A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
One Big Happy Family?
October 18, 2012
Surveys indicate that the most important family holiday of the year, for most folk, is Thanksgiving. Being Canadian by birth and American by citizenship, I get to celebrate two Thanksgivings each year – Tammy and I just last week enjoyed with my folks a splendid Canadian Thanksgiving dinner (always the second Monday of October), complete with turkey and all the trimmings. And we’ll get to do it again another month hence. The only thing better than enjoying a Thanksgiving family reunion is having two of them within a few weeks!
OK, enough of that silliness. Let’s admit it – family gatherings present at least as many challenges as they do joys. Old Granddad is as ornery as ever, Aunt Mabel shows up a little tipsy yet again, cousin Joseph is still a terror, and sister Mary is more of a ninja at barbs-slinging than anyone remembers. It’s no wonder that when law enforcement officers begin investigating violent crimes, they immediately consider family members as their first line of suspects. We hurt most those whom we love most. It’s been the story of human families ever since Cain killed Abel. It’s bad enough when a stranger misunderstands or mistreats us; when it comes from someone who should love us unconditionally, the hurt is only compounded.
Both the difficulty and the importance of healthy family relationships are revealed in the cautionary stories of many Bible heroes whose children went bad. To underscore just how difficult it is to achieve family wholeness, the Bible includes honoring father and mother (and by extension the whole family) as one of the “big ten” commandments. Why bother making it a commandment for the ages if it’s easy to achieve?
One of the churches I served had a baptismal tradition – at each baptism we’d all join warmly in singing, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” I wanted to shout: Really??!! Truth in advertising would have us admit that this day marks their entry into a community in which life will be at least as hard and trying as it is joyous and comforting.
Today the family known as “Pittsburgh Presbytery” gathers at Beulah Church. It’s not yet Thanksgiving, but oh well. We’ll even do something there we all too rarely do – we’ll gather around the family Table of our Lord. That should be all we need to do to keep our house in order, don’t you think? Alas, Thanksgiving Dinner (which is exactly what the Eucharist is) does not forever settle all family differences any more in the church than it does among kinfolk. In fact, it sometimes exposes them in fresh and painful ways.
The fact that we experience distress or even alienation when we gather should not be taken as evidence that we are not really a family. In fact, it’s the opposite – to the extent that our gatherings surface stress points, they indicate that we really are a family. We really do care about each other enough to be hurt or horrified by the behaviors or words of our siblings. If we weren’t family, we wouldn’t care.
Like all families from time immemorial, the church has always been in some kind of turmoil. There is no time or place in the church’s long story that the sailing has been entirely smooth. We sure have no evidence of any such church in the New Testament. We long for God’s peace to be manifest among us, for it to be fully true that the Kingdom of God is as evident here as it is in heaven – but we experience a different reality, even as we pray for something better. That has been the peculiar burden of the church from its inception. It has never fully lived up to its charter of unity in the peace and proclamation of God’s reign. The church has always been a family rather than a symphony. We want to be a symphony, we believe we should be a symphony – but we keep on being instead a family.
“Family” is not a fully sufficient image of the church. But it does helpfully remind us that membership in the church is something entirely given rather than chosen. We have no say in who constitutes this family, any more than we have any say in who is our Father. Our only choice is whether we will live in such a way that honors our given shared parentage. Some families splinter, but we know that is not the way of healthy families that rightly honor their fathers and mothers.
Any hope that church life ought to be nothing but “one big happy family” living in constant harmony is sure to be dashed. That’s not how real families work, nor is it how the church works. If that’s what we expect, we’ll soon find ourselves looking for another church family. But when we acknowledge and accept that struggle is unavoidably part of the territory known as “family life,” we can more readily own what God has ordered with no input from us whatsoever – we do belong together, we are one family. Thanks be to God – gulp!
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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