Recently my wife and I just finished binge watching all six seasons of the TV show Parenthood. And, I must admit, it was hard to let go of the Bravermans when it was over. With each season, you grow to love this dysfunctional family more and more. Why? Because despite their squabbles, arguments, disagreements and problems they really do love and care for each other. In times of crisis, they are always there for each other. They are flawed and imperfect and at different moments, you see the beauty and the brokenness in all of the characters. And there is joy. They celebrate and laugh together. Often the squabbling and arguing occur when they are celebrating together (Reality!). But as I watched this show, I couldn't help feeling envious of this fictional family. Having come from a fractured family, I long to be a part of just such a family as this one. I couldn't help but wish I, too, were a part of "Team Braverman."
What I've noticed about my favorite shows (Parenthood, Gilmore Girls, A Chef's Life) is that they all deal with family and community. Often community can be a surrogate family, especially in the case of Lorelai Gilmore in Stars Hollow. Watching a show like Parenthood reminds me how we are all wired to feel a part of something where we are accepted for who we are, flaws and all. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is the model for how the Church should be. First and foremost, it should be relational. It should meet people just where they are in the messiness, brokenness, and hardship of their lives. (Warning: Spoilers about Parenthood incorporated into my blog ahead!) As Christians, we don't need to judge over but come alongside others in mercy, love, and compassion. Yet this is not how we are perceived outside the church. Instead words like "judgmental," "hypocrites," "insincere," "phony," and "rigid" are often used. The Church is too often known for what it's against instead of what it's for. Is it any wonder then that millennials are leaving the church in droves? Over a third of them have left and they won't come back because they see no connection between the Church and the reality of their lives.
Jesus said that the world would know his followers by their love. Yet how would many churches react if an unwed, pregnant mother showed up in their midst? Would we come alongside of her and reach out to help her? The early Church grew exponentially in such huge numbers because they were meeting the needs of people. Philippians 2:4 tells us, "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." Are we doing this? We claim to be "pro-life" but are we stepping up to help young unwed mothers to be able to support that new life? Do we offer them job training, childcare, and get them things that they need such as diapers, formula, cribs, or clothes?
On Parenthood, when Amber messes up badly, her mother, Sarah, comes to her and doesn't yell or reprimand her. Instead, she offers a picture of grace as she tells her daughter, "You know, you try to act so tough, but I know who you are and I want you to know I see you. I see how you are and how funny you are and how brace you are and I'm just so proud of you and I'm just glad you're my kid." How often did Jesus approach those who had failed and were hurting with just such compassion? If the Church did likewise, would those outside it see Christians as something other than judgmental, critical and harsh? And not as those who come at them with an agenda to save them. We must love them first and foremost. This is not a culture that is going to respond to, "Do you know where you're going to spend eternity?" because they will just answer, "Anywhere that doesn't have people like you in it!" Scriptures tell us that Jesus drew sinners to him. Do we? Or do they purposefully avoid us? Are we more like Christ or the Pharisees who heaped such bondage onto those who were already broken and hurting?
I remember a conversation I had with a friend of mine who wasn't a Christian, in which, he asked me, point blank, "Are you my friend just to try and save me?" It was a loaded question but one that was fair to ask, as so many Christians do that, but I told him the truth, "No, I'm not. I can't be friends with someone because I have a hidden agenda. I'm your friend simply to be your friend, to spend time with you." Most of the time, I let him bring up religion in conversation. I never forced my beliefs onto him, but simply shared mine when it was a part of our exchange. Once he asked me, "If you found out for a fact that there wasn't a heaven, would you still believe what you do?" I thought for a moment before I said, "Yes, I would. I believe there is a heaven that I will go to when I die, but that's just a perk. I believe what I believe because of the change in my life that Christ has already made in it in this world." He seemed surprised and even told me, "You are the first Christian who has ever said that when I asked them." And he grew up in the church, which is often the hardest people to talk to about Christianity.
We need to love people into the kingdom, not by giving them tracts, or speaking church jargon, or immediately trying to witness upon first meeting a new neighbor or coworker. Yet we should be the ones who invite them over to our houses for dinner or cookouts or to have their kids play with ours. To listen to them when they are hurting. We should be the ones who are there when they have a loved one who was diagnosed with cancer or when they are dealing with the problems that come with taking care of aging parents. When they are in those situations, we should be taking them food or mowing their lawns or watching their kids.
