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Healing a Broken World

Reconciling with Family

K DerksenScripture: John 19:25-27

I have a small scar right on the side of my left eye.  I got it when I was seven or eight, I think.  I was walking from my bedroom into the kitchen of my family home.  My Dad happened to be washing the dishes just then, and was in the process of drying a frying pan.  He was holding the pan by the handle, and began turning with it across the kitchen doorway towards the cupboard where it belonged.  Well, turns out arm level for him was about eye level for me.  He caught me with a pretty good swing just as I stepped into the kitchen, and left a nice gash beside my eye.  Next came the trip to the hospital.  Dad was pretty quiet on the drive, and to his credit did not prompt or coach me on what to say when we got there.  I saw a nurse who patched me up, and then asked the inevitable question: “So, how did you get this cut?”  I responded with the inevitable answer: “My dad hit me with a frying pan.”  The nurse gave him kind of a funny look, to which he just sort of shrugged.  Yup, that’s what happened...  Fortunately, no further questions were asked.  I’m not sure if would have gotten off so easily now 25 years later.

In his sermon a couple of weeks ago, Mark invited us into the process of reconciling with ourselves by thinking about the different scars we carry with us.  We all have baggage and we all have wounds that we’ve picked up along the way.  Some physical, some emotional or psychological or spiritual, and no doubt some that are all of the above.  I’m grateful that the scar beside my eye is really just a physical mark and not anything deeper.

But whatever our scars, we come up with elaborate ways of protecting ourselves from the pain or the fear that we’ve experienced.   And most of the time these defense mechanisms aren’t especially healthy.  They cut off or hide parts of ourselves.  They build walls that get in the way of our relationships with other people and with God.  Most of us will spend the whole of our lives dealing with these wounds and defenses in different ways.  These scars that mark and shape our lives.

Well, I don’t think it’s news to any of us that a whole lot of the scars we carry through life have to do with our families.  Early experiences of family life, of childhood homes, of parents and siblings and broader networks have a huge impact on the people we become.  The same goes for later experiences of marriage or children or whatever communities we might surround ourselves with as adults.  Families, and family dynamics are just plain complicated.  Every family has its oddities, its conflicts, its secrets and its pain. 

For some, the scars of family are deep and profound and traumatic.   We know that violence and abuse does happen within family systems, and it probably touches more people than we realize.  And we have to acknowledge that in many cases over the years, churches and faith communities have not responded to these situations well.  Stories kept quiet, blind eyes turned, victims blamed, powerful people left unchallenged.  For some, the idea of reconciliation with family means diving into some deep and dark waters where these kinds of histories lurk in silence.  We have to be sensitive and careful as we talk about this.

But even for those of us with family stories that, thank God, do not include this kind of violence or abuse, there is no doubt still work to be done.  Family relationships are always complex and messy, and they shape us in all sorts of ways.  How could it be otherwise, since families are often the people that we live with and share life with.  They’re the people who have seen the good, the bad and the ugly in us.  We’re connected with our families by bonds of birth, or commitment, or shared experience.  We really are stuck with our families, and these relationships will keep on having a role in our lives.

As of this weekend, Pam and I have now spent 10 years in Ontario after growing up and getting married in Winnipeg.  10 years at a pretty good distance from our families.  When we first left, it did sort of feel like we were running away.  We both had family in Winnipeg, and Pam in particular had a lot of family in Winnipeg.   We also had a church community and a bunch of friends from different places and part-time jobs we were holding down while we finished up our university programs.  We felt pulled in too many directions and unable to keep up with everyone and everything.  No matter what we did, it felt like we were always disappointing somebody.  We wanted to get out, to start a life with fewer expectations and fewer people to keep up with. 

Well, we certainly did that.  We spent a summer in Toronto before moving to Hamilton for school, and suddenly found ourselves alone and adrift.  We discovered that being grown-ups in a new place was harder than we thought – especially when things start to go wrong, as they did in those first few months.  Fortunately, we made a bunch of new friends and really did settle into a life we enjoyed in Hamilton.  So much so, that when I was done my program there we weren’t so keen to move back to Winnipeg.  It seemed more important to stay close to friends in the area than go back to family.  So we followed some leads and ended up here at St. Jacobs. 

