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IMPROVING YOUR FAMILY LIFE

Ephesians 6:1-9
16th November 2003

My good friend Aboriginal leader Ronnie Williams died a week ago. He was 63 years of age. He was the spiritual father to the Fatherhood Foundation established by Warwick Marsh that does so much good to inspire fathers to be better fathers for the sake of their children. Ronnie Williams was a fatherless child himself. He knew what it was like to be separated from his mother and family by the dreaded rabbit proof fence welfare police. He was separated by the welfare policies about which we understand so much in recent times. The story of his life and his charitable work may be found in a book by his wife, Diana Williams, Horizon is Where Heaven and Earth Meet. You may have seen a remarkable, memorable Australian Story ABC television about Ronnie Williams and Diana.

Ron told the story of saying, "G'day mate" with a smile to a man in the streets of Sydney who was staring at him. This same man turned angrily to Ron Williams and snarled in his face, "You black bastard! I hate you I wish to God that my forefathers had killed you all you talk like us, you wear our clothes, but I still hate you!" While this made Ron sad, it did not stop him from helping, loving and providing counsel to all who asked, whether they were indigenous, European, black or white. Last Friday week, 7 November, the Great Hall at Parliament House in Canberra resounded with the sound of black and white alike singing songs of thanksgiving for the life of Pastor Ronnie Williams and for his love and service to the people of Australia, black and white. He is only the second person since the Federal Parliament building has been open to be accorded the honour of a memorial service in the Great Hall of Parliament House in the Australian Capital Territory.

It is a fitting tribute to a man of the people who was also a man of God. When he married Diana Williams, an American academic, she lived with Ronnie after marriage in a cave on the traditional family ground to understand his traditions and culture. Last week she shared with us an episode that happened just 24 hours before he died. Three doctors came to his bedside to report the bad news that the cancer was too aggressive and that further treatment would be of doubtful value. When the doctors told him, Ron lifted the oxygen mask off his face and said: "I don't want any further treatment. I have made my peace with God, I am ready to meet my maker." Then, taking his wife's hand, he continued: "I have had a wonderful life with a wonderful wife and daughter. I want to thank you doctors and hospital staff for your patient and loving care while I have been here. I just want to say that the most important thing in someone's life is to love your family."

"The most important thing in someone's life is to love your family." So many people would agree with Ronnie's dying sentiments, but would ask, "But how can we improve our family life?" In 1999, The University of Newcastle initiated the first Families Strengths Research Project aimed at determining those qualities families perceived as family strengths and how they described them. One outcome would be that families might model these qualities and so improve their family life. That is the only way you can improve family life. No collection of little bottles in a sperm bank can do it, and no test tube can breed family affection and bonding. The findings of the research project can be summarized in eight words:

Communication - open, honest, positive and frequent communication between family members. Togetherness - the 'invisible glue' that helps bond a family and give members a sense of belonging, of sharing of similar values, beliefs and morals. Sharing activities - strong families like sharing activities with each other. Affection - showing love, care, concern and interest for each other on a regular basis. Support - assisting, encouraging and reassuring each other. Acceptance - showing respect, understanding and appreciation for one another's individuality and uniqueness. Commitment - showing dedication and loyalty to the family as a whole. Family comes first. Resilience - this is the ability of a family to 'bounce back' after a period of crisis and adversity. Resilience is what keeps a family 'together'.

Both parents and children have rights and responsibilities in family life. The Apostle Paul writes with incredible insight of the rights and responsibilities of both children and parents: Note the two fold obligation: Ephesians 6:1-4 "Children, it is your Christian duty to obey your parents, for this is the right thing to do. "Respect your father and mother" is the first commandment that has a promise added: "so that all may go well with you, and you may live a long time in the land." Parents, do not treat your children in such a way as to make them angry. Instead, raise them with Christian discipline and instruction." Note that Paul addresses the children directly. In the synagogue men and women sat apart from each other. In the early church, husbands and wives now sat together with their children. So also were the slaves sitting with their masters. Here is evidence of the social distinctions being obliterated by the new family of God found in the church. Paul taught:

1. CHILDREN ARE TO OBEY THEIR PARENTS.

Obedience is given, not out of fear or punishment, but of respect and love. Obedience is only given by a child to one who possesses authority. The heart of obedience in the Christian sense was listening and obey the advice given by parents. "Parents" is a plural word and means mothers and fathers. Obedience comes not as a result of force, nor by bribery of gifts, nor by emotional blackmail where the parent will not give love if obedience is not given in return. Obedience is earned from respect for strength. All this was to be done as "in the Lord" and parents were also under the same authority. The end result is that the child will benefit "so that all may go well with you, and you may live a long time in the land." Melbourne psychologist, Dr Ronald Conway reported in his book "The Great Australian Stupor" a conversation with a rather disturbed girl from a wealthy upper class home. In explaining her situation she said, "Every time I ask Mum and Dad what they think I should do about some problem, they tell me that I'm old enough to make my own decisions, but I don't feel old enough - not for everything, anyway. I wish they'd stop being so damned broadminded about everything and help me for a change." Children obey where there is a respect for strength and authority in parents.

