Back in my seminary days, I worked for and then later managed the seminary’s bookstore. Part of my job involved setting up book tables at religious gatherings. While it could take a spell to get everything set up just right, the rest of the day was quite enjoyable as I got to do something I enjoy tremendously: talking with people about books!
During one of the sessions, the book table was fairly quiet, except for the occasional person stepping out from the meetings for a moment (or in some cases, playing hooky from the meetings, but enough about the clergy in attendance….). A young woman came up to the book table and started browsing. When she got to a particular, she stopped browsing and chatting with me. She was quiet for a moment as she stared down at the books on the table. She picked up a particular book and said with some wonder, “You mean there’s a book about me?”
The book’s title was “Adoptees Come of Age: Living Within Two Families”. The book was written for pastors caring for families with adopted children or the issues that an adoptee might have with the experience of being adopted. How do you “fit in” to an adoptive family? How do you deal with issues or questions you have about the circumstances that played into you being given up by a birth parent? How does an adult who was adopted look back at the experience? What issues or feelings linger about one’s “birth” family and the experiences of being part of the “adopted” family?
More telling to me was this person’s realization that “the Church” was a place for such concerns to be talked about. It did not occur to her that her experiences “mattered” to pastors or lay caregivers. The book made her feel “visible” as an adoptee sorting out her life story. Such a book made her feel like there was space in the church for her and her experiences. She was not the “odd one out” as a person sorting out what it means to be adopted (possibly a lifelong question for an adoptee). She could be part of the family of faith.
When we are baptized, we enter into the church, inheriting a family of brothers and sisters by faith, perhaps with ties stronger than any blood tie could be. All who confess and follow Christ as Lord and Savior are on the same footing, not to be known by the measurements and metrics of economics, society or nationality. We are welcomed into a family that knows no borders or bounds.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul likens the Christian believer as if one being adopted into a family. In the Greco-Roman world, adoption was less of a matter of compassion and more concerned with inheritance or standing, with the adoptee gaining such entitlement as if a biological son or daughter. Paul references this cultural and economic practice of adoption, though without the drama or the exceptions that society added. Through Christ, God welcomes us all as sons and daughters, a diverse family gathered together as one, a people called “church”.
Back home, the congregation sang the same song each week at the end of worship. After the benediction’s Amen, we sang:
I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God,
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood.
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,
For I’m part of the family, the family of God.
In this weekly ritual, these words reminded us that we are part of a family we are not born into, related one to another by our belief in Christ and our common inheritance of God’s abundance made known to us as Christ’s disciples. Our faith draws us together with Christ, joining into the joy and hope found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Week after week, year after year for many years, these words were offered as the last word of worship and the first word for the congregants getting ready to depart for the week ahead. As I look back, I see the good wisdom of what the last word of worship should be, as we go off in different directions, a word of encouragement and inspiration. If we relegate our faith to the one hour a week of worship, we miss the essential claim Christian belief makes upon the life of the believer. The “family of God” may go off in different directions at the “Amen”, but the “family” relationships do not end with the service.
When congregations live into this sense of “family” best, identifying why they live so well together offer indeed many examples from which to choose. You feel included because you have the experience of feeling welcome, able to participate and be yourself, and you are more than a name on a membership roll. When you are sick, cards and phone calls roll in. When you grieve a loved one’s death, you have little want for food or company. When you are in need, help comes in many forms. Such practices mark a church that knows how to be church, not just play around at it or think such matters are inessential.
A good story about this experience of “church” comes from the preacher Fred Craddock, who recalls an occasion from his early days in ministry in rural Appalachia:
It was the custom in that church at Easter to have a baptismal service, and my church immerses and it was held as baptismal service in Watts Barr Lake on Easter evening at sundown. Out on a sand bar, I — with the candidates for baptism — moved into the water and then they moved across to the shore where the little congregation was gathered singing around a fire and cooking supper. They had constructed little booths for changing clothes with blankets hanging, and — as the candidates moved from the water — they went in and changed clothes and went to the fire in the center. And finally — last of all — I went over, changed clothes, and went to the fire.
Once we were all around the fire, this is the ritual of that tradition. Glen Hickey — always Glen — introduced the new people: gave their names, where they lived, and their work. Then the rest of us formed a circle around them, while they stayed warm at the fire.
And the ritual was each person in the circle gave her or his name and said this,
“My name is ____, and if You ever need somebody to do washing and ironing...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to chop wood...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to baby-sit...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to repair Your house...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need anybody to sit with the sick...”
“My name is ____ if You ever need a car to go to town...”
And around the circle, and then we ate, and then we had a square dance. And, at a time they knew — I didn’t know, Percy Miller — with thumbs in his bibbed overalls — would stand up and say, “It’s time to go.”
And everybody left, and Percy lingered behind and — with his big shoe — kicked sand over the dying fire. And my first experience of that, he saw me standing there, still. And he looked at me and said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.”
In that little community, they have a name for that. I’ve heard it in other communities, too. In that community, their name for that is “church.” They call that “church.” (Craddock Stories, by Fred B. Craddock, edited by Richard Ward and Mike Graves, Chalice Press, p. 152)
Is there space for you in the midst of the church fellowship? It’s a question I take quite seriously. Indeed, it is a question that I never lose sight of as a matter of principle. A congregation should be known for its open doors and welcome, yet I can tell stories of persons who felt the brunt of being made to feel “different”, and I imagine you may know some stories as well, perhaps even out of first-hand experience. Welcoming all is a challenge. Including all in Christ’s grace and love is not found as readily as we would care to admit in many congregations.
What do you do when a person who was welcome up until some people in the congregation found out he was divorced and suddenly he felt looked down upon and unwelcome? What becomes of the woman who is clearly gifted, yet the idea of allowing her to serve as a deacon, one who serves and cares, is unthinkable? How does a disabled person feel included when meetings are held in places where it is impossible or very difficult to access and requests to accommodate these concerns are disregarded? What happens when a Korean mom and an African American dad bring their family to church for the first Sunday and find out from the reaction that they should have gone elsewhere? How do we welcome the pierced and the tattooed? Who is really “welcome”: a few or all? To me, there are are no half measures.
Just this past month, a Baptist preacher from the South (most assuredly not an American Baptist minister) used the pulpit to propose rather dreadful ideas about discriminating against gays and lesbians that reminded me all too much of the rhetoric of Nazi Germany. Watching the video clips on television, I was more frightened by the “amens” and applause of his congregants responding to his sermon. What sort of “welcome” is this? What sort of faith is this?
In my first pastorate, I used a book on baptism written for adults. The book was called “The Family of God”. A senior ministry colleague and I were talking shop, and I mentioned that I was using this book with two young adults. The colleague noted that the book might be a tough sell, as the book used the phrase “family” so frequently. “Family is not an easy word for people to associate with positive things like baptism and faith,” the colleague said.
Certainly, the idea of “family” is weighted with whatever experiences that each of us has with being part of a family. For some, “family” is a great metaphor to call upon, and for others, one less welcome as “family” is the last thing that one wants to think about. The word “family” can be shorthand for a tangled knot of relationships and experiences that we’d much rather not go into detail about even with ourselves.
In the living of such a faith in the midst of the world, have we the courage to share and model this sort of belief? What do we do when congregations have written or unwritten rules, or maintain unseen velvet ropes and stained glass ceilings?
At the end of things, we have our choices about faith and the way we live it out ourselves and with others. We have this grand vision of Christianity as a wide-ranging family of God who gives abundantly and unreservedly to all who would believe and follow Jesus. Our faith tells us we are adopted without pause or question into the family and even given pride of place, each of us.