Families of Choice

“Families of Choice” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton

April 17, 2016.

On Tuesday we had a gathering for Religion on Tap, our informal pub night/theological discussion.  The topic for that night was this month’s theme of Who Is My Family?

To introduce the topic I used last week’s meditation by Starhawk called Community means strength.

The reading ends:

Community means strength

that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done.

Arms to hold us when we falter.

A circle of healing.

A circle of friends.

Someplace where we can be free.

My question was, “Where do you feel free?  Where do you feel safe?

There was a short pause and then one person said, “At cons.” —- meaning the conventions that bring fans together whether it’s comics, gaming, fantasy films and shows and so on.

Three other people erupted with, “Yeah!”  One woman threw up some kind of mysterious hand sign. Another who was not yet a close friend of hers, recognized it and there were instant high fives. Clearly these four people felt a connection that broke down barriers.

We all know the awkwardness of walking into a room where we know no one.  Finding our way into a conversation can be hard to start with and then thinking up something to say can be even harder.  For a lot of us being in a strange place with unknown people is stressful, sometimes cripplingly so.

I’m guessing that things like cons – or as someone else suggested, things like sporting events, help bridge that initial awkwardness.  There is a common interest and connection, something each participant shares with everyone else in the room.  It takes a little of the strangeness away.

“What makes you all feel safe at cons?”  I followed up.  “That’s where I find my people.  It’s where I fit in.”

A lively conversation ensued as I asked the others where they felt safe.  Sometimes it was work related meetings, interest group gatherings, self-help sharing circles, gatherings of old friends.

What didn’t come up in that first round was families of origin.  I pointed this out and some of the folks said, “Well, that’s different.”  Most felt safe in their families, but some didn’t, or perhaps had worked out safe ways of being with extended family.  Most noted that family circles might be the kind of place where when you show up, they have to let you in…but that didn’t guarantee anything.  They spoke of heated family debates over politics, lifestyles, religion and so on.  There was weird uncle so-and-so, the awkward relatives, the need to be a little careful with what you say.  And there was talk about the sense of love and belonging, too.

Still, there was always the shadow of family stresses hovering over their remarks.  I talked about assigned roles in family systems last week, where individuals get given their place in the clan:  the black sheep, the helper, the underachiever, the overachiever, the patient and so on.  It’s very hard to get away from those labels because the system resists change.  Try and fight your assigned place and family dynamics quickly become electrically charged.  As we used to say in my family, “There was a scene!” We go into family gatherings and there are expectations placed upon us.  Perhaps there are slights that have never been fully forgiven, even though the sense of love is still there.  Family can be wonderful, but I’m betting not to many of us will claim that it’s stress-free.

For more and more people, safety is found elsewhere, in affinity circles where the ties that bind are not as firm, not as restrictive and not as bound by rules.  The roles are assumed by us instead of being assigned to us.  That’s a big difference.  We get to claim our place.

On sabbatical in 2012 I was looking at the changing nature of church.  I shared some things I learned about how people under 40 may have a very different experience of family and belonging than I had.

For one thing, an increasingly large percentage of today’s adults – perhaps a slim majority – experience blended families because of divorce and remarriage.  Parental adults move in and sometimes out of the picture as do step-siblings.

The once rigid boundaries family of origin don’t always have the same meaning as they did a generation ago. Today’s younger adults have grown comfortable with a far more flexible definition of family.  Family is not necessarily once and forever, but a group that evolves over time.  The boundaries are more permeable.  People move in and out more easily.  As the old Buddhist story goes, I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  But it is a thing.  It is the way our urban Canadian culture has changed.

The lively table conversation on Tuesday – it went for over an hour, which might have been a record – got me thinking.  What generally is the role of extended family versus families of choice in differing societies?

