Events such as the death of an elderly parent, which my siblings and I experienced this week, bring the original configuration of a family into sharper focus. We were eight children, a relatively large family even for its time. We were also the children of a minister who served various churches, none of them in communities where our grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins lived. It has always seemed to me that for all the disadvantages created both by the size of our family and its isolation from our relatives, there were advantages as well, including a strong enjoyment of one another — squabbles notwithstanding — and reliance upon each other for memories around the year’s special days, when families are the key unit of celebration.
It’s been a long time since the last child left home to form her own household, and even longer since the first left to form his. Over the decades we’ve become our own extended families, with five of the eight of us now grandparents. Shaped by divergent career paths, the people we married, and our scattering to reside in four Canadian provinces and one U.S. state, we’ve become much more diverse than we were in our family of origin. We’ve remained relatively close, certainly very cordial, but we’re together occasionally rather than frequently, and certainly much less than siblings who remain in the same place geographically. We have our own “space”; we have our own lives.
The past week, though, in planning and participating in our father’s funeral, it was the “originals” who met via telephone conference call to make decisions about the arrangements. In the storytelling and slide-viewing that happened once we’d gathered here in Winnipeg, it was, inevitably, the original bunch of us that again came to the fore. Without intending to (and here our spouses are the best witness), we probably slipped back into earlier roles, banter, “insider” references. This deceased man was most particularly ours and, for a while, we went back to this knowledge with whatever joys and wariness it might entail, as children of the household he had formed.
Truly, the sibling bond is an interesting one. It’s complex, but somehow simple too. Virginia Adams, in “The Sibling Bond: A Lifelong Love/Hate Dialectic,” an article I saved in my files from the June 1981 Psychology Today, says the link between brothers and sisters “is in some ways the most unusual of family relationships…the longest lasting…and the most egalitarian.”
In the church
In the same file, I found a 2004 Sojourners article by S. Scott Bartchy called “Secret siblings.” Bartchy describes Jesus’ “radical new vision” of believers as family and goes on to say that popular English translations of Paul’s letters have in many cases mistranslated the Greek word for brothers and sisters by using non-family terms. This has diminished the impact of what is proposed as a way of being in the church.
Sibling relationships, as Adams reminds, are indeed unusual, long-lasting, and egalitarian. Implied in them is fairness, equality, the honor of the family, love and support in spite of diversity. When my church — the Mennonite Brethren — was debating women in ministry leadership, it seemed to me that the arguments against it sometimes inserted notions about marriage into the discussion, as if every woman in the congregation was the “wife” of every man. Yes, Paul also compares marriage and the church in Ephesians 5:22 ff, but the church entire is meant vis a vis Christ, with both the marriage relationship and the relationship between church and Christ illuminating the other. But to be siblings of Jesus in the church, well, that’s another perspective all together.
The past week has reminded me how formative, powerful, and life-giving the sibling bond is, and can continue to be. Freshly appreciative of its significance, I want to also probe its meaning for the church. Our identity there as “sisters and brothers” is familiar enough. But, I’m wondering, have we really grasped its many implications?