The following is abridged version of speech delivered by Rev. Fr John KK, Vicar, St Thomas Syrian Orthodox Church, Damascus, MD at the Northeast area St. Mary�s League conference on March 31st 2001.
The host-parish desired a speech how to build a fulfilling family life based on Joshua 24:15, �As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.�
This subject was dealt with many times before and yet there is a craving among the faithful to know more about it and hence it is more than relevant for a full discussion. But what is more important, and yet often lacking, is that the faithful ought to make an honest attempt to capitalize the message by putting it into practice in every day life. Imbibe the gist of the key-verse in letter and spirit and that is the best and the only way to build a fulfilling family life.
A satisfying life is everyone�s pleasant dream. But the irony is that in as much as one honestly aspires it he or she does not often attain it. A close scrutiny of a cross section of society would enable one identify that despite towering claims, howbeit true they may be, of scientific and technical advancements in the field of medicine, communication, transportation, technology, etc and highly improvised life styles as never before, life has become all the more burdensome, monotonous and less appealing. Many affluent, rich and famous, who live in densely populated cities, are victims of loneliness. Suicide among them is increasing at alarming rate. So everyone should probe into the reasons for such denigrating trend and try to remedy it.
Background: God Jehovah by His Mighty hands and deeds liberated Israelites from the bondage of Pharaoh. He divided Red Sea and they passed it as if through dry land. He gave them food and drink as and when they needed. But people grew discontented and murmured, which kindled God�s wrath. They wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until the entire rebellious generation perished. Jehovah was with Joshua as He was with Moses and did mighty deeds through Joshua. He divided river Jordan and the people passed it as if through dry land. Joshua divided the land among the tribes of Israel. When Joshua became old he gathered elders and all tribes of Israel at Shechem and reminded them how Jehovah by mighty deeds delivered them out of bondage and admonished them therefore not to turn right or left from the statutes given through Moses so that they could enjoy prosperity of the land without fear of enemies. He made it clear that they are free to choose either good or evil, life or death. He closed his admonitions with his resolve that he and his house will serve the Lord. House in the Hebrew context includes children, grand children, and servants. People responded saying they would also serve the Lord. Joshua, a leader par excellent, was not content only with mere admonitions but startled the audience with astounding commitment. Present-day leaders ought to take note of his exemplary quality. Leaders without sense of responsibility and followers without sense of direction are the worst problems of our times. Joshua was undauntedly frank. Would Christians be frank, shun evil ways and take up a position for right cause? If so, our families, our parishes, our society and nation would become paradise on earth! Real problem confronting the society is not the existence of immorality or injustice but Christian�s compromising attitude and aversion to stand up against sin. Are we not ordinary people making extraordinary claims as Dr Radhakrishnan said? Believers like Telemachus and leaders like Joshua are glaring need of our time.
Family: Concept about family is twofold namely 1, secular and 2, Christian. Secular concept of family is fast growing, especially in USA, in outright defiance to natural law of survival surpassing all known moral standards. Ancient and religious definition of family has become obsolete. Popular tendency displaced radical ideas instead and accordingly any two consenting adults regardless of sex can live in unison and be called family! Some states already replaced, �domestic-partner,� against �husband, wife,� etc. Leaders, both secular and religious, lost vision and have become mere victims of affluent gay and lesbian protagonists and for the same reason Legislative, Judiciary and religious systems miserably failed to discern value and dignity of human life. Certain religious leaders who bear �Christian� nomenclature have become advocates and defenders of such deviant, unnatural and sinful way of life and that is all-the-more appalling. To speak against immorality is considered antisocial and intolerant. There is heavy clamber for media attention. Immorality is not new invention but as old as mankind. The exception is that never before it was popular, accepted standard or life-style as of these days.
Christian family: Christian family derives its existence and meaning from the infallible Word of God, both oral and written. The establishment of family is elucidated in the creation account itself; thereby signifying family as the basic necessity for human survival. God established the first family in the Garden of Eden by uniting man and woman together, Adam and Eve, with the primary intent to obey God, live in harmony, procreate, subdue and preserve all creations. Thus family is the divine institution. There is nothing to compare with it. Who ever impedes with it acts in rebellion with divine standards and hence sin.
