“These commandments I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (New International Version)
The motto – mission – of my home church is “developing a family of Christ-followers.” The goal is multi-faceted: to encourage the members and regular attendees to interact with each other as a family; to recognize that we are of diverse ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, ideas, temperaments yet united by blood…the blood of Christ. In the months which have five Sundays, the fifth Sunday is designated Family First Sunday.
In many cases a church-family relationship is stronger than that of bloodkin…those siblings, cousins, or others of the biological chain. Celebrations, like Christmas or Easter, have a different level of joy among a church family because of the mutual understanding of certain rituals. At the same time, as family we are reminded that there will be moments of dysfunction. We are to work to overcome dysfunction and disagreements through Christ rather than on our own. Face it: without the accountability of Christ, when family feuds occur, it’s easy to say no…to walk away from a family relationship. To walk away from the family, period.
Naturally, there are critiques that it’s not necessary to be Christian to have family cohesion…that Christian faith doesn’t have exclusive claim on holding families together…and that, indeed, Christianity can be the REASON for familial discord. Consider the number of people who have been “disowned” for choosing to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Those familiar with the Scriptures recognize this familial rejection isn’t a surprise. Christ himself explained to his disciples,
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:53-55)
Such discord happened in his own family when religious leaders tried to get his mother and siblings to stop him from performing miracles, declaring he was possessed by Satan. In setting the leaders straight, Jesus introduced the “concept” of the extended family:
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? (Matthew 12:40) Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:48).
Disagreements notwithstanding, there’s another part of “developing a family” to take into consideration: Bonding of biological kinfolk who recognize dysfunctions of the family, their own physical or emotional MALfunctions, understand who Jesus is, and unabashedly call to Him for strength and comfort in the midst of their maladies. Indeed, they readily, audibly praise him for little things: like taking a step, a breath, or remembering what breakfast was. A personification of this perspective appeared during a holiday celebration.
STEP BY STEP
Dinner had ended. Family fun festivities were about to begin. Dinner was the first time they’d ever met, many of these relatives. A grandma, two daughters, a husband, a grandson, a granddaughter and two great grandchildren spread out across two rooms surrounding the dining table and assorted décor. Their seating arrangement was framed. Still-life posing for a Renaissance painter. Each life contained a story of faith in the face of misfortune.
Grandma struggled with memory voids that frustrated her, tested the patience of youngsters, and saddened those who knew her mental acumen back in the day — particularly the daughters. So, they tapped into the credo an Ancestor-in-Law printed on envelopes of all his family and business correspondence in the bygone era:
“The family that prays together, stays together.”
Without fanfare, they prayed. Regularly. Aloud. Whenever. Prayed for patience, the absence of outbursts, deliverance from depression, liberation from blood pressure spikes. They prayed for, fill-in-the-blank. Daughter No. 1 prayed not only for her mother, but also for her Husband, wheelchair-bound across the room, felled by diabetes-related kidney malfunction. He had been sitting in the chair for all of the four hours since they had arrived. It was restful. Once he got out of the car which transported him, it took him a good 15 minutes of standing and leaning on his walker to figure out how to position his body to climb the two steps to get into the door and collapse into his chariot. With each sweaty, shuffled step, he said, “Thank you, Jesus,” in earnest. He knew that, without the power of Christ, he had neither to strength to stand, nor turn, nor drop his bulky frame into the chair. “Thank you. Thank you, Jesus.”
(He again intoned the praise when the evening ended, two hours later…the last 30 minutes of which he spent working out how to lift from the chair and go DOWN the two steps in order to walk to the car 10-feet away. Reaching the auto, The Husband paused and intoned, “I am tired of this,” to “Thank you, Jesus.” Not as a matter of complaint, but as confession, a request and a goal.)
Seated in the room, The Husband stroked his beloved Bree, a sweater-clad lapdog, the closest he and Daughter No. 1 had to offspring. Bree was a blessing to him. As were the great-grandchildren — his niece and nephew — who bandied about, as single-digit children should at holiday time, noisily and free, yet within boundaries. The boundaries were set, and quietly reinforced, by their father — The Grandson — whose patience was essential on a day such as this. They had driven six hours, half of them in heavy snow, and had arrived a couple of hours later than expected because of a late start. The delay only slighted infringed upon the time of Daughter No. 2 – his aunt — who had driven three hours to rendezvous with him and his family at the state border.
On the return ride, they did some long overdue catching up. It had been years. The Grandson was now a single dad with shared custody. The previous five years had been contentious and life-changing. Only five months earlier Jesus had evolved from a concept to reality. Despite only part-time parent duty, he developed full-time presence; so much so that when he stepped into the garage to help The Husband from wheelchair to car, his daughter quietly melted down indoors, fearing she had been abandoned. Despite her brother’s reassurance, she mellowed only when her father returned and assured her he was always around…an embodiment of the commandment of Deuteronomy 6, not confining the instruction to a specific day, time, or other individual — say, a professional theologian — but teaching them:
“when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up;”
The prodigal had learned the children were his responsibility…and the church’s..together. Each would put the family first.
There are several reasons we declare fifth Sundays “Family First Sunday.”
One is to publicly display speaking, performing or musical gifts of various members of our church family. This is an element of “developing a family of Christ-followers.” Another reason is to remind us that we are an intergenerational church, thus mutually accountable, and that paid staff or elected leaders are not the only ministers in our midst. This particular Sunday included an uncle baptizing his nephew; two child dedications; a mother-daughter duet; stories of faith by a teen worker, a first-year teacher, a new dad; a sermonette by a college intern, and an all-ages brunch served by the teens.
Interaction of ages within a church family has a positive impact in passing down values or uplifting dispositions. Faith values passed among bloodkin produce a unity that transcends years of separation and state lines. The gathering of the family, only three of whom attend our church, embodied these concepts:
The arrival of the great-grandchildren revived The Grandma and The Husband from midwinter funk. The presence of men, the active presence of men, was settling among the children and reassuring for the women. Prayer was a universal response to situations, good and bad, not simply words muttered so food could be munched.
Family First is to remind parents, grandparents and children to seek and grasp family moments: to enjoy traditions, to establish traditions; to see God at work in triumph, tragedy, good times and bad; to put down the gadgets, notebooks, work schedules, even ministry responsibilities, and embrace each other.
This idea of family is harder to embrace in our fast-paced, instant “Like,” microwave, iPod, want-it-now world of 140-character communication, and fleeting BFFs. Yet long before there were schools, Sunday schools or TV teaching, surmounting this task was God’s instructions to the adults, recorded in Deuteronomy 6:6-7: “These commandments I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children.”