Faith and Fragile Families

 
 

Two teenage alcoholics were about to split but, by the grace of God, hung on. The result: a sanctifying, generous, and gracious marriage with fifteen children and countless important lessons.

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I was six months old, and my mother was ready to leave. My dad had been remarking for some time that he did not want to be married anymore, that it just wasn’t working out for him. My mother had tired of saying that that was fine.

They couldn’t communicate much beyond that, though she did know how to make things dramatic. Lacking funds for a suitcase, she piled our belongings into brown paper bags and left them in the living room of their tiny apartment. So that he could watch us leave, she waited until my father came home from work before moving them into the car.

“Going somewhere?” was apparently all that he said.

She was returning for the next load when their neighbor, a loquacious gentleman who had recently undergone hernia surgery, interrupted her. He unbuckled his belt before he’d even entered our apartment. He proceeded to describe, in detail, the surgery and postoperative course. Half an hour later, my mother and father had laughed so much that my mom decided to forestall her departure and work out the issues in their relationship.

Twenty-nine years and fifteen children later, they’re still laughing at what they now recognize as the peculiarities of God’s mercy. Though I do hope to write it down one day, this essay does not contain my parents’ whole story. For now, I want to honor publicly what God has done and reaffirm the hope that we can bear for broken people and broken families.

My Parents’ Story

My parents were two teenage alcoholics who grew up lacking role models of meaningful emotional communication, much less of loving marriage. My mother made record times in cross-country but never saw anyone cheering for her from the stands. Once, when I was about nine years old, my father called me out of bed; I was afraid that I’d done something wrong when he asked me to sit down at the dinner table. Instead, he explained that he could not remember his father ever telling him that he was loved. He wanted to ensure that I did not suffer the same.

My mother, despite suffering more severe trauma in high school, at least avoided abusing substances before school hours. Thus, she graduated from high school. The same can’t be said for my father. In the midst of their severe drinking, each of them was taken in and cared for by a loving and stable family. That love didn’t change them immediately, but it put a few cracks in the shells they’d erected, and light began to enter. As my mother once put it, these families “did not purposely set out to save two kids, they just loved who God dropped in their laps.”

My parents met in rehab a few years later after running out of other options; one was a counselor and the other a client. At my parents’ wedding, people even took bets about whether their marriage would last until my birth five months later. My father has told me more than once that I was instrumental in helping him understand how selfish he was, because I was the first person he’d met that didn’t try to accommodate myself to his needs at least a little bit.

When my brother was about to be born, my mother called an adoption agency, terrified at the prospect of dealing with a second child. She didn’t do anything more than make the call, but her desperation was representative of the fragmented, embryonic love that guided our family. With little else to go by, my parents made many decisions out of fear. My father, afraid of repeating the mistakes of his parents, heard on the radio that families that went to church together tended to stay together. Although his experience with Christianity had been brief and superficial, and my mother’s youth group in high school did not keep her from substances and sex, they started to go to church. In their church, the core of formation was studying the Bible together in community. There both committed their lives to Christ and thereafter tried their best to love and disciple us.

Change did not come easily. Having come together as deeply broken people needing to overcome their loneliness, my mother and father had to wrestle through a variety of fairly basic discrepancies in life preferences. They often overspent what little money they had, which in turn led to more conflict.

One such conflict resulted in a hole being punched in their bedroom door. My mother and father were so mad at each other that they couldn’t even stand to be in the same car together. At church that night, my father arrived half an hour later than we did. I couldn’t help but worry for him, having last seen him storming out of the house. It turned out that he had, seized by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, pulled off to the side of the road to pray and then ask forgiveness from my mother.

The way that my parents had been loved in turn shaped the way that they love others. My father did not just come home to play with us; he was all-time quarterback for all the neighborhood games of football. My mother did not just teach us at home, but spearheaded the homeschool co-op’s efforts to start science classes. Having been taken in as teenagers, they opened their home to many hurting kids who crossed their paths (one of whom eventually became my wife). Together they had fifteen children and modeled a love for one another that was so fierce and tenacious that their children, having grown up, have sometimes had trouble matching their intensity with their own partners.