Christian family is a miniature of heaven on earth. But attitude, Milton calls it mind (Paradise Lost), is that makes it a heaven or hell. It is not necessary to indulge in an evil act but an evil thought suffice to make family life as miserable as hell. Iago would harbor doubts, Othello would surely doubt and Desdemona would suffer, no matter how faithful she is. There are infidel wives to honest husbands and infidel husbands to honest wives and both induce problems. It is therefore essential that both husband and wife should invariably know the divine precepts and keep vigil about family. Ignorance is no defense and would lead to many uncalled for miseries.
Biblical position: There are two narrations derived from two traditions about the origin of family. 1, Yahwite tradition says, �It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helpmeet for him,� Gen 2:18-25. This verse clearly adduces that ancient man, whom the modern man often reviles as primitive, had well-developed notion of human psychology. Moses is par excellent to all the modern psychological scientists. Man�s loneliness necessitated creation of woman. It was God, not man, who first felt the need. God created woman out of man, and thereafter man comes out of woman, thus equated, not as subordinate or inferior but as equals, not as independent but as inter-dependant. God out of His own will created man and woman in the same fashion and quality to suit certain purpose. Adam exclaimed, �bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,� that sufficiently prove woman was of equal make and design. It was God who brought woman to man. This edifies the deep-rooted tradition and Church position that God conducted the first marriage. Thus marital relationship is sublime, intense, deeper and sacred than all other relationships. There is nothing unnatural, undesirable, shameful or sinful in their relationship. Paul extolled the sanctity of marriage and vehemently condemned illicit relationship outside of marriage, Heb 13:4. Neither husband is complete without wife nor wife is complete without husband. Both are mutually complementary and help fill the void in the other. One who is lazy, uninvolved, abusive or disinterested to cheer up the life-partner can be with the spouse and yet feel lonely. Loneliness is creation of the mind and the greatest enemy of mankind. It leads to suspicion, disputes, violence, severance, anxiety, depression, dejection and even suicide. Honest, faithful and mutual love between spouses is the only effective antidote that God has prescribed.
2, Priestly tradition is comparatively new that says, �God created man in his own image, in the image of God created him; He created them male and female. He blessed them, be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it,� Gen 1:26-28. This creation account is more specific and clearly establishes equality of sex. He being the crown of creations is endowed with dominion over all animate and inanimate creations. Since created in the image and likeness of God, unlike other creations, he has glory. By blessing to be fruitful and multiply God infused in them ability to partake in God�s creative faculty and enabled them to thrive and enjoy life. Children are parlor between husband and wife and most important part of the divine program.
Woman equal and honorable: As explained above, both creation accounts clearly define different functions for male and female but emphatically deny superiority of either. The whole crisis is due to man�s inability to properly comprehend divine perimeter which caused not only his own fall in as much as he lost the image of God but also caused deformity to entire order of creation. Despite prevalence of innate universal myth, especially among Jews, that woman is inferior to man Bible does not contemplate superiority based on sex. Woman�s subjection to husband�s authority is man�s invention resulted from that fall rather, it is of later origin, Gen 3:16. Equality of husband and wife is clearly stated in the Mosaic Law. �Honor your father and mother,� Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16. �Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death,� Ex 21:15. �Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death,� Ex 21:17. Women definitely occupied respectable position in the family and at times held influential positions in the society. Sarah, whom St. Peter complements as �holy woman who trusted in God and adorned being submissive,� 1 Pe 3:5, advised Abraham twice and he obeyed. Rebecca guided Jacob to obtain father�s blessings. Deborah judged Israel. Esther destroyed the enemy and saved God�s people from ruin. Morth Smooni is honored as martyr and saint for her valorous testimony of God. �A man who has taken a new wife he shall not go out for war, nor he shall be charged with any business but he shall be free at home for one year and cheer up his wife,� Deut 24:5. Proverb 31 portrays woman as honorable, industrious, socially accepted and blessing to the entire family. �Virtuous woman is a crown to her husband,� Pr 12: 4. �Wise woman builds the house� Pr 14:1. Peter advised husbands to dwell with wife with compassion and honor. He confers wives� exalted position as co-heirs to the grace. Peter had in mind the marriage as a sacramental union, not merely as contract. He upheld the dignity, modesty and goodness of women by advising men to honor and conduct responsibly. He meant that the relationship with spouse had a bearing on one�s relationship with God. Mention of woman, as �weaker vessel� may not be acceptable to modern woman. But this warns men not to exploit them because of physical weakness, 1 Pe 3:7. Paul insisted that husband had authority not over himself but over wife and wife had authority not over herself but over husband, 1 Cor 7:4. Ps 127 and 128 are the best homilies about blessed family.
