When Family is the Problem
Last last week I met up with JH, old friend who was in the country on a whirlwind one-week stopover enroute to her honeymoon destination. She was here with her fiance (goes without saying), and her parents who were on their way elsewhere. I had last seen them in 1998, before the entire family moved to the US (for ministry purposes – JH’s father is a pastor).
We haven’t really been in regular contact over the years, but our fondest shared memory of our real-time physical friendship remains the long walks we took at the landscaped canal path that was halfway between our homes. I have a handwritten note from her father too, thanking me for being a friend to her because she was somewhat unpopular at first when the family first joined the church I was attending at the time. But it seems that after all these years, her parents have forgotten who I am – I had to be reintroduced to them as my mother’s eldest daughter (I hated that, to be honest).
That said, it was a pleasant enough meeting over dinner, though I spent more time entertaining a mutual friend’s eight-year-old daughter than actually catching up with JH. We promised to keep in better touch. What nearly spoilt the evening was when her mother suddenly asked me what church E and I are currently attending. I hesitated to tell the truth – that we aren’t interested in attending church at the moment and aren’t in any hurry to change our minds – and said that we’re currently in-between churches. She immediately gave me a look of pitying concern, advised me to make a decision as soon as possible, adjured me not to deprive my family (especially my children) of fellowship with the body of Christ who are important extended family, and said that she would pray for us not to backslide or lose our relationship with God.
I know she meant well, but I bristled and had to fight really hard to laugh lightly, thank her blithely, and change the subject instead of telling her to mind her own damn business.
It’s not that I hate church or that I no longer value the larger Church. It’s not that I don’t believe that fellow believers are our brothers and sisters in Christ (metaphorical and spiritual family members). It’s that I’ve almost completely lost faith in organised religion, the Christian church in particular. I have no issues sharing and worshiping with others; it is having to adhere to a man-made hierarchy of spiritual authority and practice that I baulk at. Being part of a community of believers is mutually beneficial in many ways, with the caveat that it is important to frequently and regularly evaluate the mutuality of that relationship and redraw boundaries where necessary.
Blood family isn’t sacrosanct either.
I’m aware that these beliefs may come across as selfish to some., but then they’ve not walked in my shoes. I know the saying about how you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family, and the one about blood being thicker than water, but such statements no longer carry much weight with me. I no longer believe that the simple circumstance of being related by blood (whether genetic or metaphorical/spiritual) is reason enough to keep trying to build bridges with individuals who refuse to hold up their end of a relationship by behaving decently. Actions speak louder than words, and if by either or both word and deed you’ve communicated to me enough times that I don’t matter (but that what you can get from/via me does), then don’t be surprised if I steadily reduce contact to a level that I’m comfortable with.
Take the past eight years into consideration. Individuals in various churches have proven time and again that their meticulously set-up illusory badges of honour, or the reputations of their particular institutions, are far more important than the mental/emotional/psychological/spiritual health of “troubled” persons or actually carrying out clear directives found in scripture. We have been betrayed, deliberately misrepresented and accused, maligned, written off and cast out; deceived by false appearances and shocked by revealed vices; forced to undergo rites and accept policy changes we did not sign up for and which were nowhere in existence when we agreed to sign said membership contract; lured by outwardly pastoral behaviour that hid multiple narcissistic traits which eventually came to light. Take the fact that evangelicals in the US – even people we know and respect – are able to throw their support behind Donald Trump and still face themselves in the mirror.
Take also my history with my mother. She aborted what would have been two elder siblings and was on her way to abort me when she had a panic attack about losing her fertility due to having had too many abortions. She told me this shortly before my wedding, which incidentally she declared nobody would be interested in attending, yet demanded seating places for a number of guests that, if I had actually accommodated, would have filled more than half my entire venue’s capacity (and I didn’t even know who 80 per cent of them were). Her first three questions when my then-fiance and I announced our engagement were: “Is it shotgun?”, “Is the diamond even real?”, and “Who paid for it?” She gave him, via me, a bunch of old stamps from her decades-abandoned random collection as a wedding gift (his mother gave me gold jewellery). She tore a tendon in my neck by wrenching at my head because, according to her, my keeping still in one position because it hurt to move (I slept badly) was just me being dramatic; even after I ended up in the hospital, she insisted that I was just playing things up. She accused me publicly of hating and disrespecting family and having never loved my grandfather just because I wanted to attend a friend’s wedding in the morning before attending his funeral in the mid-afternoon (my friends were fine with it by the way).
Those are just a few of the big, standout events. I no longer initiate any contact, and when she does, I am careful to keep my boundaries clear. I do not volunteer any personal information, I do not expand on my answers to questions, I block all meandering in conversation. I do not allow her to be with my daughter unsupervised; it is preferable that they interact at a distance, if at all.
So you could say that my concept of “family” is drastically different from what it used to be when I was younger and much more naive and idealistic. Right now I adhere to this definition by author Jim Butcher (in Proven Guilty):
I don’t care about whose DNA has recombined with whose. When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching – they are your family.
I’m very thankful that I get along well with E’s family. I have a great MIL in his mum and his brothers are sweet. 🙂 Certain friends and ministry partners are family too. 🙂