Neo-Family Values, Part 2: Beyond Home

A service/sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove
Paint Branch UU Church
November 16, 2003

A "Together Time" Story (for all ages) about "Neoh Family Values"

by Jaco B. ten Hove (pantomimed by Marcie, Erin and Sam Washburn)

One day, the Neoh family realized just how important and valuable MUSIC was to them. Mother NELLY Neoh had encouraged her youngsters NANCY & NIGEL Neoh to play instruments, which they did.But the Neoh family wanted to explore more than just the instruments they could play, so they began to go to various concerts together AND they took turns sharing various musical recordings with each other.

In the Neoh Family, any one of them could ask for a "Musical Sharing Session," when they would get together just to play their instruments or listen to records, or cassette tapes, or compact discs, or the radio. As they listened, they would take turns describing what it was they were hearing in the music.

They listened to all kinds of music from all over the world. Sometimes they listened to music they already knew they liked, and sometimes they listened to sounds they had never heard before. They wanted to know what kinds of music were important to other kinds of people, so they listened to lots of different instruments, different words, different rhythms, often from other countries and cultures. They heard very interesting sounds, and realized there was quite a wide variety of ways to make music!

They also found they often disagreed about what sounded good to them. It’s like with food—we often have different likes and dislikes about what we eat. This is because our taste buds are unique to each of us. Likewise, our taste in music is also not necessarily going to be the same.

Sometimes it was hard for Neoh family members to understand each other's taste in music, but they tried, because they did agree that, in general, musical expression was a Good Thing, even if one style or another might not agree with their individual musical taste buds.

Sometimes, you get a piece of food in your mouth but don’t want to swallow it, right? Can be like that with music in your ears, too. You hear it but don't enjoy it going all the way in your head. But you can't know if you'll like it or not unless your try to taste it, right?

This is true with food and music. We taste food with our mouth, and we taste music with ears. There are lots of kinds of food available to us. You don't just eat one thing all week do you? I think music is the same; there are lots of kinds of music to enjoy.

This appreciation of musical variety was so important to the Neoh family that NELLIE, NIGEL & NANCY kept having their Musical Sharing Sessions every week and sometimes more often than that, even. Because even more important than the music was the excitement of musical discovery, finding new music that was interesting. Sometimes they'd liked what they found and sometimes not, but the fun was in the exploration.

So this next week, why don't you look around and try to discover some new kind of music. You may or may not like it, but the fun is in the exploration! Ask your parents to help; they may need reminders to enjoy other kinds of music, too.

Among us all, we can share what we've discovered and grow to appreciate different ways music is created. This is important principle in the Neoh family; in fact, you might call it a "Neoh Family Value." When we share things like this, we grow. "From you I receive, to you I give; together we share and from this we live"—which are the words to our Sing-Away song #402…

Sermon: Neo-Family Values, Part 2: Beyond Home

Follows Hymn #51, Lady of the Season's Laughter
...Hold us in your steady mercy, Lady of the turning age.

We sing of "the turning age," which carries us and our families along with it, whether or not we enjoy or approve. Unfortunately, this new age has become a rough row to hoe for many families in many configurations, as pressures mount and resources dwindle. Some "steady mercy" is welcome. Amid the stress of change, we hope nonetheless to still "engage hearts and hands to end oppression, writing history's fairer page."

Such a noble goal-ending oppression-may well depend on how clearly we can see and understand our individual situations, embedded as they are in a collective environment that is usually evolving. The role and form of American families are certainly evolving, even as we speak, and I think it behooves us to be as aware as we can about the realities and the deeper currents that are sweeping us along.

So I've engaged in a bit of social history for this short sermon series, two weeks ago and now today. I learned a whole lot from studying Stephanie Coontz' two books of insightful analysis (The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families).

For instance, she offers some interesting perspective on the conditions in 17th century England that gave rise to the widespread oppression of so-called "witches." There is considerable thought now that the inordinate fear of "witches" grew out of a portion of the population that was pioneering a new approach to earning a livelihood.

