Some people seem to think that family values are a set of regulations carved on a stone tablet, handed down through the generations like the Ten Commandments. I think of them as a set of principles passed on, out of which certain behavioral patterns emerge. This subject came up last Sunday when I was visiting with a family member. She suggested that it would be difficult for us to explain to our parents why we were not in church on Sunday morning. Our mothers, after all, attended every Sunday without fail. I disagreed. I replied that I felt like the same set of principles that led my mother to do what she did also leads me to do as I do. My cousin merely looked at me strangely.
When I was growing up, the majority of the children in my neighborhood went to Sunday School. I loved being in Sunday School the same way I once loved being in church. It was one of the few places where I felt at home, as if I belonged there. I think I can truthfully say I have been in churches of virtually every denomination. It has been an experience that has been extremely valuable in helping me shape my own personal theology.
I began reading the Bible early and had read it through once by the time I was 7 years old. Because my family lived in a small town, our ministers were circuit riders and preached in more than one location. So on the first and third Sundays, we attended our church, the Methodist church, and on the second and fourth Sunday we attended the Baptist church. Ministers came and went. Even as a child, I was a good listener so when I got home, I would be able to talk about the songs we sang and the sermon we had heard. And on many occasions, although I never spoke about it to my mother, I was troubled and confused. This went on for a number of years.
It wasn’t until I reached early adulthood that I realized that I needed help. So I went to the same source I always turn to when I have difficulty thinking things through. I went to books written by great Christian thinkers and theologians. So that’s when I learned that I had an affliction that is quite common. I was confused by the fact that too many times the spoken word and the written word did not agree. I began a basic study of theology and visited with theologians, which I have continued to this day. My mother was a deep thinker, and I suspect that somewhere along the way, she too encountered this problem. I bet she found her own way to work it out.
When I graduated from high school, a very wise man — the president of a prestigious college — delivered our commencement address. I think every person in our class remembered his advice. He said that to be successful, a person needed to do three things: get some religion in his soul, some education in his head and some money in his pocket, in that order. This has been a guiding principle in my life. So I don’t really believe that my mother would be disappointed that I don’t attend church. Rather she would be pleased that I place such emphasis on religion in my life. This is how I believe family values work.
Obviously, this isn’t the way many of the politicians I hear speaking on this subject think. They seem to think of family values as some magic potion which, among other things, will keep one forever out of strange beds, from marrying the wrong person, from having children who turn out to be homosexuals and from engaging in extramarital affairs. They don’t see it as the quality that causes one to take responsibility for his behavior no matter what it is or keeps one from being judgmental about the behavior of others, or insists that one tell the truth when a lie would be more convenient. I think these people mistake family values for family influence — the kind of thing that forces one to go underground with his emotions, to associate with people for whom one has no respect, to go to church so that others will be convinced that one is ‘a good person’.
I think that family values plays a greater role in the lives of individuals than these people think. I believe my family values inform me that it is morally wrong to invade another person’s country and murder him. This means, I suppose, that my values are in conflict with the values of most Americans. Because I believe that in the final analysis, we are all alone and each accountable, I have no problem with this.
And where church attendance is concerned, I think my mother would understand that I’m still at the point where the primary concern within the community of believers would be the condition of one another’s soul. I can’t for the life of me remember the last time anybody asked me about the condition of mine. They seem to be more concerned about whom I’m going to vote for in the next election and that I won’t ask them to borrow money.
I promise when I visit my neighbor’s home that I won’t put my feet on her furniture. That has to do with family values, hers and mine. That’s basic. After that, the premise begins to sprout wings.
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