I don’t want to tell you this.
But, it’s true.
I wasn’t able to celebrate the holidays the way we all dreamed for ourselves, as a child.
Aunts and uncles.
And a gaggle full of cousins.
Instead, my husband Eric and I packed up a 9×13 pan of scalloped potatoes, along with four bottles of Martinelli’s apple cider into the back trunk, and buckled our three year old CJ and six year old TJ in the back seat.
I turned back to smile at the boys and said, “Isn’t this going to be fun? We’re going to Auntie Merrianne’s and Uncle Roderick’s for Thanksgiving!”
But, as we drove off into the cold November air onto the freeway that quiet afternoon, I wondered — What does Jesus think of all this? Celebrating with friends, instead of my family of origin?
Because the truth is, you see, Merrianne isn’t really my sister. And Roderick isn’t my brother-in-law. But, she’s the closest thing I’ve come by for a big sister.
I met her when I was just twelve. Merrianne was my junior high Sunday School teacher, a recent college grad herself. She became the first person to disciple me. She was the first person to sit across from me in our tofu-sized dining table, sitting in a grimy, dimpled floor kitchen every Wednesday afternoon. It was a two-person book club really. We’d just talk through book topics and pray.
After I went away to college, we didn’t spend that much time together. I was often busy. But, she always made it a point to touch base with me, even if it meant swapping voicemails. And when too much time passed between seeing each other, Merrianne would call to stop by. Even if it was just half an hour. She had the gift of hospitality and it wasn’t limited to her home. She would come to mine.
Even though I trusted her with a lot of my secrets, I never told Merrianne the truth of how dysfunctional my family life was growing up, how truly lonely and afraid I was.
It was a family code that had always been understood, that I never wanted to break.
Never talk bad about your family. Ever.
The Message of Family
Like a sapling planted right under the downspout of a gutter, this message of family soaked down deep into the soil of my childhood, down to the roots. The fear and shame of coming from a broken family seeped into my faith. I never wanted to be seen as ungrateful or untrusting of God.
I thought having faith in God meant not allowing anything difficult to break me, to never truly be sad and to always love by taking care of everyone and everything. I somehow adopted the notion that walking by faith meant being strong enough to cover the cracks that made life painful and putting the past behind me.
But, what I was really doing was surviving. I was ignoring the past, rather than facing the truth of it.
Because facing the truth forces us to make extremely deep and difficult changes. It calls us to truly walk by faith — into the unknown. It requires courage because we don’t know what life looks like on the other side of renovation. We only see the tearing down and we don’t want to walk into thin air.
When we are truly walking by faith, we must face what we fear the most: we alone do not have the emotional resources to let go and embrace the reality of choices.
We realize we can’t go it alone. We need others who can be God’s heart to listen to us, God’s voice to welcome us, and God’s hands to open the door and hug us.
The old messages from our broken family of origins teach us that the safest place is to suffer alone. To keep silent and to never rock the boat. To never need — to keep doing the same thing and hope that it gets better.
But, while writing a book earlier this year, I stumbled unexpectedly into PTS — post-traumatic stress. My memories have been re-ignited and the truth of how much burden I’ve been carrying and the pressure of meeting others’ expectations of me has been crushing.
That’s why I called Merrianne. I knew I needed to confide in someone, to help with the kids. It’s a risky and vulnerable position to be in. Expressing need and asking for help. It happens when you’re used to surviving without family to count on.
But, I’ve learned that Jesus understands the loneliness and the isolation of family pain. Jesus understands when we keep it in, it separates us from the rest of the world and makes us feel like an outsider, like damaged goods.
A New Inheritance
Jesus has been showing me He cares and He was there.
Jesus tells me there is no shame coming from a broken family.
Jesus tells me He’s always known about my emotional needs and now, He doesn’t want me to hide from them.
Jesus also tells me the choice to joy and peace isn’t always smooth. Because the truth wants to set us free from old patterns of coping with the unpleasant, especially if others are not happy with our choices.
So, for this Thanksgiving, I truly needed family to celebrate with. People who I felt safe with, who really loved me and my family, without any strings attached.
So, when my oldest asked me why we were going to Auntie Merrianne’s, I tell him what I can. “This year, we’re doing something different, sweetie.”
Even so, I spent the rest of the ride feeling the guilt of unreconciled conflict in my growing-up history. And now that I’m a mom myself, I wished more than anything I could fix things up, so my children could be spared of any broken stories.
I wanted them to have something I never had.
A fairytale family.
But, that’s not the family I inherited.
Instead, God has given me a new kind of family to pass onto my boys. A new inheritance.
It’s a family that goes beyond what the holiday specials serve up on TV — beyond the Kodachrome images I’ve culled from storybook expectations throughout the years.
It’s a family that Jesus talks about when He calls us brothers and sisters.
“While he was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers showed up.
They were outside trying to get a message to him.
Someone told Jesus, “Your mother and brothers are out here, wanting to speak with you.”
Jesus didn’t respond directly, but said, “Who do you think my mother and brothers are?”
