Blood Relations – a sermon on Family

Blood Relations – a sermon on family and church

April 10, 2016 Unitarian Church of Edmonton

Rev. Brian J. Kiely

The title of this sermon is Blood Relations – the second service addressing this month’s theme question, “Who Is My Family?”

Family- blood relations- the line this sermon should take seems pretty obvious.  It’s about the birth families and clans from which we emerge. I expect I’ll get there, just not right away.  Today we have also welcomed some new members to our community, into our church family.  In many ways they aren’t so very different.  A lot of the dynamics are recognizably similar….so first,  I want to talk about dishwashing…

Many years ago the Buddhist monk and writer Thich Nhat Hahn wrote a famous piece called Washing the dishes to wash the dishes.  It was from a book called The Miracle of Mindfulness.  It is all about living in the moment and paying attention.  I will quote the crux of his piece here.

There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. . . .

If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink.

All we have is this moment.  It is our challenge to live fully even while doing the most menial tasks.  Attentiveness to what we are doing in this very moment is the path to mindfulness.

I kind of suck at that a lot of the time.  I have mindful moments in my life – not a life of mindful moments.

Now mindfulness is a lovely topic for a sermon, but this is a service on family and connection, not mindfulness…and yet they are linked.  It has to do with dishes, and what goes on while we do them.

Last week we had a congregational meeting approving the first part of a vision statement and strategic plan.  This will shape the direction of our efforts and activities for the next several years.  You can read about it on our website and there are some copies on the credenza in the foyer.

Karen Mills, one of the team leaders told a story about our recent Board retreat.  As newcomers to the church, pretty much every member of the Board started off washing the dishes after some event or another.  She noted that it was a grand and easy task that lets you get a foot in the door.  It’s not threatening.  It is useful.  You get to meet a couple of people in a safe setting.  There is less awkwardness.  It has a definable end point.  Having a task makes the newness much more manageable.

Mindfulness might not especially be part of doing church dishes, but perhaps finding a safe way to meet some people here is.  Nothing like working together on a common cause to start building the first connections. It’s the beginning of belonging.

But dishwashing is also a critical part of

family life as well.  I was reminded of this last week.  Nathan Pater-Vandermolen is a young adult who grew up in this church along with his sister Erin who will be our vocalist at next Sunday’s service.  He and Erin have always had a wonderful and close relationship as brother and sister.  I know…weird, eh?  But as we were discussing this dishwashing experience of the Board members, he noted that the only time he and Erin ever fought was when doing the dishes at home.  Apparently this shared task revealed some differences in…um…obsessiveness levels.

Maybe it was also some kind of reverse psychology event, as if they had mutually and silently agreed that the kitchen sink was a safe place to work out their differences.

I suspect that many of us will have stories about how the dishes got washed in our childhood homes, especially around any big family gatherings that may have taken place.

Whether it’s family of choice or family of blood, dishwashing seems to be a good place to establish an identity, to work out roles, to take on responsibility for the life of the family and to build bonds between people.

Each of us started out in a family of some kind.  And whether you remember childhood fondly or with dread, I bet we all have some complicated feelings about our birth families.

It’s hard not to have complicated feelings them.  The very nature of family is that it’s a place where we are born, learn the basics of living and at some point have to break away and establish our own emerging adult personalities.  Sooner or later, everyone leaves the nest (or is pushed).  That basic biological need to mature and find our own way creates a stress and complicates family life in ways too numerous to count.

About 20 years ago I devoted a sabbatical to the study of family systems theory, a branch of sociology that examines the complicated network of family relationships.  It’s like looking own at family trees from 30,000 feet.  What is observed are patterns, not individual interactions.  It had become popular in our ministry, because a thoughtful rabbi named Friedman had applied the theory to church systems.  What he very convincingly argued is that congregations and families function in very much the same way.

Let me unpack that a little.

One of the first things the sociologists did in studying family systems was look at generations at the family trees.  They began with a genogram that tracks several generations graphically, who married whom, had which children and so on.  Their first observation was that patterns repeat themselves over generations.  A family tree that has stable lifelong marriages in the upper generations will tend to have them in the present day.  It’s not a guarantee, of course, but a tendency.  Similarly a family with a lot of divorces will tend to beget those in later generations as well.  Trees of large families tend to reproduce more, trees with small family size reproduce less.

