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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

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Hope College, Holland, MI


We Are Family: A Theological Remix

February 08, 2010

If home is where the heart is, then family is what you make it. This weekend what has lovingly been labeled 'Snowmageddon' hit the northeast, that is, a massive snowstorm which has crippled the region. We are talking about widespread power outages, abandoned cars on the highway, sub-zero temperatures, and absolutely treacherous, whiteout road conditions. Oh, and just to keep everyone's wits about them, another fierce round of snow is scheduled to arrive in just a day or two, potentially dumping up to eight inches on top of the twenty-four that already has no place to go. The governor has declared a state of emergency in Pennsylvania, activating the National Guard to assist in clearing snow and obstructive debris. This is one of the largest snowfalls in the history of Pittsburgh, where I live.

Snowfall of this magnitude can easily invoke cabin fever. Thankfully though, on Saturday my wife and I were invited to lunch at a friend's house who lives only a few blocks away. We spent the afternoon with Helen and her family, which includes an elderly canine who kept trying to steal my food, and had an absolutely wonderful time. It is okay Spencer[1], I forgive you. We enjoyed one another's company, partook of an outstanding meal, and, of course, shoveled some snow from the driveway, so that Helen's little car didn't turn into an igloo overnight.

We aren't biologically related to Helen, but she is family. She encourages us to follow God's will for our life. She embraces our values. She looks out for us constantly like family does. She is what we call "good people," and with her we have a mutually beneficial, enjoyable friendship. As one would imagine, however, it has taken time to build. There was no overnight spiritual osmosis. It took intentionality and a shared commitment. It was a choice, and one that I am glad we made.

I have heard it said that you can't choose your family, that whoever you get is who you get, and that is that. I grasp the concept, that providentially God chooses or at least oversees (depending on your theology) individuals' care, first, through their family of origin. Surely, upon arriving home from the hospital no newborn baby throws down a penalty flag while being introduced to their new siblings and extended family members, only to demand a redo because the yahoos before them aren't quite what they bargained for. No, you don't select your family like you do a spouse. There isn't any free will decision making involving who raises you. It is totally out of your hands.

Be that as it may, and while also in a universal sense, as Sister Sledge once sang, "We Are Family," family is much more than meets the eye. You begin life with one family, but you have the blessing to choose along your journey to remix or redefine who will and will not, can and cannot be family to you. And, it really doesn't have anything to do with who you began life with as a child, but rather who in adulthood you choose to allow in your life as healthy supporters. You had no control over how you began life, but you can choose how you continue, and how you end.

Maybe your family of origin is severely dysfunctional, unashamedly addicted to the toxic brew of unrealistic expectation, wherein everyone expects you to fulfill roles and take on responsibilities that God never intended. Perhaps you identify all too well with the characters in Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge because one parent is irrational and immature, while the other is emotionally unavailable and controlling. And, goodness gracious, we haven't even gotten to your siblings. Then again, maybe The Cosby Show is more reflective of your upbringing where a deep sense of love, commitment, and respect permeated the familial dynamics.

Nevertheless, you have a choice in this matter of family.

Helen isn't my blood relative, but she is family. And, there are others like her who likewise have been adopted into my sphere of close care and concern. There is Pastor Davis, who officiated our wedding and my ordination, and Drs. Paterson and Yancey, who have helped us through many joys and pains over the years. Once my professors, these two wonderful women are now my family.

These and others (April, Heather, Eugene) in my family, this new family, are all different. Some of us differ in age, upbringing, geographic location, interests, vocational aspirations, and racial classification. However, Zora Neale Hurston said, "All of my skinfolk ain't my kinfolk." I second that emotion. In fact, the concept originates with Jesus. According to the gospel of Matthew:

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you."

He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."[2]

That is what this family, my new family, and I have in common. We find our ultimate comfort in the presence and power of Jesus, and are committed, as imperfect as we may be, to encouraging one another to live to glorify God above all else. It is as simple as that. I know that is a peculiar notion, but it is precisely what God calls all believers to.[3] Therefore, we are simply long-lost family members who have since been found by Jesus' abiding love, a love that comforts and transforms. I can think of nothing more beautiful than the notion that we are bound together by "one faith, one Lord, one baptism."[4]

Please understand. I am not advocating that you summarily kick your biological family to the curb, as tempting as that may be. I am, however, challenging you to be responsible for your emotional and spiritual health regarding who you allow access to the inner corridors of your life. Relationships are a privilege, not a right. Biological or spiritual connection, no one has some divinely predetermined right to damage your self-esteem and extinguish your passion to live, as God intends, free from pressure to perform as a caricature of the real you.

No one can force you to partake of their unhealthy and ungodly expectations. You have a choice in the matter.

You can pacify the parent whose only concern is your career trajectory, or when you will get married, or have a baby, or purchase your first home, or move closer to where they live. It is a choice.

You can pussyfoot around speaking forthrightly to the sibling whose idea of healthy communication is calling when they need something from you (e.g., advice, money, a shoulder to cry on, etc.). It is a choice.

You can wallow in agony and anger over a family of origin who, because of their own struggles, exploited you instead of protecting and loving you. It is a choice, and with God, believe me, there are always healthy, redemptive alternatives available.

You can choose.


[1] Spencer is by far the coolest dog this side of the Mississippi. I guess that in dog years he would be well over 100, but he is no doubt young at heart.

[2] Matthew 12:46-50.

[3] 1 Peter 2:9, Matthew 10:39, Matthew 16:24.

[4] Ephesians 4:5.


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