There is a sitcom episode where, after a disappointing Christmas dinner with their dysfunctional family members, the lead character says to her husband something like, “Well, you wanted a family Christmas Dinner. What did you expect?” The husband’s reply was the lament, “All I wanted was a family Christmas Dinner, I just forgot that this was my family.”
IT SEEMS LIKE THIS CHARACTER DID WHAT A LOT OF US DO.
He got caught up in an idealized version of what holiday family time should be like and the reality was anything but. This can be a trap for many of us. We begin to idealize what the perfect Christmas scenario could be, perfect decorations, perfect table. But even more, we long for perfectly behaved family members and conversations that are perfectly affirming and validating. When the reality bumps up against the idealized version—look out. Disappointment, disillusionment, hurt and even shame sets in. We drive home asking ourselves why we even bothered.
I often get asked, “How do I deal with my family when I go home for the holidays?” This shouldn’t be the question, right? I mean the holiday season is supposed to be a time of relishing in the joy of Christ’s birth surrounded by the ones we love.
BUT FOR MANY OF US, PART OF THIS SEASON MEANS TRYING TO HOLD ON TO OUR EMOTIONAL AND SPIRITUAL FREEDOM AS WE FIGHT AGAINST THE CHAINS OF OUR FAMILY’S RELATIONAL DYSFUNCTIONS.
If this is you, going home for Christmas can actually seem to threaten the very joy Christ came to bring us.
Several years ago, when my wife and I were serving as team leaders in South Asia, we read a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer that addressed the destructive nature when our idealized expectations are confronted with reality. He said,
“If we love community, we will destroy community. But if we love one another, community will thrive and grow.”
I return to this quote often whether dealing with an issue with my team, my Lifegroup or my family.
IF MY FOCUS IS ON WHAT I THINK THE IDEAL SHOULD BE, NO ONE WILL LIVE UP TO MY EXPECTATIONS.
I will always find myself disillusioned and disappointed. But if I open myself up to love each person right where they are and for who they are (not who I think they should be), the bonds of trust and affection grow and “community” develops.
I think this can help us as we prepare ourselves for the holiday season and time with our families. We should see them for who they are, not for who we want them to be. And we need to be mindful of the ways we try to “fix” their problems.
WHO ARE THEY?
We know each other’s names. We know what we do. We grew up together and have a lot of shared history. But often, when values are different, Kingdom values coming into conflict with societal norms, we can feel very un-known by those we think should know us best.
The temptation is to say, “They just don’t get me,” and give up trying. But what if we put the shoe on the other foot? Is it possible that they also do not feel like you get them?
Take some time this Christmas and reflect on what you love about each family member. Be intentional to point out those things to them. But do not stop there. Ask questions that help you come to know your family members at a deeper level. It is one thing to know your uncle has a problem with alcohol and wonder why he doesn’t go into treatment and worry for your aunt and cousins. But have you taken the time to ask how he is feeling? Do you know what he is afraid of or avoiding? Do you know how lonely your aunt feels? Have you asked her out to coffee? Have you connected with your cousins and given them time to pour their hearts out? These are the actions that help people feel connected, feel known and feel loved.
IT’S NOT OUR JOB TO FIX THEM.
This leads me to the second part of this. One of the most difficult lessons I learned while working with drug-addicted youth living on the streets was that I was not there to fix them. I was there to reflect the love of Jesus.
THE POWER TO CONVICT AND TRANSFORM LIVES RESTS IN THE HANDS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
It was not my job to bring lasting transformation to the streets of South Asia’s cities. It was my job to be obedient by placing myself where Jesus led me and love those who were around me. When I learned that hard lesson, I found people to be less resistant to change. Instead of feeling like they were my project to fix, they felt like they were people I loved.
This is a hard lesson to learn. We want people, especially our family members, to change for the good. Oftentimes we want it for good reasons. We see the destructive effect their choices are having on themselves and our family and it grieves us. But sometimes we need them to change for us. We can feel so uncomfortable with our grief over their decisions that we feel like they have to change so we can feel better.
And, sometimes we need those who have hurt us to change because it would somehow right the wrongs they have done to us, “This time it will be different. This time, dad will show me how proud he is of me…”
It is hard to learn to entrust our broken, hurting, needy family members into the trustworthy, healing hands of the Holy Spirit and rest knowing that they are not ours to control, they are just ours to love. But when we can make that shift in our hearts and minds, we can embrace our families with a greater sense of joy and peace that truly reflects the One who came to us two thousand years ago.
May the Peace, Hope, Joy and Love of the One who came to Bethlehem so long ago fill our hearts to overflowing as we celebrate His coming in us and through us this Christmas Season!
By Silas West – Pastoral Oversight Team