Who Is My Family?

 Mom and I - circa mid 1970’s

Mom and I - circa mid 1970’s

It’s about as important of a question as they come. Who is my family? It seems synonymous to another question: Where do I belong? Apparently Jesus instinctively paired them together as recorded in the twelfth chapter of Mathew, verses forty-six through fifty.

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him.  Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  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.”

damn, jesus, that’s cold!

I’ve written elsewhere about my close connection with my mother. While it is not universally true, there does seem to be a special connection between mothers and their sons just as there often is between fathers and their daughters. I can certainly attest to both. When it comes to the former, that is what makes these supposed words of Jesus all the more shocking. Certainly by all biblical accounts, Mary and Jesus did not have a cold and distant relationship. Mary is portrayed as having both a warm affection and subtle reverence for her son as a young child (Luke 2:19). And Jesus, even while in the deepest of agony while he hung on the cross, was so committed to his mother that he took time to appoint a disciple to care for her in view of his immanent death (John 19:25-27).

And yet on another occasion when informed that his mom, along with his brothers, were waiting outside and wanted to speak to him, Jesus basically told the crowd that his gang of often clueless disciples were more family than the woman who gave birth to him and raised him! I mean, damn, Jesus, that’s cold! He goes on to clarify that what qualifies someone as a member of his family is if they do “the will of the Father”. But wasn’t the very fact that she was his mother based on an angelic declaration of God’s favor on her life (Luke 1:30)? Isn’t it fair to assume that said favor is based, at least in part, on a fair amount of effort on Mary’s part to follow a righteous path? But none of that mattered now in this moment for Jesus and Mary. On that day, Mary and her other children wouldn’t receive from Jesus even the attention commonly provided to distant relatives.

the loss of family

What caused Jesus to be so harsh? Well we get a hint in another passage in the book of Mark (3:21), where we learn that apparently the fever pitch of Jesus’ self-ascribing Messianic talk had gotten too extreme for the family, even though Mary was given plenty of advance warning about Jesus’ unique, God-ordained mission (Luke 1:32-33). According to Mark, Mary and Jesus’ brothers thought he was “out of his mind”.

Well I am NO Jesus, believe you me! But in this story I find some sense of a shared experience and therefore some fellowship with this man from nearly 2,000 years ago. The last few years have been very hard because I have grieved the loss of so many loved ones, not from physical death but by a separation of conscience and will. This has included literal blood relatives along with those who I had thought were fellow ‘brothers and sisters’ in God’s family, the Church. Having grown up in a devout Christian home, these two families were very intertwined. I recall singing both in my house and at church on Sundays the Bill and Gloria Gaither contemporary hymn, Family of God. The chorus goes like this…

I'm so glad I'm a part of the Family of God,
I've been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,
For I'm part of the family,
The Family of God.

But now many in both my literal and my supposedly spiritual family seem estranged. I look at them and think, ‘I don’t even know who you are!’ And to be fair, I know they are thinking the same. The cause of this divorce? We have a shockingly different understanding of ‘the will of the Father’. I am convinced that many of them think that God’s will is synonymous with the idols of which I have previously written about. Their patriarch and prophet is now Donald Trump. In contrast, I had one of my former pastors say that my conclusions about evangelicalism were either “brilliant or crazy”, and it was clear by the tone of the conversation that he was strongly leaning towards crazy. Either way, the end result is the same: we’ve drifted apart as we pursue two diametrically opposed agendas.

finding new family

And yet among the loss, I have much to celebrate! For I have found new family members I never knew existed. Or perhaps I knew they existed but they were, you know, ‘those people’ that needed the saving. Curiously it turns out that they are more eagerly practicing the kind of unconditional love I was told was supposed to be a central conviction and way of life with my former family. So my new ‘brothers and sisters’ are the likes of liberal atheists, members of the LGBT community, and Muslim refugees, whether they live next door or half a world away. To them I say thank you. I am cherishing our new fellowship and growing every day as I am inspired by your courage and strength. And above all, I am exceedingly honored to be called your ‘brother’.

 Holding a ‘nephew’, a precious Syrian baby in a refugee camp in Lebanon (2015)

Holding a ‘nephew’, a precious Syrian baby in a refugee camp in Lebanon (2015)