When a family’s broken: How the church can stand in the gap

February 3, 2017

It was silent as I sat there, picking at the remains of an appetizer. He was across from me, eyes focused on a nearby television. Three feet of table was in between us, and I remember thinking how much I wished that slab of glossed wood was the only thing separating the two of us. I thought about how different things would be if that was all I was up against—and how different life would be.

But it wasn’t just a table. It was years. It was a closet full of memories that spanned miles. It was a lifetime of secrets. It was 19 years of unanswered questions. As I sat across the table from my dad, so many things ran through my mind. I wanted so many stones overturned. Where did he go? Why did he go? Did he think about me at all? Was it hard for him? Was I that unlovable? Were we that unlovable? And the question that never left, the one that occupied my mind more than any other was: Was it worth it? Was the whatever or whoever waiting for him when he closed the front door for the last time worth more than what he left behind, a family standing inside watching through the window as he drove away?

I remember him with his bleached blonde hair and a short sleeve button up shirt that resembled something from a hotel gift shop on some tropical island. Maybe it ended up in his suitcase after his private marriage ceremony in the Bahamas. Maybe it was something he picked up during one of those many trips he’d taken to the coast. Or perhaps it was a recent gift, a mere thank you, from the lady sitting next to him for the diamond tightly hugging her left ring finger.

A whole new set of questions emerged for me and in the midst of trying my hardest to push all the mental chaos aside. A tear began to roll down my cheek. I quickly wiped it, and any remnants of its existence, off my face. My efforts fell short as more began to come. With glossy eyes and moist cheeks I sat alone. They glared from across the table, their faces dressed in confusion. The more tears that fell the larger sense of mystery it seemed to create for them. The truth was I had seen that ring before, but not just once. You see, this ring was far more than a precious cut stone. This ring, this small trinket of finite value, had a very loud voice. With amplified sound this ring revealed that he was buying into something else. Someone else. He was chasing something different.

Throughout my life, it always took different shapes. To me, it seemed to be his way of starting over. It was his way of forgetting. But it was never small things. These were big things. They were flashy. They were exciting. They were exotic. Sometimes it would be a new house. Then maybe a new car. Maybe a new job would follow. A new boat. A new vacation home. A new dog. A new girlfriend. A new wife. A new family. A new life.

He would erase and then he would replace. I remember thinking I had a price. I felt worthy of a constant substitute. I had a tough time comparing myself to a boat or a purebred chocolate lab. The weight found its way to my shoulders and slowly began to infiltrate the inner workings of my mind. In the end, the nightmare was not comparing myself to these things. It wasn’t even believing my worth was less than theirs. It was much deeper than that. It was the simple truth that, by his actions, he showed that he believed I was inferior. It was a sobering reality to understand that he believed I could be replaced.

But inside, there was more to it than that. It wasn’t just that he believed these things and demonstrated this in the way he continued to live his life. It went deeper. It hit harder. The truth came to me that he wanted to replace me. He was choosing to replace me. As time passed, it became harder and harder to understand. It’s not exactly a thought you want to wrestle with. I remember thinking times were so different. As a very young child things weren’t always this way. There were no complexities. There was no layered confusion. He was the center of my universe and for a time it seemed as if I was the center of his.

Standing in the gap

It’s incomprehensibly confusing when your family unravels. For a child, and even an adult, family has a mysterious way of appearing to be the one refuge, the one monument that in a broken world can withstand unlimited force from pressure and pain. Families are strong, secure and safe. It’s nothing less than world-altering when they don’t turn out to be any of those.

When your family decomposes and rips apart at the seams, your entire world follows. The hardest part of navigating through the wreckage is looking out and noticing everyone else’s world remains intact. It’s only yours that’s separated by miles, divided into two apartments, and spread over every other weekend. Broken, clueless, and alone, there can seem to be no way forward. Like a complex chemical reaction, the idea of home and family has transformed; what was once concrete is now fluid.

This is one of the most important segments of the frontlines for our churches and us as individual followers of Christ. As the family of God, we must extend our hands, our time, and our efforts to care for and serve the adults and children that have gone through the horrors and difficulties of parental abandonment and familial dissolution. We must step in to help rebuild the ruins and repair the devastation. As God’s very own children, we must fight to show that his family is not like so many families today. His family will not unravel and most importantly, God the Father will not abandon his precious sons and daughters. We who know the saving grace and mercy of God must labor to reveal his true character; to show that he is nothing like the parents that leave so many of us behind. God’s love for us in Christ is unwavering. His commitment to his children is matchless.

The way forward

When we don’t exactly know how to help those with struggling family circumstances, we can let what we don’t know keep us from doing anything. Ignorance is paralyzing. But the point is not to become anyone’s false savior. The point is to love, care for, and support those hurting in such tangible ways so that we point them to the only Savior. These are a few ways to do so.

  1. Open up your home. This is one of the clearest ways that I believe the church can serve those struggling through abandonment most effectively and efficiently. Throughout childhood and even the path into adulthood, so many families in the church surrounded me and invited me into their homes. Some to visit, others to live. When God’s family opens their doors, it serves as high resolution binoculars. This allows godly parenting and godly marriages, aspects of home life that were previously blurred and misshapen, to come into view. This is the beauty of Proverbs 3:27, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”
  2. Open up your schedule. If it’s not your home, let it be your daily routine. Find areas of margin in your schedule where you can spend time with others that are hurting. Perhaps it’s a weekly meeting over coffee or breakfast. Whatever the case, it’s a beautiful way to serve others and bring healing when we let them know we are a shoulder to cry on, an ear that will listen, and a hand to hold. Parental abandonment hits hard and plants deep in the heart. The beauty of Christ’s church can be seen in such a magnified context when we walk with others down their uncertain road forward. In this, we heed the call from Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
  3. Open your eyes. The simplest, yet probably the most difficult, is to lift your gaze and open your eyes in order to see those around you in your neighborhood, community, office, school, and church. The reality of divorce and abandonment plagues millions. Let the love of Christ produce empathy in your hearts for those that might not come from your same family environment. Let that empathy give way for affection to love and serve and understand those that are struggling. When people’s families break, let it be the family of God that enters in to help pick up the pieces and bring restoration.

May we show that our God is steadfast, patient and faithful.

Jonathan C. Edwards

Jonathan C. Edwards (M.Div, Th.M) is the Director of Curriculum for Docent Research Group where he also serves as a lead writer. He is the author of Left: The Struggle to Make Sense of Life When a Parent Leaves. He and his wife Katherine live in Durham, N.C., where he is … Read More