Marc looked down at his wedding ring, sitting on the table, next to the cold cup of coffee. He remembered the first time that he had met Mindy, after he had had quite a few too many drinks and was fumbling under the table for his keys. She had taken him home, helped him to bed, and set the coffee maker to go off in the morning when it was time for him to sober up for work. Over the years, she had rescued him time and time again. She knew exactly what bar to find him at and exactly what time he was due to need her assistance. She was more than his wife…she was his savior. Until he hit rock bottom, and it was time to get help. AA. The best sponsor he could have hoped for. Eighteen months sober. Which is when Mindy asked for the divorce. “You aren’t the same man you used to be,” she said on the way out the door. Now, staring down at his ring, his sponsor told him across the cold cup of coffee that there is a saying in AA: “sobriety wrecks families.” “When the family is used to – even needs to – have an alcoholic, it doesn’t know what to do when it doesn’t. Mindy had her role – she was the savior. You did violence to the system when you got clean. It was a broken system, but it was home. Now, she just didn’t know what to do anymore.”
Joan was finally ready to take the plunge. Literally. It was finally time to do what she had been wrestling with for months, and be baptized in her new church. The date was set. The church was ready to celebrate. She just had to tell her parents. Joan had grown up in a family that was violently opposed to faith of any kind. Her father had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian family and he felt he was forced, and even abused by the faith of his childhood. Joan remembered driving by churches on Sunday mornings when she was a child and hearing her father releasing a rant of curse words about the crazy fools that wasted their time and their money and their life. Joan was always curious about what happened behind those doors, but would never dare risk stepping foot inside a church. Until she was older, almost 30, and she had been invited by her friends to attend a congregation. It was nothing like the stories her father told, and so she wanted to join them, aching to be a part and be baptized. Yet, the voice of her father boomed in her head. When she finally got the courage to tell them, even invite them to attend her baptism, her worst fears were realized. Her father’s words were angry echoes of those she heard as a child, only now they were directed at her. Before he threw her out, her last words to him were clear and simple: “This is who I am now.”
In both stories, there is a common theme. In both of these cases, there is an individual who has to make a decision that runs counter to their family. In the first, it is a recovering addict, painfully realizing that in order to get healthy, he will have to stand counter to his wife and their old way of doing things. In the second, the young woman realizes that in order to follow Christ in the way that makes sense to her, her family will not understand. What if I told you that the process that they are going through is exactly the same thing that we all have to do in our lives?
I want to talk some this morning about the concept of self-differentiation. Basically, differentiation the process of becoming who we are meant to be, regardless of what others say we ought to be. It is the process of differentiating our self from the expectations and emotions of others. It is a process that each of us must struggle with throughout our lives…it never really ends.
We begin life in family – whatever your definition of that is. Yet there comes a point – actually several throughout life – where we begin to differentiate from that family. The first time that we say “no” to dad in the grocery store checkout line: differentiation. The first time that we realize that mom is not quite the perfect person we thought she was…not really the hero that we had envisioned: differentiation. The first time we roar off with that drivers license in hand…the first night we sleep in our dorm room at college…the moment when we walk down the aisle and dad gives us a kiss on the cheek and sits down: differentiation. When we define ourselves as “self” apart from the other – that is differentiation. It is healthy. It is important. It is necessary as we become adults. It is crucial if we are to understand who we are and what we want and how we see ourselves as separate children of God, created in God’s image. It was crucial for Marc. It was crucial for Joan. It is crucial for us.
Here’s the problem. We are horrible at it! Even when we make those decisions and leave the nest and get married and become our own person, we have the tendency to fail to truly differentiate. Edwin Friedman and those steeped in this theory of differentiation suggest that we do it wrong in one of two ways.
First, he says, we often become enmeshed. Enmeshment is the process of allowing another to define us. Define our thoughts, our emotions, our selves. It is easy to see that enmeshment in the cliché of the son who still brings his laundry home to mom, or the daughter who still calls dad three times a day to ask for advice. But sometimes, it is more subtle. Jason gets a new job and is ecstatic! He tells his wife and she is thrilled. He tells his brother and he yells through the phone. He is flying high, buying new clothes for his new job, telling everyone he meets. Until he has dinner with his parents that night. He tells them right away, clearly showing how happy he is. And mom just raises her eyebrows. Doesn’t smile. Doesn’t say a thing. Doesn’t need to. And the evening is ruined. The rest of the night, son sulks in his seat. And after a fitful night, he calls the company and declines the job. Enmeshment. Jason’s mother still defines his emotions for him. Still defines who he is and what he wants. But that can be anyone in our lives! Parent. Sibling. Spouse. Co-worker. Enmeshment happens when we allow another to define who we are.
On the flipside of enmeshment is the concept of cut-off. If enmeshment is the way that we allow someone too much power and presence in our lives, cut-off is the process of giving them power in their absence. If enmeshment is calling dad three times a day for advice, then cut off is not speaking to him for the last 10 years. When we cut off a relationship, it can look like differentiation, because it appears that we are no longer letting that person have a voice in our lives. But it is just as emotionally unhealthy and just as undifferentiated as enmeshment. We let them define us in their absence just as strongly as in their presence! Cutting someone out of your life for a decade simply allows them to continue to have that power over you. Ignoring them at Christmas, refusing to return their calls – you are still allowing the other to define who you are! In some ways, they are more powerful over you than if you talked to them eight times a day.
