Later today, hopefully I will emerge from my weekly preacher nap and remember to call my mother. Some years I remember in advance to send her something, but this isn’t one of those years, and in my defense, my mom is an uncommonly difficult person to buy things for, because she doesn’t really seem to want things; mostly she wants to spend time with her children and grandchildren. Since I can’t be there in person, I’ll call and let her know that I appreciate her – and probably listen to the sounds of all my siblings and their kids in the background. Spending time with family has always been a high priority for the Midge clan, and although their one itinerant daughter isn’t around as much, the rest of my family almost always makes sure to get together for holidays.
Being the one who is far away and who doesn’t have children of my own, this is kind of a mixed bag for me. I know many people who complain about having to spend time with their families, but I confess that it’s kind of a bummer sometimes when my parents and siblings and their spouses and kids are all together and I can’t be there. Mothers Day isn’t fraught with emotion for me, but I have some ambivalence about it. I’m happy to have the reminder to celebrate my mom and let her know she’s loved and appreciated, but it’s not the same when I can’t be there with her, or with the rest of my family on a day that is made out to be so much about nuclear family.
I’m also conscious today that Mothers Day is a complicated holiday for lots of people. For those of you who might be grieving and missing your mothers who have died, or who have strained relationships with your mothers, or who have longed to be mothers, the day might be a strained one. For mothers who have lost children, or who are struggling to manage the burdens of motherhood, the day may not be a purely joyful one. This holiday carries a certain expectation that we are all part of a particular vision of the happy nuclear family. When, for whatever reason, you’re not, it’s a day that can feel a bit lonely.
For some people, this day or other holidays brings out especially strong feelings of loneliness, but this isn’t the only time when people are lonely. Earlier this week CNN published an article on loneliness article, citing a recent study by the insurance company Cigna. The elderly and teens are particularly vulnerable to isolation, but loneliness crosses generations. Nearly half of American adults say that they do not have a meaningful social interaction each day. Over 40% said their relationships do not feel meaningful. Loneliness is now considered a public health crisis, and it’s one with real physical effects, including shortening your lifespan by five years or more.
As a society, our relational networks are failing us. People frequently feel alone, and in many cases, are alone.
By contrast, yesterday I saw a picture on Facebook of a team of a bunch of you helping another of our members move into her new apartment. The casserole train has been running full steam ahead for a few of our people with health challenges. We’ve had multiple single, childless, elderly members – which is normally a recipe for extreme loneliness and isolation. And yet folks have christened themselves “Team Hanna” and the like, and taken on tremendous responsibility for caring for the needs of those who would otherwise have been extremely isolated.
We love our nuclear families here at MAPC, but we also know the nuclear family isn’t all there is or all there should be. Later in the service, we will baptize Teegan, and her nuclear family will stand with her and support her in that – but so will we, as the church, the family of Christ. A baptism is about more than the grace of a loving nuclear family; it’s about the grace of the gathered community of faith, all adopted into God’s family. The family of Christ is something bigger than the nuclear family. It is, in some ways, the exact opposite of a nuclear family. Instead of focusing in on its own center, at those who are most “in,” the family of Christ zooms out. It is the peripheral family.
The peripheral family looks to the outer edges of our vision, not merely at what is easy to see. The peripheral family sees the members who could be easily missed, off to the side. It is not a family based on birth, or even on the chosen and therefore often easier connections of friends. It is a family based only on our common humanity, our search to experience and share the love of God, and our desire to follow the example of Christ.
This makes things challenging sometimes, because the church is not always made up of people who would otherwise choose to be together. We may not have the long history together of a nuclear family, or the affinities and similarities in personality that friends often share. We may find each other hard to deal with – especially those who are most peripheral, those who are least like us and least central to our own sightlines. But in the church we are called out of tunnel vision, out of only involving ourselves with those who are like us or those who are easy or those who we enjoy. We are the peripheral family, the family of those on the margins.
The original disciples in the first church, those hundred and twenty people listening to Peter at the beginning of Acts, functioned as a family, even though they were not related. Many of them would not normally be found in the same spaces or social circles. And yet they were family, as close as any nuclear family, sharing meals and possessions and time freely with each other. But they were not a nuclear family. They were a peripheral family, always looking around at who was on the edges.
In so many ways, we already know how to do this here. Many of us have been or are on the periphery in other communities. For many people, we have been a peripheral family, opening this faith community to those who are excluded elsewhere, looking to those at the margins of our vision and embracing those who might be easy to miss.
And yet, the periphery stretches beyond what we have already seen. Human nature pulls us toward the center, toward those who are already in, but Christ calls us to look to the margins, toward the outside edges, toward the excluded, the isolated, the lonely. Who are we missing? Who is hovering at the edge of our vision, feeling lonely and isolated, looking for a place to belong? For whom might we be the peripheral family?