Recently, over a plate stacked high with thick waffles and crispy fried chicken, a dear friend asked me an unexpected question. She referenced seeing photos on social media of my extended family, all seven (now grown) siblings -plus spouses and children- and my parents, and she asked how we maintained such close relationships now into our adulthood. I paused for a moment and considered her question. Did we actually have close relationships? If so, what (or who) do we attribute them to?
Finishing my bite, I cracked a comment about how social media puts things in to a nice glowy square that might not, um, represent our reality just so. My family had endured hardship over this past year especially, with health challenges and job changes, and personalities had flared up in kitchens and over dinner tables. We are a large group of diverse people with differing values and perspectives. Some of us are in the periphery more than others. As I’ve said before, we are not afraid of confrontation and sometimes it gets messy.
And while all of this is true and can be arduous (as certain as real life), we still somehow maintain a closeness that might be unusual in this day in age. As my friend was asking about our dynamic, she expressed the desire to keep her own small unit close-knit as her children grew up and life expanded and I understood because I too share this goal. How do we cultivate an authentic atmosphere of family?
Here are a few thoughts, by no means exhaustive, on how we stay close as an extended family. These are just elements, like old fruit and sugar and butter and a little flour. Merely ingredients, waiting to play their part in the whole. Now that her question has got my mental wheels in motion, I’m sure I’ll be turning it over for awhile…
- Proximity. We live in a small town. Not all of us, and not all at the same time, but most of us, and our seasons have often overlapped. As we’ve taken jobs, pursued education, married and started families of our own, of course some of us have moved away for a time. But we’ve also moved back (and still, sometimes away again.) Our little town has been like the mother hive where we come for sustenance and community. The house our parents raised us in is still home, still the first place we gather when one of us is “in town” or home for good. Also, practically, there just isn’t a lot of extra entertainment to be had in a small town, so we get together a lot and do what people have always done: eat and talk. Some weeks we will see each other almost everyday; other weeks it’ll only be on Sunday, which brings me to…
- Touchstone. We have one day a week (Sunday) set aside as our touchstone time, around my parents table for lunch. We catch up, we play with babies, we chat with our Grandmother. Some weeks produce intense debate over a pressing matter, other weeks it’s just good enough to see each other’s faces. Having a weekly standing date brings comfort to a tired soul, a harbor in the storm, but it also provides a gentle kind of accountability. “We care about you. We are waiting on you. We want to know how your week was.”
- Celebration. We celebrate every dang thing. Birthdays, engagements, weddings, babies, housewarmings, whatever is happening in our lives at the moment, we are baking a cake and getting together to be happy about it. Life is hard, so we make much of the everyday victories.
- Devotion. The most important element is that, as Romans 12:10 puts it, we are simply “devoted to one another in love.” This is a decision before any expression. This applies whether physically near or far, whether we are emotionally available or estranged (because we have been all of this, at one time or another), whether we want to be or not! 😉 The seeds of devotion, of commitment and endurance, of dedication and love, were planted first in the hearts of my parents and then in our own hearts as children. Devotion means that we face the hard things together. That we let one another in. That we don’t give up. And now, as adults, we are harvesting the reward of their faithful work.
I recognize that not all families are willing or able to go the distance with one another. We are complicated beings and we always bring baggage in to our greater family dynamics, whether we realize it or not. But the good news is that Christ wants to renew our families! First as individuals, and then in an overflowing kind of way, to our larger circles. This is available to us. For even the most dire of circumstances, there is hope!
Jesus urges his disciples in John 13 to be known by their love for one another. The twelve were a tight knit, family-like unit, and we can learn much from their example. Maybe our blood family isn’t available to us, or maybe we are physically far away from them. Maybe we are starting from scratch with our own small little crews, trying to slowly turn the tide of what we’ve previously known. Where ever we are in the process, whatever methods we use to encourage a family culture of devotion, let’s be generous with the love we’ve been given by God. And our families are the perfect place to start.