2. PARENTS ARE TO TREAT CHILDREN FAIRLY.

The Bible record introduces a new note for the first time in recorded history: the strong in all relationships has a duty of care towards the weaker. Only now is this duty of care for parents and employers being written into our laws. Paul adds a further responsibility for parents, that they must take into account the feelings of the child.

In a world where husbands, fathers and slave-owners had absolute rights, this duty of care towards wives, children and slaves was totally new. Paul is as modern as any contemporary psychiatrist. He declares: "Parents, do not treat your children in such a way as to make them angry. Instead, raise them with Christian discipline and instruction." One paraphrase puts it: "Fathers, do not embitter your children otherwise you will make them frustrated and they will become discouraged." This involves both "discipline and instruction." Education was to begin the home. Some children crumble while others fight against wrong attitudes of their parents. During the Para-Olympics, one disabled man, as he came down from the dais with his medal, was heard to say "Do you think now that my mother will feel there is some good in me?" He had experienced deep hurt, was deeply wounded, but lived in the hope of recognition from his mother.

The Scriptures teach two principles: the principle of reciprocity where obedience is given by the child out of response to the fair authority of the parent; and the practise of fair treatment which avoids bitterness and encourages a sense of self-worth and self-esteem in the child. Nothing else works! Alternate care given by other people has to work hard to encourage respect and obedience, and to rebuild the self-worth that plummets when a child is left by one or both parents. The use of power is critical to family functioning. In healthy families, power was shared between the parents. Research shows the positive effects of the spouses having equal power in the relationship. Surveys found that the intimacy that grows from communicating at many levels was found only between spouses who were equals in the power relations in the family.

This research found no examples of intimacy between spouses where the power relationship was one of domination and submission. The sharing of power did not necessarily take the form of doing away with traditional gender roles so long as there was a genuine sharing of power in decision-making over all aspects of family life. Power must be also shared with children. Some people believe children have neither rights nor authority, but these are not healthy families. Healthy families have a minimum authoritarian use of power with the least use of threats. Some parents try to establish their power and authority by shouting at children, threatening and punishing them. This has no long-term beneficial effect. Healthy parents set limits to their younger children and allow their older children an increase in freedom and decision-making.

Research shows weak, passive and uninvolved fathers are found in the vast majority of dysfunctional families. This indicates the essential role men play in families. When men are absent, passive, or withdrawn, or, conversely abusive, tyrannical or authoritarian, the effect on the family is destructive. Men who have a balanced approach to the use of power and authority have a positive effect upon their families. Few children have a positive attitude to power and authority if they do not see it existing in their parents. The old question of who is to blame when children flout the law, indulge in anti-social behaviour and have no respect for teachers or the community is answered by shooting the blame right back at the attitude of their parents. Jesus had an obedient attitude and a recognition of authority, even when it was abused. Early in His life we read: Luke 2:51 "Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them." A balanced attitude to power and authority makes families work.

Yuppies excused themselves spending too little time with their children while they forged ahead with their careers saying the time they spent as being "quality time". This is self-justification for the failure to spend time with their children. Nothing replaces such time and "quality" has nothing to do with it. American sociologist Dr Tony Campolo, puts it clearly "As a pastor, I have stood by the bed of a number of people as they faced their own deaths. In those last moments I have heard people say all kinds of things about what they wished they had been and done. But never once did I hear a salesman say "Oh, if only I had made a few more calls and racked up a few more sales". Never once did I hear a lawyer wish that he or she had taken on a few more cases. Never once did I ever come across a business person whose deepest regret was that he or she did not open up a few new branches of the business. When people are dying they usually wish that they had done more for their families".

Many studies find that spiritual values are associated with health and well-being in the family. Religious beliefs and practices are at the core of competent family life. They underlay and support the family's commitment to each other and their resilience in the day-to-day struggle to cope with the pressures of living. Spiritual beliefs enable family members to deal with loss and grief. They are linked to a supportive community that many religious groups provide. Spiritual tradition supports a communal way of life rather than individualism. The church supports, mediates and challenges growth within the family. Families that are active within the church find resources that others don't. That's the best way to improve your family life.

REFERENCES.

  • Diana Williams, Horizon is Where Heaven and Earth Meet. 2001 Bantam Books.
  • Geggie J; DeFrain J; Hitchcock S Silberberg S; The Family Strength Research
  • Report, Family Action Centre, Uni of Newcastle NSW 2000
  • Dr Tony Campolo, "Everything You've Heard is Wrong", Word 1992 (p138-139):
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