Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Family Values

Greg Syler

The annual and, yes, tedious ritual of putting away the Christmas lights and decorations always brings to my mind my sister, Jennifer. Her birthday is January 10, just days after this change of seasons which really isn’t so much a change as a stark recall into ordinary-ness.

Jenny is the first-born of us three siblings, and I’m the last. (Have at it with your “baby” comments, you over-burdened eldest children or you forsaken middles!) As for me, I consider it a great fortune to be born the youngest of three, and the youngest sibling of a sister. Jennifer was – and is – the thoughtful organizer, the bold trailblazer, the person in my family who makes things happen. I guess the post-Christmas transition has always been made a bit easier, for me, by the opportunity to celebrate my sister’s life, she who helped make me, well, me.

One of the remarkable things about Jesus is that he, too, was born into a family, even among (don’t tell some of our kin…) brothers and sisters. Not only did God become one of us, but God also experienced firsthand the pain and joy, screaming and laughter, fits and banality of being a member of a human family. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell a story about Jesus’ mother and brothers coming to see him, and the disbelieving crowd in his hometown mentions his sisters. The fact that Jesus had an actual family was used, by some, to discredit his ministry. Perhaps that’s why he said things which wouldn’t wind up as catch-phrases of today’s family values movement. I’ve noticed the religious right never picked up the lines about hating “father and mother, …brothers and sisters – yes and even life itself.” (Mt. 10, Lk. 14)

Jesus formed community wherever he went, and rather deep and profound human connections and community, at that. A gang of twelve. Two-by-two. Women, and not only among the charter members, but clearly among the leaders. Jesus made family, and not only by blood and biology.

Raised in a Congregationalist church, I experienced God’s call when I was eight. As that call grew into a life’s pursuit, I searched and struggled to find a church home. While in Divinity School, I ventured to the once-Congregationalist seminary nearby to audit a course called “United Church of Christ History & Thought.” I found little in that experience which suggested that that denomination was, on a deeper level, a larger, more unified body, not uniform in belief, mind you, but united in shared concepts of kinship, collegiality, friendship, and support.

Several of my friends at the time went most Sunday evenings to the local Episcopal campus ministry to be fed by worship and supper, not to mention stimulating conversations. There certainly wasn’t uniformity of belief among that Episcopal crowd, but they all took Jesus seriously, as well as prayer and sacraments and community and conversation. They became, for me, family, and the kind of family I think Jesus was talking about.

Church is a community that acts like family, and in a weird way, too, because we’re not actually connected via biology or money or the need for survival. No, in spite of that, we’re audacious to believe and practice that we need each other. 

It’s not cool, these days, to be in praise of “denominations” and the “institutional church”. It wasn’t cool for me, a Congregationalist kid, to hang out with Episcopalians – they read prayers and used catholic-sounding words like Eucharist and liturgy! But they didn’t actually believe in or care much about a denomination. And now that I’m one of this tribe I can say that we’re at our best when we’re on the ground, in our respective corners of God’s vineyard, making family out of disparate, diverse, random, and ordinary folks. 

We’ve got a lot of stuff, like any other denomination, and it’s hard to remember why we’ve got things like buildings, parishes, clergy, bishops, committees, dioceses, vestries, by-laws, and the list goes on and on. But we’ve got to remember the why. We must, especially at this time as one generation – and, in particular, the generation that helped create a lot of this additional stuff – is starting to hand off leadership to another. To build and foster the family of God, that’s why this stuff exists and for no other reason.

Rev. Greg Syler is the rector at St. George's, Valley Lee. We invite you to share your comments and thoughts with the diocesan community on Facebook.