There are certainly cultures today where family ties are immensely strong and important.  I am sure you can all think of communities where this is true, where family is supposed to come first before any other connection.  But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that those places with strong clan ideals are often countries where there are weaker social safety nets than we have in Canada. There might be far less trust in governments, a lesser sense of personal safety than we tend to feel in Canada.  People look for connections that will allow them to feel safe.

Clan ties are one of the earliest and most ancient forms of social organization in times when strangers were often assumed to be threats.  People held their family close for physical safety, for mutual economic support, for shared health care, education, child-rearing and so on. Before the proverbial village, there was the clan

But as a larger society and culture becomes more mature and secure in its social structures, the world starts to seem a little less scary and threatening.  The need for strong clan ties begins to lessen.

I think we live in a society where that is largely the case.  And so we have non-familial communities that have real strength and connection.  This can be threatening to clan culture.  How often have you heard a story like this:  people from strong clan culture emigrate to Canada.  They settle, find jobs, start families.  And within 20 years the immigrating generation complains that their children and grandchildren don’t respect the old ways anymore.

This is an identifiable historic pattern that goes all the way back to New France in our land.  First the immigrants band together in tight communities bringing their cultural institutions like churches.  But after a generation or so- sometimes longer, the children born here start to diversify their interests and connections.  They might move out of the old neighbourhoods pursuing different interests.  Like Romeo and Juliet – or perhaps My Big Fat Greek Wedding, they may wish to marry outside the boundaries of their community. And there is a lament of an old country culture being lost.  It happened with my people, the Irish, the Italians, the Greeks, the Germans, the Ukrainians, the Vietnamese, East Indians and now the Somalis.

So, it seems to me that clan identity is the product of less stable, less safe and less economically secure societies where the family is the easiest social structure to construct and maintain.

It further seems to me that a society where non-familial affinity groups grow stronger tends to be more progressive, better set up with things like public health care, good social services a stable form of governance that people trust more or less, and a reasonably stable economy.  It is also a society that develops a stronger sense of the rights of the individual than in places where community comes first.  That’s certainly true here where we are seeing medically assisted suicide becoming legal in a matter of weeks, same sex marriage and a lessening of the formal power of religion to set social norms.

There are those groups who still lament the so-called erosion of family values.  But have you noticed?  Those tend to be religious, economic and cultural groups that often use those values – or more rightly, norms – to restrict the rights of the individual through dress, behaviour, marriage, economic advantage and so on.  The clan culture focuses on the rights of the community.  The rights of the individual are secondary at best.

It seems to me that these voices are most heard in religiously and politically conservative areas.  It is a lament tied to the fear of the loss of a way of life and a loss of privilege.  Whether it’s a community that wishes to control its members, or something like the family farm society that fears economic or social loss they fight to preserve the community over the individual.

Most slippery slope arguments are predicated on what free individuals might do to harm the things the community values.

Remember when I was talking about family systems trying to reproduce themselves and defend their organic structure against change?  Those family roles we assume or are assigned are designed to keep control of the system.  How many people have felt oppressed or devalued by family structures?  How many have had to break away?

Similarly, how many have had to break away from religions of childhood, social conventions imposed by various communities or even geographic regions that felt too limiting in order to pursue their own dreams and goals?

I suspect a great many in this room fall into that category.  And perhaps we have found ways to make peace and reintegrate with those families and communities.  And along the way we have no doubt worked our way into different kids of affinity groups where we can find the connection that we crave.

This church is one such place.  I know by talking to many of you that an awful lot of of us arrived as searchers and possibly as refugees.  We came looking for a place to connect, a place where we would be respected for who we are, to freely be believe what is in our hearts without fear of attack or condemnation.  We come here looking for a place to offer our gifts, and to have them accepted, whatever those may be.

At Religion on Tap I asked the man why he felt safe at cons. “That’s where I find my people.  It’s where I fit in.”

That sounds like a pretty good description of why people join this community.

Community means strength

that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done.

Arms to hold us when we falter.

A circle of healing.

A circle of friends.

Someplace where we can be free.