Friday, December 12, 2008

[For painfully lovely pictures of last weekend's Granville Candlelight Walking Tour, scroll past this blather, which is my Advocate column for tomorrow. pax, jbg]

[seriously, just scroll down! jbg]

Faith Works 12-13-08
Jeff Gill

Your Family May Be Dysfunctional

Just taking a wild shot in the dark, but I’m gonna guess your family is dysfunctional.


You’d think pretty much every family is. This Christmas season is cinematically all about “Four Christmases” and now “Nothing Like the Holidays,” along with movies like “The Family Stone” from a couple years ago (telling us that if we only would “fly our freak flag” then all would be well).

Actually, I’m ready to embrace my inner AND outer dysfunctionality, not to mention that of my family. All families are dysfunctional in some way or another, even if we rarely make it to “Momma Mia!” level chaos.

Leo Tolstoy, whose “Anna Karenina” somehow hasn’t made it to film as a heartwarming family holiday classic (the ending needs some work), famously opened his novel with the line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That’s a clear signal for a novelist that you want to write about unhappiness as much as possible, because happiness, sameness – yawn. Who wants to read about that?

The uniqueness of unhappiness, though, gives you texture and novelty and a narrative arc to follow.

So we have the uniquely dysfunctional family at the heart of our seasonal story this month. There’s a fellow who had some kids when he was younger, working hard, traveling a great deal to follow the major construction projects contracted by the Romans. His first wife dies, and as time goes by, he is set up to be engaged by concerned family members (he’s a busy working man, remember), to a young woman . . . a very young woman.

She’s of good family, good enough that they probably aren’t exactly thrilled by the workman, skilled though he might be, who is older and rough-hewn and is engaged to their dear one. Who turns out, she says one day, to be pregnant. The circumstances are, from the point of view of most of Nazareth, murky.

Business and taxes and family ties force them to make a trip while she’s pretty far along, making you suspect already that the older half-siblings aren’t exactly excited and supportive of Dad’s late in life remarriage. She gives birth on the road, in a strange town, away from her OB/GYN and neo-natal intensive care unit back home, but everything works out.

They meet some of the kind of folk you expect to meet on the road, dusty and stained by labor and their last meal, not to mention by their work (think herding), accepting the aid and support of this aromatic and picturesque crew -- again, Mary’s family, coming from the lesser aristocracy, can’t have been charmed by all this picturesqueness.

Yet those relatives and in-laws should have been pleased, since they made contact with some minor royalty (so they claimed), exotic celebrities who had been received at court. Herod’s rule might have been shabby and disreputable, but a king’s retinue is nothing to be sniffed at, especially by people with a tendency to sniff at many. Noses wouldn’t have turned up, though, at a house with a hatful of kings in residence. Soon enough they leave, and the image becomes an almost legendary part of neighborhood lore. “Do you remember when there were wise men from the East staying with those two?” It was an unpredictable house in many ways, so soon the story no longer sounded to their credit, but was just more evidence of their peculiar nature.

This non-traditional family finally comes back home with many strange tales of close calls and grim danger, which just makes the neighbors ask each other, after the couple is out of earshot, “What were they thinking, taking a baby into a war zone? When they made such a long jaunt, a side trip into Egypt – did he say he had a dream? – how could that have been a good idea?”

Then they try to get back into the usual groove of life back in the home place, Joseph working up the road in Sepphoris and the family back in Nazareth, tending the shop, baking bread, whittling scraps of wood next to the earth oven. They join the throngs heading up to the Temple for festivals as any prosperous craftsman might, but they keep losing track of their boy – can’t these two keep a sharp eye out on their child? He just roams at will and rules the roost – let me tell you, say some, I’d let that child know who was in charge if I were in that house!

As best we can tell, the older Joseph dies well before the boy gets too old, but seemingly not before his chance to teach a trade, which is a father’s chief role, then and now. If the son became a carpenter, then the father had done well by him.

Is that a dysfunctional family? Is yours? So what?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and is part of a gloriously dysfunctional family. Tell him about yours at

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