In that era the family was generally still the locus of economic survival, utilizing interwoven relationships and personal bartering to make a living. But the culture around such families was evolving, and in those rather superstitious times there was not much deeper understanding of larger forces at work.

Some merchants of that era were being drawn into the emerging and increasingly individualistic market economy, which offered attractive financial rewards. But in the process they had to abandon many of the older ways of more personal neighborhood connections. As social historian Coontz explains it:

"When such people (who were embracing the new market economy) turned down a loan or favor requested by a poorer neighbor, (or) refused to let someone glean their fields, or sold something at market price rather than giving another village member a special break, they anticipated that their neighbors would be resentful. If something bad happened to them soon thereafter, they assumed they had been bewitched by the resentful person."

(Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms
with America's Changing Families
, pg. 129)

The important point, to me, is how "they anticipated that their neighbors would be resentful," and so they were susceptible to fear, which in those days manifested in often deadly accusations against vulnerable neighbors. From this example Coontz leaps a few centuries and draws a parallel to our time.

"A similar psychological dynamic may be occurring among affluent or even merely comfortable Americans. Uneasily aware that social resentments are building, those who are doing okay are frightened that they may be arbitrarily singled out to bear the brunt of someone's class or racial rage... No one is immune to this kind of fear, which is why, sooner or later, everyone pays a price for extreme social inequality."

(Ibid, p. 129)

"Sooner or later, everyone pays a price for extreme social inequality"—and yet today the rich just keep getting richer. Our system of capitalism is indeed based on some percentage of us getting richer, which is not a bad thing, per se. But in my previous sermon I reminded us how out of whack things have gotten, how 80% of the increase in income in the 1980s went to just the top 20% wealthiest households, which were generally not involved in raising young children. And the imbalance got worse in the 90s. Is this the way capitalism is supposed to work?

So the rest of us, resentful or not, compensate more, especially young families with children, which are often the least well established economically. Second and even third jobs are taken on, or more overtime, just to stay even financially and keep alive the hopes of prospering in the way we are convinced we should. Many young parents now spend more time at work in precisely the period when their families need their presence the most. And the dream of the American family is sacrificed just to keep up with the American economic dream, or what's left of it.

It's clear that the poor are also getting poorer, but the middle class may not show as many effects of this imbalance, often because they have forestalled obvious economic decline by compromising non-economic values, usually their relationships and their health. Even so, debt is at an all-time high, as are bankruptcies.

We are still in the middle of this cultural shift that has allowed the rich to get richer, and pardon my skepticism that the exposure of numerous corporate scandals in recent years is not offering any truly significant corrective. It still seems like business as usual. Lately, even the Mutual Fund industry is implicated in self-aggrandizing deals.

One cost of this ultimately untenable situation is the subtle but inescapably damaging fear rising in our psyches—in all of us, even though we might be fearful of different things at different economic levels. Some might fear the prospect of homelessness; some might fear the rage of others' resentment.

Oppression comes in many shapes and sizes, often hidden from us, even though it sometimes takes root in our backyards. "The turning age" can also become a turning screw that tightens around one's neck, if one happens to be in the wrong relationship to a particular cultural change.

Most young families are striving to establish themselves economically, especially the ones with fewer hopes of climbing any ladders of success, due to poor education, poor role models, poor placement in the culture, etc. We often label the children of those families "at risk," and they certainly are.

And guess what? As Coontz notes, "In a tax system where voters have no say about whether expensive bombers get built, but plenty of chances to take out their frustrations in local school levies, children increasingly lose out in the contest for resources." (Ibid, pg. 144)

There used to be a broad commitment to the good of the whole, whereby corporations and the government together established confidence in job security and the American Dream of education and home ownership. That's what existed in the 1950s and 60s, about which we are rightfully nostalgic. But all three of those ideals—job security, education and home ownership—have, for more and more people, been washed away by the wave of increasingly extreme inequalities that have characterized our system since the mid-1970s, when the rich began to get really richer and confidence in the system began to really slip.

