Can we choose our family?
Can we choose our family? My grandmother often said: “We can’t choose our family; thank God we can choose our friends”. The reality is that we are born into a family and not one of our choosing. Whether we live with the parents who gave us birth or adopted into a new family, the fact remains that each of us comes from some family.
Every generation in history has lived with a concept of family. Every generation has sought to uphold that concept and done their best to make that concept a reality. And – for the most part – each succeeding generation has struggled to live up to or simply try to emulate the concept of family it has inherited. In fact, our very understanding of family has ever come from the example of those in our lives who have had the greatest influence on our thinking and behaviour. But it is also a fact that when we marry someone – if that be our decision or choice – we will find our understanding of family change or be challenged as we encounter people whose concept of family may differ from our own.
To a large extent, what happens in family is a cultural thing. Every family has its culture just as every organization and group that we are part of in life has a culture. The families we are born into share that culture with us. And – to a greater or lesser extent – that culture will remain a part of us for the rest of our lives. Every time we start a new phase in our lives – be it school, work or social activities – we encounter a new culture. We may be able to change the culture to one that more closely reflects our comfort zone, but the reality is that we will need to decide whether we can find our place and feel secure in the culture of the group.
What we experience of family as we grow influences us and influences decisions we make around our own families. Patterns for behaviour and thought that have been taught to us by word and example by our parents do continue to be part of us and have an influence on our choices in life with respect to who we may choose to marry and how we will raise our children – if that be our choice.
But while we may desire an ideal family, the reality is that family is a messy business. We find ourselves striving to create an environment where we can live our lives in relative peace and harmony while dealing with the various personalities and competing agendas that fill our daily lives. And while the generations alive in this time may believe that their concept of family has changed more than at any other time in history, the reality is that family existed in many of our modern variations, but the society of that day chose not to recognize its existence. People found themselves marginalized, persecuted and even killed for failing to uphold the standard of family that was prescribed by the rulers of the day.
Of course, the very existence of family in society has often been a stabilizing factor not only for those in family units but for the society in general. A standardized definition of family aided in the development of society providing a place where succeeding generations could be born, raised and eventually be healthy contributors to the economy. Such stability was yearned for as a way of providing hope for the future. And yet even in the time of Jesus, relationships among the people of that time were as diverse as we find in our own time – but they were not readily recognized as they were not seen as valuable to the progress of the society.
It is unfortunate that Jesus did not leave us a total blueprint for family by detailing all the different forms that family could take. He focused on relationships that he was asked questions about. For the rest we have had to seek the guidance of God through the Holy Spirit to provide us with the answers we seek as we struggle to understand the complex nature of our own physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual being and how we can relate to one another in positive and affirming ways.
Much of what Jesus did teach about family and relationships had more to do with our new family – the one that we were being called into regardless of our earthly family. That new family that Jesus spoke of was one that was to transcend all the concepts and experiences of family that we may have had in this life. The Apostle John even goes so far as to tell us that every one of us will experience adoption into the family of God – regardless of how we have come into this world and regardless of what status our family may have had in this world.
But we are given clues to the image of family that Jesus alluded to. At one point it is pointed out to Jesus that his mother and brothers are in the crowd. The expectation was that he would leave the crowd and go with them. His response was to say that those who did the will of the Father were his mother and brothers. At the time of his crucifixion, Jesus looks at John and tells him that Mary will now be his mother and that John will be her son. In our present passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus declares that those who hear his voice and respond are part of the family of God. While the words are not directly spoken, there is an implied understanding. The reaction of those who listen reveals a sense of trust in the one who is calling them. These accounts reveal to us that family for Jesus was more than a blood relation. For Jesus, family had more to do with real living relationships than with some inherited right.
One of the most famous passages of Scripture which is often read at marriage services is from 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul speaks of the qualities of love and of its importance over all over attributes a person could ever have. It really is a description of the ideal that we are to strive for in our relationships both within our natural families but also in those relationships which we form with people in our faith community and social and business contacts. Of course, we expect that we will be loved as we love but our love is never to be conditional upon the response of the other person. It is not do unto others only if they do unto you and Paul does not say to be patient and kind only to those who are patient and kind to us.
In a world where so many struggle to find a positive family relationship, God reveals a new family with a new vision. He invites any and all people to embrace this new family and trust that it will be an accepting and supportive community. God’s intention is to give us a model for family that transcends our ancestral ties of blood and encourages us to create a community of mutual respect. God’s intention is that we be ever mindful of the needs of one another and encourage each of us to grow in wisdom confident of the support and genuine affection of one another. God’s intention is that we learn to create and maintain an environment where each person can feel secure physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Can we choose our family? In one respect we cannot. But we can choose to become brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters to one another in the new family to which we are all invited by Jesus. May we find ourselves guided by the words of John, of Paul and of Jesus as we seek ever more to be a part of the family of God.