The Blended Spiritual Family
By Charles Rush
April 24, 2005
Acts 2: 44-47
rlier this week I was watching a fascinating documentary on the emotional life of animals. Researchers who had worked for many years with Wolves, Elephants, Dolphins, and higher primates shared stories about how they expressed anger, joy, grief, gratitude, and even self sacrifice.
featured a researcher that had been working with a chimpanzee family for 13
years. They had taught the chimpanzee's to use sign language and could
communicate quite well with them.
like routine. They expect to see you on your regular schedule. Once the
researcher missed work for quite a few days because she had a miscarriage. She
goes back to the work with the Chimp's and one of them ignores her because she
has been gone. Finally the researcher gets her attention and says "My baby
died" in sign language. The Chimpanzee was also a mother and the
researcher knew she would understand. The Mother Chimpanzee sat quietly for a
good long while and then she made the sign for crying. Looking into her eyes,
it was an extraordinary exchange, and the researcher was overcome with emotion
at the compassion. Then the Mother Chimpanzee signed her 'hug' and they hugged.
occasion they built the Chimpanzee's a new home, far bigger than where they had
been living for the past decade, with a much better replication of their
natural habitat. In order to prepare the Chimpanzee's for this big move, they
made video's of the new home with the researchers moving all around the new
environment. The Chimpanzee family watched the videos with interest.
Then came the day of the move. It was pretty much just like
an episode of "Extreme Makeover". The Chimpanzees all wander into
this fabulous new area with all kinds of new gimmicks and toys. They don't
exactly attack the place, but just wander tentatively, a little overwhelmed by
it all. The Mother Chimpanzee turns back and walks over to the researchers who
are all gathered watching this. She signs, "thank you" and kisses the
It is very
moving to watch animals communicate their interior emotional life. We feel a
connection with them because we share that higher spiritual faculty. Along with
our rational faculty and our moral sensibility, our internal emotional life is
what really makes us "real" so much of our life. Together these
define our spiritual psyches and our spiritual psyches differ from higher
primates not so much in kind but in degree. We know that we are blessed with a
concentration of spiritual pschic consciousness and
we rightly cherish that and nurture it. And we should.
I think it is
one of the genius spiritual insights that the early Christians looked to the
spiritual community of the Church to be such a place. They saw the communal
life that we share as a principal place that we tend, nurture and extend that
spiritual connectedness. Now sometimes the actual people in the institution of
the Church do this and sometimes they don't. But I want you to think about your
spiritual community today because there is a real sense for almost all of us
that the spiritual community actually heals and extends the sense of family
that we get from our physical families.
families are, of course, very important for developing our spiritual sense of
compassion, our sense of being loved so that we can love others, our sense of
place and belonging so that we can reach out and include others. But it is true
for a good number of us that our spiritual families actually heal some wounds
from our physical families and that is often profound.
I think of
someone I met once I'll call Kyle. Kyle grew up in Texas, the oldest child in his family with
a brother and a sister. Kyle's mother died when he was a small child and he
never really had any memory of her.
His father was
an itinerant worker. He was forever moving his family around in search of work.
And his interests varied wildly. He did some oil rig work, some mechanic work,
even worked at a hotel for a while. The family never stayed in one place for
any length of time and Kyle thinks he probably attended 16 different schools in
Texas, Nevada, Arizona, and Oklahoma.
lots of shotgun houses as a child. He remembers lots of nights watching a T.V.
signal that barely came in with his brother and sister in a cheap hotel on the
edge of the desert. His father was a difficult man that couldn't get along with
any of his own relatives for any length of time but Kyle had no real idea of
just how abnormal his father was. Since they had no friends, moving as often as
they did, the children were very close to one another.
was emotionally withdrawn and not very communicative one way or the other but
he didn't realize just how incommunicative until many years later. Kyle was a
terrific athlete. He had a wicked fastball. And the only time his father
actually slowed down the pace of their moves was Kyle's high school career.
That is because the coach was all over his Dad, in part,
they needed Kyle's incredible arm. He won a scholarship to college in Texas and went.
years, his father began to degenerate so Kyle took one sibling when he was a
junior in college and the other one right around his Senior
year. Kyle was remarkably focused in school and did well enough to get a job in
Houston in the energy business.
years, he became curious about his Mother. His father had never said much of
anything about his mother. After a bunch of phone calls, he took his brother
and sister to East
to meet their grandparents. They had a box full of photos of this beautiful
young woman, pictures of Kyle as a baby. His mother had died tragically of an
illness. Her husband had brought her back home to her parents at the end of her
life and then mysteriously just disappeared shortly after she died without
really saying goodbye and he was never heard from again. Very
Kyle met a woman, fell in love with her, and she really helped him to
feel safe and accept him without any expectations… When he was in college he
had a found a picture from the famous magazine cover by Norman Rockwell of the
family Thanksgiving dinner. He used to look at that photograph all during
college… and remember sleeping in the back of a station wagon. He wanted normal
eventually bought a nice home in Houston and his brother and sister lived with
them until they were grown. But another thing happened to him during those
years. He met an engineer that was quite a few years older than him. This man
took Kyle under his wing. When they worked together, they had lunch from time
to time. Even after he went to another company, he would call Kyle and they
would go fishing together. Kyle didn't know it at the time, but this man was
becoming a surrogate spiritual father to him. When Kyle's kids were babies, he
would drop something by on their birthdays.