The first conclusion was that the system tries to reproduce itself generation after generation, tries to make exact copies. Families in this sense are organic entities, living creatures, if you will.  And like organisms there is a strong instinct for preservation and a resistance to change.  That resistance can create stresses if you – the individual – want to go against the pattern and make changes.

And then the sociologists realized that one way the system preserves itself is to assign roles to various individuals.  You have heard of the ‘black sheep’ of the family?  That’s a predictable role generation after generation.  Some families need to define their identity by pointing out the one who doesn’t fit in, who fails the clan.  The ‘dutiful child’ who seeks to preserve the family rituals and guard the historic artifacts, and often opposes the black sheep the most strongly – that’s another typical role.  So is the person who is cast in the role of the invalid who needs to be cared for (whether they actually need care or not).

I know that in my family, I was cast as the baby who was never really allowed to grow up to be independent.  Unlike my much elder siblings I was never taught much about money management, had few pressures put on me to succeed, was only given responsibility reluctantly.  I was perceived to be less disciplined than my sibs, perhaps a little lazy and self-absorbed.  All that might have had a grain of truth – but that’s not the point.

What makes this interesting is that my Dad had a younger brother who was always called The Babe.  And when my grandfather became too ill to run the family company, my Dad was called out of the seminary to come help in the business, because no one thought the Babe could succeed on his own.  You can imagine the resentment that soured their relationship for the next 30 years!

In our family, there apparently needs to be an identified baby. That pattern repeats to a degree in my brother and sister’s children as well.

Rabbi Friedman pointed out in his book Generation to Generation that this process is found in congregations as well.  As a brand new minister I took special training in how to start a congregation from scratch.  The lesson they hammered into us the most was to think very carefully about what we wanted the congregation to beome.  What would the core message be like?  Would it be lay led or have a minister?  Would it have a strong children’s program, or a social justice focus?  Would the Board truly lead, or work more as a support to the minister?

They wanted us to answer all of those questions before the congregation ever started meeting.  Why?  Because the patterns you lay down in the first year will shape the congregation for almost all of its lifetime.  Yes, patterns can be changed later, but only with a great deal of hard and emotionally painful work.  The system resists change.

To go back to family of origin, I am sure many of you know just how hard it can be for an individual to reject the role assigned to them in the family.

Take family violence.  A child who has been abused has a very hard time standing up to their abuser.  Study after study shows that the adults who perpetrate family violence were most likely abused themselves.  When smacking a kid is all you ever knew, it becomes ingrained.  Turning that around takes conscious effort and hard work.

I thought I moved to Toronto from Montreal in 1981 for a certain set of work reasons… and I suppose I did.  But looking back I realize now I also left my home city in order to become established as a responsible adult, to stop being the baby…or at least stop being the baby all the time.  It never really leaves you.

To be clear, there is no real problem in accepting the family roles per se, unless there is a problem.  If the role assigned isn’t you, then it’s a problem.  If the family has a tradition of dysfunctionality, then it’s a problem.  Changing your place in the system is possible, but it is often hard and painful.

But when the system works pretty well?  That’s nice.  The roles are positive and productive.  I accepted the call to become minister of this congregation 19 years ago this month.  The reason?  Because I saw a congregation that was a fundamentally healthy system.  The Unitarian Church of Edmonton has a history of long stable ministries.  It has a tradition of effective lay leadership with very little conflict on the Board or committees.  There is a deep understanding in the community about what the role of the minister is and what the role of the congregation is when it comes to fundraising and as we have just seen, strategic planning.  It has  a strong ethic of community building and a stronger tradition of welcoming newcomers fully into the circle than most congregations I have visited.

I came because I saw a healthy system and because I wanted to be part of maintaining this system.

So to you who have just joined, let me again say welcome, and congratulate you on picking a pretty good community – as I did.  We don’t live up to our ideals perfectly, and maybe you will even have to ask to wash the dishes as you grow more into this congregation.  But on the whole, there aren’t very many healthier places to explore your faith and seek like-minded souls.