From many years of research in psychology we have learned that who we are, our particular combination of beliefs and habits and preferences and just plain quirks, is a combination of genetics and our upbringing in our family. We know that children reared in the same family can be, and often are, very different. Children simply arrive with certain personalities. But we also know that how we are raised makes a difference.
For example, one of the most fascinating books I have read in recent years is A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne. She is an educator who taught in different places in the country and began to notice similarities in the students she taught, according to their family’s economic status. What she eventually discovered is that the three broad classes in this country, the poor, the middle class, and the wealthy, each have rules they live by. For example, one of the rules of the middle class is that you work toward retirement. You save up for years so that you hope you will have a comfortable number of years after you quit work. A rule of the wealthy is that you conserve and build your assets, so that they can be passed on to the next generation. Her conclusion is that in order to move up to another class, you have to learn their rules.
A rule if you live in poverty is that you live day by day. When I read that the light bulb went off for me. When we get calls from people asking for help with rent or a utility bill, I ask when it is due. Most of the time the answer is, tomorrow. And I always thought, why didn’t they call a week ago? The answer is, because no one has ever taught them to think that far into the future. All they have ever known is, live a day at a time. It’s a great book, and we have a couple of copies in the library if you’re interested.
The point is, what we learn from our family makes a difference, a lot of difference, whatever our genetic makeup happens to be. Our families teach us important life lessons, which help us navigate our way through the world. They teach us values and what is appropriate and what is not, and at least give us clues about how to handle what comes our way.
My family, back a generation, is a tale of two families. My father was the youngest of six children, spread out over more than twenty years. He had one brother, after whom I am named, and four sisters. From the stories I heard, it was quite the collection of people in his immediate family. For example, my father told me that on one occasion his mother kept after him to clean up his room and put things where they belonged. Apparently he was unsuccessful in doing so, at least to his mother’s satisfaction, such that one day he came home and found a number of his belongings scattered around the front yard.
Because my father was the youngest, I only ever knew his brother and one sister, and both of them died when I was very young. I do remember going to my uncle’s funeral and meeting Shug Jordan. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, dad was from Alabama, and Auburn University’s football stadium is named Jordan-Hare Stadium, in part after long-time coach Shug Jordan. The aunt I knew was an interior decorator. Another aunt was an accomplished musician, and one attended what was then Randolph Macon College here in Lynchburg.
On the other side of the coin was my mother’s family. She was an only child. Somewhere along the line she became the most extroverted member of my immediate family, but when she and dad were first married, she told me how intimidated she was being around his family. Apparently there was not a wallflower in dad’s bunch, and she said it was a bit overwhelming for her, coming from an environment of just herself and her parents.
In my generation, it was just the four of us. And my brother is nine years my senior. So when I was nine he went off to college, and he went a long way away. It was not until I was in college, and we ended up living only about an hour from each other, that I really got to know him. After that he served churches – he’s also a Disciples of Christ minister, now retired – in northern Kentucky, Chattanooga, Tennessee, Dallas, and Lexington, Kentucky. During all that time there were only a couple of years when we lived close to each other, so our time together was very hit and miss.
Where I’m headed with all of this is to say that a: family is very important, and b: in my case I have taken very seriously the notion of church as family. I don’t think talking about church as family is a hard sell here at TCC. On a fairly regular basis I hear our folks saying they appreciate the fact that we are not a huge congregation, which helps us feel more connected. Incidentally, we are medium size, in comparison to all churches in America. Half of all churches in this country have less than seventy-five people in worship on a usual Sunday. Every so often someone notes that sometimes we do get disconnected from those who regularly attend whichever other service we don’t attend. I agree that we probably need more all-church events. So mark your calendars for July 15, for an all-church picnic from four to seven, sponsored by our men’s group. Rain date is the following Sunday.
Let me quickly say, however, that I’m not sure having a family feeling in a congregation is always directly related to its size. There can be, and are, very small congregations which have a dysfunctional family feeling. And I suspect there are megachurches where the participants do feel like family. I have said before and hope I will say a number of times again, congregational size is not the issue when it comes to church. Mission, carrying on the work of Jesus, helping complete the reign of God on earth, is the issue for a congregation, whether there are twenty in worship or twenty thousand. It may be nice that we know a lot of people in our church and have friends here, but neither nice nor friendship is our calling. Following Jesus is our calling.
Let’s let Jesus weigh in on this. In Luke’s gospel he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Those last ones may not be all that surprising, but we get the picture. What he’s talking about is that some people will believe in him and some will not, even in the same household. And they’re just going to have to deal with that.
In today’s story some people say to Jesus, your family is looking for you. He responds, “Who are my mother and my brothers?…Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” In some ways it’s kind of hard to go to Jesus for what we often call “family values,” isn’t it? We do know that Jesus cares for his mother, even from the cross, when, according to John’s gospel, he sees her and the “disciple whom he loved” and says to her, “Woman, here is your son.”
But in general, we get the distinct impression that those closest to Jesus are not his biological family but his followers. That is what he says, in so many words, in today’s text. In fact, he makes it sound even broader than his followers. He says his family is “whoever does the will of God.” Interesting.
So what values, attitudes, habits do we as the church need to be teaching? If you are a part of the Christian family, or the TCC family, what should be our family values?
Funny you should ask. The Elders are beginning to look at our mission, vision, core values and bedrock beliefs, and ask if we as a congregation need to give them a look-see. It has been some years since we developed them, and while we try to put our mission and vision out front as much as possible, we haven’t done as good a job with our values and beliefs. So this very afternoon the Elders are going to have some discussion around that topic.
Meanwhile, Jesus wants us to keep in mind that we are all part of God’s family. All of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. All of us who try to do the will of God. All of us who believe that the reign of God on earth really can come. All of us who are created in the image of God. All of us. All of us.
Jesus tends to draw circles of inclusion rather than circles of exclusion. Over and over again he heals, welcomes, has conversations with people who were normally left out of polite company in his day. Over and over again he says yes, you are loved by God, to women and foreigners and tax collectors and people whose disease or condition kept them out of contact with others. Over and over Jesus says, we are God’s family. All of us. We are God’s family. Amen.