On one of those trips I quaintly call an ancestral pilgrimage — often entailing a drive up dusty roads where there are only abandoned barns and foundations where perhaps a house once stood.
With mother as tour guide — her finger points to a timbered parcel of ground off in the middle of some field, “That’s where your great-grandfather Haight homesteaded” — she rambles on. “He was once an English knight … associated with some castle in England.
“He married above his station … later with his family came to America. That’s where he built his log cabin and farmed.” The place is near Delhi, Iowa, where numbers of his descendants still live and farm.
The Haights are among my maternal ancestors.
Looking in the mirror while shaving, that ancestral knight stares back at me. Beneath this face, I am a family plot.
Here are the ghost images of fathers, mothers, brothers, cousins, uncles and all the selves and their stories that have merged to give me the face I now wear.
I am in part what my genes say I must be. Someone has put it: “Each person is a candle lit from a candle lit from a candle.” So I am a “traveling flame” that is the same and yet always different.
In and through me, life is being handed down.
For that reason, I am inclined to make much of family.
The single self is called out of a chaos of other selves. Genesis says there was darkness upon the face of the deep.
Then God said, “Let there be light!” After, God spoke again, “Let there be Steva!” And again, “Let there be you!” — you who read this. So we are here, called to be each a solitary self, to be this and not that, to be here now and not there then.
Our roots reach down deep into the creation. No wonder we marvel at and honor family. It is a production deluxe!
Having said these things, however, let us see family life as it relates to the other whose life impinges upon our own. The Bible shows God concerned for this life: “It is not good for one to be alone.”
So God creates others from whom we may choose partners for living. Out of love and out of irresistible desire we unite ourselves to another.
This other is in many ways both for and against us.
This is so because each individual represents different worlds — physically and psychologically…and their ends never really coincide. Still…our loneliness is often banished in marriage, as each person finds in the other that which completes and fulfills the self.
Because the union of two individuals is often accompanied by tension rising from the differences of personalities and goals, the dynamic of family life becomes a kind of school, wherein we may learn consideration for and practice compassionate support of the other.
It is in the context of family life that we learn about making adjustments, forging compromises and making sacrifices — traits belonging to a shared covenantal life.
It is within the family that we train ourselves in bearing the burdens of others. Marriage and family have this two-fold character: In marriage, burdens may be made lighter and loneliness diminished. Good marriages may bring growth of heart and spirit as well.
Over the years, I have grown to be a much different person than I set out to become by reason of having lived with Evelyn for nearly 50 years.
Not only has it been the melding of Evelyn’s life story and my life story, it is also the nature of who I have become in the presence of three children, who have both chastened and loved me while they too matured as single and unique selves. Indeed, family life has both shaped me and given me my identity.
What Scripture seems to teach is that God wills to bless our family life — not as an ultimate end, but as a good gift of creation. Therefore, we are not to make light of family life. Concern for the family is built into the Ten Commandments. The Bible affirms constancy in marriage. Couples are to see themselves as one flesh. We are not to covet our neighbor’s spouse. We are to honor our parents.
These injunctions affirm the goodness of family life. This struggle to love and to be loved both within and beyond the family is the main path by which we fulfill ourselves as human beings.
Ultimately, however, social and family life involve us in covenants that eventually give way to death. Marriage means that one will close the eyes of the other when death intrudes … yet the family’s “traveling flame” continues.
The Genesis text shows God laying the foundation for family life.
The Bible doesn’t come at this business of family life like some back issue of the Ladies Home Journal.
The fact of family is high adventure — here personal life gets its start. It is because of such facts that all communal life demands sacrifice and calls for setting priorities.
The destiny of family is best thought of as God’s classroom for getting our spirits fit for Life in God — that which is the goal of our earthly wanderings.
The family is a school wherein one works out what it means to be in a committed relationship with others who will always be changing as we will be changing.
Very likely, it will be your privilege to relate lovingly to one or more children, whom of your free will you have called into being from the womb of eternity.
Undoubtedly, they will forever challenge you, perhaps disappoint you and, worst of all, in many ways will probably turn out just like you.
Marriage and family can be a delightful and life-changing adventure. (Actually, considering what I paid for the license, I’ve gotten a pretty good return on my money and more excitement than I could ever have thought possible.)
Let us both applaud and cherish family life! It is where life is being handed down against that day when in our dying we shall hand up our lives to God for resurrection!
– Please note: Some of these musings on family have their genesis in material found in a book by Nicolas Berdyaev, titled “The Beginning and the End.”
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation at the First Parish Church in Saco.