Because today is the birthday of my youngest sister (I have three, and we are scattered from coast to coast, literally), I've been thinking about what family really is.
Yes, family certainly is that collection of people to whom we are related by blood and DNA and similar biological markers. So my birthday sister Mary (pictured here) definitely is family, as are my sisters Karin and Barbara.
And I wouldn't have it any other way. The four of us are quite close despite the long distances between us, and we see each other with surprising frequency for being so separated.
But I also know the lesson of my faith, which is that water is thicker than blood.
What does that mean?
For Christians (I am one), it means that the water of baptism creates a family that is -- or at least has the potential to be -- eternal and thus more long-lasting than family created just by blood.
When Jesus spoke about family, he expanded our horizons. He said his family wasn't just made up of his mother and sisters and brothers but of everyone who does the will of God. He wasn't putting down nuclear families. Rather, he was saying there is more.
In that approach, he was drawing on the lesson of the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures. There, Naomi, a Jew, made Ruth part of her family even though Ruth was a Moabite. And eventually Ruth wound up in one of the New Testament genealogies of Jesus.
So, in the end, family is created not just by blood but also by welcome and by welcoming grace.
Oh, and how old is Mary today? I ain't tellin'. Ask her yourself if you have a good reason to.
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STANDING AGAINST MORE HATE
I am reluctant to share this with you, but silence is not an option. I'm reluctant because I don't wish to give more attention to Fred Phelps and his hateful Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. Phelps has picketed me personally several times and has directly blamed me for the death of my nephew, a passenger on the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. He is wildly irrational, wildly homophobic and generally should be ignored, partly because you simply can't reason with irrationality. But now he seems to be emphasizing something new for him -- anti-Judaism (see my essay about the long history of anti-Judaism in Christianity under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page). The Phelps folks have just sent out this notice (caution: its language is grossly offensive)
that they plan to picket several Jewish sites in the Kansas City area today, including the New Reform Temple, where Jacques Cukierkorn, my friend and co-author of my new book, is rabbi. Any individual or oganization sending out notices that say "Jews killed Christ" and "God hates Jews" should be considered dangerous at a minimum. This venom must be called what it is -- hate.
I suggest this as a way of standing up to this garbage: Make a donation to one or all of the agencies the Phelps clan plans to picket today: Jewish Vocational Services, the Jewish Heritage Foundation, the New Reform Temple and Jewish Family Services. Phelps has a right in this country to hold ridiculous opinions and say hateful things, all the while claiming to be a Christian. But the rest of us can respond in wholesome and healthy ways -- first by not engaging the picketers in any way (confrontation is what they want) and second by supporting the picketed agencies with our money and our prayers.