Church should be the place where we hold the vulnerability of others with all the tenderness of holding a baby bird in our hands. And we should be vulnerable with them because when we do, vulnerability brings down walls. When I read this line by the poet William Stafford, I cannot help but think of Jesus, "I have woven a parachute out of everything broken." That is what he has done with our lives. When we think we are going to crash against the hardness of this world, he offers us safety. By his wounds we are healed and it should be from our wounds that we help others to heal. When we struggle or go through hardship, this is an opportunity to later come alongside someone else who's having difficult times and say, "You're not alone. I know what you're going through because I did." And let down our masks of having it all together. In one of his plays, Thorton Wilder wrote about a doctor who wants to be healed but an angel stops him from entering the healing waters with, "Without your wounds where would your power be? It is your melancholy that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men and women. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love's service, only wounded soldiers can serve."
One of my favorite moments in the show are when Joel and Julia adopt Viktor. As anyone who's read this blog knows, I am a huge proponent of adoption and foster parenting. With the latter, I had always said that I could never be a foster parent because it was "too hard." Yup, I said that. More than once. I had also said that, "It would break my heart to get attached to a child and then have to give them back." And, all the while, God is listening to this and going, "Oh really?" We just started our foster parenting classes. After adopting one child and hosting another, I have learned that it's not about me. It's about loving a child. Loving a child unconditionally. And this kind of love means risk and it may mean that our hearts will be broken, but ultimately, it's about showing a child not only the love of a family, but, more importantly the love of God and His son Jesus. There are over 102,000 kids waiting in the foster care system and 348,00 churches in the United States. So why are there foster kids still needing families to welcome them into their home, even for just a short period of time?
And let's not forget about the biological parents. After DSS has taken their kids, who stands with them? This is where the Church can step up and show the hurting parents who's choices have cost them their children. We can love them, have empathy for them, pray for them, and show them grace. Should reunification with their kids happen, believers can use this opportunity to make sure the parents don't relapse, which often occurs. We can walk alongside the parents again with prayer, support, physically being there for them, and calling to check on them.
I love what Mister Rogers said, "We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say, 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider these people my heroes." The Church should be those people.
One of the most emotional story lines that ran throughout the six seasons of Parenthood involves Adam and Kristina's son Max, who has aspergers. They struggled with helping their child adjust and to fit in. With the latter, one of the most heartbreaking moments is when Max goes with his school on an overnight field trip. Adam and Kristina get a call from Max's teacher saying that they need to come and get him. On the drive back, after retrieving their son, they find out that he had been bullied by other kids (one even peed in Max's canteen). From the backseat of the van, he asks, "Why do all the other kids hate me?" As a parent, my heart broke for all of them. Church should be a place where parents of special needs kids need never worry about this. The parents of special needs kids find getting to church more stressful and they need a break. A parent of a special needs child should not have to sit with that child in the kid's Sunday school class because the church doesn't know how to deal with whatever issue that kids faces. Churches need to be welcoming refuges for people with special needs kids and they need to implement programs and procedures that assist both the child and parent. A really good blog about this very subject is Sheri Dacon's Lyrics For Life. In fact, she has an entry entitled "Why Church Is A Burden For Special Needs Parents (And What You Can Do About It). Here's a link: http://sheridacon.com/2014/11/10/church-is-a-burden-for-special-needs/
We should also show others joy. As Dorothy Sayers once said, "The greatest sin of the Christian is to be joyless." Jesus was considered too much of a partier by the religious establishment of his day. They called him a drunkard and complained how he dined with sinners. We should exhibit great joy. As Proverbs 10:28 tells us, "The prospect of the righteous is joy" (Notice that said righteous not self-righteous). Romans 15:12 tells us, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy . . ." We should be a joyous people. If you go to a pub in Ireland, they will walk in, see others having a good time and say, "I don't know what it is they're drinking, but I'll have pint of that!" People should see Christians and say, "I don't know what they have, but I want some of that!"
One of my favorite moments from the show is when Adam "Fever" (As in Saturday Night Fever) Braverman teaches his nephew how to dance to Run DMC's "It's Tricky." It's hilarious and shows his fun side. Soon his wife Kristina and his sisters Julia and Sarah join in. As Christians, we should be able to do the same.
C. S. Lewis said it best, "Joy is the serious business of heaven." And we are in that business. "On earth as it is in heaven." We need to show the world joy, light, love, compassion, mercy, and grace. We need to be authentic. Too much of the world is like Gandhi when he said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." And it's true. We need to be more Christ-like in our approach to those outside church walls. Like Jesus, we need to love these people, eat with these people, share and laugh and cry with them. We need to make them feel like they are welcome into our family.