January 7, 2024
I’ve been exposed to Bowen Family Systems three separate times. The first time was in seminary around 2007. We did a deep dive into my family system and my colleagues said, “Wow! You should meet your father.”
Nope! No thank you!
Then again in 2012 with the Next Generation Leadership Initiative from the UCC Pension Board. They brough an expert in from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, a renowned expert in Bowen Family Systems. And he said, “Wow! You’ve really done a good job on this. Must not be your first stab at this. You know, I think you should meet your father.”
Nope! No thank you!
Four years after that, I enrolled in my Doctor of Ministry Program at MTSO. Looking at the program outline, I see… you guessed it: Bowen Family Systems. Okay, fine. I know what’s coming, so I might as well meet my father.
Bowen Family Systems Theory states that you aren’t just an individual, but an individual with a history, a story that has been given to you by your own family system. This story is not taught but caught in the day-to-day living. I never remember my mom or grandparents sitting me down and teaching me “this is how you love another person. This is how to be in community. This is how to be a friend.” I caught these lessons by watching them live as they did the same with their parents and so on before them. This system is both nuclear as well as generational.
Simply put: Your family is an emotional unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. What systems training does is have you map out the nature of these emotional relationships to reach a better understanding of self–what your buttons are and why and how to remain connected and in relationship without becoming too dependent or isolated.
For me, meeting my father was too scary. I had not been told much about him. The silence was deafening. I knew that he had blue eyes which is why he was nicknamed Blue and didn’t go by his name Loren. He liked motorcycles. He worked at the bag factory in the printing press. And he was a liar, which is why they were divorced. Meeting him would upset my mom and have unknown consequences.
I’m reminded of this short parable by Peter Rollins. An American was traveling the Irish countryside. He wanted to know how to get to Kerry, so he walked up to Farmer Sheamus. “How do I get to Kerry?” asked the American. “Well, I wouldn’t start here,” answered Farmer Sheamus.
I love that parable. I was a lot like Farmer Sheamus. I should meet my dad, but I wouldn’t start here. I’d have to be older, more mature, more ready. Maybe when I am somewhere else or when I am someone else, I can start toward my goal. But we can never do that. We will be where we are and who we are and we have to start there.
Every system loves stasis, the state of inactivity or equilibrium. We humans like to pretend that things have been the same for a long time. We like routine. We don’t like to be reminded that we are finite. We like novelty in small doses, like hearing all the standard Christmas classics with one “Grandma got Run over by a Reindeer” every three hours. If it’s all novelty, it’s not funny or fun. We want the stablity with a little change up everyone now and then.
This systemic stasis is called “Process Nihilism.” It means that we hate this process, but it’s better than the alternative. We might hate it, but at least we know what’s going to happen. If we change, then we don’t know what’s going to happen, and we just can’t have that.
We’re seeing this in the Middle East. We bomb you because you bombed us. When the world asks for peace, everyone throws up their hands and gets all offended. Notice I didn’t use names with this. It’s just the system that we’re trapped in. No need to wade into the weeds as this is what’s happening. We hate this process, but it’s better than the unknown of peace. People would stop dying, but we might find we’re wrong which would hurt our pride and we’d have to change… so let’s keep fighting the way we’re used to.
We see this between our two political parties. We are this party because we’re not that other party. We have candidates no one really likes, but them’s the breaks. We at least know what we’re getting with these guys versus some unknown who might be better, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. Process Nihilism is not something Jesus is interested in.
Matthew starts out his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” This would have been an emotionally charged declaration! Then Matthew lays it out in fourteen generation increments. This would have an emotional charge as well. Fourteen would be a series. It’s a double of seven which is the sabbath number, the number of God. In my Jewish Interpretation of Scripture class in seminary I learned that “the number 14 is said to be a sign of salvation, liberation, and release – it shows up in the bible when someone is given life-changing news or when someone is delivered to safety after a turbulent time.”
Fourteen generations from Abraham, the founder of the faith, to David, the greatest king. Fourteen more from David, whose descendant will be the messiah, to the deportation to Babylon, a massive event in Jewish history. Fourteen generations more from Babylon to Jesus. Salvation has come at last. We are free at last. We are released into this life-changing good news. It’s given to us three times, which we Christians know that number. The Trinity! God is doing something new in Jesus and the Spirit is on the move!
