Best not to talk ‘bout anyone ’round here. We’re all kin so it’s bound to get back to ’em one way or t’other.”
Her eyes twinkled as she offered me this piece of advice, and her accompanying smile served as both welcome and warning. Our family had recently moved to a community in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia after my husband had accepted a call to pastor there.
Seeing my surprise, my newfound benefactress quickly leaned in to hug me with the proprietary confidence that only great-aunts and country grannies possess.
“I’m sure y’all will do jus’ fine,” She added and then turned to exit the church where we’d gathered that morning.
Sitting at the bend of a winding road, with a cemetery on one side and a creek on the other, our small church was founded in the early 1920s, when the families at this end of the road decided they needed a Sunday school for their children. Within a few years, it became a congregation and over 90 years later, the founders’ descendants still sit in the pews and bring their children (and grandchildren, nieces, nephews …) to Sunday school. When the weather allows, the children head outside to ring the bell before class to let the surrounding hillsides know it’s time to begin.
Unlike many churches whose membership forms around shared worship styles or doctrinal preferences, our church’s core membership is an interlaced network of cousins, aunts, uncles, grannies, and papaws. Randall’s wife is sister to June, who is married to Wanda’s brother. And so on. Over the last few years, my husband has managed to untangle these connections, but I still find it wise to follow the advice I received upon arrival. There’s a particular set of female cousins (all now senior citizens) who gave up their family names long ago, making it almost impossible to sort who’s a Simmons and who’s not.
Our church’s core membership is an interlaced network of cousins, aunts, uncles, grannies, and papaws.
Such tight family ties are not uncommon in our region. Some historians believe these “kin” networks may stretch back to the Scotch-Irish ancestors who were among the first Europeans to settle in these mountains. Besides a strong sense of honor, staying loyal to family could mean the difference between life and death in the harsh realities of the frontier. And who should you be able to trust more than your own people?
But what about when you can’t trust family? What happens when your “blood” is the very source of your pain and suffering? I remember standing in the back of the sanctuary one Sunday, trying to comfort a sobbing parishioner as she shared how a member of her family had betrayed her. “How could he do that to me?” she cried. “My own blood!” Her suffering was all the more severe because it had come at the hands of a relative.
The truth is that our families are not always safe places. Whether it’s the betrayal of divorce, abandonment by a parent, or strained sibling relationships, family dysfunction is more normative of the human experience than love and loyalty. And it’s been this way almost from the beginning. Open the pages of Scripture and you’ll soon see the first family descend into a blood feud. Read on and you’ll find a man who tricks his older brother out of his inheritance, a family that sells the younger brother into slavery, and a king’s son who sexually assaults his sister. And it goes on and on. The place where we should be safest can often be a place of shame and betrayal.
But it’s into this human family—this dysfunctional, untrustworthy family—that Christ comes as an older brother to redeem us.
Family dysfunction is more normative of the human experience than love and loyalty.
Many of us are familiar with the image of God as our Father. But when Jesus became human, He literally became our brother (Rom. 8:29). By taking on human flesh, He became part of the common brotherhood of humanity. So significant is this fact that Scripture devotes the opening chapters of both Matthew and Luke’s gospels to trace His kin network, untangling who married whom and which cousins belong to which aunts, just to prove that He is one of us.
But Jesus’ loyalty and care for His brothers and sisters extends far beyond biology. In Romans 8:29, the apostle Paul teaches that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, He became “the firstborn among many brethren.” In this way, Jesus established a new kind of family that is united, not by DNA, but by His love for us. And as we learn to love Him in return, this shared love naturally overflows as love for each other.
This is why the psalmist can declare that God “makes a home for the lonely” (Psalm 68:6). And even if our mothers and fathers forsake us, “the Lord will take [us] up” (Psalm 27:10). Our biological families may be broken and marred, but Jesus invites us into the safety of spiritual family, where He is our older brother and God is Father. And in this family, nothing can separate us from divine love.
There’s a Southern Gospel hymn that those in our church like to sing. The first verse is: “You will notice we say brother and sister ’round here / It’s because we’re a family and these folks are so near / When one has a heartache we all share the tears / And rejoice in each vict’ry in this fam’ly so dear.”
I have to smile when I hear that song because, around here, being family is both a metaphor for a greater spiritual reality and a statement of fact. Even as folks trace the branches of their family tree, the more sure ties are those that run through Jesus.
Of course, even in the family of God, we sometimes hurt each other. But in the power of the Spirit and with the grace of our loving Father, we can take steps toward reconciliation, walk through forgiveness, and find healing. After all, what’s impossible for human beings is possible for God.
Art by Jeff Gregory