He then stretched out his hand toward his disciples. “Look closely. These are my mother and brothers.
The person who obeys my heavenly Father’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
~ Matthew 12:46-40
It’s a family that goes deeper than blood. It is spiritual.
This is the new family I’m creating now with my husband and my two children — along with the spiritual family God’s brought into my life.
To gain this new family, it’s required me to let go of my fairtytale family — to open up and share, in order to let others in.
I am making the choice to break the old family code, to see if a new kind of family — the one I read about in the Scriptures — can come true for me.
I think of Jesus, how He spent his last meal with his spiritual family, confiding in the difficulty of the coming hours. These are faith friends to share a meal with, have a conversation, hug through some unspoken tears and a bless each other with a smile.
This is the spiritual family who can bring me comfort and acceptance — during times that are uncertain, when I feel uncertain.
This new kind of family is one that Jesus offers to you and me: God’s family of faith.
It’s hard to confess that holidays aren’t perfect — especially when the truth for many of us, is that our earthly families have really hurt or neglected us.
It can feel embarrassing, when our families can’t reflect the peace and unconditional love that we long for during the holiday season. Especially as Christians, we can feel tremendous pressure to reconcile broken relationships all in these last weeks of the year. But, reconciliation isn’t always possible because it involves two parties. And so, even though we may forgive others, we still have to face the sadness of fractured relationships.
But, because of Jesus, we don’t have to be imprisoned by this sorrow.
Although brokenness can’t be erased on this side of heaven, Jesus can heal our hearts from the shame of hurtful family relationships.
Jesus Himself stands by us in the land of reality — calls us family — unashamed.
Jesus whispers —
I know what you long for. You don’t need a fairytale family to be part of mine.
Jesus is creating a new family with us — by bringing others to stand with us — unashamed — as new brothers and sisters.
A Whole New Way
If you’re like me going through a difficult season of changes or facing a new reality, I’m sharing a bit of my story with you, in hopes of bringing you a word of encouragement, from one spiritual sister to another.
You might have a quiet holiday this year. But, you are far from being alone.
It may not look the way it used to, but it can still be peaceful — even though it is going to look different. Even though it is washed by the rush of tears.
You and I, after all, are not taking the easy way out. We are walking through the narrow gate, onto a path that Jesus is calling us to step forward onto.
I’m writing today’s post to you, trusting that I’m not the only one who is walking through the holidays by faith.
Join me, as I make my journey through this month, asking God how I can connect with Him — and others in God’s family of faith — in the coming weeks.
It might mean for you, as it has been for me, simply letting others know the holiday is going to be a quiet one when they ask.
I don’t give a lot of details, but I let them know this Thanksgiving or Christmas is going to be tough.
It’s going to be a quiet holiday. I need to break away from some dysfunctional family dynamics. I need to take care of me and my family this year.
I do get some prying questions, which are sincere and curious. I just smile softly and say, “Yeah, I can’t talk about it. Thanks for understanding.”
But, I have found to my surprise, that a lot of people’s response has been opening up about their own family difficulties, and their own childhood dynamics still at play with their parents.
I’ve discovered that maybe I’m not unlike a lot of people — who are going through a difficult time during the holidays. And I don’t feel so alone anymore.
Then, I tell them about Merrianne. How I got invited to spend Thanksgiving with her family and how peaceful it was to eat a piece of pie at leisure and offer some leftover potatoes for others to take home.
I tell them how my kids call her Auntie and her husband Uncle. I share how thankful I am for the spiritual family — how God makes up for our losses by blessing us with friends in the body of Christ, to become our sisters, our brothers — an extended family.
That’s how I’ve explained why we’re spending the holidays with friends who are family.
I tell them, “When God gave us Jesus, He also gave us a bigger family.”
I’ve integrated this truth into the Christmas message with the kids this year: when God sent Jesus into the world, He not only gave us His Son to come into our hearts, He gave us a beautiful new family to add to ours.
God gave us a spiritual family, made of faith, so we can feel loved wherever we go and wherever we are in different seasons of life.
For some of you, you have been blessed by a family who has chosen faith in God, rather than fear and expectations, as the family code. Like Merrianne, you can bless someone else by sharing what you have, by inviting someone over in this Christmas season. It doesn’t have to be the day of, if you have your special family traditions. You can invite them over before or even after. I wanted you to know, it makes a difference. You don’t have to have a fairytale family either, to offer hospitality to someone this holiday season.
Give yourself the permission Jesus is offering to you. Embrace the spiritual family He longs to bring into your story, to make tomorrow different from yesterday.
In fact, that’s what I’m thinking as I look into the future of creating new family traditions with my husband and children.
I see a whole new way of celebrating the holidays.
No more fairytales.
More friends who become family.
How is God calling you to step out by faith — and celebrate the holidays differently — this year?
What has God’s spiritual family meant to you?
Pull up a chair. It would be great to have you share. Click to comment.
By Bonnie Gray, the Faith Barista, serving up shots of faith for everyday life.
Photo courtesy of rawrrr_16 via Photobucket.