However, considering contemporary turmoil, from an oriental view, sense of women�s equality should evolve from women themselves. As would various instances testify, which are needless to ponder here, in-law quarrels, dowry demands and unsavory treatments meted out to young brides to extract dowry usually originate and escalate from in-law women. Occidental women�s liberation movements, is equally misconceived and mischievous. Women sullied sex as commercial commodity, which is dishonor to womanhood. Yet they fallaciously call it liberation or equality! Christian perspective of equality is recognizing differences, contenting with God-gifted abilities, consciously discharging duties and mutually complementing in His program. Modern cry of financial or social freedom independent of family and all its ramifications is unknown and totally alien to Christian ethics. Family is the basic unit or nucleus of social fabric.
Monogamy: Both creation accounts contemplate the original order as monogamy. Anti-deluvien patriarchs Adam, Noah, etc are glittering stars that practiced monogamy. Though Patriarchs Abraham, Jacob and kings David, Solomon, etc practiced polygamy there is no evidence to show that it was universally accepted standard at any time. Christ, Apostles and Christianity arduously preached monogamy and women�s equality from its inception. Church fathers stoutly denounced polygamy. Theodoret of Cyrus, Nestorian heretic, however seem to justify polygamy in the old time with a silly argument, �He did not forbid the ancients to have many wives so that the race of men might be increased,� Compendium of heretics� fables 5:25. Pertinently, he too did not encourage polygamy in Christian era.
Church position: This can be classified into two 1, the western church (Roman Catholics) has clearly defined position. They also amend their position frequently to suit the changes. For example, at first they defined procreation and rearing of children as the sole purpose of marriage. Trent council in 1565 defined the marriage as instituted by God, one of the seven sacraments and channel to receive heavenly grace. It condemned those who refute this position. In 1880, Pope Leo XIII, amended it, �the sacrament of marriage is for procreation, rearing of children and for fellowship of partners� (Arcanum Divine). Vatican II declared that �in marriage spouses should mutually accept according to God�s will, maintain perfect harmony in love and cooperation, and live together without separation for life.� 2, however, our church has not at any time dwelt upon a legalistic definition of family. Orthodox Church is worship-oriented and its prayers, hymns, supplications, intercessions, etc are replete with resplendent theological dispositions. To understand doctrine concerning a particular subject one has to keenly attend its worship service. Unlike others, Orthodox Church has a rich liturgical heritage. Marriage is one of the seven sacraments. �Sacrament is the visible sign of invisible grace.� Not only marriage but also betrothal is God ordained. God conducts both betrothal and marriage, not as mere witness. We differ with those who teach that God was mere witness in the first marriage. This predicament is in a way reason for denigrating the sanctity and solemnity of marriage that gave impetus to escalating divorce and remarriages in the west. God commanded, �They shall be one flesh.� Jesus added to it, �What therefore God had joined together, let not man put asunder,� Mat 19:6. Original scripture-manuscript did not contain provision to divorce on account of adultery. It is later addition and many misuse it. Concept of Family first conceived in God�s mind, it was His plan and He established it. Protestants treat it as mere contract between man and woman. Marriage has a triangular (Trinitarian) contractual dimension namely 1, man and woman with God individually committing that he/she will keep the marriage undefiled, 2, man and woman jointly committing to God that they will keep the sanctity of marriage, be faithful, mutually care for life and keep all divine statutes and 3, between husband and wife reinforcing the contracts they separately and jointly made with God. Since God enjoined them their contract with God is more important than the contract between them. Church does not at all encourage separation because Spouse relationship is compared with that of Christ as head and the Church as body, Eph 5.
Church confers kingly status to husband and queenly status to wife by adorning them with crowns blessed in the shape of cross. The pendant is modified version of cross. Cross is symbol and model of sacrificial love. Thus husband and wife should sacrifice self for the sake of the other, shun evils and embrace mutual trust and love as the foundation of life. Cross is symbol of victory over sin, death and Satan. Church blesses to have them children, which affirms that procreation is gift of God. Church blesses them to acquire financial and social prosperity, advises to grow in righteousness and engage in acts of benevolence. Church reminds them of the transitory nature of this life, which is preparatory to the eternal happiness with Lord in heaven. Enduring happiness comes by mutual submission and observing divine laws. Family life is a call to righteous deeds in the God�s vineyard. As Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana God takes delight, accepts and blesses marriage. They should keep aloof from deadly sins such as jealousy and treachery. Marriages of Patriarch Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are invoked to remind that through marriage the couple receives the same blessings as the Patriarchs.
