What does it mean to be "a family"?
retold by Deborah
Get up and put a smile on your face, for the Glorious One is shining on you.
The world is covered with stupidity so thick you can cut it with a knife, and many will trip and fall into it; but God’s wisdom will dawn and illuminate you. People will be drawn to your radiance, and will learn from you.
Keep your chin up: just look around, already your people are being gathered together; young and old, from far and near they come to you; the family you didn’t know you had.
Once you understand that, you will be happy, for you will have wealth beyond counting. Then you will give thanks to the Beloved.
Isaiah isn’t exactly known for his optimism. He is primarily a prophet of doom, scolding the Israelites for falling away from the holy teachings, warning them of the consequences of wicked behavior, and just generally painting an ugly picture of what is to come.
But every so often, his tone softens.
Every so often he realizes that divine grace and compassion are constants in the history of God’s people. Every so often the Spirit moves him to speak an encouraging word. This week’s passage reflects such a time.
While not denying the evils that so often surround us, Isaiah reminds us of the goodness in our lives, as well. In my free translation, we hear a hopeful message of enlightenment, of dawning joys, of those who understand, support and uplift us.
I find Isaiah’s words particularly meaningful at this point in my life. The power of friendship is one of God’s greatest gifts to me.
An only child raised on the opposite coast from my grandparents and the rest of our relations, my notion of extended family was formed, primarily, by the television programs of the 1960s. In those, parents and children and brothers and sisters might squabble and disagree but — in the end, love would conquer all.
Family bonds appeared to be so sweet, so warm, so friendly. I felt that I was missing out.
As I entered my teenaged years it seemed as if having an older brother would have been An Especially Good Thing: a direct link to eligible boys. An older sister, or even a younger one, would have been a fashion consultant, a homework helper, a shoulder to cry on… But I had none.
Instead, I had friends — who were all those things and more (except, darn it all, introductions to cute boys). Loreen, Suzie, Oralia, Lisa, Linda … we listened to one another’s troubles, protected one another’s secrets, encouraged one another’s dreams, and knew each other’s phone numbers by heart.
I was certainly not missing out.
Happy families are all alike;
every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
~ Leo Tolstoy
As I grew older, I met new people, formed new friendships, and learned a lot more about families. In both my work and personal life I encountered people who had been terribly damaged by relatives: some had suffered horrifying physical abuse, others had been tormented and demeaned emotionally, had been isolated, shamed, scorned, or ignored. Almost without exception these survivors were troubled because they found it difficult to love those who had abused them. “After all,” one middle-aged woman told me, “they’re my only family.”
The more I heard, the more grateful I was to be an only child. And I began to realize that, for many people, friends fulfilled the roles typically understood as “family.” They were the ones who listened, who celebrated and commiserated, who shared and cared and were there — in good times and in bad.
While certainly there are happy families — parents and siblings, in-laws and extended relations who are loving and loyal to one another, they are not as common as we might wish. Too often there is jealousy, envy and outright hatred — and a large percentage of just plain crazy.
We may laugh at our eccentric uncles, joke about the spinster aunties, but the issue of unrecognized or blatantly ignored mental health problems is enormous. And terribly damaging.
After being told that his mother and siblings were outside, waiting to speak to him, Jesus shocked his hearers by saying: “What are you talking about?” Gesturing toward his followers, he said, “Look! Here is my family: those who do the will of my heavenly Father are my brothers and sisters and mother” (Mt 12:48-50).
Jesus described what “a real family” looks like: people who are loving, compassionate, merciful, and generous. Family is those who care for us, who share their time, their wisdom, and their hearts with us. The ones who encourage us and care for us, who stick with us in good times and bad; they are the ones of whom we can say, “Here is my family!”
It can happen that relatives are hurtful and hateful. They can be intentionally destructive and violent. They can be damaging to body, mind, and spirit. It can happen that — for both safety and sanity – they must be avoided. To do so is not an easy decision: the idea of “family” carries a great deal of emotional and social baggage. Those who have made that choice continue to mourn their loss alongside their relief.
Some of us have been blessed with loving parents, a terrific partner, and delightful children; others have not been as fortunate. And often we do not know who they are. Many — out of embarrassment or shame or fear — put on a cheerful facade, claiming that everything is fine, that love and joy abound. Meanwhile their hearts are breaking, and sometimes their spirits and bodies, as well.
We may not know who is in need of “a real family,” but we do not need to know. We are to be kind, compassionate, and encouraging to everyone we meet. We are to bless and not curse, comfort and never cause despair, seek to understand and not condemn. Our Lord Christ made it clear: we are to behave like a real family to everyone we meet.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings to you, my dear family!
Who has been family to you?