About 10 years ago, when I was living back at my parents’ house for a stint, I was awakened early one morning by the sound of murmuring down the hall. As I lay in the darkness, trying to will myself back to sleep for another hour or so, the sound continued, and I realized that my parents were talking in the other room. More than that, I heard my name mentioned.
I crept to the door and heard my parents praying. They mentioned me by name, and they prayed over the various successes, trials and uncertainties in my life. They thanked God for me — even though I was in my mid-twenties, had moved home and was eating their food. They went on to pray for my brother and sister, their spouses, and their children. They asked God to protect us, guide us and — in my case — assuage loneliness and provide direction. I went back to sleep with their voices in my ear. There were many more mornings when I was living there that I woke up to hear their prayers for us.
I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear them gathering each morning to ask the Lord’s blessing on our lives. When I was in school, my mom would stop and pray with us at the door each morning before sending us on their way. Aside from a few quirky reactions to their Baptist church, my parents were not legalistic or overly strict. They liked movies and music. But they had a faith that they took seriously, and they passed it onto their children.
It’s only in recent years that I’ve begun to see how rare and beautiful that gift was.
Blessed and proud
As I wrote a few days back, this was a hard week for our family. We had to say goodbye to a giant in our lives, a matriarch who had loved, cared and served as an example throughout the years. It was a bittersweet time. On the one hand, we were deeply sad that such a lively, wonderful woman was gone. On the other, our spirits were buoyed by memories of her. We laughed just as much — and just as hard — as we cried. We celebrated a life truly well lived, and we united in the hope that there will one day be a reunion where we’ll share a cup of coffee or a hillbilly dinner with Nana again.
My mother spoke at the funeral, right after me. And one of her memories of my grandmother was similar to my memory of my parents: My mother knew my grandparents prayed for her every morning, by name. What my mom did with me growing up wasn’t an attempt at piety or empty religion, but the passing down of a tradition that she had seen lived out.
I’m a rarity. I come from a family where both sides are deeply committed to their Christian faith. Both sets of grandparents were married more than 60 years and are still together. Every one of my aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins has picked up the baton and continued on in the faith, not only becoming involved in the church but caring for others, sharing of their time and energies, and modeling lives of integrity. There are no black sheep, no dirty secrets. There are no divorces, no prison sentences. And if there were? I believe we would respond with love and forgiveness, because our faith goes beyond piety. Every person I’m related to embodies Christian love and compassion to others.
I’ve only recently seen how rare this is. Growing up, I had friends whose parents were divorced or who had those “problem relatives” who couldn’t stay out of trouble. I don’t think those friends fared any worse than me or that I’m better than them. But I know how hard those broken families are. I’ve seen the awkwardness that comes from having family members you just don’t talk about. In recent years, I’ve seen my own friends weather divorces and broken relationships with parents, and the damage it does is devastating to all involved. I’m so grateful for the family I am a part of.
I don’t think my family is better than anyone’s. I don’t believe anyone in my family could have made the decisions to stay with their faith and commit to fidelity and integrity without the Holy Spirit guiding them. And I certainly don’t think God owed it to us or that we’re immune from hardships, trials, divorces or temptations. But I do think we see fruit that comes from committing our families to God, and I think God does bless those patriarchs and matriarchs who say “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” I don’t deserve to be so blessed with this family, so proud to be a part of people who love each other, laugh together and genuinely enjoy being around each other. But I’m so thankful that I am.
It’s too easy to take this blessing for granted and take my eyes off the compass that had guided me through my childhood and adolescence. For several years, I was convinced that my great purpose in life was to be a successful, renowned writer or film critic. I threw myself — often at the expense of time with my wife and kids — into attending screenings, editing podcasts, taking on new projects — even if they paid little to nothing — and forming a grad school schedule that would end my studies by the time I turned 40, requiring me to be out of the office several times a week.
It made me miserable.
I wasn’t home with my wife and kids. And although Kelly was patient and supportive of me, I know my constant absences were tough, especially when she was weathering her own busy freelance career (which actually brought in money). I became easily irritated with my kids because I saw them as obstacles to my goals, stealing time that could have been devoted to writing, film-viewing and school work. I hated myself for being that way. Because I had laid so much of my identity and purpose on being a great writer and communicator, I became stressed and despairing at every setback, rejection and frustration. I was burned out, broke, stressed and discontent, and I even started to hate doing the things I was supposedly passionate about.
I’d lost sight of what matters, of the faith and trust that should have guided me from the start, and the commitment to family that had been so cherished by my parents and grandparents.
Thankfully, in his infinite grace, God didn’t let me shipwreck. In the midst of my frustration and burnout, I realized things had to change. I took a semester off school. When an outlet had to drop me as a film critic due to expenses, I saw it as a sign to let that go for a bit. I came back to Patheos to write about faith, not just as a way to keep writing but as a way to wrestle with my thoughts and spirit. I re-committed to the Word and saw my desires began to change. I began to love my time with my wife and kids and look forward to it. I had no problem pushing writing off until after they were in bed; I spent Saturday mornings cleaning the house and folding laundry instead of tending to my blog posts. I didn’t stop doing everything I enjoyed, but I stopped putting so much of my hope and identity into it; I moved it down in my priority list, below God and family. I became a better writer and a happier man, more willing to hold things loosely, and ready to enact other life changes.
But it wasn’t until this week that i truly understood where my heart needed to be. In watching how my family came together to love and support each other in a tough time, I realized what matters. In seeing my grandparents remain deeply in love with each other after 67 years of marriage, even as they faced the final days of that marriage, I saw what I wanted.
My goal is to continue my family’s legacy. To not screw it up. To pass it on to my children.
My Nana and Papaw? Theirs is a story worth pursuing. My parents? Their faith is worth committing to. My family? It’s a tradition worth continuing. I’ve seen true happiness and joy, even in the midst of sorrow. It’s deeper and more real than anything I’ve seen achieved through career or material success.
My wife, as is often the case, is way ahead of me on this. She’s always urged me to pray with the family more and be more spiritually engaged with her and the kids. And I hope and pray that God grants her and I decades of happiness together. She’s a godly, good woman who is passing on her faith and values to our children, and I’m thankful God saw fit to give us a relationship that can carry on our family’s tradition.
I’m blessed and happy. I’m proud to come from this stock. I hope I’m able to pass it on. And we’re starting by praying with and for our children each morning before school and work. That’s just our family way.