But the irony is that despite all the honest prayers and admonitions many marriages do not often turn out to be blissful and end up in divorce. According to studies one out of every two marriages in this country alone ends in divorce. 40% of the divorces take place during initial 5 years of marriage. Age between 20 and 25 is most vulnerable and susceptible to divorce. Our community is not immune to this deadly error but being gradually engrossed. I do not intent to go into details. If one honestly believes what the Church admonishes in the presence of host of witnesses is true he/she would not rush for divorce. �Morality is on decline,� is wild-cry everywhere. A close scrutiny would reveal that the basic reason for such decline is embedded in the marriage arrangements itself. The spiritual aspects, awareness of God�s presence, are completely sidelined and forgotten. Marriage ceremony has become more a formality than spiritual exercise, a public function and an occasion to show grandeur. Many marriage receptions have become moment of revelry for the host but sadistic and cumbersome to the guests. The attitude, unlike in the good old days, is �shut up and see what we do.� Priority is given to minute details like invitation, bridal-dress, rehearsal, reception-dance, etc. Restlessness if the service prolongs to one hour is beyond explanation! Video-recorder and professional quire dictate details including time factor. Undifferentiated inclination to westernize marriage program, especially the procession, dance, kiss, etc has reached pandemic proportion. But does anyone imbibe good qualities of the west namely, promptness, table manners, etc? Not one Indian program, religious or private has hitherto commenced at the appointed time!
Church admonishes that before entering into marriage one should have self-preparation. Preparation would include physical, psychological, financial, etc. Extreme caution is often shown regarding criteria for spouse selection namely, age, beauty, character, dowry or finance, education, family status, etc. These areas should be properly taken care of and yet most important is spiritual preparation. One should confess sins and get absolution, which is the assurance that the guilt is washed away so that one could begin marriage life with confidence, with clean slate. Another reason is, again psychological, that guilt feelings of past misdeeds, if any, would follow and haunt like nightmares would erupt like volcano anytime and hence should be removed before marriage. Premarital counseling would help ameliorate the feeling but the sacrament of confession is best antidote because it assures privacy and absolution of all sins confessed which would serve an essential antidote to many problems that may later arise. Spouse should learn to understand the other and how to deal with difficulties. Confession is a spiritual counseling that could be an effective guide and tool to handle variety of problems, to learn how to sensibly and responsibly spent time and money, to guard moral values and Christian ethics in family, how to nurture children in Lord�s discipline, how to remove misgivings and fears about spouse and to gain strength in the grace of God. Husband and wife should have firm conviction, �Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who builds it. Children are a heritage from Lord� Ps 127: 1 & 3. Bride and bridegroom, their parents, siblings and close relatives should fast at least for a week and prayerfully prepare for the marriage. Husband and wife praying before they get together would be excellent. Tobit and Sara did so, Tobit 8:4-10. Marriage is not to satisfy lust but to love and cherish so as to grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ, Eph 4:15.
Practical aspects: Experts are of the opinion that a major portion of one�s private time is preoccupied by various thoughts on sexuality. Sexuality is the basic factor behind most of the quarrels, separations and divorce. Husband and wife should have fair knowledge about sexuality. I do not envisage western style sex-education, which has wrought more calamity than good in the society. Sexuality is the greatest gift from God and its proper use is in conformity with divine plan of procreation and sustenance. Therefore instead of considering ones� own interest (sexual or other) spouse must consider, yield and adjust to the needs and interest of the partner. Sex outside of marriage and over-indulgences are misuse and hence sin.
Initial period of marriage will be intensely charged with emotion, passion and yearning for closeness. It could lead to various misgivings about sexuality and intimacy. Expectations are often too high and when the actual output become disproportionately low people turn desperate which leads to failure. One need not be too concerned about initial failures. Failure often helps to understand one�s limits, to correct and guard for the future and thus become a tutor. All men of great achievements had many failures in the beginning. With proper guidance and perseverance spouses would understand each other better, correct themselves, grow steadily and improve in relationship. Maturity fructify into sacrificial love. As they grow older the passionate side or the physical contacts would gradually dwindle and yet mutual affection and care would be stronger.
Divorce rate is comparatively less in our society because of strong religious conviction, moral values, cultural legacy and family ties which of course has considerably eroded of late due to western influence and one cannot ignore the impending disaster of slipping fast into that predicament. For instance, divorce rate in India is more among Christians than among Hindus.