So, we are generally bad at this whole self-differentiation thing. We fall prey to the twin dangers of enmeshment and cut off all the time. Why? Because when we take that step of health to differentiate self, it feels like violence. It feels to Marc like it is wrecking the family. It feels to Joan like it is rejecting her father. It feels to Jason like it is crossing his mother. It feels like it is destroying the system. Because it is.
When we say with clarity: “this is who I want to be.”
When we can be separate, yet be connected.
When we can manage our own reactivity and anxiety.
When we can risk taking a stand, even if we know it might displease someone.
It feels like it is violence to a broken and unhealthy system.
Because it is.
But what if you are a father who expects that call eight times a day? A spouse who needs to be able to rescue your husband? Or what if you are a mother who hears your son say “I have no mother or brothers, but only my father in heaven.”
Of course, this is what Jesus says exactly to his mother and brothers, on more than one occasion in the Gospels. In today’s passage, Jesus comes uncomfortably close to saying that family is bad. He tells his hearers that he comes to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother. But look at Jesus’ words in the context of this language of differentiation. I think what Jesus is doing here is saying that a follower of Christ cannot allow a mother or father or in-laws or member of one’s own household to make your priorities for you. To define who you are.
Following Christ in the way of the Kingdom means simply that there will be others who you cannot follow. When Jesus talks about discipleship, he forces the question: “Who do you follow?” Are you following a family member or friend, undifferentiated from the ways that they define you? Or are you following the call of Christ? Who wants you to be who you are called to be? Who wants you to be who you are made to be? Who wants you to follow that call and that vocation and that purpose? Who wants you to lose your old “life” for his sake – in order to find new life in him!”
Christ is telling all those who would follow him that doing so might cost them certain relationships. And it will feel like violence. Violence to the family. Violence to the relationship. Violence to the system. Because it is. “I have come to separate son from father and daughter from mother.” Jesus says, “it will feel like following me is the way of the sword, not the way of peace.” It is violence to the unhealthy system, to the uneasy “peace” of enmeshment, that says, “I am only happy for you if you do what I want or think that I need.” Jesus came to pull out a sword and cut that undifferentiated life to shreds.
Now, what I don’t think that Jesus is doing is saying that all families are necessarily like this. Of course, if it is a healthy family, where differentiation is celebrated and not feared, then mother and father and brother and sister can say with joy and celebration “I am happy for you! I am happy for your ‘new job’ as follower of Christ. I am happy for your new life. I am happy for the way that you define self.” I can imagine Jesus proclaiming families such as these as Kingdom-followers.
But in the language and context of his day, he was talking about a new way of living life, differentiated from needing to please others. Of course, he would not have used the same language as Freedman. But when he says “take up your cross.” When he says, “Follow me.” When he says “be a part of the Kingdom of God.” He is calling his listeners to a radical way of life, of follow-ship. Of discipleship. Leave your nets and follow me. Give up on your expectations to sit at my right hand and follow me. And now, leave behind the expectations of your family and those whom you love in order to follow me.
What Jesus called his hearers to – and calls us to – is what I would call “differentiated discipleship.”
• Differentiated discipleship is a life of freedom: following Christ with hope and anticipation, and not guilt or “shoulds” or overburdening expectations of others. Alongside comes a sense of freedom from the busy and stressed life of having to tell everyone “yes” to their needs and expectations.
• Differentiated discipleship is a life of confidence and strength. Instead of having to wait on someone else to tell you if you are doing it right, differentiated disciples are tough to intimidate or scare and ready to risk. It is no accident that Jesus also says in this passage: “do not be afraid.”
• Differentiated discipleship is a life of independence: following Christ and not another Christian. A pastor or parent or friend can support you and even offer advice, but no one can define who you are in the eyes of God.
• Differentiated discipleship is a life of grace: allowing others to follow Christ in the way that they are called, not expecting them to do in the way that you do it.
But above all, a life of differentiated discipleship is hard. It is a hard life to lead and there is a reason that Christ uses the metaphor of a cross to talk about this way of life. It is challenging and difficult. But there is hope. Christ tells us he will never leave us or forsake us.
• But in midst of the challenge, the Spirit is present. Guiding. Leading. Encouraging.
• In the midst of the challenge, others are present. Brothers and sisters in Christ, friends and – yes – even family members who support your call to follow Christ above all else.
• In the midst of the challenge, you are present. It hurts to struggle through the challenges of the faith. But when you do it in a way that feels like you are coming from a place of integrity, there is a deep strength that follows. You are able to be who God has called you to be, and no one can take that from you.
• Finally, in the midst of the challenge, the Gospel is present. And being proclaimed. Every time you take a differentiated stand for the Gospel of Christ, you are serving as a witness to the power of the Resurrected Christ.