Of course, as it turned out, we moved to Kitchener and Pam immediately became pregnant with our first child.  Charlie came along by the end of that first year here, and we realized our foolishness.  There we were as brand-new parents, with the realization sinking in:  Ok – so maybe family is more important than we thought.  Where’s Grandma when you need her??   Fortunately, both of our kids’ Grandmas have been very good about visiting, and we’ve made our share of trips out to Winnipeg over the years too.  And 10 years after leaving, we’re still here without any plans of moving back. 

But we do wonder sometimes – are we still running away?  If we’re honest, there certainly are things we’re happy to have some distance from, and lots of them have to do with family.  We love our families, and for the most part we all get along really well.  But there are some messy histories that it’s kind of nice not to be dealing with day to day.  And, we have to admit too that we have continued to change and grow in the years since we’ve been gone.  When we go back to visit, we notice that we don’t necessarily fit in the same way anymore.  It doesn’t always feel much like home. 

As with all of us, I suspect, we’ve got some stuff to deal with when it comes to reconciling with family.  Sometimes we figure that it’s long past or that we’re too far away for it to matter.  But then something happens that triggers a memory or touches a sore spot, and we realize how profoundly our families have shaped who we are and how profoundly they matter to the people we’re becoming.  Visits back and forth always involve an important conversation or two where we get at some old stuff or try to share honestly about where we’re at now.  Often there’s a surprising discovery about someone else’s perspective on a shared experience – “I never thought about how this would have felt for you.”  And with each layer of relationship that gets opened up, we discover more and more about ourselves too.  We learn to identify our scars and name the ways they’ve shaped us.  There are still some open wounds, including a few that we can’t imagine ever being healed.  There are some family relationships where we’re just at a loss.  But others are continuing to blossom in beautiful ways.  Even at a distance, we’ve experienced some of the fruits of reconciliation with family. 

Of course, there’s another side to our story of running away from home.  And that is the discovery and creation of a new home in a new place.  Really, the discovery and creation of a new family.  Part of that is certainly our own little family as we’ve had kids of our own, but it’s more than that too.  Turns out that our kids haven’t been without grandmas and grandpas, even when the biological ones are back in Winnipeg.  We have people in our lives here who have become like family to us.  This whole church community has become a kind of family to us.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, because it does reflect one of the important ways that we talk about what it means to be church: as a “family of faith.”  We are children of God, sisters and brothers to each other in this new people called together in Christ.  And so we love and care for each other as if we had grown up in the same family. 

In fact, the New Testament suggests that this new family of faith is actually more important than the one we were born into.  Jesus uses strong language to talk about separating from our families of birth to enter the family of discipleship and faith in Christ.  Following Jesus may well re-order our lives and our relationships, including with our families.  There are people who have certainly had this experience, where becoming a Christian has led to conflict and even hostility at home.

But the possibilities of this new family through Christ are deep and beautiful.  Jesus on the cross looks down and sees his mother standing beside his disciple John.  To the one, he says: here is your son. To the other: here is your mother.  Jesus tells them to become family to each other.  Not because they are related by birth, not because they are franschaft somewhere down the line, but because they are related through Jesus.  Because they both love Jesus, they are also to love each other. 

And the remarkable thing about this new family that Jesus gathers is the breadth of its scope.  All people are invited to be part of it.  This family breaks through international borders.   It does not recognize divisions of class or status.  It brings together warring clans and blood enemies.  It creates a common home for people who might otherwise have no reason to be in relationship.  Here is a vision of family that does not divide us along lines of blood or birth, but makes strangers and even enemies into brothers and sisters through Christ.

It’s a lovely vision.  It’s also, I expect, not often realized.  It’s hard to actually embrace one another as this kind of family.  Certainly if we happen to be enemies, but perhaps no less when we come as strangers to each other.  In a lot of ways, Pam and I had an easy time of it entering this congregation.  We came as a pastor and family.  Most everyone knew who we were before we arrived.  Most everyone knew our names.  Most everyone had some interest in meeting us and finding out who we were.  And lots of people took it upon themselves to make sure we felt welcome and continued to support us in all sorts of ways.   For newcomers entering this community, we were made to feel very quickly like part of the family.

