Monday, September 28, 2009

The Third Family

“I think of you as if you were my own brother”, we say as the highest compliment we can offer a friend. There’s no greater accolade than to compare a close friendship to that of the stronger bonds of family: “You’re like a son to me…”

We get to choose our friends, and not our family, yet… I wonder if we tolerate the offensive faults and sins of friends with the same forbearance we often extend towards our family. Sibling accepts the bad with the good when they embrace sibling, to a degree that probably escapes them when it comes to the same sinful fallibility we may find in our friends. A parent’s forgiveness of their children’s faults is often only outmatched by a child’s acceptance of the imperfection of their parents, and the consequences of that fallibility on their lives… again, a mutual respect often eluding the mutual attraction of friendship.

Friendships are wonderful, but ultimately it’s a different, separate kind of strengthening bond than the one offered by family. A second, chosen, family, to raise us in ways that birth families do not.

This weekend I had occasion to experience the blessings, yet again, of a third family, the one that takes the best of each and adds something new of its own: one’s church family.

A “church family” consists of those who worship alongside us, at church. Different than the friendships developed at work, or at school, where colleagues become “chums”, attracted as they may be by mutual interest. The collegiality of the support at church touches a part of us far deeper than that, because the shared sense of mission surely goes much, much deeper than at any job.

It touched me deeply this weekend, that’s for sure, as I tried in vain to find the right words to say to someone I know through church, an older gentleman whose ailing wife passed away recently, after a lengthy and painful illness. We got to know each other in the casual way one meets people through church: the same faces in the same places at the same times every week, familiarity leading to a feeling of family. A church family.

Each week’s quick greetings after church might have been short in duration but they nevertheless cast long shadows from their repetition, especially towards the end as the news would grow worse each time.

This week there was only one to greet, the worst having finally happened. Not for the first time, the worst being the best that could happen, given the grim circumstances.

I didn’t know quite what to say as we each approached for our usual greetings. I had often prayed for them both, keeping the example of his quiet strength in memory throughout the tough times I myself repeatedly went through during this past summer from hell. I owed him a lot, and I held these thoughts in mind as I took his hand in mine, placed my other hand on his shoulder, and smiled.

It was as if he heard what I was thinking, and from behind his eyes I saw a sign of someone being genuinely helped from hand after gentle hand touching him that day, as each caring gesture gave him that much more renewed courage to smile in his turn. In his voice I heard someone seemingly able to hear prayer after silent prayer said on his behalf every week for a year. “Thank you”, he said to me through the kindest of smiles, the only words that ended up being needed in our brief time together this week.

Even though a lifelong love had come to an end, his loss was less than it could have been, thanks to the shared presence of his children, his family of friends, and his third family:
his church family.

No comments: