Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Reflections on a Family Reunion

Our family gets together every two years for a family reunion--from Texas, Colorado, Tennessee and Virginia. There are two parents, six siblings and their spouses and almost twenty grandkids. This Thanksgiving, we rented a lodge for five nights.

Our group makes up not only a wide diversity of ages, but of world views: atheists, agnostics, Seventh-day Adventists, non-denominational members, Presbyterians and Catholics. With zealots among them--me being one! (And if you know anything about SDA prophecy, having a Catholic family member can make some interesting conversations and cause some theological misunderstandings.)

I have the highest opinion of my family. They are wonderful, brilliant, and devoted--and for the most part tolerant. This isn’t about my family but about the problems of family reunions. Reunions are difficult even among the best of us. And though most of those attending will not relate to my observations, it is because, being the oldest sister of the siblings, I was privileged to listen to many private hurts and complaints that others were not aware of. 

Having their memory so fresh, I thought I would jot down some easily and not so easily avoided pitfalls not only for those of you who might find it beneficial but for me personally to review before the next family reunion. (I tend to mentally edit out all but the most fun parts. So I need to get it down on cyber-paper now before anything I need to work on and pray about disappears from my radar.)

One quick note: This is advice for Christian family reunions--those who have a vibrant relationship with Christ and that is most of my family. If you aren’t a Christian, then I don’t expect we will have the same world view and the same values. No criticism, just making clear who I am writing for. I respect atheists and agnostics. 

10. People need to state their expectations before the reunion.

We stayed late Sunday to clean up the lodge after everyone left, (accidentally missing mass! Note to self-- go to confession). From the moment the last family members drove off I sobbed. I sobbed intermittently from Branson, MO all the way to the miraculous placement of the chapel of the Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Indiana where we took a stop and prayed. 

For a distraction from my intermittent sobbing, my husband and I played a game as to how to title this latest family reunion. My immediate reaction was, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” for most of the reunion I wanted to know where my family was! These people didn’t seem to be the people I remembered. Other titles were from several episodes from the Twilight Zone, including “the Monsters are due on Maple Street.” My expectations had not been met. I didn’t relate to the people I was seeing or hearing.

I just assumed because my family are conservatives and we are devastated by the election we would all commiserate together. This would be a reunion of wailing and crying for the fall of our country and banding together with hugs and encouragement. 

Add to this that my husband and I are in the process of moving out of the country and I have an overwhelming fear that I may not be able to afford coming to another family reunion and thus may not see certain family members for many years, if at all. I expected that I would be hysterically sobbing from the moment I laid eyes on my family to when I left. Other family members are also having personal crises, some quite serious. These stresses I thought would bond us in talking and grieving together.

Who would have thought I needed to actually state that expectation? It seemed the most obvious thing in the world. And yet I should have stated it because I was informed later that others were needing this to be a silly reunion free of stress. So expressing those expectations clearly would have helped. 

Which brings me to the next point.

9. Everyone should have realistic expectations.

We cannot expect magic. People who are silly and superficial are not going to turn into Peter Kreeft or Thomas Aquinas, just as people who love to talk religion and politics are going to suddenly turn into the Three Stooges. We need to love and respect our differences and rather than become frustrated at people for being themselves, create spaces for different needs--like fun rooms and serious rooms, so that no one need feel forced upon. 

We cannot force our expectations on others, but in a loving and respectful family, each need should be accommodated as much as possible.

8. The Funny Things Stress Can Do
People revert to childhood stereotypes at reunions. I could palpably feel the frustration of some who fought hard not to be seen in their childhood “label”. Successful adults want to be seen for who they are not who they were. We all need to be able to grow and change but when we encounter such an overwhelming childhood environment with people treating us as they did when we were kids, then we react like we did when we were children. Rather than get too upset, I think we should just laugh. 

Which brings me to my next point.

7. We need to Respect Each Other

First and foremost we as Christians are commanded to honor our parents. We live in wickedly terrible egalitarian times in which children have no respect for their parents. Whatever you did in the past that was disrespectful to parents, stop doing it. Start anew and watch what respecting your parents will do for your own children when they see you. This is a most evil age in this regard. Love had grown cold. And as a Christian we must honor our parents. 

NO teasing. period. Parents cannot tease their children and children cannot tease their parents. It doesn’t work, nor did God intend this to happen. It teaches disrespect and gives incredibly hurt feeling no matter how people try to seem nonchalant or brave. 