Spouses should never enter into a dialogue even for fun about like or dislike one had towards someone before. One should not be curious, neither to ask nor to say, about private life before. Treat them closed even to intimate friends. Ignore if such matters come to light later.
Neither one should even think of extramarital affair with anyone with or without the knowledge of the spouse. After marriage they should never hold any secrets be it financial or social and instead, every detail should be discussed and mutually decided. Marriages often break when either of the spouses gives room to intruders. Adam and Eve were very happy, they did not know sin and death, until a third party (the Serpent) intruded in their life and Eve lend her heart to the intruder. Studies reveal that most marriages end in divorce due to affairs, at any rate avoidable at the beginning, developed at the work places. 60% of the divorces are caused by extramarital affairs at the work place. To appreciate one�s beauty or talent is not sin but should never cross beyond. One cannot prevent a bird flying above the head but one could definitely prevent making nest over his/her head! In case a relationship happens at work place it is better to quit the job and keep the marriage undefiled, Mat 5:29-30. Never compromise with chastity/fidelity nor exploit the unsuspecting spouse. Spouses should avoid unnecessarily suspecting the other. Those who had illicit affairs in the past would often be prone to suspect the spouse and this often leads to misery. Communication needs be honest, consistent and regular. Spouses must frankly discuss hopes and aspirations and each one should give due merit to the other�s views.
Anger management is very important. It is natural to get angry at certain times. But refrain from abuses and filthy words. Beware not to escalate it to a point of no return. Never react to children in anger. Positively forgive each other, reconcile and pray together before going to bed, Eph 4:26. �Anger is sword against devil, do not use it against your own body,� Chrysostom.
Another important blight area is the relationship with in-laws. Spouses often forget that marriage is not only between two individuals but also between two families. By marrying, the spouse adopts into his/her own realm parents, siblings and relatives of the partner. For this reason one should keep equanimity and fairness in dealing with in-laws. Husband should consider wife�s parents as his own parents, siblings as his own siblings, etc and vice-versa. By following this pattern not only many problems could be solved but also it would greatly enhance goodwill and cooperation from the other and that would be added incentive to strong family ties.
One should never consider separation or divorce lightly rather it should be viewed equal to death. It not only damages and makes their own life miserable but also of the children and their surroundings. Children growing up in disturbed family would pose perennial problems to themselves and the society. Studies show that such children are more abusive, aggressive, disoriented, violent, selfish, addicted and threat to society and reason for more heinous crimes and anti-social activities. Whom shall we blame then, the child or the parents? Surely the parents are at fault. Once the spouses become parents they no longer live for themselves but live for the children also. They have to willingly curtail personal comforts for the sake of children. Never show abusive behavior in their presence. Parents should remember to nurture the children in the fear of the Lord, spiritually strengthened and intellectually bright. To achieve that it is necessary to shun evil talks and evil dealings in the home. Home should be training place for them to learn from parents, prayer, Bible study, sense of justice, honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, mercy and such noble traits. Such considerate, honest, faithful and self-controlling parents could eradicate many of the ills and they could nurture the children as better legacy to the society. God fearing spouses make good family and good family makes good society. Reason for every goodness and evil in society could thus allude to the behavioral pattern of spouses.
Spouses must be able to acknowledge, accept, consider and yield to the interest of the partner in the areas of varieties of interests namely, dressing, demeanor, eating habits, social interaction. Wife may be out-going while husband is conservative, wife may be vegetarian while husband is non-vegetarian, wife may be demanding but the husband pensive, wife may like bright colors but the husband may not, wife may be religious but the husband may be philosophical or agnostic, wife may be frugal but the husband may be spendthrift, and the list goes on. In many cases both can be at loggerheads for, both come from different traditions, faiths, interests and backgrounds and so accepting the partner as he/she is and treating with respect is the only viable alternative to build up a meaningful family. Spouse may not meet expectation in beauty, education, status, etc. Such choices should be considered before deciding to marry and once married such things should never reflect even in thought. Instead of getting alarmed about these differences think of the positive sides and good qualities of the spouse and adjust with the greater goal of modeling their children so that they grow in spiritual discipline.
Only feasible way to attain fulfilling family life is to satisfy with what one gets, for, seldom one gets what one expects and consider it gift from God. Ultimate aim of family must be to serve the Lord. Wiseman builds the family on foundation of rock and that rock is Christ, Mat 7: 24-24, 1 Cor 10: 4.
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