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Redefining family

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By Tracy Simmons

Editor’s Note: This sermon was presented on Oct. 26 at Salem Lutheran Church.

One of the things I love about Salem is the sense of kinship that fills this sanctuary.  As the editor of SpokaneFAVS, I visit houses of worship throughout Spokane often and it’s always a joy when I get to come here on a Sunday morning.

I sit and take in the bonds that are evident in this place. In the back pew Arlo echoes the new words he hears his mom say. I’ve witnessed three weddings in this church, one during a morning service. I see siblings, partners, children and parents worshipping here together. Observing all the families that make up Salem, makes me think of my own — of my dad, the charming hillbilly from East Texas and my mom, witty and strong.

My dad was always full of jokes. But they’re not really church appropriate, so let’s skip to my mom.

She and her best friend, Cathy, would make holidays memorable with Easter egg hunts or Christmas cookie decorating parties. In the summer my mom would take me to the drive-in movie. One time that 1980s military recruiting commercial came on and ended with a Marine saying, “We’re looking for a few good men.” My mom shouted back, “So am I!” I acted as if she embarrassed me, then ducked behind the seat and started laughing.

Those happy times can be fun to look back on, though I remember very few of them.

There was a time when my parents were in love. My mom fell for my dad when she was around 19 or 20 years old. They got pregnant, so they got married, entering into an unforeseen life together.

I’m sure when I was born some 30-odd years ago and the doctor exclaimed, “It’s a ….redhead!” my parents felt what I imagine most parents do in that moment — a determination to protect their child, and to love her everlasting.

But sometimes families fracture.

Dads leave.

Moms do too.

I’m not sure what the stats were back when I was 18 months old and my dad walked out. But according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, today one in three children grow up without their dads around.

That means one in three children know a parent’s rejection. So do their moms.

When my dad left, my mother became a widow. Her heart, her hopes, her blueprint for the future, went away with him. My mom stayed with me, but after such dolor, she only partially remained.

She frosted cookies with me at Christmas and took me to the show, but as the years went by, so  to grew the wound that my dad had caused her. Having a kid wasn’t planned. Being a single mom at 22 years old, was not what she expected — and for years my mom struggled her way through that, forcing herself into a role that she kinda’ just got stuck with.

Motherhood isn’t for everyone. Sadly, two million children in America know this. You can bind yourself to something unwanted for only so long. It’s not that my mom didn’t want me, her daughter, but, like my dad, my mom thirsted for a different life and I just didn’t fit. It took her three decades, but ultimately she too walked away.

A family. A widow. An orphan.

Yes, even as adults, we can become orphaned. And even as adults, it hurts.

The knowledge that your parents — and those attached to your parents — intentionally leave you behind so that they can unlearn you can at times feel too heavy.

Because, as Actor David Ogden Stiers once said, “Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.”

Yet castaways, like myself, are everywhere. Thrown away because they’re gay, or because of religion, or affairs, or drugs, or careers, or any other number of excuses.

The abandoned are throughout. They’re on the North end. They’re downtown. They’re on the corner. They are in these pews.

So, Salem, what do we do?

In the book of James, the author, probably the half brother of Jesus, begins his letter with kinship, and ends with it as well. Note that he starts his missive by calling the recipients “brothers and sisters” and ends with instruction to care for the widows and orphans: “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” he writes.

The purpose of the book of James is to give instruction on daily Christian living. Caring for the widows and orphans, he says, should be a regular, daily part of your Christian faith.

It seems like a simple enough commandment, but is quite complex when you begin to dissect it. Because “care” means to be troubled, worried, anxious or concerned. It’s an Old English word that meant “serious mental attention.” By saying to care for them, James is saying to be genuinely concerned for them, to be distraught by their casualties, as if they were your own.

In other words: love them. We fear for those we love. We fear for our family.

I’m teaching a course right now called Intercultural Communication and our text says family is this: “any sexually expressive or parent-child or other kin relationship in which people are usually related by ancestry, marriage or adoption.”

