I sometimes (OK, often) moan about not having my family close by. I was buying my niece a birthday present the other day and found myself wishing I could be more of a part of her life than I am. I often think it would be good to ‘pop in’ to see our parents or grandparents, or to be able to do coffee or dog walking or shopping together. Or sometimes when we need help – maybe a dog sitter or a lift somewhere – I say “wouldn’t it be nice if we could just ask so-and-so…”
I think that this desire for family life is not just me. It seems that most people long for the idyllic family home with roast dinners and laughter and people popping in. The reality of modern life, though, is that many of us find ourselves far from the places, people, even customs we grew up in. There are great benefits to this – diversity of experience and perspective, for example. But many of us also feel its disadvantages keenly: the lack of help or support, the feeling of not fitting in, a sense of isolation.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the remedy for this common loneliness. We need ‘non-family family’! People who, although they are not our blood relatives, and although they would never presume to take the places of those who are, nevertheless fulfill some of the roles we need in our lives. These people in our local communities, act as mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters . They ask how we are, look after our pets or children, drop by, take us out when we are low, help us fix our cars… The list goes on. No matter how near or far our blood families are, we need these ‘surrogate’ family members.
The Bible is actually full of references to this way of getting along. The New Testament talks of Christians as parents, siblings and children to each other, like a body that needs all its different parts to work together. It’s not that we are meant to forget our natural families – but there is the acknowledgement that sometimes natural families can’t be around for us and that God’s wider, diverse family can make sure that everybody’s needs are filled. When Jesus was on the cross, he said to his mother and friend ‘This is your mother now. This is your son now.’ He knew they would need each other when he was gone.
And we hear it a lot in Christian circles. ‘We’re God’s family – brothers and sisters’. The problem is that I’m not convinced that we really know what it means to act on it. The practical application is actually pretty challenging. Of course, it is challenging on a global level because it means that people in our worldwide family are starving to death at the same time as we are deciding whether to have a chocolate bar or a cake (or both!) with our cup of tea, and that while we lose sleep over whether we can afford a holiday, our brothers and sisters are lying awake in fear of violence and corruption. And if our blood brothers and sisters were in these situations, we would certainly want to do something about it.
But it is also challenging on a more local and personal level. If the woman sitting next to me in church is my sister, that means that she is equally as important as my blood sister. And if that woman needs me, she has equal claim to my help and my interest as my blood sister does. Some people are lucky enough to be surrounded by their family and friends, but others – because of loss, work, marriage, and a whole host of other reasons – are away from their loved ones. And it is these people in particular, like me, who may really appreciate a motherly gesture like a chat over coffee, or a sisterly shopping trip, or a social drink. The hard thing is that mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters should always be there for you. It is no good to offer a fatherly drink out occasionally, but when your blood children turn up to shut yourself off from your spiritual children. Nor should you neglect your blood children in favour of your church family. This is part of the challenge.
Not long after I was organising my niece’s present, I was out with some families and was honoured that a grandmother allowed me time to look after and play with her two granddaughters. She shared those girls with me and it warmed my heart and filled a little bit of the hole that missing my niece had created. On another day I rang a friend – a sort of surrogate mother – who, sensing that I needed to talk, invited me over. This week, my husband and I were invited to join a family on their daughter’s second birthday. We had a boat ride, fed the ducks, had a meal together. So many families would keep this kind of activity insular, but it meant the world to us to be included. It is these kinds of relationships that help me as I go about my life far from home.
My favourite programme is NCIS. I’m on Season 10 and I can’t get enough of it! One of the things I like about it is that the characters, who all work together to investigate crimes in the navy, treat each other as family. They’ve got each other’s backs. They talk about their problems, bring each other coffee, notice when someone is feeling a little off. They do a demanding job, but the family feel among their colleagues helps them to get through it. I’d love to see more of this kind of friendship in my church and community. Life can be hard, and we need each other.
So who can you be family to this week?