When many people picture the holidays, their family comes to mind, even if it’s accompanied by commentary about having to tolerate certain members’ irritating qualities. And then there is the ever-present “family” theme in holiday stories, movies and advertising that resonates with many Americans.
In movies, characters who come together for Christmas work to quell arguments, set aside differences in opinion, and look past clashes of personality in the name of enjoying the holiday. In real life, people might do this, too, thinking that they can’t change their family and feeling societal pressure to come together.
But letting go of a narrow definition of family as those with whom you share blood allows Christians to more fully embrace the “kin-dom” of God. This is practiced when Christians welcome children of God of all ages into the family through baptism and a shared mission.
In Matthew 12:47-50, Jesus learns that his mother and brothers have arrived in Jerusalem: “To the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
“Everyone needs and deserves to be loved, and if your family of origin doesn’t do that … your chosen family is waiting to be made.”
Living as “little Christs” (from the Greek christianos, the root word of “Christian”), then, means family is everyone who lives together in Christian mission. But what does it mean to make a congregation one’s family?
Mollie Ryan defines family in two “prongs”: one of origin and one of choice. Ryan, a pastor in another denomination, embraces her chosen family at Lord of Life—the campus ministry at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks—with whom she connected as a college student and still feels most “comfortable and purposeful.”
After cutting ties with her family of origin, Ryan calls this congregation her family. “They’ve modeled for me what radical hospitality and acceptance looks like, and what it means to not settle for anything less than you deserve,” she said. “Everyone needs and deserves to be loved, and if your family of origin doesn’t do that … your chosen family is waiting to be made.”
Louis Moehlman, ministry associate at Living Lord Lutheran Church in Lake St. Louis, Mo., agrees: “Beyond the sense of biological, I believe that family also expands to include those who offer support, guidance and grace.” At Living Lord, Moehlman journeys with others through their lives, from celebrating their anniversaries and baby showers to keeping vigil with them as they are dying.
Carlson cautioned against a congregation presenting itself as a family to people who seem to need one for the holidays. Instead, they should welcome people to Christ’s table throughout the year.
From Moehlman’s perspective, what makes a congregation family is not just sharing these life-altering experiences but giving the Spirit an opportunity to move: “When I am comfortable and thus able to take people into the gospel in ways that they haven’t been able to before, that is when I know that I have found a family with the community.”
Similarly, the people of Pilgrim Lutheran Church, Chicago, are what form Betty Ramos’ calling to her church family. When she offers to take care of kids in the congregation during worship services and make bread pudding for the annual holiday picnic, the congregation in which she has found a family graciously accepts. Because her church celebrates her gifts of helping others instead of dismissing her, Ramos said, “Being in church with the people makes me happier.”
For some people, however, the word “family” has been too damaged by broken relationships. Peter Carlson, a religion professor at Cal Lutheran, cautioned against a congregation presenting itself as a family to people who seem to need one for the holidays. Instead, they should welcome people to Christ’s table—not just the altar but also home dinner tables or physically distanced picnics—throughout the year.
“Then, when the holidays come around, those of us whose lives are lived on the edges and in those in-between spaces, for whom ‘family’ and ‘home’ are damaged goods, might experience something new and redemptive,” he said. “We might have to come up with new words to describe it, but it will be available to us and will be safe and filled with nourishing love.”
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