Families and Policy

In discussions about abortion in America, a recurring theme is the need to open our homes to pregnant teenagers and single moms. My parents have done this, and it isn’t easy. I wish I could say that love—welcoming a heroin user right into their home—always results in a heartwarming ending, but it doesn’t. But my parents have remained faithful to their calling. They have chosen to let their love be light.

When I meet struggling or fragmented young families in my medical practice, I can’t help but think about what my family must have looked like to the professionals my parents met thirty years ago: lives full of pain, struggling to raise children with few resources, and disconnected from any kind of supportive community.

The way that we discuss such families is incredibly polarized. Both sides can marshal examples in their support, for all of us know someone whose irresponsibility is subsidized and someone else who has played by all the rules and is still stuck in poverty. These stories, however compelling, fail to describe how complex the struggles of most families at the margins are.

The institutions and supports that helped my parents—rehab; Alcoholics Anonymous; Women, Infants, and Children; public colleges—underscore the importance of providing resources to help people meet basic needs and acquire necessary life skills.

I also can’t ignore the fact that starting off (lower) middle class and being white gave us advantages that are easily forgotten and often overlooked. This structural understanding of how we did as well as we did helps me to imagine the positions of my struggling patients by considering how much more difficult it would have been if my father weren’t able to find a job easily, or if my mother didn’t have the education necessary to homeschool us well. But it still belies the role of the relationships and formation my parents experienced through the church.

My mother and father taught me the importance of consciously structuring my life so as to allow room for others who are hurting. The grass in our yard was always patchy, our socks never matched, and the floor was never clean for more than five minutes, but the love in our home was evident to anyone who came in. This has deep personal and structural ramifications; the human tendency to cluster with people like us and avoid people in need creates segregation and discrimination. Policies, then, that subsidize social separation and relational disconnection should be viewed with higher suspicion.

Considering the frequency with which my parents, early on, expressed distaste for their marriage, it remains incredible that they stuck together. Had they been afflicted by any contingency that our African-American neighbors routinely experience—unlawful arrest or job discrimination, for example—I shudder to think what would have happened to their fragile bond.

Vulnerability and Love

No policy can replace the work of opening the heart to relationships with the vulnerable. Only the Holy Spirit and the love of others can do that. As Amber and David Lapp put it, “There’s no substitute for the service of being a good neighbor.” Neighborliness, though, requires a decision to make ourselves vulnerable to the risks of loving. Such vulnerability—the unavoidable vulnerability of loving alcoholic teenagers and fragmented families—in turn relies on enduring faith and hope.

Without hope that anyone can change, that the world as we know it will change, cynicism will mount until it has smothered us with despair. Relationships with people unlike us undercuts this cynicism.

My mother and father were individually mired in hopelessness but were welcomed by people who saw beyond their deeply rooted faults. They in turn embraced a faith that allowed them to believe that those faults could be overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit if only they surrendered their wills to God and opened their hearts to others as Christ had done for them. Faith does not prohibit drawing appropriate boundaries to care for ourselves and our families, but it does stretch those boundaries and give us assurance of safety in God even when they are violated.

My parents can testify and I can proclaim: Christ changes lives. Christ’s love for our family was mediated through relationships and institutions; it took the shape of forces personal and impersonal that drew us toward God’s covenantal community and supported us in our life outside. My mother and father responded to these gifts with vigorous gratitude and are now sending their children out into the world to bless others. My wife and I have made our home in inner-city Baltimore, and when I come home to my parents’ house, I often find a stranger sleeping in my room. Faith, hope, and love are always begetting.

God, working through His people, can transform fragile partnerships like the one that conceived me. This week, our family is recounting the blessings we’ve experienced and hoping that God will do the same if we make ourselves vulnerable on behalf of others. Not everyone will act on a statistical bet like my father did—and right now, many cultural currents wall off the rich and the faithful from anyone who might lower our property values or lead our children astray. The Holy Spirit can of course overcome any cultural or socioeconomic barriers we set up, but the people of God ought not to kick against the goads lest we suffer the judgment of Sodom. We should embrace the opportunity to share life together with the vulnerable and see what God will do.

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor practicing in Baltimore. His parents recently celebrated their twenty-ninth anniversary.

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