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The Myth of the Normal Family: Malleability

Billy Graham was laid to rest on Friday in what was described as a private funeral service to which 2,300 people had been invited. I can’t speak for Billy Graham, but if my family invited 2,300 people to stare at me while I was dead, I’d haunt them to their graves.

My first memory of Billy Graham was hearing my Baptist grandmother, my father’s mother, talk about him. She was a widow by then, and looking back, I think she wanted to become Mrs. Billy Graham. She would watch his revivals on television and weep when George Beverly Shea sang Just As I Am, then Billy Graham would preach and my grandmother would weep some more, then swoon some, then open her purse and send Billy Graham twenty dollars.  The same woman who gave me one pair of tube socks for Christmas would give Billy Graham twenty dollars!  So my earliest opinion of Billy Graham was not entirely congenial.

But then in my teens, when I returned to the church, my opinion of him improved and I even dreamed of being like him, preaching to hundreds of thousands of people and getting them right with the Lord, which was hard to do since my first church only had fifteen attenders, one of whom thought he was George Beverly Shea, but wasn’t, and nearly caused me to become an atheist.

When Billy Graham came to Indianapolis in 1980, I was on the prowl for a new girlfriend and a Billy Graham Crusade didn’t seem all that conducive to romance, so I didn’t go. By the time he returned in 1999, my appreciation for evangelical Christianity and the political movement it had launched had cooled, so I stayed away. But I was writing by then, being edited by one of Billy Graham’s editors. So one evening we were out at dinner, and I asked him, “Tell me something about Billy Graham I don’t know.”  He thought for a moment, then said, “Billy Graham is a universalist.” I was amazed by that, and asked him to explain, and he said that as Billy Graham aged, and had encountered people of other faiths, he had witnessed God’s spirit in their lives and as a consequence his own faith had become more expansive and generous.  As you can imagine, I thought this was wonderful, because it seems to defy the customary pattern of so many lives, which is to become less spiritually fluid, less flexible, and more rigid. So I was glad for Billy Graham, and wished he had written a book about his spiritual evolution, since that seems to me the true gospel, that even in our final years, we are able to be shaped and re-shaped, formed and re-formed by God’s spirit.

We’ve been thinking about the myth of the normal family, more specifically about dysfunctional families, which are comprised of dysfunctional people, and that includes all of us to some degree or another. This dysfunction is rooted in immaturity, so our lives must be a quest for maturity, for wholeness and growth.

We’ve thought about what maturity looks like. People who are mature make friends, not enemies. They accept responsibility and avoid blaming others. And last week, we said mature people commit themselves to self-awareness. They seek out and face the honest truth about themselves. This morning, I want to suggest that mature people are spiritually malleable, they have allowed their experiences to shape and re-shape their lives. They are moving away from theological and philosophical rigidity, and becoming more supple, more open, which allows them to navigate the changes we all face as we age.

I believe Billy Graham’s evolution from theological rigor to spiritual openness was an example of this. As I said, I only wish he had written about it, because I think it could have helped millions of people who have undergone a similar transformation. I remember one such instance, when a woman who had always been taught that homosexuality was a sin, learned that her granddaughter was a lesbian. She realized the tools she had been given to interpret that reality were no longer helpful. So at the age of 80 she acquired a new set of tools and began reading, engaging, and thinking anew, allowing her experiences to re-shape her life. This had a ripple effect on her entire family, so instead of the family imploding and exploding, they learned together, adjusted to the situation, embraced their beloved daughter and granddaughter, and several years later, when their granddaughter married the woman she loved, danced at the wedding.

Mature people are spiritually malleable. They allow God’s spirit to shape and re-shape their lives. Indeed, they not only allow God’s spirit to re-shape them, they pray it will happen.

Do you remember the scene in the 10th chapter of Acts, when Peter, the faithful and observant Jew, had a vision of a sheet lowered from heaven, containing food forbidden by his religion.  And God said, “Eat up!”  (I sometimes have these visions of God as an Italian mother.)  Three times God told Peter to eat, and three times Peter said no, that the food was unclean. So God sent three men to speak to Peter…Peter so locked in his tradition…and they told Peter it was God’s business to define what is clean and unclean, not his. And Peter changed. “You know it was unlawful for me to be with Gentiles, but God has taught me it is not up to me to label one person sacred and another profane.  Now I understand God shows no partiality.”

Can you hear the chains of tired thought falling away? Can you hear new tools being picked up and put to use? Mature people are spiritually malleable. They allow God’s spirit to shape and re-shape, to form and re-form their lives. Indeed, they not only allow God’s spirit to change them, they pray for it to happen.

I was with two guys not long ago, one of whom was having marital problems. Since there are few things more enjoyable than telling other people how to solve their problems, we asked our friend to describe a typical interaction between he and his wife.  Tell us about a typical disagreement, we asked him. He said their fights always began with something small, then would escalate, until she’d yell at him, and he’d yell back at her.

“I’m just trying to help her understand how things should be,” our   clueless friend said.

“And how’s that working for you?” our other friend asked.

I love that question.  How’s that working for you? Isn’t that a great question?

Mature people are able to look at their lives and realize when the tools they’ve been using are no longer working, that new tools, new outlooks, new perspectives are needed.  Then, because they are spiritually, emotionally, and relationally malleable, they are able to set down a tool that no longer works, and pick up another.