Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd March 24, 2019
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
What does family look like? Our modern society has been built on the foundation of the nuclear family but this type of family is a relatively new development in human history. Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, extended families split up as parents and children began moving to the cities, which initiated the rise of the nuclear family.
Here’s a few 2016 stats about what families look like these days in Canada—some of which are a bit surprising to me. First, the nuclear family is now decreasing in number. The most common family unit is a single-person household, reflecting our aging, widowed population, an increase in separation and divorce, and economic independence for those who are single. The number of couples without children is growing faster than those with children. The fastest growing household is now multigenerational, meaning households that include at least three generations of the same family. This type of household is more common amongst Indigenous communities and recent immigrants. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of same-sex couples increased more rapidly than the number of opposite-sex couples. All of these stats suggest that we’re now living in the age of the postmodern family—families that come in all shapes and sizes.
What were Jesus’ views on the family? You might be surprised. We know that he was not a family man. A few decades ago, I tried to apply to a rural Manitoba church and was told, “We’re just looking for a family man.” I wonder how Jesus would have fared in their application process? Jesus would sometimes shun his own family. When his mother, brothers and sisters came looking for him one day, he told the crowd, “Who are my mother, brothers and sisters? Here they are”, referring to the crowd. “Those who do the will of God are my family.” Another time, he commended his disciples for leaving their families to follow him, “for there is no one who has left house, or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news who will not receive a hundredfold…in this age…and in the age to come.” He even 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.”
We don’t usually look at those verses. So what do they mean? Most commentators suggest priorities. We cannot focus only on our own kin, but are called to look beyond at those who also need care, and consider them part of our family.
I attended a service at Etz Chayim synagogue a few years ago. At one point in the service, families were asked to hold a cloth as a tent over their heads and invite those who were part of their family to stand underneath. I was a bit nervous, not knowing what to do, when a friend motioned to me and invited me to stand under their tent. Family was not limited to kin.
Our gospel lesson addresses family in the broad sense. Jesus knows that his days on earth are numbered. He is warned that Herod wants to kill him and he laments over this violent threat and the destiny of Jerusalem as a place of death for prophets who dare to call the people back to God. Tears begin to roll down his cheeks as he mourns this hopelessness of violence. He then tenderly cries, “Jerusalem, O Jerusalem! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
I am reminded of the tent at the synagogue, when we gathered as chicks squished together to make room for all under the protective cloth.
There are many who have lost connection with their birth family—many more than we might realize. As I conduct funerals, I am saddened by how many family members are estranged. Funerals can be a time of joyous reunion even in the midst of grief, but they can also be incredibly tense. We can do our best at trying to bring healing and reconciliation to our families, but we also need to let go of what cannot be healed, and that is incredibly difficult. Sometimes children, spouses, or siblings leave their family for a variety of reasons and healing means accepting what cannot be changed.
The Traditional Teachings of Indigenous communities tell us that the entire community is responsible for the welfare of the children. It does indeed take a village to raise a child. When some families struggle, it is up to the community to support them. Some communities now have a policy that if parents cannot uphold their responsibilities, they are the ones who are removed from the home—not their children. The community then cares for the children in their home while the parents are expected to work on their issues.
Sandy Saulteaux Spiritual Centre, the United Church school for Indigenous ministry, is starting something called the Family Reunification Program. They will provide housing, programming and counselling for families where the parenting is breaking down. They will all live together for 3-6 months in a little village of cabins while they work with elders on holistic healing. This may offer a far better success rate at keeping families together in healthy patterns, while still offering protection for the children.
Chosen family is another form of family that is particularly important for those who distanced from their family of origin. It can also be a great familial supplement to healthy families. The church community is chosen family for all of us. Like a hen gathering all who need a place of refuge, chosen family tucks an odd array of us under her wing. One of the things that I hope to learn from other churches on my sabbatical is how we can be better at being chosen family for one another. How can we provide a supportive community for every one who walks through those doors?
Even in chosen families, though, relationships can fall apart. People change, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, and change affects relationships. How can we, as chosen family, respond to changing relationships within our congregation? How can we offer support for all parties in a conflict? How do we say goodbye as well as hello? Are there rituals we can offer for endings as well as beginnings?
A Saskatchewan singer writes that family are the ones who pull you through. Sometimes it takes more than one person. In a community of chosen family, we’re able to take turns pulling each other through as able. It’s a tricky balance—one that I’m still trying to learn—of tag team support and self-care.
Being chosen family for one another is not easy. It takes God’s wisdom and compassion to know how we can best support one another with our diverse needs and gifts. We will make mistakes, we will give too much of ourselves and we will not give enough. All we can do is to keep trying to hold that blanket of love over one another, as we all stand under God’s protective wings.
In the words of Walter Farquharson,
“Let us reach beyond the boundaries of our daily thought and care
till the family you have chosen spills its love out everywhere.
Help us learn to love each other with a love that constant stays;
Teach us when we face our troubles love’s expressed in many ways.”
 Mark 3:31-35; 10:29-30; Luke14:26
 Walter Farquharson, “Would You Bless Our Homes and Families”, Voices United Hymn 556, vs. 4.