Finding Gratitude for Family, 11-3-13

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved.Family modern

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In a 1993 Florida case, Kimberly Mays asked a court to allow her to sever all ties with her biological parents and family.  Kimberly and another baby girl had their identity tags mistakenly switched at birth and they were sent home to the wrong family.  Both were raised by non-biological parents.  The switch came to light when the other girl developed a heart condition and had genetic tests performed.  Kimberly’s biological parents sued for visitation rights but those visits unsettled Kimberly.  She was forced to spend time with the parents who gave birth to her but who were otherwise total strangers.  She considered her true parents to be those with whom she had no obvious connection other than they had, by the hospital’s mistake, raised and loved her.  Kimberley’s lawyer asked in his opening statement, “What is a family?  Biology alone – without more – does not create or sustain a family.”

It is often claimed that western cultures are confused about how to define ‘family’.  For multiple reasons, westerners define family as any group of people related by blood, marriage or adoption who live in the same house.  Unfortunately, such a narrow definition compels us to see family as comprised of parents and children while excluding many of the diverse intimate relationships that might also be considered family.  Traditional family definitions are rooted in centuries old Judeo-Christian ethics that many sociologists believe originated as a form of economic and social control by men.  Not only could property rights be better controlled with such a family definition, so too could sexual and other behaviors.  Also, the individual and his or her needs are the focus of western thought and families are merely social groups that support the individual.

Our western definition of family affects the feelings we can have about family and family members.  In our culture, families and family members can be taken for granted, devalued and even blamed for a person’s neuroses, flaws and problems.  Ironically, traditional family ethics have led westerners to de-value family relationships and to blame them for causing personal life problems.  By defining family as a relationship based on blood ties and living arrangements alone, we’ve paradoxically given rise to a victim mentality where personal inadequacies are often attributed to genetics and dysfunctional parents.  By relying solely on biology to define family, there is little else to justify affection or deep connection between family members.  We can feel forced to love and support family out of duty as opposed to feeling intimate connection to them.  In other words, western cultures have sown the seeds for disunity, indifferent love and little grace or forgiveness in many families.

A non-western understanding of family, however, is far different and more inclusive.  Families in eastern and non-western cultures are not always defined by biology and household. Rather, they are far more diverse including as members not just of nuclear family parents and siblings but also in-laws, non-related intimate associates, aunts, uncles, and distant cousins.  Family is determined not just blood but by having a deep and supportive social relationship.

In that regard, easterners typically greatly value their families and family members – some of whom are not tied by immediate blood relationships.  Even more, the well-being of an individual is not the purpose for families to exist.  Rather, families exist to support the unit as a collective whole.  It is culturally imperative to not only support other family members but to deeply honor, love and respect the very idea of family.  In this way, connections are usually forged not based on blood ties but on affection.

Throughout much of Asia, this cultural ethic called katannu kataveti is highly regarded and it is constantly taught to children and adults.  It is embodied in Buddhist teachings to show esteem and appreciation for all family members.   It is a practice, Buddhists say, that promotes inner peace, kindness and generosity in all relationships. To express gratitude for family is not the western idea of an occasional but often insincere sentiment.  It is a primary value and way of thinking.  One supports one’s family from birth to death – no matter what.

For us, it is considered appropriate at Thanksgiving to express gratitude for many of our life blessings.  We pay homage for the things we have, for food, shelter, for life itself.  This one time a year, we think of all the good we have in life and give thanks for them.

But our sense of Thanksgiving for blessings does not always extend throughout the year.  Nor it does not often extend to the challenges we face in life.  At Thanksgiving, we express gratitude for the good and pray for the bad to go away.  And we do the same for our our families.  We adopt a western form of indifference about them – they are loved but too often taken for granted.  Our individual well-being is thought of first.  Even more, our family life difficulties are not appreciated and valued.  They are instead blamed.  We see ourselves more as products of our own individual abilities than as persons molded and shaped for the better by our families and by family events – even those that were difficult, challenging and hard.

Indeed, in an ironic twist for modern day so-called family values advocates, Jesus encouraged a non-western definition of family and love for them.   His true family, he claimed, were his followers and close intimates.  He loved his birth mother and brother – but not because of their biological ties.  His closest family members, in his eastern cultural thinking, were the twelve disciples and the many women who loved and followed him – including his mother.  They were his real brothers and sisters.  Even more, this extended family of his was far from perfect.  They were society’s misfits, criminals, prostitutes, and thieves.  They fought, they showed petty jealousies, and they even denied Jesus when they were threatened with arrest alongside him.

But Jesus honored them as his family and he modeled the katannu kataveti eastern ethic.  He loved this unique family of his despite their quirky ways or sin filled lives.  He repeatedly forgave them and called them his own even after many abandoned him.  Above all, he lived within a strikingly modern family unit – persons not just related by blood but bound instead by unconditional devotion, care, concern, support and love – no matter a member’s differences or imperfections.

