This Fall, we had a Wednesday night faith formation group, and used the Animate videos and discussion material. Though billed as "An Animated Discussion about Faith", it's actually a primer on the basics of the Christian faith, with plenty of wiggle room for differing ideas and opinions.
A couple of weeks ago, we finished the series with the session on the church. "What is the church, after all?" was the question. There were a lot of different proposals: social club, a classroom, a sporting event, a theatre, or a hospital? (hospital is my personal favorite). None of these, really, it turns out. But Bruce Reyes-Chow's answer sort of took me aback:
Now he did quality his answer by letting us know that the church is an imperfect family, not the 1950s squeaky clean, solve-your-problems-in-27-minutes-like-on-TV family, but a messy, chaotic, sometimes rubbing-each-other-the-wrong-way family.
I grew up referring to the church as my family. It has been hard for me to give up the habit, but I have been working on it these many years. The seminary professors and evangelism specialists have been repeating, again and again, this mantra: NEVER call the church your family. This is a BAD idea, and part of the problem. And I actually see their point. When you think about the church as a family, when you close your eyes and imagine it, what does it look like? A few people who all sort of resemble one another? A small table in the kitchen: coziness, a sense of intimacy? Our images of family often look like closed circles, and it's hard to imagine letting very many new people in. It is really hard to become family (harder in some families than in others). Many churches are already ingrown. "Church family" language reinforces the idea that there are insiders and the outsiders, and doesn't answer the question, "What are we here for?"
If you read the Scriptures, it's hard to get around the fact that we really are related to one another, in some way or another. Don't call us a family, if you don't want to, and please don't think that we all look alike, but do recognize the fact that those of us who have been joined to Christ have also been joined to one another, whether we like it or not. Somehow, we are all related. And even though we are called to welcome people into the body of Christ, becoming family is not as easy as a two-session "new member" course. Perhaps that is why I am attracted to the catechumenate process. It takes seriously the idea that becoming part of the Body of Christ, becoming grafted into the vine, becoming family, is not so easy. It is being patient with each other. It is listening. It is looking into one another's eyes and seeing the beauty along with the scars. It is a lifelong practice of grace, the grace first extended to us.
Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related. That's what the Lakota believe. But it is not so easy to practice.
There is no them and us. There is only us. That's what Father Gregory Boyle says. But it is not so easy to practice.
In church, we practice being family. By which I mean that we practice sharing our food, forgiving each other, cheering each other on.
And perhaps, in practicing, we can learn to see the stranger as kin, that through the mercy of Christ, we are all related.