We are each of us born into some family unit or other. Yes, it sounds bleak, but humans and social creatures and all; even introverts like me can’t survive perpetually alone.
Yet the families given to us rather than chosen by us can be some of the most frustrating, mind-bending, soul-wrenching collections of people. Every teenager knows this, because teenagedom seems to be the age when you realize that there are other ways to do this, and some of them are much better, which seems horrendously unfair. As we get older, we learn to play nice, to find the good in others, to shut the dickens up when Auntie Grace asks you for the thirteenth time what you’re waiting for by still being single at your age.
Perhaps God gave us families to teach us humility.
So I went to this family thing out East, and it was fine. Legit—I have some fascinating relatives, and this was a collection of ones I’ve either never met or haven’t seen in about 15 years. I am constantly surprised by who my grandparents really were and how they fit in the world; they were neat people, and lived fully in ways I can’t even pretend I have the guts to do. This trip was a celebration of that, as well as a reconnecting to roots. My mother’s family is very closed about their past, for reasons I know and reasons I don’t, so I don’t think about roots all that much. But my grandfather’s family goes back to the early 18th century; half the mountains in a certain range out east seem to be named for some relative or other of mine. Although I have no real interest in genealogy, I appreciate this knowing, this sense that there is a home of my people, however I choose to interpret that. It was good to be reminded that I am not doing this alone.
And yet I was reminded how very alone I am, in some ways. Extended family can be maddening or hilarious or interesting or strange, but immediate family is the test of our humanity. I’m not terribly comfortable with my immediate family—never have been—and the first day or two was every bit as awkward as I had feared it would be. You see, Reader, I am unmarried, I have no children and do not want them, I am moving from having dedicated my life to the University to dedicating it to the Church. I am this against the backdrop of my closest siblings (age- and geography-wise) who have no truck with Church, are not quite sure why I need an esoteric degree, and are very much family people who love their children.
Kudos to them. Seriously, I’m glad that there are differences in people. But there is this wall (admittedly, there are many more bricks in that wall than differences in priority, because every family has its skeletons grinning blankly in the dust of closets) that effectively cuts me off from relating to them. I don’t fit, or at least I feel like I don’t fit, which comes to the same point.
I say this to you, Reader, not so as to dredge through my issues with my family of origin. Rather, my purpose is twofold. One, if you also feel like the black sheep in your family, I want you to know that there are many of us in our darkened wool who graze on our own, by choice or directive; we are not the same shade of shadow, you and I, but we know we stand at a difference from the nursery-room legged clouds gathered at the other edge of the pasture (who are themselves far greyer than any of us would like to admit).
Two, I would like to inform you that God is also in the East. This may seem obvious, but in this extended analogy of sheep, it was so good to find that even as I sat on the porch of a cabin high above sea level fending off mosquitoes and watching the sun sink behind the oldest mountain chain in the world, I was not truly alone. The Shepherd was there, quietly admiring His work in these worn rocks slowly flattened by time, rain, snow, humans. It was good to know that, however much I don’t feel as though I fit in my family of birth and circumstance, of experience and emotion, I am called to a different Family.
I recognize—oh, how I recognize, Reader—that often the most difficult form of address within Christianity is the one that uses family language. God as Father or Mother or fellow believers as brothers and sisters calls forth a lot of scars for many of us, stretches wounds gone white with time, bandaged by our own self-directives to forget. We carry much, we humans born to humans, of what has or hasn’t happened, of what we remember or what we wish. We bring this caravan of baggage wagons to this God Who calls Himself Abba, Daddy, and we say we are not part of this. We cannot be part of this.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t use Father or Mother language when addressing God. And I am, after many years, just beginning to accept brother and sister as titles—because my family of origin does not own those. They, too, have their caravan, of which I may know nothing at all; yet God sees each of our carefully packed bags and picks them up effortlessly, handling our pain and joy with care. He tells us He is remaking this notion of family, in such a way that a reunion is a blessed thing, that there is no one who sits out on the porch alone, that all are as welcome and welcoming as Cousin Bill, who says you’re all right.
May you find that Family, Reader, and let it sustain you in the days when we ebony sheep feel so keenly our differences and walls.