Family Matters

Three friends
"Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." - Mark 3:35
Image credit: Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

“And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand … Who are my mother and my brothers?” Have you found yourself asking Jesus’ question in this season of confirmations and graduations? These events certainly elicit questions about loyalties and families of origin; wait, these people are really my relatives? While occasions such as these are undoubtedly cause for much celebration they can also admittedly be times of tension and unmentioned disharmony.

Of course, for Jesus and his followers, the inevitability of discord was a true and constant reality not limited to special commemorations that brought family members together. Persons who pledged allegiance to Jesus and his movement found themselves estranged from the familiar familial foundations of life — and in immoderate cases, thrown out of their communities, their households, for signing on with Jesus’ (see John 9:22; 16:2). Theirs was not a situation to figure out how to survive the anticipated antipathy at the once-in-awhile family get-togethers. No, the members of the Jesus movement lived with the constancy of disagreement, the daily reminders of discord, and the enduring demand to redefine spaces and places that once assumed agreement.

We may be tempted to write off such extremist situations as faith-based feuds that rarely apply to our modern day denominational sensibilities but then we would be ignoring our own truth — that our own households are full of divisions, whether home, church, work, community, nation, world.

I think this is one of the most difficult challenges of parish life for a pastor, for a preacher. You have a lot of family discord to negotiate — your own, of course, which you can’t let anyone see or know about and which itself creates a loneliness unmatched by other professions. You regularly have parishioners in your office revealing their hardships with children, parents, and spouses, trusting in your ministerial training to offer answers, usually simple ones, for solutions. And you are constantly managing pockets of congregational disagreements that arise from true problems or made-up troubles, everything from legitimate points of theological dispute to circumstances in which you simply want to scream some sort of version of, “do you really think Jesus cares — at all?”

It’s hard to live together.

Maybe this is the Sunday to tell the truth about the divisions in our lives that we have swept under the rug; to tell the truth about the toll that they take on our lives, not for simple resolution but to name the truth that this is the kind of world in which we live; not for effortless reunion but to call attention to this reality of our worlds — because it does take a toll. And perhaps what it comes down to is how we choose to deal with the truth. If we choose to allow the inevitability of division to dominate our way of being in the world, then what Jesus’ claims will indeed be our world — who will be able to stand?

You see, there are people in our lives who seem to thrive on disagreement and division. There are churches, denominations, institutions that would rather find any and all potentiality for discord — to prove themselves right, to justify their own positions, beliefs — than to do the hard work of searching for avenues of possible agreement. We know these people. We know these churches. We know these communities. And they have the very real probability of the kind of destruction from which no recreation is possible. Because that is the issue, is it not? To seek paths and possibilities that lead to relationship means that the end result will be the hard work of relationship maintenance, as if reconciliation means disremembering.

Life after disagreement and reconciliation is not about forgetting. It is not about pretending that nothing ever happened. It is about letting go of the fact that the past can be changed and choosing to live in the present reality that the relationship has changed. It can never go back to the way it was before. Yet, many would rather sever the ties altogether than live with the memory of ties that were broken. Many would rather abandon people and community for their own self-justification than to admit their own contributions to the problem. And many would rather stir up the proverbial pot than sense opportunities for kindness, graciousness, and gratitude.

The fact is, we are in a constant state of relational negotiation. The question is, how we choose to live in that state — to pretend that it does not exist or to recognize its constant existence; to ignore its difficulty or to search in the difficulty for love; to mourn its challenges or to accept its reality.

Yet, of course, added to the above personal and personnel complications is the fact that sometimes, many times, separation is the only way a house can remain standing. There are people who simply need to leave — or from whom you need to walk away. There are communities that will never know relational health and yet insist that this is how community should be. There are relationships for which the possibility of reconciliation is impossible.

This is also the truth we have to willing to name — to tell ourselves, to speak into our relationships, and to preach to our communities – that the act of distancing, of self-differentiation, of disengagement is sometimes necessary. It is an act of courage so that you are able to stand.