One summer many years ago, when I was back home from college with my family of origin, I took the opportunity to make a Wednesday evening “talk” (sermonette) at church. My talk was based on the last part of Ephesians 3. This was during the days of the burgeoning popularity of the NIV, but I had chosen another version of verses 14-15:
I fall on my knees before the Father (from whom all fatherhood, earthly or heavenly, derives its name), . . . – NT in Modern English, J.B. Phillips
A man in the congregation—one I remember as good-hearted and enthusiastic—complimented my talk in general terms but mentioned his disappointment in my choice of versions. This man was in a phase of emphasizing the congregational “family,” so he preferred the NIV:
I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. . . . – NIV [previous edition]
It happens that most reputable English translations have used the word “family” there, but the Phillips version opted for something different. Never mind that my growing lexical and linguistic senses now tell me that neither “fatherhood” nor “family” does the idea complete justice. The point here is that people want to think of church (and work and other) groups as “family.” Language like that makes us feel good. Except when it doesn’t.
At some point in my late teens or twenties, I had learned that certain Restoration Movement churches make a point of not having Bible classes on Sundays. These are the NC (Non-Class) congregations. My sketchy understanding of their point of view is this: they feel that, when the whole church comes together, it should not be divided. Perhaps that is another way of saying, “We’re all one ‘family,’ and we don’t split up and live in different Sunday-school-room “houses.” I would counter-assert that, while it would seem natural to be together every now and then, the sense of family does not necessarily vanish when the members are not in the same place.
A couple decades after college, a preacher raised a rather thoughtful challenge within the church setting: why do we insist on calling church “family” (a) when it is not really described that way in scripture, and (b) when in fact that language is likely distracting or harmful to a great number of people in the pews? Could there be more people who have negative associations with “family” than with the term “father” to describe or address God? (I think I’m doing justice to this preacher’s gist here.) In other words, many people don’t have very positive experiences with earthly family, so it’s probably a bad idea to insist on family language to refer to church.
Every day of every week of every year, divorce impacts people. Families are divided and re-divided, and as a result, the family—the unit that could be a bastion of devotion and love—has crumpled in the experience of way too many. While divorce was relatively unknown in my childhood neighborhood or in the church in which I grew up, the number of divorces I know of personally increases exponentially as each decade passes. I think of the kids my age or slightly older as I grew up, and I realize there is a higher and higher incidence of divorce . . . how few have had “normal” nuclear families of their own.
Within the last month, right here in our town, vandals in their early teens have been caught multiple times on top of buildings. They have done damage amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. Apparently these youths are notorious characters with the town police. Family is either absent or incapable in each case, and the police say there’s nothing they can do about the vandalism, because of legal limitations on criminal charges. Things could be different for these boys if broken family were not a factor.
After someone dies, some families are never quite whole, while others seem to grow closer. A teen-aged boy’s father dies, and the boy’s life takes a different direction. Estate settlements may bind siblings together, or they (the settlements and the siblings!) can turn ugly. A young husband or a young father dies, and life is forever changed for the survivors. Some falsely hold to a false legacy, and others honorably try to honor. Some of us are more resilient than others, but the effects of death in a family—whether untimely or not—are deep.
At just about any juncture, family can be a sphere of loss . . . and it can also be a beautiful part of human experience. Family can be broken for a while, and the most stubborn may go to their deathbeds feeling justified about something or other while estranged from those who should have been family. Other times, renewed relationship or reconciliation may occur. Family can be made of “blood” ties (plus my adopted sister!), or, whether or not that kind of supposedly familial tie fails, we may find family in other ways. Just yesterday, my wife referred to our study-partner friends as “family,” and told them where the glasses were so they could help themselves.
During this holiday time, some readers will be at large family gatherings. One generous family in our town is hosting a come-all pancake breakfast. Various members of my extended family are roughly 8, 15, 20, or 24 hours away, so the three of us will be enjoying a little day trip and some sights by ourselves. Wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, you might consider both the benefits and the failings of families. Turn from the not-so-good, and be thankful for the good.