you want it to be?
What does Barbara's story convey to you about forgiveness?
Why do Christians have an advantage over others when it comes to building a heritage?
What do Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 reveal about the heart of your heritage? What does the title for God there mean to you personally?