You’re not alone. All families are messy. That’s the nature of family. It’s a lot to untangle.

I almost titled this post, How to Untangle Your Big Family Messes, but then I thought better of it. The truth is, it isn’t actually ON you to untangle the mess that is your extended family. And it isn’t necessarily anyone else’s responsibility, either.

I recently went fly-fishing for the first time while staying at The Refuge in Montana. I wound up in a boat with my friend, Nick, and our guide, Isaac, one of the most patient guys I’ve ever met. Isaac tried repeatedly to explain how to cast the line, mend the line, and set the hook. Over and over, he’d remind me that I needed to use my wrist less, mend more smoothly, and “set” in the very instant something happened to the indicator.

I eventually caught a white fish, the only species indigenous to the Little Bighorn River. When Isaac netted it for me and took it off the line so I could take a picture (below), the fish pooped on him. It was green and weird and awkward. But Isaac replied that it was “all part of the experience.”

Brandon Cox and a White Fish

In a single day of fishing, I probably tangled up my line at least a dozen times by whipping and thrashing it back and forth in an attempt to cast it. I’ll just say that it looked nothing like the fishing poetry on display in the movie, A River Runs Through It. And every time, Isaac would say, “Let me help you with that,” and magically untangle my line so I could cast again and get back to fishing.

I wish big family messes were that easy. From divorces and affairs to addiction, mental illness, and crimes and misdemeanors, wouldn’t it be nice to have one person responsible for untangling it all, and even explain it all to us so we could understand why each person acted in the ways they did?

This is probably the moment when you think I’m going to say something like:

Good news! God is your guide! The Bible is your instruction manual! And with these X number of verses, you can sort it all out and get everyone back on track toward holiness, healthiness, and happiness again!

But I’ve walked with Jesus for a while now and I know that our suffering isn’t so easily scripted as if it were a movie where everything wraps up nicely with a bow by the end.

Sometimes, there isn’t anyone around who can untangle the biggest of family messes. Sometimes, it’s simply not up to you to fix it all or to hold everything together.

Sometimes, it isn’t about how to fix it, but rather, how to bear it.

The very first book of the Bible, Genesis, details the account of the family under Jacob. He has twelve sons, plus several daughters, and things are messy from the start. They never really get cleaned up. There are affairs with children from several different parents all blended together. One kid has to rescue another from being murdered by the siblings only to watch him get sold into slavery.

Eventually, they reunite, and after doing so, the patriarch of the family dies. Things stay messy. The trust issues continue for decades and, when the brother with the upper hand (Joseph) is close to death, the other brothers want some assurances that vengeance won’t be visited upon them.

But years before Joseph’s death, he had given his once estranged brothers this reassurance:

God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God… and he kissed all  his brothers and wept upon them…

~ Genesis 45:15 NRSV

Rather than giving us easy answers and four steps to follow to fix it all, Joseph just gives us a model to follow in which we trust that the story is BIGGER than we’d imagined. He shows us that God is working behind the scenes to weave together all of history for the betterment of mankind rather than simply for the comfort of one single person, or even one generation.

And that, perhaps, is the point. While we can’t fix all of our big family messes, we can determine that we, in our generation, will learn from the past and do better for our kids. We’ll trust that God is at work in a longer-term picture than we’d imagined. And we’ll believe that future generations can have it better when we decide to do better.

There isn’t a simple formula for fixing all the big family messes. Rather, there is the encouragement that we can alter the trajectory of our own lives, and the lives of those under our care, to make the future better than the past.

That’s my goal today – to offer my kids a Dad who is committed to making their future better than my past. Perhaps that’s the very best thing we can do in a single generation.