Family are a lottery - some of us are lucky to have loving stable families that are nurturing and a privilege to be part of. Others of us have quite different experiences. Some of us have families that have been difficult and sometimes even abusive. Many of us have a mixed experience of some shade in between.
So many of us come to any celebration of parenthood and family in church with a sense that there is an element of playacting in it- that all children live in some sort of perfect family and we are all so grateful for our parents.
I am the first to say that there are enormous pressures on parents to be perfect. And we are all poor fallible people with our own pressures and our own foibles. I’d like to reassure people that all we can ever do is to try our best. Mistakes are inevitable. It is about trying.
We’re also prisoners of our own history and much of how we first understand relationships is through what we first learn through parents who also learn from their parents and so on. It can be difficult to break patterns that have emerged over generations.
And of course, values change. Over the last century children have gone from “being seen but not heard” to the very centre of why families exist. And as our society has been fairer (I’m not saying it’s totally fair yet because it’s not) that women and men have been able to leave unsatisfactory and abusive relationships and raise children in safer environments.
In short what I’m trying to say that there is a real difficulty in saying that all parents are perfect or that all families should be celebrated. That the reality is far more complex.
In many ways I have always been puzzled by the Christian championing of the family. If we look at the lives of the early patriarchs, we have murder, deception, rape, rivalries, attempted murder and selling siblings into slavery.
In our reading today we see Abraham’s first born being sent out into the desert with his mother to die. This is the final chapter in a bitter war between the Egyptian slave Hagar whose surrogacy engineered by Sarah has backfired. Originally the then Sarai encourages Abram to “know” her slave who was given to her when Abram has passed her off to pharaoh as his sister for pharaoh to “know”. Hagar, presumably a sophisticated court servant ends up being carried off by a nomadic tribe when pharaoh must pay ransom for them to go away before he is cursed.
And then of course then Sarah, has her own child Isaac who then is effectively the second born son. This means he will never lead the tribe while his brother Ishmael lives.
Hagar, the more sophisticated slave, mother of the first born of Abraham and tribeswoman Sarah, Abraham’s wife is locked into a battle for whose son succeeds. And by extension who is the lead woman in the tribe.
Sarah wins and Hagar is left to die.
It feels a lot like a soap opera doesn’t it?
And yet somehow, we conveniently forget these messy family stories when we talk about families in church. When we talk about families, we seem to only talk about one kind. And weirdly nuclear families don’t appear in the bible because the nuclear family as we know it doesn’t emerge until modern times.
I’ve often thought the cry family values is yet another attempt to pose a one size fits all model onto human relationships that doesn’t work. And I think it has been the source of a great deal of grief, guilt, and pain for many people.
Indeed, my own family values loving relations have did not speak to me for over 30 years. Indeed, my grandmother refused to speak to me from the day she found out I was gay to the day she died. I personally know many families ripped apart in this way.
And then there are blended families. Of people who create all sorts of family structures based on the reality of their lives.
So, what should we celebrate this Father’s Day?
I think the ability for people to create nurturing groups of people where everyone is loved and has a sense of belonging. That we should celebrate and support people to become the most loving and nurturing people they can be. That we all have an obligation to our children to make them fulfil all that they can be.
And that we as the church are also a family that while we have our ups and downs are people also bound by ties of affection, loyalty and love.
Human relationships are something to celebrate. So, let’s celebrate them today and always with a sense that all people are valuable, all people are loved, and all people are worthy of God’s love,