Building an Ark Together: Faith as a Family Way of Life
The Rev. Harold E. Masback, III, September 12, 2004
Genesis 6:11-6:17; 8:20-21; 9:8-13
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.14 Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.17 For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.
8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done . . . .
9:8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
26 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you;28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Every once in a while the veil of busyness and distraction falls away and you suddenly seem to see more deeply into the truth of things. I want to tell you about three of these “aha” moments I’ve had over the past two years and what I thought I saw in each of them. The first moment was right here at the pulpit on September 8, 2002. I was standing on this precise spot, at this same service, and we had just completed the teacher commissioning. As the music for the hymn swelled, I glanced up. What I saw was so beautiful, so poignant, that my heart leapt. I reached out to grab Allen’s arm and shouted over the music, “Have we got the best jobs in the world or what?”
Here is what I saw. I saw 295 children surging out of pews and scampering down the aisles. And I saw their faces: eager and trusting – utterly trusting that we, you and I, were leading them someplace safe, someplace healthy, someplace good for them. And I saw you. 350 parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors. And I saw your faces as your eyes followed our children out the doors: loving, proud, and trusting, utterly trusting, that somehow, by God’s grace, all our loving, all our praying, pledging, planning and volunteering were leading our children someplace safe, someplace healthy, someplace good for them.
And here, I believe, is the truth of that moment: we are an intensely family oriented church. Whether our families are extended families, nuclear families, blended families, single parent families, or adoptive families, and whether we are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters or only children, we know that families are important. And whether those kids heading back to the classrooms were our own kids or not, we all know we have a stake in their flourish and in the flourish of the families around us.
Most of us are now engaged in one of life’s paramount challenges, nurturing families of our own. 295 of the 575 households in our congregation include children under 18. In just the last 18 months, 103 new households have joined our church, more than 60% of them have children under 18. Our church family now includes more than 400 children in our church school and more than 300 young people in our four youth groups.
Naturally, our familial concerns range widely beyond parenting. We are couples working to enrich our marriages, grandparents loving their distant kids and grandkids, and sons and daughters trying to figure out how to best care for our aging parents. Finally, we are, all of us, beloved children of God and brothers and sisters in our church, our family of faith.
How important are families? We know from Scripture that God turned to form a family the very day he created Adam. God saw that the very essence of humanity flourished in relationship, saying, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” [Genesis 2:18.] Early Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas saw enduring family commitments as the feature that distinguished humans from other animals, and natural family love as the forerunner of mature Christian love of God and neighbor.1
How important are families? The first point I want to make this morning is that, just as families are very important to God and very important to our human identity, they are very, very important to our congregation.
My second observation, my second “aha” moment, springs from a conversation I had in January, 2003 with a family counselor practicing in Stamford. We were lamenting the number of families we knew struggling with their relationships. Not only were family issues a growing percentage of our office appointments, I had noticed a sad change in the concerns expressed by our youth group kids.
On youth group mission trips we end every evening with vespers – our six work teams gather for discussions and prayer. Every trip, each team spends a vesper night discussing their fears – the kids talk about what most threatens their security and happiness. You can imagine some of the usual suspects: kids talk about competitive pressures, social acceptance, college admissions. Only in the last three years has a new issue topped the charts: in almost every team kids are talking about fears their parents’ marriages will fail, fears that their families will break up. The conversations are hardly hypothetical, almost every youth group team now includes children struggling with the consequences of divorce.
So, I asked the family counselor if he had any hunches as to why we were seeing such a rise in family conflict. He said he and the other Fairfield County counselors were seeing couples trying their hardest for their families but just exhausted by their efforts. He said “Dad typically commutes a couple of hours a day and then travels during the week. When he’s in town, he staggers in off the late train and it’s all he can do to say goodnight to the kids before collapsing onto a couch or bed for a little mind-numbing television. The weekend is the one time the couple might be together, but Mom takes a kid and heads for lacrosse games in Wilton and Dad takes a kid and heads for hockey games in Rhode Island and so it goes ’till Sunday night. The parents have almost no time for each other, no time to nourish their friendship, and when they hit the rough patches in life they find they just don’t have a resilient enough relationship left to survive.
And here’s what I believe is the truth of that moment: that even the best intentions of well intended, well informed, resourceful parents can be overwhelmed when the structure of life, the dynamics of the surrounding culture are at best indifferent and at worst hostile to family flourish.
