Magazine article The Christian Century

God among the Imperfect

Magazine article The Christian Century

God among the Imperfect

Article excerpt

I DON'T KNOW what a perfect first-century family looked like, but I'm certain that Joseph and Mary didn't fit the ideal. Joseph had no money. He had no safe place for his wife to give birth and no plausible explanation for her pregnancy. How scared they must have been. Their family was turned upside down before it even began.

I know about unusual families. I come from one. There is a picture in one of my mother's photo albums of the day she and my stepfather were married. They are holding hands and looking pleased but also totally overwhelmed. Each had lost a spouse to cancer only 18 months before. Their kids are on either side of them--six teenagers with mouths stuffed full of braces, heads full of regrettable '80s hair, each one of them with a dead look in his or her eyes. When I look at that picture and see my biological sister, my adopted sister, three step-siblings whom I didn't know, my stepfather, my mother and me, I don't see an ideal family. I see something quite unusual.

But in America "unusual" families are everywhere. In increasing numbers, African Americans marry whites, atheists marry Christians, and men marry men. Democrats marry Republicans. Good single friends join forces as part of the "voluntary kin" movement. We have blended families, same-sex families, adoptive families, and single parent families. That list is from a New York Times article, but it could be straight out of my church directory. Many of the families I serve don't fit the ideal.

I did see one ideal family recently. They were pictured on a Christmas card that came in the mail. There was a father with a full head of close-cropped black hair, a mother with long blond tresses and an expensive-looking scarf, and four kids of varying ages, each one smiling perfectly, each in a tasteful holiday sweater, eyes peaceful, as if there were no place they'd rather be. All six were set against a holiday backdrop of snow-dusted trees atop a soft, rolling hill. Underneath their photo their name was printed: "The Bronnings."

I flinched. "Man, the Bronnings are really something. Why can't we ever get a family photograph that doesn't feature someone squinting? How did they get all those kids to wear wool sweaters? How big is that backyard?" All of which boiled down to: "Who are these perfect creeps?" I turned the card over. It was an advertisement for Shutterfly, a card and photo company.

The consumer (at least this consumer) often feels inadequate in comparison with the sparkling perfection of holiday advertising. I know Mr. Bronning is fake, but I still don't compare well . …

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