One night Kyle
is at the hospital. His daughter had been involved in a serious accident. It
turns out she would be fine but at the time, they didn't know. He is at the
hospital with his wife and this Man shows up. He gets the update from the
anxious parents, excuses himself, comes back with drinks and sits down. Kyle
says, "Oh you don't have to stay." The man looks back at him and
says, "No I don't, but Kyle, I can stay as long as it takes." Kyle
just sat there overcome with emotion- maybe that someone was there for him, maybe that someone else was strong so he could be
afraid, maybe because a father showed up when he needed one. It is hard to say.
But in a very
simple, profound way, he experienced a lot of spiritual healing. Years later he
would look back on that night, look back on the relationship that he had with
this man and realize that he had been spiritually fathered all along… He had
been adopted… He had some needs met that he didn't even know he needed until
they had been met. That is what the spiritual family does for us. They round us
out in ways that we didn't really know that we needed but we did.
in Acts says that the early Church shared all things in common. They had a
profound life together. Everyone had their place at the table. What a simple
but important grace that really is.
reality is that even our physical families are not in stasis. They are
constantly changing and the older we get, the truer this is. People come into
our families and they take their leave.
of the Hardmann's this week. They adopted a child
into their family and have been over in China for the past several weeks making
that happen. What a precious spiritual grace they are extending to their
daughter. What a blessing her life will be and theirs too because of her.
Of course, I
get to watch all of the time as parents watch their children get married. And
you get to see how they greet their new daughter-in-law or son-in-law. That is
a blend of a new sort and how important it can really be. There is a movie out
just now titled not "Mother-in-Law but "Monster-in-Law." That is
a little harsh but the relationship carries a lot of spiritual heft and we can
be deeply blessed and cursed, sometimes at the same time.
leave the family in divorce sometimes but they don't entirely leave. As I try
to remind people when they are at the early stages of divorcing and prone to
channeling their anger through bitter legal struggles, or using their children…
just remember, you will have a relationship with this
woman for the rest of your life. You have graduations, weddings, the birth of grandchildren. Resist the temptation to do
anything that will undermine this reality. What an important spiritual grace it
is to be able to stay respectful even when you are deeply disappointed and in a
rage internally. How difficult it is to disengage from a marriage that is
broken while keeping some dignity and civility.
families that remarry and we have to blend step children together. How
difficult it is to develop those new relationships and be a support that helps
children realize their potential in an awkward family
structure. But how important it is if you find yourself in
that situation. How important it is to develop new family traditions
that are different and new and reflect the actual situation that your new
family is going through rather than simply be disappointed continually by going
through the same rituals and grieving what has been lost.
Nicholas Kristoff's piece in the NYT last Sunday on
this subject. He referred to a study that indicated our children were actually
far more conservative sexually than what is depicted on television. Kristoff speculated that this is because more of them have
grown up in homes of divorce and blended homes and they know what a challenge
it is and they don't want to go down that road. I hope he is right because it
is a difficult challenge. But if that is where you are, how
important to extend grace.
And death… Few families make to old age in tact. Most of us
know tragedy. We have life cut short. My brother's wife died about a year ago,
very suddenly, much too young. And that changed the extended family too
spiritually speaking. Suddenly your role as an Uncle, as an Aunt, takes on more
gravitas. It is not only important that you show up more often, but you have to
bring more to the relationship as well. All of us have to do a little bit of mothering whether
we are any good at it or not. That is just what needs to be done now. And it
doesn't take the place, not at all… But it is just there. That is the spiritual
community… That is sharing things in common.
family is bigger than your physical family and in some significant aspects, it
is probably more important. You should make a note of who is in your spiritual
family tree from time to time.
suddenly had something happen to you that was
extraordinarily good, so good that it was too good to be true, who are the
first 5 people that you would call that would share your happiness without any
jealousy or resentment… okay with only manageable jealousy and resentment? Who
do you reach out to when you are blessed?
If you have
something that is deeply difficult to deal with, something that could affect
your career, your reputation depending on how you handle it… if you want to
discuss something that involves a fundamental question of integrity and who you
are as a person, who do you reach out to? Who knows you well enough and who do
you trust enough with your confidence that you can share your heart?
Who do you
gravitate towards when you don't feel safe? Who is an anchor for you, a strong
Where do you
go for inspiration? Who is it that you look to when your spirits are flagging,
when cynicism is rising in your soul? Who is it that makes you want to be more noble? Where do you go to get lifted up towards higher
Who is it that
has been a healing for you? Who gave you a vision of what it is that you would
eventually grow into? Who gave you the key that unlocked the door?
These are your
spiritual people. They have nursed you and built you up. They are cheering for
you when you are not around. They will join their prayers to yours and hope the
best for you comes to bloom. These are your people and a few of them are also
related to you.
spiritual genius of the earliest Christians was the recognition that we need to
become part of a New Community if we have any hope of genuinely becoming a New
People. Acts tells us that when the Spirit fell fully on those early
Christians, the first thing that manifested itself was a New Community. We are
not in this alone, it is the great group of us helping
At the end of
the day, that is what is most important in our lives. It is the quality of our
interior life which is shaped by the quality of the community around us. It is
about the lives that we share together. It is about that intangible, yet
profound and important, interior spirit that we share with one another. It is
my deepest hope that you will not only find that blessing but be that blessing
to someone else. And may we all find our place at the table. Amen.
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