Joseph is the first to receive this good news. The first bit of dialogue in Matthew is from an angel of the Lord who said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” The phrase “Do not be afraid” appears a lot in the Gospels. It is a way to tamp down our process nihilism. Things are going to change, we have been released! Today salvation has come, and things are going to be different after this life-changing good news!
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem… which is the city of David to really drive home the point… wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all of Jerusalem with him. I love that line. King Herod loved process nihilism. He wasn’t a good king. He wasn’t even king at all, but a puppet of the Roman Empire. He got a nice palace and lots of people trying to win his favor. Then strangers show up asking for a king who is definitely not him… he felt threatened. These strangers interrupted the process. He became frightened and all of Jerusalem with him. Did Jerusalem like what was happening? No, but they at least knew the rules. With this new change it meant that they weren’t the hip city anymore. And what city was? Bethlehem? Blech. That ol’ backwater? Nothing good happened there since David who left there and came here! David put the temple on Mount Zion, not in his own city.
Indeed, things are going to change. We have a scientific term for things that don’t change: extinct. If things aren’t adapting to context, then they die out. If you adapt enough, you evolve. Evolution is a brute fact of science. The word “evolution” means, “change over time.” What Bowen Family Systems does is map out how your family changed over time, not just in genealogy but also emotionally. You discover the emotion around the names and their contribution to the whole.
I met my father at age 33. I was nervous, but after three classes on family systems I was no longer fearful. We met at a McDonalds in my hometown. The very same McDonalds where I went to the birthday parties with the hi-octane red juice. The very same that had the playground of railroad ties, it was all creosote and splinters; it’s a wonder we survived! What I found was not some monster, but a small man with a busted-up body who was more nervous to meet me than I him. Afterwards, I felt free of the anger and fear I had around him. I was liberated.
“We are more than our biography,” John O’Donohue used to say. We are the emotional system that we were raised in. When we recite our biographies, we are saying, ‘I am the product of my biography.’” While that is true, we might conjugate I am too solidly. I am is present tense, and we are constantly changing. We aren’t the same since we woke up. Things have happened and we’ve changed in very small ways. We aren’t evolutionary dead-ends. We are the incarnated essence of the most successful humans who have ever lived. Those who persevered, who brought children into the world (however imperfectly), adapted and changed. As poet Padraig O Tauma writes how we all began: “you began as the fusion of a sperm and an egg
of two people who once were strangers
and may well still be.”
Yet we are more than this. You are more than your biography. You are the inheritor of an emotional system. A system you can examine and then choose what you will keep. You have your own cast of characters who brought you to this point. Some known. Most not. There are emotions that have been handed to us through our story and genealogy. Sometimes on purpose, but mostly not. Jesus has this too. Through this worship series you will see why Jesus tells stories and has a mischievous streak like Abraham. How he teaches with authority from his royal lineage from King David. Why he sounds the way he does, acts the way he does, and is good news for all people. His background is full of risktakers and truth tellers; faithless and faithful people of so many times and places. Men and women who were perfectly imperfect and left their mark on the family system of the Christ child.
And you… you have your own family system. We each do. And we have been grafted onto this story of liberation and freedom and risk taking. A place where we can be connected to one another, yet also free to be the gifts God made us to be.
During this worship series, you’ll see pictures all over the walls. We’ll be using worship bulletins from the past. All to reveal our roots, for our church is also an emotional family system. One that prides itself on intelligence and expertise. Calm dignity and things in proper order. The lighted trees are symbols of the light that Bowen Family Systems can bring to us. To be illumined, enlightened, to find freedom within ourselves… well, that’s what Jesus came to do. To set free the captive.
We have three times the helping of salvation. Three times the helping of freedom. Three times the helping of God with us! Those chains you’ve carried for far too long, you can set aside. You’re not going to need them where we’re going. Don’t succumb to the process. You are a gift of God and beloved by God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 My 8th sermon was on family systems where these paragraphs originally appeared: https://www.uccmedina.org/sermons/bubble-forth/ and I followed it up with this one: https://www.uccmedina.org/sermons/mess/
 Facts of Life, from Sorry for your Troubles, page 7.