Jesus, Modern Families, and Families of Choice

Each week, I have the joy of watching a group of parents and children play in Roberts Forest. A few of these are members of our church, but most of them are simply part of the large number of neighbors we serve by maintaining and support that holy space.

Also, last week, I watched with joy the report of the “Clergy Spice” the colloquial name of the North Texas Conference “clergy spouse group.”

Both these neighbors and that clergy spouse group have me thinking about last week’s scripture, my own family, and the progressive view of “Family” God has called us to at Kessler Park United Methodist Church.

When Dennise and I were a very young married couple, we made the conscious decision to have a marriage that was of equals and not one with “man as head of household.”

It was the mid-1990s, and 20 years of debate about “the role of women” seemed to be continuing, without end. Christian Churches (mostly evangelical) were pushing the alleged benefits of “traditional marriage” with renewed vigor. But as we married, we knew that we were called to a different path.

We would try, best we could, to be equal partners in marriage. We would support each other’s careers.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough how much conscious conversation and commitment went into this, from the very beginning of our marriage. It meant that, at various social and professional events, she would “show up” for me as “Mrs. Folkerth,” and I would show up for her as “Mr. Garcia.”

The truth was, we were never these things, but we were always these things too. She kept her name, and I kept mine. And it was an outward symbol for us, of this complexity.

But, it also meant that even THEN…in the 1990s…we had family and friends express deep concern over this.

My pat answer then: “She doesn’t look like a Folkerth, and I don’t look like a Garcia.”

That usually stopped the “concerned conversation” about us keeping our names…even if it never unfurrowed the worried brows of the questioners about our life-choices. (But even then, it always surprised us how it was sometimes *PROGRESSIVE* friends, asking these questions…)

Here’s what it looked like for us:

It meant that we *both* committed to childcare for our daughter.
It meant that we *both* committed household chores, like cooking and cleaning.
It meant that one of us would “drop her off” and one of us would “pick her up” from daycare.
It meant that we would give each other lots of grace, for when life got busy, and all those things were hard and hectic.
It meant that neither of our careers would be more important than the other.
It meant that we would defend all of these choices from the furrowed-browed public, who more times that I wish to recall would ask and question everything about our lives.

All of this —I should say— was much harder on Dennise than on me.
The societal expeditions of “Mothers”….to always be there for the every-need of their children…those were huge, then and now, and are very palpable.

That said, I will continue to argue the following (as I did, even then):

One of the reasons Moms continue to feel “you can’t have it all,” is because their Partner/Fathers have not really changed at all. These men have not committed to be equal partners, but have quietly kept their heads down, in the hopes of pretending to be a “head of household males,” all the while their Wives desperately try to cook, clean, and care for the children, and have a career.

Despite assuring Dennise that “I’ve got this” when it came to “Parent Meetings” at school, Dennise often felt the very real pressure that she was somehow failing as a Mom, when I attended such things instead of her.

And, honestly, there were awkward times for me too. I’d go to these “Parent Meetings” at school (they were always labeled as such…) and find that I would be the only Dad in the room. It was labeled one way, but it was clearly a “Mom meeting,” in the eyes of everybody but Dennise and me.

These other suburban Moms would join that furrowed-brow chorus, and ask with deep “Bless their heart” concern…

“Is Dennise ok?”
“Where’s Dennise?”

When I would say “Oh, she’s at work…she had a hearing”…or later…. “She’s at court…” I could feel the wave of wordless judgment descend.

Friends, let me be clear: We saw this in the United Methodist Church, too.

Early in my ministerial career, when talking to one of my earliest District Superintendents, I told him that should Dennise ever get a job in some place like Washington DC, I would likely quit my job, to follow her.

He looked at me with complete and utter shock, like he’d never heard anything so ridiculous.
Again, this was the 1990s, when almost every clergy “Spouse” was a straight woman who, if they did work, were often teachers.
(No. There’s nothing wrong with being a woman teacher…just observing)

This is a part of why, in the early years, Dennise was never part of the “Clergy Spouse” group of the North Texas Conference. Like those Mom’s at our daughter’s school….the older, more traditional women spouses, would look at her as if she was a Martian. She didn’t feel comfortable there, for years.

That, thanks be to God, changed over time. She later became the CHAIR of the Clergy Spouse Group! (That was a beautiful sign that things were loosening and changing…)

But! And this is a true story…even after she had become part of the group…remember, she’s a working State District Judge… Dennise once asked a clergy WOMAN if her husband might join the Clergy Spouse group.

(That was the “New Frontier” of that day…to encourage straight, male spouses to join the Clergy Spouse Group).

This straight CIS gendered clergywoman looked straight at Dennise, and without one hint of irony or self-awareness of whom she was taking to, said:

“Oh…he couldn’t do that…he has a job…”

You see, it was never just stay-at-home Moms reinforcing the traditional view. It was also working women too. And working Men of all types who, as I suggest, just tried to keep their heads down and pretend nothing was wrong.
We all swam in this sea of the “traditional” view.

