Thoughts on Messy Families, Church, and Grace at the Holidays

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While being “the most wonderful time of the year” for some, the holidays can be lonely, alienating, and isolating for others. Loneliness, alienation, and isolation often come from struggles related to family. Many of us have at least one “Cousin Eddie” situation that confronts us during the holidays, and that tempts us to look at our nuclear and extended families with cynicism, anger, and even despair.

(If you don’t know who Cousin Eddie is, he is Clark Griswold’s blowhard, boisterous, high-maintenance, hard to love of a cousin who shows up, unannounced, to Clark’s house in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation…a true classic for those of us who also couldn’t imagine life without Tommy BoyNapoleon Dynamite, and Dumb & Dumber).

But I digress…

With Thanksgiving upon us this week, I want to reflect on the solution Jesus provides for the fractured relationships—family and otherwise. Not only is his solution good for us; it also provides an empowering resource, one that enables us to move toward “Cousin Eddie” in ways that heal instead of perpetuate the wounds.

So then, what is Jesus’ solution to our holiday woes? I believe it’s this…

Jesus gives us himself;

He also gives us a family…in the local Church.

To disciples who had left everything to follow him, Jesus responded with these words:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).

Did you hear that? Who is your mother and father and sisters and brothers? Even if your earthly family is a train wreck, if you are with Jesus then you have another anchor family—mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who, like you, are united to Jesus by faith. The Church is God’s redeemed society, a family of surrogates united together by one LORD, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In the Church is a solidarity that transcends all other loyalties while also demolishing divisions.

Peter, a loud and intense man with low emotional intelligence, and John, a gentle and contemplative man, become as inseparable brothers through their shared union with Jesus.

Simon, an anti-government zealot and Matthew, a government employed tax collector, are transformed from enemies to friends by that same union.

David and Jonathan, the son of a shepherd and the son of a king, become the dearest of friends through a shared faith.

These are merely a sampling of what theologian Donald Carson has said about the family of God in his book, Love in Hard Places:

The Church itself is not made up of natural “friends…” What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says—and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.

This solidarity around the experience of loving Jesus—or, rather, of being deeply loved by Jesus—has also made the Church the most inclusive community in the history of the world. This was felt deeply especially in first century Jerusalem, where Rabbis openly and often prayed, “Thank you, God, that I am not a woman, a slave, or a gentile.”

In a culture of social pecking orders where Jewish men ran things and everybody else’s role was to support them in their privilege and treat them as important, Jesus came in to level the playing field, and to re-affirm that all people are equal in dignity and value.

The Holy Spirit then punched the Rabbi’s prayer in the gut, ensuring that the first three Christian converts were a woman, Lydia, who hosted a congregation in her house, a slave in Philippi, and a gentile prison guard (Acts 16:11-40).

Inspired by God’s stance of showing no partiality, the Apostle Paul would write these words about God’s family, the Church:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

In the Church God has given us a family—a first and anchor family—where healing from the dysfunctions and sorrows and losses experienced outside the Church can occur. What many have been denied in their nuclear families—a loving spouse, supportive parents, honoring children—existed for Jesus and also exist for us inside the family of God.

But like the nuclear family, the Church will also live with dysfunction until Jesus returns. But because we know that Jesus will complete the work he has begun in us, because we are his workmanship, because resurrection and new life are in our future, we can treat ourselves and each other with hope instead of cynicism. We can live in confidence that we are not yet what we will be. We can look at the caterpillar in front of us—whether in the mirror or face to face with another—and envision the butterfly. Jesus will soon present his family, the Church, to himself as a radiant bride without spot, wrinkle or blemish. It’s already settled (Philippians 1:6; Ephesians 2:10; John 11:25; Ephesians 5:27).

So then, what if the Church became the first place, instead of the last place, that people went looking for family?

What if the Church was filled with unmarried people but had no “single” people, because unmarried people were as family to each other, and surrogate brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and sons and daughters to the rest of the Church?

What if the Church was the place where no parent felt the burden of having to raise children alone, and where every child had hundreds of mothers and fathers and grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles and big sisters and brothers?

What if it were true that God sets the lonely in families? (Psalm 68:6) What if the Church was the place where anyone in the world could find refuge and solace from the age-old malediction—first uttered into Paradise—that it is not good to be alone?

This is exactly what God intended for the Church to be.

And do you know what else? When we “leave” our earthly families for the anchor family that God provides in the Church, we actually end up “cleaving” better to our earthly families. Why is this so?

Because in the Church, we are taught first to know God as a Father who protects, defends and provides, and as a Mother Hen who gathers us under his wings to shelter us.

In the Church, we are taught to know Jesus as a Brother who is not ashamed of us, and as a Husband who repeatedly forgives us, empowers us, holds us, and lays down his life for us.

In the Church, we are taught to know the Holy Spirit as a Comforter, Counselor, and Guide.

The more we come to know Father, Son and Spirit in these ways, the more equipped, empowered, and energized we will be to protect, defend, provide, shelter, bless, forgive, empower, hold, lay down our lives, comfort, counsel and guide in our earthly families.

In short, through the character formation we experience through hard-fought love inside the Church, we are better equipped to love and bless our earthly family members who may be outside the Church.

Rather than a pain in the neck, Cousin Eddie becomes a target of our love, a chief beneficiary of our kindness. Because of the influence of the anchor family, the family of Jesus, we will start thinking creatively how we can love Cousin Eddie well in spite of his offensiveness, abrasiveness, low emotional intelligence, and painstaking awkwardness.

Don’t let your earthly family be your Jesus.

Instead, let Jesus and his Family be your anchor family.

When you do, your earthly family will be better for it.


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5 responses to “Thoughts on Messy Families, Church, and Grace at the Holidays”

  1. Patrice says:

    How I long for the church of Christ to truly be as Scott Sauls talks about in this article!! Unfortunately this hasn’t been my experience as a former pastor’s wife of almost 20 years…so much pain in the church!!

  2. Craig Philip says:

    Scott, such strong words embracing inclusion – no litmus tests, neither free nor slave, no male and female……hope each of us and our institutions can embrace in this time of Thanksgiving. I find myself driving thru Alabama today and it honestly feels creepy,sad and more..

  3. Vic Woodward says:

    Scott, great post to contemplate and for the church to aspire to becoming in the love of Jesus. I’m finding “church” in smaller gatherings in our home, where what you describe is a reality.

  4. Dory says:

    Hermoso escrito, siempre me encanta leerlos todos…

  5. May Smith says:

    Are we able to say that we don’t have to like someone but we must love them?

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