Family (noun) 1. a primary social group consisting of parents and their offspring, the principal function of which is provision for its members 2. any group of related things or beings
--World English Dictionary
It’s always the baked beans which remind me that I’m home again with my family. Served on sturdy white paper plates, on a steamy summer afternoon, as kids play in the back yard and adults swap family tales, the beans and their sweet fragrance of brown sugar and salt pork, mark a return to my clan, my blood relatives, and my origins. The recipe for the baked beans is my Father’s and though he is no longer with us to share his culinary gifts, he is here in a way. For it is family reunion time again.
Most summers like clockwork, since I was a kid, my Mom or my Dad’s side of the family gathers together, cousins and second cousins, in-laws and children, grandchildren and an adopted family friend or two. After all: we’re family. And so like spinning electrons inexorably attracted to each other even as we fly off in different orbits, we reunite and connect again in family, as family.
The beginning of the reunion can be a bit awkward. It might have a few years since we’ve last seen each other, at a sad family wake or a raucous family wedding. So much changes so quickly in the unrelenting passage of time. That little boy you remember is now a six foot tall college freshman. There are new babies to meet and patriarchs and matriarchs to mourn. A new spouse to introduce. But then, inevitably, we settle into one another again. We fall back into the God-given gift that finally is a family.
Not perfect by any means, that is for sure. The Russian author Tolstoy once remarked, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and this observation holds true for my family and all families. We human beings cannot spend all of our lives in and with family, without the natural ebb and flow of life, tears and laughter, death and birth. So there are always triumphs to report: a new job, a beautiful new baby, a marriage, success. And there is pain to share as well: unemployment, sickness, divorce, just plain old human struggle. Yet even in all of these peaks and valleys there is a grace that happens in families who stick together and stay together and hang together through all that which this life sends our way.
Even God needs a family. In my faith tradition Jesus doesn’t just appear—POOF!—on this earth and start preaching away. Instead he is birthed into the world and into a family. By a Mom who nurtures him, a Dad who teaches him, siblings who walk with him, Aunts and Uncles and cousins, all who shape him into who he is to become. That’s how it is with us humans too, always. We might imagine at times we’ve gotten to where we are in this life all on our own, through sheer will or smarts, but the truth is that we are all created in and by the families we grow up within. By blood ties. By birth. By genealogy. By the love ties which bind us together, most of the time for the better, sometimes for the worse, but always for sure.
Even as the definition of family has expanded in our world to include same sex couples, and grandparents raising grandkids and adoptions and miraculous medical ways of bringing a child into the world, the hopeful goal for all families of every shape and size never, ever changes. For in family, God teaches we are made not for ourselves alone, but for others too. God makes us in a family to teach us how to be in relationships. Humanity is never, ever a solo affair. We all need love. We all need to love and it is within a family that this call is born, tested and played out most powerfully.
And so, we all sit around and savor the baked beans. We watch in joy as a one year old tries his best to blow out his first birthday candle. We huddle in inter-changeable groups of two or three or four and talk about all that has happened since we last gathered. We lament and remember the ones no longer alive. We marvel at the young kids and hope that someday they’ll be the ones to organize the family reunion. We tell bawdy and bittersweet family tales until the sun goes down and the stars appear.
We are together. We are family. Thank God.