If one must tease, tease someone on your own authority level. Siblings can tease each other, but that’s the extent. And teasing gets old and creates stress--not matter who gives and gets it. One person starts the ball rolling with critical teasing and it just spreads like a plague and what was a fun time is ruined by hurt feelings.

Some people think we should just tough out teasing, but in a family reunion with so many people you haven’t seen in a long time, uplifting words are so much more important. Family reunions should be encouraging times and not times when people have to steel themselves for the onslaught of teasing.

6. Subtile Judgmentalism Isn’t Healthy

I don’t think most people are aware that they do this. They speak harsh judgements in candy-coated words and think somehow the person is too stupid to understand the insult. It makes it impossible to be honest and say the comment was hurtful because the victim of judgement will be accused of misunderstanding or being too sensitive. 

For example, someone says to a person who struggles with their weight at breakfast when donuts are served, “You’ve always been such a connoisseur of pastries!” or “We always appreciate your plumpness!”

And when it comes to differences in politics and religion the judgmentalism can be in mocking expressions or laughs. Again this returns us to the need for respect as well as a good dose of humility.

5. We are Christians, We need To Trust Each Other

When someone would make a statement such as, “John is a great golfer” I repeatedly heard responses (both to tease and in seriousness) such as, “I don’t believe that” or “that’s just plain silly” (or worse).

In a large family reunion of thirty, if you say even one thing negative or mistrusting to each person, everyone will feel humiliated thirty times during the course of a few days. How much better to save criticisms, teasing and distrust for other times and say things that show appreciation so that each person could hear a flood of thirty positive things each family reunion.

And as Christians, we need to trust people are telling us the truth--even if you think what they said was wrong. Trust first and then verify later in private. Because our family is of such diverse theological differences, we can have some heated discussions and great misunderstandings. Don’t let that keep you from trusting each other. 

4. Reunions are desserts, not the main course of family relationships. 

It is especially hard to intimately connect with family members you haven’t seen for many months. Keep in frequent contact between reunions.
3. Forgive

This is the key for Christians. People under stress act out of control. By in large people mean well. As irritating and infantile and out of control they act, Christians really are trying. Forgive, for you will also need that forgiveness sometime in the course of the family reunion. Whether you meant to or not your words or acts WILL hurt someone, so readily forgive as you would like to be forgiven. 

And when passions or emotions flair remember there is a REASON and emotion isn’t the worst thing in the world. Stress happens. God has placed each of us, like gemstones in a rock tumbler in order to knock us about to bring out our beauty and shine us to perfection. Don’t run from stress, learn to deal with it.

And for those who drink, I think a piece of good advice is, begin each day of your reunion with worship and end each with a shared dinner with a glass of wine. For those who don’t drink... well, there’s always a Valium and a Prilosec!

2. Patience

St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that patience is the first definition of love. People do not feel loved if you are not patient with them. Don’t interrupt. Be a patient listener. Our family is verbal. Genetically programmed for weakness in lip discipline. While we excel in other types of patience, really listening without interrupting the speaker would be a miracle of love in our family for each other.

Listen or watch other people’s passions with patience. Don’t allow stubbornness, selfishness or pride to demean other people’s interests. All should be in some way placed in the mix of activities. If say, politics or religion or sports or ranching are among member’s passions... have enough patience to engage in or watch someone if they ask you to. 

1. Family Worship

If I could identify one thing that is essential to all Christian family reunions is that you should have family worship every day. It doesn’t have to be long, but it is absolutely vital to frequently remind everyone just what is the most important reason we are together. 

Even if doctrinal differences are there, worship should focus on what you do have in common. It will help build unity and trust. It will foster forgiveness and patience. Sing a hymn, read scripture. 

If someone must proselytize, do it at another time. I know exactly how it feels to deeply worry about someone’s soul, so I can sympathize. If a family member believes they must correct another Christian’s theology for the sake of their eternal souls, realize it is going to happen and allow time in private for it. Just don’t proselytize in family worships or people won’t come.

I hope if my family reads this they will not take it as a criticism. It certainly isn’t. I am more preaching to myself than anyone. My family members are kind and loving. And the hurt feelings that were shared with me, I am sure will be easily forgiven and forgotten.

St. Paul tells Christians that we must strive to be unified and one in heart and mind. Saying that and doing it are wildly different things and one can only achieve any kind of holiness by struggling against the flesh within the grace abundantly poured out by Christ. I will be praying for that courage and grace that I might be even more holy and Christ-like the next time God gives me the great privilege of attending another family reunion.

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