We often express brokenness in our lives to share in each other’s suffering. This vulnerability about the hard things in our lives seems to be an essential element of building community. However, I wonder sometimes if we know what kind of community we are hoping to build. Too few of us have experienced the sweet gift of an unconditionally loving community. Many of our homes seem to be hodge-podges of love and hatred, and the hope we may have of building our own homes seems to be more of a prayer or a stab in the dark than a definite, intentional progression.
I teach many students who have never seen a father and a mother love each other. They have so many broken relationships around them that they have no idea what a right relationship is, and I wonder: what do I have to give them? I have a lot of brokenness, but they see that every day. Do I have any true goodness in my brokenness to leave with them?
Any goodness, any hope, any true light I have to give I owe almost exclusively to my family.
Let me explain:
The Saturday right before Easter was one week before my birthday. My whole family goes to our shared ranch at the northern end of the Texas hill country to celebrate Easter together with our family and others who share the ranch with us. This time we also were going to celebrate my birthday, and for the first time in a while, the entire family including my baby niece and nephew would be there.
As I have gotten into the latter part of my 20’s, I have grown to really like being around my mom and dad. They are as much my friends as they are my family. This is partly due to my own maturity, but it also has a lot to do with the way my parents have grown. My father, who was always a man of incredible integrity and kindness, has grown to let himself be seen as a less than perfect father. He does not need to keep up the perfect image of an ideal father he did so well to keep up when I was younger (which he was, but sometimes as a son it’s hard to live up to being the son of a perfect father). He is without a doubt the man who taught me everything I love and enjoy from baseball to history through his contagious love for them. In consequence, now when we speak, it’s like two old friends sharing old passions together with the occasional snippets of fatherly advice allowed to sneak through the easy conversation. My mother, always the joyful servant with compassion and empathy enough for four children and 100 more young mothers and hurting women, shines even better in her role as a more hands-off mother. Every one of her children will go to her first when they find themselves needing someone to talk them through a hard time. There are few better at it than her.
When I arrived at the ranch, my little brother who is usually the one out on some crazy adventure when the family gets together was already there along with both of my sisters and their husbands. The first person to greet me when I walked through the screen door was my one year old nephew named Sam. He looked at me with a mischievous smile as he bumbled down the hallway in his sailor outfit with his blue eyes flashing looking for the Easter chocolate that his sweet tooth, which he got from his mom, was craving. Little did he know that the Easter celebration to come would provide more chocolate than his little pot-belly could contain.
Everyone was still there waiting for me to arrive so that we could all go together to the center of the ranch to celebrate with the twenty or so other families gathered there for Easter. After we arrived at the hilltop gathering under the large live oaks on a perfect day, everyone there came together for a cowboy church service. My brother and I brought a beer in a koozie to church while my Baptist raised mother made a joke about it. The preacher for our service shooed horses on the side. He told us the story of Simon of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross for Jesus. He told us how he travelled hundreds of mile just to be at the Passover in Jerusalem and how he was greeted with this spectacle and forced to carry a cross that was not his own.
After the service we had a grand picnic with BBQ brisket and picnic tables. The laughter and love shared seems almost too innocent for me to describe. My older sister, now a mother of two, redefines what sweetness and goodness are. Her effervescent smile joyfully plays in every word she speaks. Her soft spoken, but strong husband, emanates a peaceful strength. Their young son played raucously about without a care in the world. My little sister just a few months pregnant sat restfully in her chair with her husband while my brother and I caught up on all the crazy stories in his life.
After an egg toss and a joyful egg hunt, which was a highlight for little Sam as he got to gleefully smash hard boiled eggs into his basket to the applause of several doting girls who found him just too cute in his sailor outfit, we made our way back to the ranch. In the evening we were to celebrate my birthday. My mother cooked her famous fried chicken, and the spring day shown even brighter in the dying light as we gathered for our evening meal. The moments before our meal found me almost in tears. All ten of us were gathered together, even my baby niece, Hope, was there. I could hardly hold back the simple joy I felt. There was no inhibition, no irony, no sarcasm, we were simply a family who knew all of each other’s deepest brokenness, yet knew even more truly, the unconditional love each one of us had shared and would keep on sharing with one another.
The evening ended with our favorite birthday tradition. Each family member, brother, sister, husband, daughter, son, father, and mother shares one thing they love about the one whose birthday is being celebrated. It used to be like pulling teeth when we were little, but the intentionality of my parents birthed a tradition we now all cherish and love. The first person who spoke over me was my brother, the one who usually had the hardest time saying anything; his words were true and encouraging. As each person spoke, the tears became harder to hold back.
When my little sister finally spoke, her words were full of tears, almost overwhelming her voice. She of all the people I’ve known taught me what it means to love someone else. Her genuine, independent, deeply thoughtful nature drew me into a relationship of reciprocated love from our time together in high school. She would sporadically do things for me, like make me food, or ask me if I wanted to watch a movie, or go for a walk, or just a drive, things that were not merited or essential. They were gifts to me in the form of time and food simply given because she loved me. Her way of relating to me taught me what joy love could bring: unmerited delight in the presence of another. Needless to say, her tears caused my tears to stream.
All of this is almost a dream as I write about it. This much goodness asks too much of our imagination. We have spent so much of our lives guarding ourselves against hurt that this kind of goodness cannot be real, but it exists. If I could replicate it, I know it’s the greatest gift I could give anyone else.