Now, to some extent family life is hard because it has always been hard. The Bible never idolizes families. From Genesis to Revelation Biblical families face all the conflicts and betrayals of fallen life. Adam and Eve are squabbling over who’s to blame their very first day together, and the very first sibling rivalry ends in Cain murdering Abel. But don’t we all know that in our culture the project of being family has gotten steadily harder during the last decades. We’ve all seen the same statistics: divorce rates have risen from 7% in the 1860’s to more than 50% today.2 Out of wedlock births have jumped from 5% of all births in the 1960’s to more than 30% today.3 Approximately 60% of all children born during the 1980’s will spend at least part of their childhood living with a single parent.
Now there are many complex reasons for these statistical trends, but I want to suggest that one of the reasons families are struggling is because of our culture’s relentless emphasis on individual fulfillment over family flourish, individual autonomy over family ties that bind, and conditional, transactional, contracts to love rather than unconditional covenantal commitments to love has flooded our families in a toxic cultural tide. Even when well-intended, resourceful families know how they want to live, adverse cultural trends swamp their best efforts.
Here’s a five-question survey of family-hostile cultural trends. How many have applied to your family or to the families of your children or grandchildren?:
- WE KNOW WE WANT to spend meaningful time with our families, BUT the demands of earning livelihoods, maintaining homes, and racing back and forth to events leave us swamped and exhausted with busyness.
- WE KNOW WE WANT to protect our children from unhealthy media exposure to sex, violence and drugs, BUT the television, movies, internet, video games, and CD’s are flooding our children with messages we can’t control.
- WE KNOW WE WANT to teach our children the formative stories, values, boundaries, and rituals we cherish, BUT a tidal wave of advertising is saturating our children with the stories and values of the merchandisers instead.
- WE KNOW WE WANT to raise our children in a caring network of extended family and friends, BUT a current of career moves, overstuffed schedules and electronic entertainment constantly carries us away from neighbors and community.
- WE KNOW WE WANT to surround our children with an atmosphere of affirmation and unconditional acceptance, but a torrent of competitive evaluation constantly buffets them with assessments, rankings, and rejections.
This second point I want to make is that in category after category: time, protection, formation, community, and affirmation: we care deeply about our families, and we want the right things for them – but our best efforts are overwhelmed by a flood of hostile cultural trends. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Events are in the saddle and ride mankind.”
The third and last “aha” moment I want to share with you this morning arose out of discussions with some of you about this family-hostile culture. Every once in a while someone suggests we really ought to mount a campaign against the sex and violence in the media, or we really ought to push back against the way the media constantly markets to our kids. And maybe we should take on one of these issues, but the discussions always peter out when we realize how time consuming and partial any one campaign would be. The discussions leave us feeling powerless before these culture-wide dynamics. And then we reflect on how toxic the culture must have seemed to the early Christian churches surrounded by the decay of the Roman Empire. There was very little that the 40 Christians worshipping in Corinth could do to take on Caligula. Can you imagine that petition drive?
But the early Christian churches had an insight we shall be reflecting on during our sermon series: they were neither powerless nor alone. They had the power of the risen Christ and the community of their fellow Christians. Just as God had gathered his covenant partners onto an Ark to ride out the flood, the early church viewed itself as an ark of covenantal commitment riding out the decadence of Rome. In the Middle Ages the church was an ark of covenantal commitment riding out the chaos of plague, war and famine. In the 17th century the Pilgrims literally boarded their ships to flee a decadent Europe and set up a covenantal commitment in the new promised land, the New Canaan.
In 1996 Mary Pipher wrote The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding our Families. Lamenting the cultural trends we have been discussing this morning, Pipher suggested we emulate the Lakota Sioux. The Sioux have a concept of community they call Tiospaye. The Tiospaye connects its members unconditionally, protects them from adversity, and teaches the stories and values of the tribe. Last spring The Commission on Children at Risk, a remarkable national panel of our leading research scientists, pediatricians, and psychologists issued a report identifying the spike in mental suffering and maladjustment caused by raising children in an unhealthy culture.4 They recommended that children and families flourish better when supported by what they called “Authoritative Communities.” Listen to their description of a healthy, authoritative community: it is multigenerational, warm and nurturing, treats children as ends in themselves, establishes clear boundaries and limits; is guided at least partly by lay people, has a long term focus, encourages spiritual and religious development, reflects and transmits moral values, and is committed to the principle of love of neighbor and the equal dignity of all persons.5
Now I really liked Mary Pipher’s book, and the national commission is the most impressive panel I have ever seen convened on family issues. But am I the only one that’s thinking God could have saved them both a little time and money. Through Christ, God has already given us given us the blueprints for building a robust Tiospaye, God has given us the plans for building a time -tested authoritative community, only God’s name for it is church.
