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difficult family holidays

December 20, 2011

Yes, it's from Awkward Family Photos.

Most of us will spend some time over the holidays with our families. Some of us are looking forward to this with great joy. Others of us are just hoping to endure.

I wanted to give some pastoral guidance for those for whom “spending time with family over the holidays” is difficult. Of course, this is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it is helpful.

Focus on What Is Good. In Philippians 4, Paul gives us gospel-driven parameters for how we should live in community with one another. He tells us to find those things in one another that are “honorable”, “pure” and “lovely”. We are to dwell on these things. Granted, he was writing to a Christian congregation, but I think these words should be applied to how we deal with everyone–including those in our extended families.

So don’t stew on the things your mom does that drive you crazy. Viewing others primarily through their weaknesses is a way of relating that erodes community. Instead, purposefully embrace and celebrate that which is good in your family. This doesn’t mean you are being shallow or phony. Rather, it means you are trying to honor God’s image in those around you.

Resist Utopian Expectations. There is a tremendous amount of cultural pressure for this to be “the most wonderful time of the year”. We’re surrounded with images of family, togetherness and warmth that can be oppressive.

To be a Christian means there will be a day when your experience will actually exceed the paradise depicted in Christmas songs, movies and commercials. But that day is when Christ returns and wipes away every tear. Until then, we must live in the tension of the “Already-Not Yet”.

By all means, a good family life is a great gift from God. However, there is nothing in the Bible that comes close to giving us the idea that our families will be healthy and strong. So rejoice when and where you can. But do not saddle yourself or those around you with expectations of an out of body experience of joy on or around December 25th.

Draw Lines Where Necessary. All of our family members are flawed. A few, however, can be downright harmful. In these situations, we should be prepared to establish and maintain some clear boundaries.

To be honest, I think my generation sometimes establishes boundaries for self-centered reasons. We just don’t want to bother with certain people, so we can cloak our dismissal of them with talk of “healthy self care”. So be wary of being too trigger happy here.

However, there are certainly people that require limits. For example, I have friends whose parents sexually abused them, and nobody in the family has ever acknowledged this truth. Everyone just pretends like things are fine. Boundaries in a situation like this are absolutely necessary. It is one way that we are to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” as we live in the world.

Determining “rules of engagement” in situations like these requires a lot of wisdom, courage, counsel and prayer. Get trusted Christian mentors, pastors and friends to help you with this.

Remember the Gospel. Christ came into the world to save sinners. Your family is full of them. You are one of them too. God loves you and will see you through this. Family difficulties, even family sins, do not negate the power of the gospel.

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