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I was in late elementary school – the years when one is old enough to recognize that hardships exist in life but young enough to think the world was all about me.
My mother had a close friend whom she had met in her single’s group at church, and this friend had a teenager.
The teenager was doing what many teenagers do – rebelling against parents.
The teen was in legal trouble, and the only way my mother’s friend could have her child home for Christmas was if another adult stayed with them.
My mother decided that should be us.
So, my mother, brother, sister, and I stayed with this conflictual mother and teen one Christmas eve.
Remember, I said I was young enough to think the world was about me.
I could not believe that my mother would do such a thing.
I slept in a sleeping bag on a cold, hard floor instead of my warm, comfy
There was no joy in waking up and seeing presents under the tree, as ours were at our house.
The night whispering with my siblings about Christmas morning was replaced with a dark unfamiliar place with a teen and parent struggling to communicate.
Nothing magical happened, and there was no great reconciliation of the teen and parent that evening or the next morning.
It was a quiet, awkward night where many wished they were somewhere else.
To me, it was the worse Christmas ever.
As I have grown, and hopefully matured, I now see this encounter differently.
Looking back, I see how my mother’s Sunday School class – a group of people of diverse ages, genders, and experiences – shared acts of unselfish love with each other and others in the community on a regular basis.
A paid electric bill here, a bag of groceries there, a shoulder to cry on, or a companion for a difficult doctor’s visit.
I remember helping people clean their houses, babysit, or anything else that needed to be done.
There was nothing glamorous about what they did for each other, nothing announced for others to know what they did, no news stories about “random acts of kindness”, or even lectures from my mother about why we were doing what we were doing – she just did it and brought us along.
To truly bring our best to all relationships, Dr. Murry Bowen, creator of Bowen Family Systems Theory, encouraged people to work at the cut-offs in their immediate and extended families.
For many people, the thought of doing this immediately increases anxiety, depression, and/or a host of other symptoms.
There is too much hurt, pain, and despair. How does healing begin?
What turns the tides of waves from cut-off to reconciliation, from despair to hope, from loss to life?
For many it is an act of unselfish love that provides the first glimmer.
This glimmer may not be life altering, but it is the spark that helps one to see that there is another way.
There is a saying that we hurt in relationships, and we heal in them.
It is in these relationships and/or being a recipient of such acts that can give one the courage to go back into difficult relationships and dare to dream that something can be different.
Joseph’s story does not end with his brothers selling him into slavery, the Prodigal son did not leave to never return, and the Good Samaritan does not pass by a man from a people group who had abused his people group.
Their stories did not end with despair.
We have seen an abundance of despair in 2020.
Just as we think it could not possibly get worse – it does.
Instead of this driving us together, it has divided us.
From toilet paper to politics to masks wearing, we seeing people choosing a side.
Some of this is natural.
In time of crisis, animals often herd together to protect the group.
It is an instinctual trait to survive that has existed since the beginning of time – and that exists in the natural world – animals and humans alike.
We want to survive.
And while there is nothing wrong with this per se, how does this drive us to selfishness?
How does this create an atmosphere of us versus them?
How does it divide us?
Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Sarah and Hagar, Pharisees and Sadducees, Peter and Paul… – it does not take much.
What does it mean to give or receive an act of unselfish love in a time such as this?
What are the values and principles that guide how we treat one another as God’s children?
And how can we remember these during these difficult times?
My mother is still friends with her friend, and that friend and her now adult child have a great relationship.
I am not saying that one Christmas night helped that to occur.
Nonetheless, I often reflect upon this Sunday School class.
To what extent did their acts of unselfish love for each other and our community provide healing, hope, and/or a practice arena to function differently in other difficult relationships.
I do not imagine it was easy for Joseph to see his brothers years later, or for the Prodigal son to return home, or for the Good Samaritan to help a person from a people group who persecuted his – yet they all did it.
I am forever grateful for this group for many reasons, but particularly because this is where I witnessed unselfish love in action.
May we all have the courage to love a little more unselfishly even when it is hard, inconvenient, and not published on social media.
Who knows what this can do for one’s own being, another person, families, and society at large for many generations to come?
Vanessa M. Ellison, MSW, MDiv. is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Richmond, Virginia. She currently works as a Bowen Theory Psychotherapist and Coach at Richmond Therapy Center.
She also serves on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry clergy training program at the Center for Lifelong Learning. Vanessa has clinical experience providing individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy and community-based services and ministerial experience serving local congregations, missional settings, and non-profit organizations.
Vanessa M. Ellison, LCSW, MSW, MDiv can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to know more about how you can be a leader that utilizes guiding principles and values to help your ministry, family, and/or life, I encourage you to check out the Leadership In Ministry
workshops also offered through CTS CLL at www.ctsnet.edu/lifelong-learning/postgraduateprograms/leadership-in-ministry/