Whether you grew up in a technically ‘functional’, stick-together, nuclear family or an atypical, loving hippy commune – even if your family life has been positive – if you’re a Christian, you’re undeniably part of a wildly dysfunctional tribe.
Dysfunction is written into the roots of our family. Take the ancient story of Jacob and Esau, back in our clan’s infancy. Esau, as the older brother, deserves his father’s blessing: a really big deal, involving a prophetic promise about his whole future. But the mum’s favourite son is Jacob, so together they hatch a plan to take advantage of the father’s blindness (what jolly japes to trick a blind man!) and with the aid of some goatskin, fool the dad into blessing Jacob instead. Esau’s wounded cry when he uncovers the deception against him is agonising – and swiftly followed by murderous threats.
The next generation is no better. Jacob’s son, Joseph (of technicolour dreamcoat fame), is pushed down a well and sold as a slave by his brothers. The only reason they don’t murder him is so they can make a bit of profit.
Deceiving a disabled father. Selling a sibling into slavery. From the earliest days our family – chosen to display God’s goodness to the world (ha!) – has been deeply dysfunctional. And let’s not pretend we’re from a purer source ourselves.
The Welcome Wagon opened their last album with a song, which has a simple refrain: ‘I’m not fine, and you’re not fine, and we’re not fine together’. The album follows a pattern of a church service and this acknowledgement, right at the start, is our baseline. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’re a shiny, gleaming, tooth-whitened, glossy-haired kinda family.
So what makes us different from anyone else? How can this dysfunctional family show God’s goodness to the world?
We’re a family who’s got rhythm: the rhythm of reconciliation. We break up and we make up.
Take Esau, wounded to the core, by his own mother and brother. Fast forward through a period of estrangement and Esau tracks Jacob down – not to enact revenge, but for this: “Esau ran to meet Jacob, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Out of the depths of anguish at injustice, forgiveness breaks through and a beautiful reconciliation is made.
Or take Joseph, years later coming face to face with his wicked brothers: “Joseph kissed each of his brothers and wept over them” (Genesis 45:15). Again, anguish and injustice are trounced by forgiveness and reconciliation.
Don’t these old family stories set a pattern for the whole gospel? Jesus puts it like this, in the parable of the wayward son: “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Ultimately, this rhythm of reconciliation reaches its crescendo at the cross. There, Jesus endured all that our dysfunctional family deserved – past, present and future – so that justice is met. God doesn’t undo what has happened in our family history: the dysfunction isn’t skipped over. But our ‘not-fine-ness’ is forgiven and we’re reconciled to God and our family with a warm embrace.
The rhythm of reconciliation is in our hands now. And it’s by keeping the beat pulsing, forgiving and being forgiven, that this dysfunctional family displays God’s goodness to the world.