By Phil & Bev Haas
It’s not easy to admit, but my extended family is a mess. The thought of spending time with them over the Christmas holidays is distressing. I’m guessing I need an attitude adjustment as well as some suggestions on how to make the most of this time.
Here’s a story we hope makes you feel better about admitting to having extended family troubles. We heard Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford, speak at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Conference back in August. He told the story of his first meetings with top leaders at Ford.
Alan implemented a simple color system for reporting how various areas of Ford were doing. Green meant things were moving forward, yellow meant they were proceeding with caution, and red meant they would stop production due to difficulties. At his first meeting everyone around the table marked their areas green. Alan wondered how this could be true since the company overall was not faring well. At their next meeting, one leader courageously colored his area red. The rest were thinking this would be the leader’s last board meeting. Instead, the CEO invited the red leader to sit next to him!
This CEO understood that all organizations (and this includes families) go through troubling times. Coloring your extended family red certainly takes courage. We hope your example will encourage others to be more open about family challenges. Unfortunately, too many families paint over their troubles until it is too late.
Messiness is the Norm and It Shapes Us
Messy families are the norm. This thought may require an adjustment to how you view your extended family. If researchers were to set up video cameras in the average home and record everyday family life for a week, what do you think they would see? If the middle-class families who participated in just such an experiment conducted by the University of California are any indication, you’d see fussing, fighting, and a whole lot of stress and mess. That shouldn’t be too surprising. All families fall short of God’s standard (Romans 3:23). Some families may be more of a mess than others, but we all have our share of messiness.
A messy situation is one way God shapes us. Messiness awakens our need for him, draws us closer, and builds our character. We read about lots of messiness in the Bible. But we also see that God still loves and cares for every member of every family, no matter what. Rick Warren aptly pointed out: “God is more interested in your character than your comfort.” God wants us to grow spiritually and become more like Jesus. Whenever we forget that, we become frustrated by our challenges. Perhaps that’s why Jesus reminded his disciples in John 16:33 that “in this world you will have trouble.” Lean into Jesus during this troubling time and you’ll find meaning in the mess.
Steps to Survive Your Family Christmas
OK, we’ve challenged you to adjust your attitude by looking at the messiness in all families from God’s perspective. Now let’s look at a few practical steps to help you survive the holidays.
First, have realistic expectations. Remind yourself that most families deal with significant issues over the holidays, regardless of how it looks from the outside. The families depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings are not real families. Most Americans really don’t have the kind of relationships you see painted by Rockwell. So it might help if you have low or even no expectations for the time you spend with your extended family.
Second, follow the advice in James 1:19. James said, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” This verse reminds us how important it is to listen to people. Determine to listen more and speak less. You’ll find this approach will also help you manage any anger you might feel toward members of your extended family.
Our final advice is to lighten up. Don’t take yourself or your extended family so seriously. Don’t put pressure on yourself to solve everyone’s problems. Take a break from the heaviness of whatever baggage your family carries. Comedian George Burns once said: “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family—in another city.” Over the holidays you have to survive a few hours or days with your extended family and then you can get back to your normal life. Don’t let the challenges cause you to regress. Let the challenges cause you to grow!
Bev and Phil Haas are involved in education and family ministry in Cincinnati, Ohio. They have two children and four grandkids. Send your questions about family life to Bev and Phil Haas in care of The Lookout (firstname.lastname@example.org). We regret that personal replies are not always possible.