By Chester Wenger
Reprinted with permission of the author
I’m now 97 years of age; Sara Jane, my wife of 71 years, is 93. Today, our children and grandchildren number 61. Every Christmas, all are invited to gather for family time, when we share highlights from the year, enjoy an Ethiopian feast with the kind of food we ate during our years of mission service in Africa, sing Christmas carols and read the Christmas story from the Bible.
As the holidays approach, I think about the challenges every family has when siblings and spouses question each other on a host of issues like, for example, gay marriage or political issues related to the presidential race. It’s even more challenging when parents and siblings may not approve of each other’s life choices related to careers, marriage partners and religious views. All of the tensions that arise in families, including ours, around these issues prompt me to reflect on how our families can use the example and teachings of Jesus, to guide us to a place where family ties grow stronger despite disagreements.
I believe the Prince of Peace desired more than anything to show how it is possible to love everyone — especially those close to us with whom we fundamentally disagree. Jesus modeled self-giving love, seeking to find common ground among his disciples, instructing them not to use weapons that harm but to forgive those who wronged them, and to value others’ lives more than their own.
Rather than use violent words or actions against those who attacked him with accusations and torture, Jesus loved them, praying that his Father would forgive them. It may sound simple and naive, but this is what Jesus taught. In our family, these core values free us to love each other even when we disagree.
I want to share some of the things we practice in our household — crucial practices because they free us to approach family gatherings with a sense of joy rather than dread. You may wonder how this works in our family where we have fundamental differences around issues like gay marriage and where several of our family members don’t consider themselves Christian.
Here are some of the practices we’ve used over the years to form faith and bring our family together in spite of our differences:
1. We sing together a lot. When our family sings, there is a special bond that forms. A favorite hymn of mine from my childhood begins with the words, “Christmas time is come again” and ends with “heaven throws wide its portals.”
2. We share stories — Bible stories, faith stories and personal stories. When we listen together to the stories that have given shape to our faith and when we listen to each other’s stories, our differences seem almost to disappear.
3. We carefully listen to each other. When we genuinely love someone, rather than preaching at them, we take time to hear the struggles, pain, joys and breakthroughs each has experienced. In listening carefully, we are learning to give each other the benefit of the doubt rather than standing in prideful judgment that assumes “I know best.”
4. We focus on shared family worship, games, food and on what we have in common. The host of areas where we agree far outnumber where we disagree.
5. We respect everyone’s journey and make a point to hear from everyone and to honor and thank all for what they bring to the family circle. We’ve become quite humble, actually, recognizing that that no one of us has all the truth all the time; that we really do need each other in order to have a fuller understanding of the truth.
Last year, after I married our gay son Phil and his partner of 29 years, Steve, and then went public about it in a letter to the Mennonite Church, the bonds in our family were considerably strained. During that time, our adult children had a focused family conversation in which a listening circle allowed all to share their hurt and perspectives.
As a family, we chose to focus on the loving, collaborative relationships we had built as a family. We recommitted to living with our differences rather than breaking off or distancing ourselves from each other. This was powerful stuff and it strengthened our love for each other even though we have profound disagreements.
I pray that our singing, sharing stories, listening respectfully, playing and worshiping together will keep the bonds of our love strong even when we disagree. I believe we share a bond of love that is the kind of love Jesus came into the world to share with others.
We must all work hard to find ways to love each other as Christ loved us and not force those who marry a mate we disapprove of or those who have different political viewpoints to feel anything but love.
As we approach this special holiday season, I challenge you and your family to do the same, so you, too, can experience the unspeakable joy of a family who loves each other despite their differences.
Chester L. Wenger was a long-time Mennonite Church pastor and leader, who served as a missionary in Ethiopia for 17 years. The Lancaster Mennonite Conference terminated his credentials in 2014, after he officiated at the wedding of his gay son, Philip R. Wenger, who helped him write this article.