My friends, during the next 7 weeks, Allen and I propose to discuss how our church can provide all of our families shelter from the cultural storm. We propose to explore how God the heavenly father models family love for all of us: the kind of unconditional love that pushes back against the hyper-individualism of our culture: unconditional, covenantal love instead of conditional, transactional love; gracious, forgiving love instead of prickly, judgmental love; nurturing, empowering love instead of grasping, exploitive love; intimate, affirming love instead of competitive assessment love. We propose to explore how together we can find ways to protect our time and protect our children against the toxic tides of the culture – how we can find ways to transmit our stories and values to our children and their children. And we ask that you bring your own ideas and thoughts. This ark doesn’t float unless we build it together.
I want to close by recalling those hopeful young faces we sent off to their class rooms this morning. Look, I know we are a community of accomplished folks. Every one of us has bullet points of high achievement on our life resumes. But I know this as well: nothing you or I have ever done, nothing we have ever achieved, nothing we ever do or achieve in the future will prove as consequential as the care and nurture we offer the 700 children in our care. May God guide and bless our efforts. Amen.
1″Yet nature does not include thereto in the same way in all animals; since there are animals whose offspring are able to seek food immediately after birth, or are sufficiently fed by their mother; and in these there is no tie between male and female; whereas in those whose offspring needs the support of both parents, although for a short time, there is a certain tie, as may be seen in certain birds. In man, however, since the child needs the parents’ care for a long time, there is a very great tie between the male and the female, to which tie even the generic nature inclines.” [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 3, “Supplement”, q.41.1.] “David Popenoe and David Bakan go even further in their claims: they believe that the addition of fathers to the primordial mother-infant family was a key to the rise of civilization among Homo sapiens.” They also belioeve that the decline of male generativity and paternal investment is one of the greatest threats to civilization.” David Popenoe, “The Fatherhood Problem” at 38, David Bakan, The Duality of Human Existence, and David Bakan And They Took Themselves Wives: The Emergence of Patriarchy in Western Civilization, summarized by Don S. Browning, et al., From Culture Wars to Common Ground: Religion and the American Family Debate at 113. “Yet Luther’s theology of the family was closer to Aquinas’s than is commonly thought. Luther referred, however, not to biology but to the Genesis creation stories and their restatement in the Gospels. ‘So God created man . . .male and female he created them’ (Gen.1:27). Males and females were not made to ‘be alone’ (2:18) but to become ‘one flesh’ (2:24) and ‘be fruitful’ (1:28). Furthermore, these divine intentions were not ‘commands’ of the kind God addresses directly to the individual conscience; they were ‘ordinances’ stamped into the very fabric of creation. Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Luther’s Works 45 at 18, summarized in Browning, From Culture Wars to Common Ground at 124-125.a
2 Martin Castro and Larry Bumpass, “Recent Trends in Marital Disruption,” Demography 26 (February 1989): 37-51
3 Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation by the Council on Families in America, at 7.
4 The Commission on Children at Risk included, among others, Thomas Insel, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Robert Coles of the Harvard Medical School, Steven Suomi of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, T. Berry Brazelton of Harvard Medical School, Allan Schore of UCLA Medical School, Judith Wallerstein of the Center for the Family in Transition. They reported estimates taht at least one of every four adolescents in the U.S. is currently at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood. Twenty-one percent of U.S. children ages 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental disorder or addiction, 8 percent of high school students suffer from clinical depression, and 20 percent of students report seriously having considered suicide int he past year. By the 1980’s, U.S. children as a group were reporting more anxiety than did children who were psychiatiric patients in the 1950’s. Hardwired to Connect., “Executive Summary.”
5 The Commission on Children at Risk, Hardwired to Connect, “Executive Summary.”