Unlike John F. Kennedy's vision from an earlier, more optimistic decade, the rising tide has not lifted all boats, and many young families are drowning. Despite almost incessant compromises and adjustments, young American families are, by and large, not participating in what prosperity there is these days. Oh, they may put on the appearance of prosperity, but growing stress is showing in the seams of family life. Something's gonna give-and it could very well be someone's mental or physical health that suffers.

But enough of this bleakness. Now for the good news! There is one clear way families can be successful regardless of economic status. As a social historian, Coontz has seen one overriding, consistent truth appear in her studies of modern families and their values, pointing to an almost sure path toward vibrant family life.

Most successful families, she notes, are those who've built meaningful networks beyond the boundaries of the home itself. Most successful families have meaningful networks beyond the home. (And the word "meaningful" may or may not describe the often frantic pace at which some families scramble around a network of roads to a heavy schedule of activities beyond the home.)

So you might ask: "Hmmm, now where in the world can my family build a really meaningful network beyond the home?" Where better, I say, than the church, specifically, our church here, this congregation. Paint Branch can be a direct support for your "neo-family values," whatever your economics, whatever your family form.

Earlier we sang, "...Together we share, and from this we live." We sing this line, but do we believe it? Do you, in fact, live from what you share? We do here at Paint Branch!

When we left our fictional heroes from Together Time, the Neoh Family, mother Nellie Neoh was at home hanging out with youngsters Nigel and Nancy Neoh, enjoying one of their regular Musical Sharing Sessions. Did I mention that they got the idea and inspiration for this at their church?

It seems that their (also fictional) congregation had officially declared itself a "Music Appreciation Zone" and had made a large collective commitment to lifting up a variety of music in the life of their church, which subsequently became a center for musical diversity, even for the wider community. This also encouraged families to do the same at home.

The congregation saw this as a simple and exciting contribution to modern culture. They sponsored a number of multi-age singing groups and a concert series that featured unusual kinds of music. They had a top notch sound system installed and were also willing to pay for a couple of musical staff positions. Music came to be at the center of their congregational life in many fulfilling ways and this, of course, influenced how families approached music at home.

Cultivating the active, intentional presence of musical diversity is, in my view, a good example of a "neo-family value." However, this is not easy to do by oneself. Alone, the natural tendency is to gravitate toward one style of music that a person particularly enjoys. But in so doing, we often pass over other kinds of music that are less familiar to us-until we happen to, or intentionally get exposed to another style, frequently in a setting with others, say, in a community, like church.

But many American families ignore or resist going to church. Plenty of UU families find other priorities on many Sunday mornings. Let me gently suggest that this is their loss; they often don't know what they're missing. They might have negative stereotypes about "church," or they don't realize a church like ours could even exist. Or maybe they just have trouble making enough commitment to a lively congregation to make being an active part of it a priority.

I have no hesitation about this: church life is very supportive of neo-family values. However, the interface between family and congregation—the social landscape of religion—has changed over last 30 years, in a significant evolution directly attached to the huge cultural and economic shifts that Stephanie Coontz and I have described. And a consequence of this evolution is that the family form is stressed almost to a breaking point these days.

But not only family needs get the short shrift. School and community relations are also harder to maintain when work gobbles up so much of a parent's available moments. Social volunteerism has been dropping at a precipitous rate, a shift decidedly evident in church life. Yet it is a natural urge for parents to want to interact with their communities. Most have some vision of solidarity with neighbors, being and growing together. ("From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, from this we live.")

But the all-too-logical effect of very demanding work schedules leads instead to tension in the lifestyle, physical exhaustion, even resentment of others' successes, all of which erode both health and family values. It is from this we live, all too often these days.

Two weeks ago I suggested three prime "neo-family values" for your consideration in home life. Did I mention that they are also completely available in church life, too? Let me restate them briefly, but now imagine how these three values are supported by a family's involvement in church:

1. Idealism-keeping alive a vision of the best we can aim for, and acting toward it;
2. Spiritual values-determined by each of us for ourselves, but certainly more life-affirming than materialistic; and
3. Allies-finding, nurturing and being supportive allies for each other, amid many kinds of families, including those with children and those without children.

