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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Family Ties
November 3, 2011

I went to a school that required male students to wear neckties to class. We could be dressed horribly in almost any other respect, so long as we sported the obligatory cravat. We joked that the school’s fight song should have been, “Blest be the Tie that Binds.” More than once, I confess, I complied externally with the rule, but I let it be known by wildly mismatched colors, untucked shirt, and the like that while I was compliant on the outside, I was far from so on the inside. It took more than an external symbol to be truly bound to the mission of my school.

Some years later, Erma Bombeck published a bestseller entitled Family: The Ties that Bind…and Gag. It spent the better part of a year on the New York Times bestseller list, and continues to sell briskly nearly 25 years later. Many resonated with her observation that not all family ties are happy and pleasant – yet, as hard as those ties may be to abide, as much as those bonds may chafe or gag, a healthy family keeps them intact, rather than abandoning them. The book is a comic romp – the ability to laugh at ourselves may well be the difference between the ties stretching or breaking when they are stressed.

Family ties were certainly complicated, to say the least, for Jesus. He openly rebuked his mother at the wedding at Cana (something she blithely dismissed), and spoke dismissively of his mother and brothers when they came to visit, suggesting that his spiritual family may be more important than his biological family. His teaching that one must be prepared to leave family in order to follow him confirms that priority. Yet some of his very last words before dying were a plea to John to care for his mother.

Certainly the early Christian community considered family ties important. If someone’s family life was disordered, their fitness for church leadership was questioned. A deep sense of responsibility for family is evident in Paul: “Whoever does not provide for relatives,…has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8)

In some important ways, the church is not a family. It is infinitely more complex, and it is a community that people join and leave with minimal immediate risk. But in many ways the church is a family, not least in our explicit recognition of the God of the Bible as our common Father. As a parent myself, I can testify that few things are more distressing than seeing one’s children at each other’s throats. I can only imagine the heartbreak if my children were so alienated that they refused to be together.

Like many siblings, my children are very different, in countless ways. Just like my brother and me, they have very different politics, very different tastes in the arts, read very different literature, and gravitate to very different affinity groups. Yet we love each other deeply, and love being together. How do we manage it?

One factor is that we know our family ties are a lifeline. We understand and embrace that apart from each other we would find it nigh impossible to make it through some of life’s greatest stresses. We recognize that in ourselves we lack what we need to navigate life well. And the things we need most are available only from those whose heritage we share, who have grieved and exulted in our most significant sorrows and joys, and who will be with us to our end come what may. In other words, what we need most for life’s long haul is to remain connected with our family.

A second factor that keeps us close is that we know when we need to stand down in a dispute. There comes a time in some conversations where we simply back off, and agree to disagree. We know well where we disagree; we’re not living in denial. But we have enough good sense to know when the welfare of everyone is sometimes best served by dropping the dispute, and continuing to love one another regardless.

Maybe, just maybe, there are some clues here also for the health of the family of God known as the church – locally and globally, denominationally and ecumenically. For our own sakes, and for the sake of the whole family, may we find grace and wisdom to keep our family ties resilient, even when they are sorely stressed.

In brotherly affection,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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