My students agreed with me that maybe it’s time to change that definition.

Family can indeed be those you share a bloodline with. For some that knot is sacred. Family, though, can also be those you choose to devote yourself too: your loyalties, your time, your “serious mental attention.” Selecting your family, means willfully tying yourself to those who will return your affection.

My relatives failed me. But the divine put individuals in my life to fill that void, people who make me homemade dinners each week, because they’re worried about my diet; people who force me to turn off the computer for a few hours on Sundays so I can watch football, because they care that I relax; people who check in on me each day to make sure I’m doing something to center myself today, because how much I work causes them anxiety; two women who said they always wanted an adult child, and are willing to make those tough decisions for me, if God forbid, my health ever takes a turn.

I’m drawn to these people, as they are to me and I strive to be a better kinsman to them. I don’t want to fail them. They can never fully take away my parent’s rejection, I fear that will prick me always, but this family I’ve absorbed does make the discard bearable.

Salem, you have the power to make someone’s life endurable.

The truth is, dad, sister, brother, grandpa — are words I know, but have never tasted. Mother, is a person I couldn’t hang on to. Family, then, became something I couldn’t have, and didn’t want because it was unsafe and it couldn’t be trusted. I imagine those sentiments would have been different if a church, like this one, had truly cared for my mom, the widow.

Thankfully, I eventually came to realize that by guarding myself, I was the one rejecting those surrounding me, those trying to care for me. And now I can see that I have mothers and brothers everywhere. We may not share a turkey dinner next month, probably because I’m a vegetarian, but I can rest each night with a sense of belonging.

I finally fit.

James ends his letter with a reminder to keep oneself unstained by the world. Yet so many carry the burden of rejection with them, that they can’t help but be blackened by the feelings of loneliness, abandonment and skepticism. Perhaps they just need a family to take them in, so those emotions, those stains, can be replaced by what a family is supposed to offer: unconditional love, support, asylum.

Imagine what could happen if more caretakers began fostering Spokane’s castaways.

About Tracy Simmons

Tracy Simmons
Tracy Simmons is an award winning journalist specializing in religion reporting, digital entrepreneurship and social journalism. In her 13 years on the religion beat, Simmons has tucked a notepad in her pocket and found some of her favorite stories aboard cargo ships in New Jersey, on a police chase in Albuquerque, in dusty Texas church bell towers, on the streets of New York and in tent cities in Haiti. Simmons has worked as a multimedia journalist for newspapers across New Mexico, Texas and Connecticut. Currently she serves as the executive director of SpokaneFAVS.com, a digital journalism start-up covering religion news and commentary in Spokane, Wash. She also writes for The Spokesman-Review and for the Religion News Service.

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21 comments

  1. Beautifully said.

  2. Beautiful, Tracy. Love this: “Family, though, can also be those you choose to devote yourself too: your loyalties, your time, your “serious mental attention.” Selecting your family, means willfully tying yourself to those who will return your affection. My relatives failed me. But the divine put individuals in my life to fill that void…”

  3. Tears well up. And admiration. I will be speaking about God the Father next Sunday. I may quote you.

  4. Patty Dyer Bruininks

    Thank you for sharing your story, for being honest about the losses in your life and for pointing out how the church needs to help those in need, no matter how it is they became in need. I am so glad you have found family that loves you, supports you, and looks out for you.

  5. Beautifully told, Tracy. Paul also has much about family and marriage. The current Christian Century has an illuminating article on his advice about marriage, and the author discusses those marginalized people who are often rejected from family memberships, such as homosexuals or divorcer adults. I’d like to hear your take on what the author says. Maybe your father belonged to one of these rejected groups. It’s not uncommon. In my book, he still belonged to your family even if the marriage ended. And by that not being honored, you were hurt.

    • Hi Tom, thanks for your comments. I’m sorry to say I don’t know much about my dad, but I know he too came from a fractured family.

  6. Lovely, article, Tracy. Thank you for sharing a reminder with all of us that family is who we make it. Glad to be part of your extended family. – Kelly