Responsively Yours: We Are Families
- Audio version, November 2009 (MP3, 9.3MB)
- Cover of Response, November 2009 (PDF, 398K)
- Content of Response, November 2009 (PDF, 204K)
Harriett Jane Olson is deputy general secretary for the Women's Division.
Human families have changed significantly over the period of time from which we have oral or written history. We also know family structures vary in different cultures, and different languages express different degrees of “related-ness” to different relationships. Just think about some of the stories of biblical families:
Rachel and Leah with Jacob; David with Michal first, and then with Bathsheba; Hosea and Gomer. Each of these is set in a community that has opinions about the relationships and expectations of the parties.
Most of them demonstrate the same sort of multi-generational bonds we allude to when we talk of the “sandwich generation,” squeezed between the demands of caring for both aging parents and growing children.
The biblical stories describe a crisscross of duties, rights, benefits and liabilities of people in close relationship with each other. They don’t reflect the sort of nuclear family we have come to view as normative. They include stories of brokenness and abuse, stories of dedication, and stories of economic as well as emotional bonds.
Jesus’ family experience must have included many of these same patterns—why else would he have been able to remain behind in Jerusalem at 12 and his parents not notice his absence immediately? However, when Joseph resolved to “put [Mary] away quietly” (Matthew 1:19) we don’t get even a glimpse of how the families felt about it. Not until Elizabeth welcomes Mary do we meet a member of their extended families. The trip to Bethlehem isolates Mary and Joseph from their families, so they are alone at Jesus’ birth. How ironic that our “snapshot” of this moment — in nativity sets, stained glass windows and Christmas carols—almost seems to reflect the small family of today, rather than the large, complicated families we see across years of biblical history. Later of course, we get the list of Jesus’ brothers’ names in Mark 6 and a reference to sisters, unnamed, but still no introduction to their extended families.
Yet, even in Jesus’ family, complexity and trouble appear in the biblical text. When Jesus’ family comes to “restrain him” (Mark 3:21), presumably to ask him to come back to Nazareth and stop the itinerant preaching and verbal jousting with the religious authorities, he replies, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”
I don’t suggest this as a model way to respond to family members, but neither do I ignore it. Like Jesus, we may often be tugged in multiple directions because of our love, commitment and obligation to family and our love, commitment and obligation to God. Perhaps this is even healthy. Perhaps it is important for us to recognize these webs of commitment of our own. Perhaps being a “supportive community” means we accept there will be times when one of our sisters needs us that are not convenient or that may even cause conflict with our own families. Perhaps it also means we need to be willing to ask for support when things “blow up” for us too. Learning to trust, learning to ask, learning to value the decisions of others ... each of these seems to be part of being in relationship.
It is also the case that responding to the call of God, investing ourselves in the work of Jesus in the world, and taking action for women, children and youth takes time. This is time that might have been spent with family or even with our own circle or unit. We’re constantly negotiating and balancing to honor all of our commitments and to be present where we want and need to be.
How important it is that we feel the pull! How important it is that we honor each other as we balance our commitments. How wonderful to be in a place where the needs of the world can be heard as a call to action, and the call of God can be honored.
Thank you for all the ways you engage in this “worshipful work” of serving God and serving neighbor throughout the ups and downs of life!
Harriett Jane Olson
Deputy General Secretary
Date posted : December 2, 2009