Church as Family: A Reflection on Christmas Week Part 1

One of the major questions facing Christianity in the West within our current post-Christendom context is, “What is the Church?” As we are continually pushed to the margins of society the question many of us are asking revolves around the nature and reality of this community called the Church. This question has been in my mind for awhile now and reflecting on my family’s Christmas had it bouncing around both my head and my heart.

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This past Christmas was a rather hectic, yet great, time. My wife, three daughters, and I traveled to the perennially sought after Christmas vacation spot: Cleveland, Ohio. It is my wife’s hometown and is where a good majority of her family still lives.

We always stay with my mother-in-law in her 1 level, 1100 square foot ranch in the ‘burbs of Cleveland. Ever since my wife and I began dating, which is about 10 years ago now, this house has served as our lodging when in town. While we were recently there, we reminisced about the days when we’d show up without any children and actually sleep. And then we’d see friends without any children and stay out late. Now we all have children, don’t sleep, and don’t stay out late. Quite a bit has changed.

The majority of our week was spent with the entirety of my wife’s siblings and their burgeoning families. Nearly every day was spent was with a total of 21 people in my mother-in-law’s house: 9 adults, 12 children from the ages of 2 months to 13 years old. Needless to say, we could have easily turned the heat off and had plenty of heat to spare. The night of Christmas we took our large cohort to my wife’s uncle’s house where we joined in the extended family’s Christmas party. 45-50 people in all ate, played, and laughed at the White Elephant gift exchange.

Brother, sisters, wives, husbands, aunt, uncles, cousins, moms and dads. All under one roof experiencing the joy and difficulties of an extended stay with and among each other as an extended family. Maybe you had a similar experience.

“This is what church should be like” echoed over and over in my soul. “This is what we were made for.”

Here are 4 areas I was reminded of as to why it is imperative for the Church to remember our identity as family:

1. Within family, the individual “me” and “my” find their proper place within the communal “us” and “our.

Our society has been characterized as one with deep individualistic tendencies. Nearly everything we do – including our faith decisions – has the potential of being done with only the self in mind because of the individualistic trajectory we have been put. Our fright of institutions becomes (somewhat) alleviated through the manipulative twist of seeing what we can get out of said institution, rather than what we bring to the table. The suiting of my needs trumps all else.

I was reminded over Christmas that me and my family only make sense within the family we find ourselves a part of. The “me” and the “my” find their proper place within the communal “us” and “our.” My children are not solely mine. Within the family community, they are my sister-in-law’s nieces, my mother-in-law’s granddaughters, my nephews’ cousin. They are suddenly “ours” as we love them together and seek their flourishing. We are all responsible as we journey through life together.

And this goes both ways. My brother-in-law’s kids are suddenly within my domain of responsible love as well. The decisions I would normally consider to be just mine and only effect me, now become decisions that effect us all. If I constantly decide to angrily respond to my daughter, it takes a toll on my niece who overheard me time and time again. The interconnectedness of relational life smacks us in the face in family.

The same goes for my possessions. While together, my older sister-in-law gave us a few garbage bags full of clothes. They were at one time her daughters’ clothes, but they were now ours. And by “ours” I don’t mean “my wife and I.” In a real way, they are now ours, meaning the family’s and those we will pass them onto someday. More likely than not, this will mean my wife’s younger sister who has a daughter younger than our girls. In family, the consumeristic drive is more easily set aside as we think beyond ourselves and unto others we share life with. We aren’t primarily consumers, we are co-laborers.

2. Within family, life emerges in the beautiful tension between the organic and the organized.

Some of the best times we had took place in impromptu conversations, card games, and quick trips out to the store. Some of the best times we had took place in scheduled times of gift giving, meals, and larger gatherings. In my experience, there have been those who have sought after the purely “organic” experience, thinking that life happens (nearly) exclusively in times of unscheduled happenstance. Others have attempted to painstakingly arrange their lives in ways that there is no margin for anything other than the “organized” to occur.

Yet, life seems to emerge in the tension between the two. Even the plant needs the tressel and the body needs the skeleton. The gentle weaving of the two allowed us to engage each other in ways that bring out particular things. In more formal, organized times we were able to cook and eat together in ways that only my wife’s side of the family can. My brother-in-law cooked much of the Christmas dinner in a way he learned from my (former chef) father-in-law. Watching him gave us the opportunity to ask questions and listen in ways that wouldn’t happen while shoveling the driveway. Interspersed within these times were the laughs, jokes, and remembrances that continued to join our hearts together. And this is what family does: forms a life of shared love.

3. Within family, the fruit of slow, patient, rootedness is easily seen.

One of the commonly unseen or unrecognized essentials of family is time. We don’t often think about it because it is commonly such a given that it passes right in front of us. I know I rarely ponder the past 30 years of my life being spent within my family and yet I have spent the total of this time among them.

It has been this slow, unrecognized rootedness within my family of origin and the past 10 or so years within my wife’s family that I have seen growth and fruit. It is only that which we stick with and tie ourselves to that we see grow. This is a constant complaint from many: they don’t see the “return” on “investment” with people. I have seen this to be true primarily with those who haven’t made the sacrificial or intentional decisions to stay with others. And, again, family reminds of this as we see how everyone grows throughout the years. My nieces and nephews who were wild toddlers are now tweens who lovingly help with our toddlers.

Time with each other is an intentional choice made for the sake of community.

4. Within family, the covenantal nature of the world overcomes its contractual counterpart.

Ours is a world desperately trying to present itself as primarily contractual in nature instead the reality of it being covenantal.

If time is one side of the coin, the other is commitment. It is what keeps us in the long haul over time. Undergirding commitment is the potency of our promise-making and keeping. It doesn’t take very much living of life in our current society to see the anemic condition of promises and the ill effects of their breaking. Every society and community throughout history has been tied together through the making and subsequent keeping of promises.

It is the covenanting of two or more separate people together and then maintaining those vows that allows for families and other communities to perpetuate. Promises flow in both directions as all involved give up something from themselves for the betterment and continuation of the community. Combined with the long range, big picture of needed time, commitment and promise-making are the cement of family and community.

Christine Pohl differentiates between covenantal and contractual relationships in her book Living Into Community:

When we think covenantally about promises, we tend to locate our promises in a larger story and in mutual accountability. Covenantal understandings of promising reflect a set of shared commitments and rarely have exit clauses. Contracts, on the other hand, deliberately define the relationship narrowly, and, once obligations are fulfilled, the exchange is complete – it’s finished. In covenantal settings, relationships are extended and deepened. Covenants tend to be comprehensive and vulnerable in ways that contracts are not.

When we find our identity through the lens of consumerism, we are extremely prone to see relationships as contractual. We get what we need out of them or they are over. When tough times come and disagreements abound, our contractual mindset often overrides the covenantal realities of life and we easily move on. This is true not only in dating/marital relationships, but in many, many other areas of life, unfortunately, including issues of faith and faith communities.

Sitting with my family brought up the power of promises and covenant. Seeing through difficult patches, battling addictions from yesteryear, and worry about what the effects the present will have on the future are present in my family as they are in everyone’s. I am beyond thankful for the continuing, abiding commitment present within this group of people.

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This has been a reflection on the Church and family. In my next post I’ll give a more theological and biblical look at how Jesus started a community which he envisioned as family and how we can begin to recapture that today. Moreover, I’ll wrestle with the 4 points above and the Church’s expression of each of them.

Until then…

When you think of “church”, what is the primary metaphor you use? Church is ________.

In what ways to wish church could be more like family?

The community Jesus centered around him was to be family. How does this hit you?

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