My own vivid memories of growing up UU include these idealistic, life-affirming supports. I am who I am perhaps largely because I learned to seek those three values from being a regular part of a UU congregation. I seriously missed them during my non-church years as a young adult. I still believe in them as guiding family values. And indeed they are active right now among us: in our services, our RE program, our many other events, more and more of which are created for people of "all ages," as we say.

One specific way a church can support family allies who promote idealism and life-affirming spiritual values is in the realm of childcare. Some churches are providing free or low-cost childcare, or even just monitored homework space during all group activities so that parents can more easily attend events of interest to them.

If, as the popular expression suggests, "It Takes a Village to Raise A Child," is that a "neo-family value" we would promote here at Paint Branch? If so, this might suggest that our group attitude toward childcare is that everyone's an ally for families raising young ones. Childcare then becomes less a burden or another expense and more of an opportunity to contribute and connect with each other and those of younger generations. It also expresses a welcoming encouragement for young families to come, participate and expand their networks of meaning.

I challenge you to consider the specific issue of childcare as a "neo-family value" here at church.

The church is a vessel for value promotion; it isn't the values themselves. The church can be as much an influence in your family values as you want; but the volume control is in your hands, really. Because "the church" is us. Yes, there's a campus here and a heritage before us. But we who believe in the ideal of life-affirming religious freedom, who want to honor, deepen and pass it on-we're today's caretakers of this value.

Like a healthy eco-system, which thrives because of a wide diversity in life-forms, our church thrives because there are many kinds of families and households represented here, many kinds of spiritual practices and understandings among us, many ways of being allies toward ideals and spiritual values.

The essential thrust of a liberal religious community is this honoring of freedom. But religious freedom is a scary thing for many people in our era. There seems to be some wider willingness to rest in the false security of a neo-orthodoxy that dominates and limits religious freedom.

In contrast, we in the free church are actively demonstrating the ideal articulated in the phrase spoken by our 16th century Unitarian forebear in Transylvania, Francis Dávid, who said, tellingly: "We need not think alike to love alike." Religious freedom amid diversity is a noble and truly "traditional" American value struggling into maturity in our era. Throughout each week, we in this church model how "together we share and from this we live."

As we do this we show other more anxious sectors of our culture that it's not only possible but preferable. The "neo-family value" of religious freedom amid diversity is at the heart of the interface between family and church. In the life of your household, this value can be a whisper now and then or it can be an integral part of your everyday conversation, popping up and articulated loudly in many ways by all ages.

The difference may well be determined by how you relate to your church. Do you find yourself referring to "the" church? or "my" church, "our" church? Do you talk about Paint Branch and say "us"?

I can think of a good number of families (with and without kids) whose lives center here. They seem to believe in the maxim that you get what you give. They may even see their volunteer investment here as significant part of their life's work. Chances are they see their financial support in similar light. They've prioritized participation in their church and cherish the values it embodies and teaches.

Sure, it's probably a risk of some sort-most important things are. And yes, it takes time. But I think "neo-family values" shared in our church settings are one way to consider a positive route to a joyful future. Your idealism, your life-affirming spiritual values, your role as an ally are all immensely valuable, both at home and here at your church, where there is a meaningful network that invites you to join in.

So as we leave our heroes, the Neoh family, young Nigel and Nancy Neoh are begging their mother Nellie Neoh, to come with them to church because there's a sing-a-long scheduled around the campfire. It's been a long day, and she's tired, but the kids really love these gatherings. So they go over and join in, and she doesn't regret it for a minute.

There they gather to sing their hearts' own song, as we will do now, with the same hymn, #360, that opened this sermon series. Call it a bookend experience, and sing along with gusto.


"Here we have gathered" again, "in the mystery of this hour," as "together we share" the care of this congregational vessel, into which we pour "our heart's own song," knowing that "as we give we gain."

May your values flourish at home and beyond, especially among fellow Paint Branchers. May the "season's laughter" resound in our "one strong body." And may your next steps from here bring you deeper into "meaningful networks" that weave "a circle of kinship."

Let us bring music to the fore once more and invoke the Spirit of Life, #123...

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