The Family Culture

Do you know your grandparents' names, or where they lived? This was the starter given by a local talkback host this week; obviously over the quieter holiday season they need more specific ideas to prime the pump. I only heard a smattering of the answers, but those I heard were surprising. Many did not know their grandparents' names, because they had died before their grandchildren were old enough to remember. In other cases, details were murky because relatives were still in Europe or South Africa, the rest of the family having emigrated to New Zealand. In one case, the caller knew names and locales back to great-great -great-grandparents, and it did not surprise me that this was a Maori whakapapa on one side. But he also knew the ancestors from other ethnicities, so it seemed that this was a family that makes a practice of talking about family connections and treasured them, recalling names and details of people long dead.

Our family must be one like that too, because even before I started keeping a digital family tree about fifteen years ago, I knew the names of many of our ancestors and would talk about them to the children. My four children are blessed in that growing up they had all four grandparents alive, and even now there are three great-grandparents for their kids to know, all thankfully in New Zealand. One of those great-grandmothers turned 90 on Boxing Day, and most of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were able to join in the celebration. It was a great party and a chance for her family to tell her the things they have appreciated about her role in their lives. "Like a eulogy without a coffin!" someone said to Ric.

Mum C gave a little speech at the end, and astonished us all by recalling details of names, places and even sailing ships that figure in her family line. "My husband's family were all Irish," she said, "but my family is English. My great-grandmother Ann Dixon came out to Melbourne from Worksop in Nottinghamshire in 1850." She described how this woman worked as nanny for a minister, Mr Landrill, who later officiated at her marriage to Mum's great-grandfather, Edwin Fuller, who had been on the same ship. Their family ended up in Christchurch, where Mum lives now. She paid tribute to the strong Christian heritage that has been passed down the family through these English forebears. Another example of a family having an identifiable "culture" in the wider sense than nationality.

Two other recent conversations brought up this notion of a family culture. At a recent wedding, the groom described how he had noticed in his bride a thoughtfulness, that marked her out from other girls from the start. "At the movies," he said, "she picks up people's popcorn bags and other rubbish as we leave." That's something that is learned early on, as part of a family's tradition; I have to confess I didn't teach my kids to do that! And on a recent television programme about young Brits spending time in India, living with local families and working in a clothing factory, I heard their parents say how much their adult children had been changed by the experience, especially in relation to respecting others. They had learned a new family culture.

When we become a follower of Jesus, we start to learn a new family culture. Some of it is contextual, so if we came to Christ in a Pentecostal church, we will assume that every Christian speaks in tongues, or if we took up the Roman Catholic faith, we will learn to genuflect in every church we enter. I'm not thinking here of those human details, but more of the likeness of Christ that the Spirit is intent on forming in us. Paul says he labours so that his people become like Christ, and be transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory. The character that is formed in us is one that exhibits the mind of Christ and the fruit of the Spirit.

When we take on the family name of Jesus, by baptism and confession of faith, we join a huge clan that has branches all over the world, speaking many different languages and following all sorts of different customs. But this is a family whose name and values will be recognised in Chile and Russia and Samoa and Somalia. It is a family that gives you relatives to be proud of – and relations to be embarrassed about, that’s the nature of family. We just have to learn to live together. But as we do so, we develop more and more of the character of Christ.

At least that is what is supposed to happen. But it doesn't happen by accident, and it doesn't happen by force, We cooperate with the Spirit, and "put on" the new self, in the image of our Creator. How? The spiritual disciplines are practices that help us in daily choices to love and serve Christ as his disciples. They include worship, prayer and Bible study, but range far wider than that. This year I'm going to be introducing our faith community to others that include journalling, sabbath, care of creation and hospitality. Why? Dallas Willard said it better than I can:

If we do not make formation in Christ the priority, then we’re just going to keep on producing Christians that are indistinguishable in their character from many non-Christians.

To Chew Over: How do you cooperate with the Spirit in forming you into the likeness of Christ?

My heavenly Father wants me to be like him

My heavenly Father wants me to be like him

Not like my brother or like my closest friend

My heavenly Father wants me to be like him

I'm going to be like him, Yeah

I'm going to be like him

I don't care what the world may say

I'm going to be like him.

Children's song.