Sad family portraits

Why isn't it the picture we should have every right to expect?

Issue: "Is there no tomorrow?," Aug. 7, 1999

One family reunion down so far this summer; one more to go, this coming weekend. Some folks loathe family reunions. I love them. But that may be because I am doubly blessed-with families on both sides big and colorful enough to give such gatherings more the flavor of a festival than that of a funeral.

That festival spirit dominated our Belz family gathering in June, where nearly 90 of us assembled to celebrate my mother's 80th birthday. Over the last 60 years, as her three daughters and five sons grew up and started their own families, Mother took time from her remarkable schedule to craft a baby blanket for each of her 31 grandchildren-and then also for her 15 great-grandchildren. Nearly all of those baby blankets reappeared at our June gathering, lovingly attached to tomato sticks to form flags for an utterly unique parade. "Give me a G!" shouted one of the older grandsons; "Give me an R! Give me an A! Give me an N!" And so on, until a huge cheer for GRANDMA rose across the Iowa countryside.

But we Belzes are pikers compared to the Cross family. My wife Carol's mother is one of 11 siblings, sons and daughters of William and Myrtle Cross of Scranton, Pa. When you are born or marry into that clan, you're assigned a sequential number (I am No. 85) just so everybody can keep track of everybody else. Altogether, we're up to 166 now, and word is out that 167 and 168 are on the way. For the Belzes, it's a festival. For the Crosses, it's more like a circus.

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Yet while these two families have some high-profile differences, they are wonderfully united in the fact that God's Spirit has moved among us, invaded our hearts, protected us, taught us, and retrieved all us wandering sheep to such an extent that our reunions-on both sides-are also services of worship. The "union" in "reunion" is a union of spirit as well as of blood. That is a high privilege.

I thought of all that last week as America one more time watched one of its notable families-the Kennedys-try to pull itself together at a moment when instead it seemed to be flying apart. How could just one family face such incredible promise, the media kept reminding us, only to find itself perpetually frustrated in living up to the opportunities just before it? Sometimes the source of that frustration has come from without (assassins' bullets, cloudy weather, or the untimely death of an infant) but just as often it has come from within (poor judgment, substance abuse, or profligate living).

But isn't that exactly the picture of the American family at large through the last half of this terrifying century? Full of promise and opportunity, prosperous, attractive, well educated, fully advantaged-all that, and still shattered by brokenness. So splintered, in fact, that the possibility of getting most American families physically together these days, even for a reunion, has become a logistical improbability. Divorce and separation mean that a third of America's children now live in households that share at least two surnames. Explain that any way you want, it's not a healthy direction. Ambiguity of identity, uncertainty about security, and ultimate loneliness are all-but-certain results.

But, the psalmist says encouragingly, "God sets the lonely in families." To the extent that a restful security and a sense of well-being are part of God's great plan for his children, putting us in families is one of the main tools he uses to accomplish that end. So the carelessness and destructiveness with which our culture has both injured and abandoned those places of refuge is among the greatest of our national disgraces.

Headed for a family reunion this year? Whether it's a festival, a circus, or a time for reassembling some broken pieces, do it with quiet joy before God and a new resolve to do all you can to keep the evil from stealing away one of the Creator's most wonderful gifts.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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