We can learn from this eastern approach to family.  Family are those around us, intimately connected to us and deeply supportive of us – and we of them – both emotionally and physically.  Each of the members of our particular families may or may not be related to us by blood or by marriage.

Love of family and gratitude for it extends beyond a few verbal expressions of appreciation.  It extends to how we serve them, forgive them, honor them and remain close to them all our lives – no matter their flaws or misdeeds.  Indeed, gratitude for family in this sense goes beyond love for a nurturing dad, a supportive sister, or a kind and successful child.  Our gratitude should extend to the parent who is or was distant, to the jealous and resentful sibling, and for the angry, dysfunctional or ungrateful son or daughter.  Our gratitude can also be expressed and felt for family times of rancor, disagreement, denial, and even abandonment.  We are better people because we’ve endured the good and the bad of family life.

We honor and daily show gratitude for family because more than any other influence in our lives, it defines who we are, it molds us, grows us, enlarges us and, through good and bad ways, gives us our identity and personality.  Our families were and are the incubators in which we develop and they grow us into stronger and better people.  To deny our families and their members is to deny ourselves.

As many of you know, I have a challenging relationship with my dad.  Given a choice, I’m not the son he would have picked nor is he the dad of my ideal dreams.  Too often, however, I allow resentment and anger to cloud my feelings and my relationship with him.  He helped create me and so I extend to him a tepid love born more out of obligation than out of genuine affection.

In truth, however, our connections are more than biological.  He helped raise me.  He financially supported me and gave me my start in life with an education.  In overt and subtle ways, he greatly influenced me.  Parts of his personality, his likes, dislikes and thinking are in me.  I am my dad’s son and who I am and what I have become are substantially due to him.  To love and have gratitude for him, I must transform myself, change my thinking, forgive him his shortcomings and foster a real empathy and appreciation for who he is, the forces that shaped him and the choices he made in life.  To do so for me is not easy.  I can remember the hurts too well.

And yet, that is precisely the point.  I must love my dad and have soul deep gratitude for him not just for his sake, but for me, for my mom, for my siblings, and for my daughters.  By honoring him, I honor myself and the very essence of my family – past, present and future.  Love of family isn’t always a bed of roses.  It’s messy, difficult and full of hurt.  But I cannot abandon my work to love my dad just because it’s tough.  Family is key.  Family is central.  Family is crucial.

And experts largely agree.  Barring the kinds of family members or families that are terribly and criminally abusive mentally, physically, or sexually, the reasons to extend gratitude for our families are many.  According to multiple academic studies, persons with close family and social ties live longer.  Their mental and physical health is better because strong family ties reduce stress, promote feelings of happiness and encourage healthier lifestyles.  People in highly loving and supportive families are better adjusted, more compassionate, more generous and more forgiving.  Indeed, it has been shown that family relationships teach us how to be better people to friends, co-workers and complete strangers.  We cannot be decent human beings unless we are decent and loving family members.   Jesus used his family of disciples and followers in the same manner – to help them grow as people and to model to the wider world how to love and support others.

Family, no matter what it constitutes for each of us – blood relatives, persons with whom we are deeply intimate, or both – should be of major importance in our lives.  It is our last refuge, our castle in a scary world, a group of people who deeply know all about us, love us anyway and who will hopefully be near us in the moments we die.  Gratitude for family must reach into the depths of our souls and find there the generosity and forgiving spirit that we each possess.  That kind of love and gratitude sees a judgmental and overbearing parent with empathy – seeking ways to understand how they were raised, how they did their best in raising us and how they, just like us, are imperfect.  That kind of love and gratitude for family sees the good in a rebellious child, an angry sibling, or a judgmental partner.  That kind of love and gratitude understands how challenging family circumstances or difficult family members can help us grow, learn, mature and become better people.  Adversity makes us stronger.  Disagreeable and challenging people teach us grace.

In so many ways, to be called a member of a family is a high honor and a title of great responsibility.  No matter our situation in life, single, married, with children or without, we each have families – persons who are connected to us by concern, support and love.  This Thanksgiving, I pray we might each reflect on the value of our individual families and who are its members.  As that lawyer for young Kimberly Mays said, it takes more than a blood relationship to comprise a family.  It’s your lover.  It’s your closest friend and confidante.  It’s your church friend, it’s your neighbor, it’s your life mentor.   It’s someone you have poured your life into and who has done the same for you.  And whoever is in our families, past or present, let us find deep appreciation for them, for the good in them, and for the influence they have had in shaping who we are.  Let’s not just tell them of our love and gratitude.  Let’s show it.  Let’s forgive.  Let’s understand.  Let’s listen.  Let’s serve.  Let’s reunite with them, if they allow it, in a spirit of grace.  Let’s be near them and with them in good times and bad.  As Michael J. Foxx, the well-known actor, once said, “Family is not just an important thing.  It is everything.”


I wish you all much peace and joy.