(Be)longing for family

A dear friend of mine took a fall over the weekend. Because her short-term memory is increasingly absent, she has no memory of the fall or how long she lay on the floor before her sister who just happened to be in town for the weekend stopped in to see her. Turns out that no one at the assisted living center checked on her when she didn’t show up for breakfast with the rest of the residents. What’s more, a staff member who was charged with checking her blood sugar that morning just falsified the records and never family2showed up. Had her sister not been in town to check on her, it would have been several more hours before anyone showed up. She has a daughter and sons who live very nearby and who check on her frequently, but on a Saturday morning they all had other understandable obligations. So it was a sister from 200 miles away who was able to step in. My friend spent hours in the ER and was diagnosed with a broken or fractured foot.

As a pastor I learned that too often folks in skilled nursing facilities who do not have regular visits from family are easily ignored. With this incident, I found that folks with regular visits from family can easily be ignored too.

There’s no doubt that family is important. I have an older brother who I know depends on my weekly calls from 500 miles away and just gets excited when I or my husband and I make the journey several times a year to visit him and take him on outings. Like my friend, my brother lives in a group home and while things stay pretty routine for him, there are days that can accumulate into undesirable episodes when medications have run their distance for him and need an adjustment. I can tell by the sound of his voice on the phone when he is slipping into a need for some special medical attention and then I can take some action. But 500 miles away means I can’t always just drop in and check on his well-being. I have to put some faith in his caregivers and it too often feels like gambling. I find myself wishing that he had a friend who would drop by unannounced just to check on his well-being.

Yet it isn’t just the aging or the ill who require attention. How often when I have had a TV shopping network droning on in the background have I heard people phone in and share briefly their personal stories of loss and grief. They inevitably tell the hosts that the shopping channel is like a family for them; they have adopted these salespeople as though they are sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They spend more time with their television friends than they do with human beings who they can see in person, with whom they can laugh and cry.

family4I attended a church that prided itself on the numbers of families in it. I mean folks who were related by blood or marriage. That’s not so unusual in a small town. But what was curious to me was not only the fact that they bragged about their bloodlines in the church, but whenever an occasion like a potluck or fellowship gathering occurred, those blood relations could always be found sitting together, celebrating together, laughing together. They were oblivious to the fact that in maintaining their familial connections in worship and other church functions, they were shutting out anyone who might have wanted to join is their frivolity, let alone just sit close by. They had erected barriers all around them while still proclaiming what a friendly church it was. But it was only friendly to the extent that they were willing to invite an outsider into their familial clique. And it didn’t happen very often.

Oddly enough, Terry and I were invited into such a family gathering and on more than one occasion. They welcomed us and seemed to go to the extra effort to make us feel at home. So I was bowled over with surprise when their anger with me so boiled over that they announced to a host of others in the church, “We wined them and dined them” but I would not give in to their demands. Maybe bowled over doesn’t really size it up. I felt violated. I thought I had been invited into a family. I had no idea there were ulterior motives afoot. They expected some kind of payment for their hospitality.

familyTerry and I are a family of our own. We certainly aren’t a typical family found 50 years ago on television, on “Father Knows Best” or “Leave It to Beaver.” The definition of family has changed dramatically through those years yet many of us have failed to embrace those changes. If a family doesn’t look like our own, there must be something wrong with them. Or we do recognize the changes and do not want to embrace them so our walls go up even further and stronger to shut out those who are different from us.

I suppose my deliberations about family this week have a lot to do with a study I’m doing of the New or Second Testament book of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. This is, perhaps, the very first letter that Paul wrote to any of the new churches and I’m struck by the emphasis he puts on the family that has been created in these new churches and specifically in Galatia. Paul is really interested in breaking down the walls that divide Jewish Christians from Gentile Christians. There’s that old bugaboo about circumcision – some of the early Christians insisted that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to be Christians. And there’s that unclean thing from the Torah that directed that Jews were not to eat at the same table with Gentiles. Paul, while certainly not tossing out the Old or First Testament (and he was a Jewish Pharisee before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus), was adamant that hanging on to rules associated with protecting the Hebrew people hundreds of years in the past no longer applied to the new Christian fellowship. He repeatedly refers to these churches as family and, as such, they were to care for one another as if they were related by blood.

God promised Abraham that he would have a great family. And it was so. But Abraham had no idea that family would not all be Hebrews or Jews. God had something else in mind.

Even if we say we do not believe in God, in Christ, or any higher power, there are those who argue that we are all born with a conscience, with a sense of right and wrong (although I have to admit that I wonder about that sometimes). Certainly excluding others while we are so busy looking after and enjoying our own blood-kin is not right. We daily have people in our lives who we ignore or fail to acknowledge who are as surely related to us as human beings even if not by blood. They are our next door neighbors, the folks sitting with us in the pew every Sunday, people whose office adjoins our own. We take for granted that everyone is all right and then seem surprised when some incident arises that brings attention to the fact that they are not.

family3Yes, we need to look to our fellow human beings in Mexico. We should keep ourselves from being inoculated to the sufferings of refugees on the other side of the world who are seeking freedom from persecution and death in places like Syria. We should not ignore the sufferings of those we do not know.

But just as much, we should not ignore the loneliness, the needs of those right in front of us. We should be as family whether they are lonely or not.

I’ve long heard the expression, “blood is thicker than water.” That’s so true. And family – a family that loves one another – is so important. But there’s a real danger in honoring and caring only for those who are traditionally our family. We not only cut others out, we cut ourselves off from being part of the human family. And, like it or not, even some families related by blood are better left apart than together. Being part of the larger human family is even more important for them.

In my book and experience, the human family as found in friendships, organizations, churches, is the one that is truly changed by its honoring of one another, by its invitation into fellowship with one another, by its acknowledgement that Father Abraham’s family is a whole lot different than what he had in mind when he first got that promise from God.

Blood is thicker than water only to the extent that those related by blood really love each other. We need to be open to something even more exceptional than blood-kin. Our family should be more far-reaching, more diverse, more open to new ideas than an insulated group of people with the same last name.


For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” —Galatians 5:13-14

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