I’ve been reflecting on the nature of family this week in preparation for preaching a short series on the book of Ruth. I took a quick look at Merriam-Webster, and noticed something interesting. The first definition of family does not even mention biological relationship; rather, it is called “a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children, considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not. The annotation continues on down the page, biology enters the definition at subsection 4.
We all need the things that family is built to provide: unconditional love, nurture, safety, stability, belonging, connection, correction. Not all of us are lucky enough to have received these building blocks of life from the families to which we are born. And even if we are, the concept of intimate, trustworthy “social units” is much too important to only include those who are connected to us through biology.
I am blessed with a pretty fabulous family…only some of whom are biologically related. I have given birth to two amazing sons, Jonathan and Devin. I love them more than words could ever express. I am proud of the men they have become. They are that part of my heart that exists and walks outside my body. Wherever they are, my heart walks with them. Years ago, a quirky Cistercian monk named Theophane, asked me: “What have your children taught you?” I didn’t even hesitate, “unconditional love.” Jonathan married Michelle, who became the first daughter of the tribe. She is a very competent nurse, and promises that she will still love and take care of me when I am old and cranky, and I believe her.
My husband, Mike, became family through our marriage. He is the steadiness to my creative “starbursts” upon whom I can depend. He keeps me grounded. He helps me laugh. He teaches me that love doesn’t have to be perfect to be love. Justin became my son, because I married his dad. I loved him from the first day we met. He in turn married Jonah, who is a delight. From Jonah, our whole family has learned the power of expressing a happy moment with a simple and powerfully enthusiastic “Yay!”
Mike and I also have a daughter, Abbie. I met Abbie when she was a senior in High School. She is not ours by birth or adoption, but we belong to each other nonetheless. For a while, I thought I was helping Abbie to learn and grow what she needed to prepare for life. But, as is often the case, I have learned so much more from her, that I could have ever given. She is a phenomenal woman. We love her to the moon and back.
My sister Judy. Well. What can I say. She came into my life during my first full time appointment as a pastor. She has fed me, encouraged me, stuck with me, and been everything I could have ever wished a sister could be. Our relationship reminds me of the way some cats show up on the doorstep, and decide they have found home. Sometimes it has been me sitting on the porch, and sometimes it has been she.
My family continues to grow as the years pass. My tribe includes many of the folks who have been part of my life as a pastor over the past 20 years or so. Some are friends who chose to be present during some of the darkest moments of my life, those who I know would move heaven and earth to show up if I truly needed them. And those who know I would do the same for them. That is what the best kind of families do.
A few years ago, I was at a workshop where a presenter instructed pastors that if we wanted to grow our churches, we needed to stop referring to our congregations as “family.” Putting the family label on a congregation can inhibit growth. It sets up insiders and outsiders. The old guard become gate keepers, as the circle of intimacy keeps out those who are unaccustomed to “our way of doing things.” We often don’t even notice that we are doing it, declaring to all and sundry that our church is just one happy family. And what about those of us for whom the whole concept of family is toxic. If all you have ever known is a family that is dysfunction, judgmental, untrustworthy, why take a chance with “church” as one more opportunity to be betrayed? There is truth to both of these critiques.
I can totally understand the ambivalence that many folks have these days toward the church. I understand the cynicism and skepticism of our times, when we simply cannot trust that any institution, especially one with the kind of checkered reputation as the Christianity, could provide the kind of unconditional acceptance, safety, belonging and connection that we all need to thrive. But I still believe it to be true.
The church (with a little “c”) has been my family since I was nine years old. Even when I have been hurt by the church (big C and little c) it is the family to whom my heart still turns in times of stress and in times of joy. The church is my tribe. They are my people. They are my hope for the world.
It can get kind of messy—this business of creating God’s dream in the world—the “kin-dom” I like to call it. It is a big table, but about the time it looks like there is no more room, God tells us to scoot over and adds a few more chairs. (No cardboard tables in the other room.) If we get too squished, God will just make the table bigger. It is madness by the world’s standards. But I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
A family is many things,
Not bound by size or kin.
Each person’s gift a breath of spring,
God’s music can begin.
A dream, a voice, a smile, a prayer,
Together we are strong.
United, coming now to share,
In one accord God’s song.
To celebrate the gifts we bring,
The Christ in one we know,
We dare to hope, to laugh, to sing,
To praise, to dance, to grow.*
Blessings, dear family. May we live into God’s dream together. Pastor Nancy