I suspect the experience may not be the same for everyone who wants to join this family of faith.  It can be tough to break in.  Hospitality and welcome is one thing, but actually becoming part of the family is another.  As open as we want to be, we have our little ways and our established networks.  We have our traditions and our unspoken expectations. 

One of the challenges here at St. Jacobs, as in many other congregations, is that our family of faith includes a whole bunch of interconnected biological families too.  There are family systems here that stretch down to the beginnings of this church over a hundred and fifty years ago.  And I’m still regularly learning about sibling or cousin or marriage connections between people that I hadn’t realized.  There are generational roots here that are strong, and have created wonderful bonds of love and loyalty. 

But of course, not all of us belong to these family systems.  Many of us have come more recently.  From all sorts of backgrounds, with a wide variety of stories.  We’re not here because we have any history or family connections necessarily, but because something about this place has called out to us.  I think we’d probably all agree that this is wonderful and necessary and beautiful.  We need to be a community of diverse people, and we’re glad whenever someone new wants to be connected.  But bridging some of these gaps is hard work.  How do we become a single family in the midst of all our other natural connections and divisions?  How do we make the connection that Jesus made from the cross: Woman – this is your son.  And you, my friend, this is your mother. 

A few years ago, the Christian Formation ministry spent a season reading a book together with the title: “Please Pass the Faith: The Art of Spiritual Grandparenting.”  It was written by Elsie Rempel, then working for Mennonite Church Canada.  On one level, the book helps grandparents to embrace their role as spiritual guides and mentors for their grandchildren.  But on another level, it encourages all of us in the church to recognize our role in nurturing the faith of children and youth.  We are all called to be spiritual “grandparents”.  We are all called to hear Jesus’ words on the cross directed to us.  This is your son or grandson.  This is your mother or grandmother.  We are invited to claim and embrace a new set of family relationships.  A family that is not determined by birth or ethnicity or shared memories.  Instead, it’s a family that is determined by the experience of meeting Christ.  And it’s a family that grows to embrace all who seek to follow where that encounter might lead.

So, a new family that doesn’t necessarily follow the contours of the families we were born into.  That’s the calling and the community that Jesus offers to us.  But I want to end by coming back to those other families.  The ones we grow up with and that for most of us will continue to be a big part of our lives.  What does it mean to reconcile with these families even as we embrace this new family of faith in Christ?  The particular dynamics will be different for each of us.  The joys and the complexities of families each take their own special shape.  But those family relationships, whatever they might look like, are part of what we bring with us into our church family.  Reconciling with our families can’t help but spread healing into our community of faith as well.

One final story to share.  When Charlie was born, seven years ago this month, we gave him the middle name Jacob.  This was in honour of Pam’s grandfather, her Opa Jake.  Opa was a remarkable man – passionate, quirky, big-hearted and generous.  He was also the shelter of stability and comfort for Pam during some tough years of her family’s life.  When Charlie was born, Opa Jake had already suffered a couple of strokes and was living with significant dementia.  Just three weeks after Charlie’s birth, we got the call one morning that Opa had not woken up.  Charlie never got to meet his namesake.  They passed each other like ships in the night, entering and exiting this world from opposite sides of the Great Lakes.   As parents, we couldn’t help but feel the weight of our choices.  If we hadn’t moved away, Charlie and Opa might have had their chance.  Even if briefly.  Even if from their respective ends of life neither may have understood.

And yet, we still felt that Charles Jacob and Opa Jake had a connection.  There was something there, across the distance and in spite of the brief window of time they shared on this earth.  All was not lost.  In fact, nothing was lost.  When Charlie was dedicated here a few months later, we chose this song for the occasion:  “Nothing is lost to the heart of God, nothing is lost forever.  God’s heart is love, and that love will remain, holding the world forever.  No impulse of love, no office of care, no moment of life in its fullness; no beginning too late, no ending too soon, but is gathered and known in its goodness.”

Our relationships with family are full of wounds and scars, wrong paths and missed opportunities, things said and things we never took the opportunity to say.  The good news, is that nothing is lost on the breath of God.  God’s breath of life lifts and carries and holds all of creation forever.  It renews and restores what is lost, what is broken, what is wounded and scarred.  There is hope for healing and reconciliation, even within our families.  And even as God calls us out to be a single family of faith in Jesus Christ. 

Thanks be to God.