This year, like every year, our family celebrated Christmas Eve together. After worship, my children and their families settled into our house. Once the baby was asleep we told stories, downed our favorite foods, sang carols, tackled a topic or two, then rolled off to bed. We rose before dawn (with the baby’s help), and met on the stairs—bed hair, pajamas, and all—to find small gifts tucked into the stockings our daughters have known since earliest childhood and their husbands have known since they joined us. No one has missed a single Christmas, and I never stop giving thanks: they want to be here, wrapped in blankets and hugs, in love and tradition. I praise God, for I know it could be otherwise.
Indeed, it was otherwise in my childhood. My father (who died eight years ago) was a church leader and a violent man. His wisdom and insight, his ability to connect with anyone he deemed worthy, and his capacity to help people who had the least reason to expect it let him become a surrogate father to a number of grateful people. Alas, he had threats, humiliations, and blows for his sons. About half of my earliest memories have beatings and cruelties as their centerpiece. And Christmas was often the worst day of the year. On Christmas Eve, he spoke of the night heaven came to earth, and on Christmas day he gave his family a chocolate sampler of hell.
When I left home at 16 I told myself I’d never spend another Christmas in that house, never inflict that on my family. I kept my vow, at a literal level, and yet, for about 15 years, we almost always visited my parents a few days after every Christmas. Why? Well, a brother might be there and my longsuffering mother wanted to see the grandchildren, sing songs, give gifts, find a little joy. And there was the groundless hope that he might repent, confess his sins, or speak a blessing over us. Thousands of times, when I was young, he told me I was useless, worthless, helpless, feckless, and always would be, but every couple years, I presented evidence that he was wrong: “Hey, Dad, thought you’d like to know I defended my dissertation a week ago. I’ll be a professor in the fall.” Nothing ever changed, but I kept going home, even though home wasn’t safe. The violence stopped, but his curses continued, and he inflicted small wounds on my children. For example:
One of my daughters was earnest about soccer in grade school. Since he’d played soccer, and since my mother hectored him to talk to his grandchildren, he sporadically asked her about soccer when she was eight or nine. Most conversations ended like this:
Grandfather: “Sarah, do you know how soccer was invented?”
Sarah: “Yes Grandpa, soccer was invented by Genghis Khan. After he defeated his enemies, he decapitated them and used their heads to play soccer.”
Grandfather (excitedly): “Yes! Right! He decapitated his enemies and kicked the bloody heads back and forth across a field. That’s how he invented soccer! How did you know this?”
Sarah: “You told me, Grandpa. You told me lots of times.”
I still ask myself if I was right to bring my wife and children into an environment where he judged decapitation a suitable topic for children and, perhaps more to the point, his rage still burst into shouts and curses several times a day. But the concept of “Home for the Holidays” can get an emotional hold on us. And some of us keep dreaming, “It may be different this time.”
I don’t know if my decision to visit my parents was an act of love for my mother or a leadership failure on my part. But my wife and I think we’ve learned a few things:
1. Hope and pray. If your home was a dangerous place, take heart. There is hope. We can learn from the blessed homes of friends, mentors, and healthy family members. Ask them questions, gain their wisdom, and pray over it. Resolving to do better won’t be enough. Even if we don’t follow the sins of our family of origin, we can swing to fresh mistakes. We need God’s wisdom and grace.
2. Put your new family first, if married. “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife” (Gen. 2:24). Your first obligation lies with your spouse and children, not your parents. You are not required to visit abusive parents, if that harms you or your family.
3. Lean on godly family and friends. I was more scarred and disoriented than I knew. I needed a positive plan and my wife, drawing on the blessed ways of her childhood home, created happy and holy traditions. In her hymns, decorations, stockings, hot chocolate and more, we found peace, love, and justice.
4. Set boundaries and act on them. In his book on sexual exploitation, Cecil Murphy describes the day “Henry” went to church and saw “Gilbert,” the man who had abused him as a child. Henry decided to take a counselor with him to confront Gilbert. Gilbert apologized and Henry forgave him. Weeks later, Henry saw him at a party. Gilbert greeted him, but Henry said, “Outside, now!” Henry said, “I forgave you, but we’re not friends! Stay away from me. If you see me at an event like this, you leave.” Gilbert left in silence.
Henry’s action sounds harsh. Some may doubt Henry truly forgave Gilbert. But Henry’s decision makes perfect sense. Gilbert trampled Henry’s boundaries and no one protected him, so Henry created strong boundaries and demanded that Gilbert honor them.
I wish I had done something like that. I should have said, “Mom, we’ll get you a ticket, because you need to come to us.” That would have been a healthy boundary. And I should have ended a couple visits when curses and threats erupted soon after we arrived: “Sorry, Mom. Sorry, Dad. I can’t expose my family to this.” But it was hard to see or do at the time.
5. Forgive. This is a hard but essential step and it may be more complicated than we initially realize. I invite you to join me tomorrow as we consider the foundations, character, and results of forgiveness when we extend it to sinful family members.