Families. In our culture they are what we lift up as the original building block of civilization, the sacred organism that makes us what and who we are. Whether you are socialist or a capitalist the long game of your strategy for civil society are better, happier and more prosperous families. And the same is apparently true for religions, that it all starts in the home, how religion is taught, lived out, and understood. When I help a family plan a funeral the focus is often on the family itself, what the mother or father did to raise their children, how they were a refuge and source of wisdom to their grandchildren, the joy they took in their “family”.
But as I have leaned into the Christian faith deeper and deeper I have found the relationship between Christianity as practiced and taught by its founder Jesus and the way we understand family today to be somewhat problematic. I remember serving my first pastoral charge, there were these very zealous Christians who taught that there was the world and there was the faithful. They included family with the “world” and because they were religious conservatives they used language of heaven and hell to put a fine point on the endgame of this journey. On one level I knew their nostalgia and focus on duty and honour in society would be well received by these rural and conservative communities. But I also knew the limits of the reach this religious community would have into the town. Sure enough the first time there was a death and the religious community told the town that the loved ones who had passed on in previous generations were all going to hell because they had not accepted Jesus as personal Saviour that religious community was done. The locals, putting all of this in their own frame of reference, would not tolerate any talk of old and loveable Uncle Peter going to hell.
But even in more liberal and left-leaning expressions of Christian faith like mine there is a problematic relationship between family and faith. I have often quoted the well-known preacher, writer and Bishop William Willimon in his story about baptism and discipleship: "One day he received a phone call from a very irate father. The father exploded on the other end of the line, telling Willimon furiously, ’I hold you personally responsible for this!’ He was angry because his graduate-school-bound daughter had decided (in his words) ’to throw it all away and go and do mission work in Haiti with the Presbyterian Church. The father screamed, ’Isn’t that absurd! She has a B.S. degree from Duke and she is going to dig ditches in Haiti! I hold you responsible for this!’ Willimon said, ’Why me?’ The father said, ’You ingratiated yourself and filled her with all this religion stuff.’ Will Willimon is not easily intimidated. He asked the father, ’Sir, weren’t you the one who had her baptized?’ ’Well, well, well, yes.’ ’And didn’t you take her to Sunday School when she was a little girl?’ ’Well, well, yes.’ ’And didn’t you allow your daughter to go on those youth group ski trips to Colorado when she was in high school?’ ’Yes . . . but what does that have to do with anything?’ ’Sir, you are the reason she is throwing it all away. You introduced her to Jesus. Not me!’ ’But,’ said the father, ’all we wanted was a Presbyterian.’ Willimon, who has an instinct for the jugular, replied, ’Well, sorry, sir, you messed up. You’ve gone and made a disciple.’"
So churches that use terms like “we are a family church!” and images on their website of two parents and 2.5 children, all smiling as they huddle at a nearby beach, have to wrestle with a founder who said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Further at a critical point in Jesus’ story he tells his mother that his family are those connected and committed to his movement. Ouch!
The relationship between family and faith is much more complicated and challenging than most churches let on. Deeper forms of faith lead to choices and decisions that challenge the mantra of “family first”. Families are the organism that introduces us to love, unconditional love, and put us on a pathway to good mental health and healthy relationships (hopefully!). But moving forward how to sort out what we believe and who we are brings our believe system and values into more focus and thus creates challenges. I am NOT someone who thinks in terms of heaven and hell, of people being “outside” the reach of God’s love. That is so NOT me. I would never be part of the religious communities who preach that message in the larger world. BUT I do think we are called in our life to find purpose and mission and live that out in an authentic way, meaning touch choices in our relating to others; institutions, family and even country.
Jesus helps us get there but it is not a journey he ever promised would be easy.