Again, it was always very hard to not take the judgment of others personally, even as we continued to know we were making the right choices for US.
(and, frankly, the kinds of choices we believed all families could benefit from…)

One of the things we realized early on was this: This commitment to be equal partners meant that we would have very few “role models.” We knew of a few couples attempting the same thing. But, honestly, very few.

I think that was perhaps the loneliest part of it all: To know that the questions would likely never stop, and the supportive older role models would be few and far between.

But now….let’s leave these thoughts on my own history…and let’s move back to Roberts Forest, in North Oak Cliff…and let’s revisit that “Clergy Spouse” group of the North Texas Conference.

And let me tell you one detail I left out, when I talked about the neighbors and children, playing in Roberts Forest. That details is the following: Many of them are Fathers and their children. They are taking afternoon time out of their busy work and family lives, to take some time with their children.

The thing that got so many raised eyebrows, only twenty years ago, is now common place. So common that perhaps nobody but me has stopped to notice it. I am proud that these Fathers are, in groups now, modeling the kind of mutual parentings we’d always hoped to see more of, during Maria’s suburban childhood.

And, that Clergy Spouse Group?

The group where, once upon a time, Dennise felt again like a Martian for being a working spouse with her own individual working life?

Well, as they gave their report to the Annual Conference last week, it looked to me like half of the spouses were men. And, for the first time ever, some of the spouses were same-gender.
It. Was. Beautiful.

I sit here and marvel: “How far we’ve come…”

That said, I am confident you are aware that some folks are still “concerned” about all of this. Too many Evangelical Christians are doing much more than just furrowing their brow. They are continuing to shriek about the disintegration of the “traditional family.”

Let me be clear on our view at Kessler Park:

The “traditional family” isn’t ENDING.
But it is EVOLVING…as are *all” families.
(Hint: it always HAS been…)

Same Sex Marriage put a spotlight on the truth that gay and lesbian persons can raise incredibly well-adjusted, emotionally intelligent children. And we are blessed that they do so, right alongside these “traditional families.”

And almost ten-years of Same Sex Marriages have eviscerated the shrieking claim that it would harm, or kill, “traditional marriage.” There’s no evidence this has happened. Just last week, many of us at Kessler Park congratulated Christopher and Matthew on their anniversary!

But Kessler Park, following Progressive Christians everywhere doesn’t stop there…

There are plenty of single parent families, including divorced Mothers and Fathers…who are doing the same. They too feel the unfair and unjust pressure of believing they have perhaps “failed” as parents….when in fact, they are often exactly where God wants them to be.

And finally, there are tons of older, and middle-aged childless, couple (married and unmarried) who live rich and fulfilled lives together. There are tons of younger straight and queer couples choosing the same.

My point in listing these here is to state what should be obvious. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and configurations. It’s a baldface lie to suggest that the many beautiful families outside of the “male head of household” model are degrading and harming families.

Quite the opposite, in fact.

Further, it’s quite clear that in many cases, the “male head of household” model does much to limit both the choices and lives of women, and also the views of children and what they believe is possible for their futures. It’s a very short move from the “Covenant Marriage” of Speaker Johnson to the “Sister Wives” of “A Handmaid’s Tale.”

Again, I’m not trying to denigrate anybody’s choices. But if there’s a systemic degrading of women’s rights…it seems to me there is a problem with the underlying model. Maybe it’s possible to live out the “male as head of household” model without it oppressing women and children, and their rights. But, clearly, too often it is not.

Evangelical Christians, and a surprisingly large (to me) group of young, muscularly-male Calvinists leaders, would push us back to some fantasy-past that never existed… a time when all households were “male/female partners,” and 2.5 kids.

Again, even in the 1950s and 1960s, that was a fantasy and fiction. And even if you want to pursue it in our time, just please don’t pretend it ever worked for everyone.

So, let’s turn to Jesus, shall we?

Because all of this finally gets to the fact that Jesus’ view of family seems way closer to mine…to the Progressive view…than it does to these Neo-Conservative Evangelicals.
I say this because of the Gospel lesson we read last Sunday, from the Book of Mark.

Jesus’ own family has come to see him. Mark describes a situation where even Jesus’ own family and disciples are starting to believe “He has lost his mind.”

Religious leaders are suggesting that he is possessed by Satan.
The text, chillingly, says that Jesus’ family and friends have a plan. Mark says they plan to “take custody” of him. Other versions say “restrain him.”

They literally aim to TAKE POSSESSION of him.
Their cure for him “being possessed” is to “take possession” of his body.

This is the go-to move of far too many families and religious leaders over the centuries: “Control the body of those you believe are out of control…”
(Or, at least, try to…)

From religious pogroms and inquisitions that placed the physical bodies of “heretics” on racks and in chains, to modern laws that restrict a women’s right to choose…the go-to move of far too many is “control the body of those you believe are out of control.”

Friends, let’s be honest here.
This almost never works.
Or, if it does, in only works for a while.

All it does it to harm individual women, children, and so-called “heretics,” causing generations of collateral damage and bitterness about religion itself.

We Christians would do well to remember this in our day, as we confront rising threats to women’s rights, the rights of the Queer community, and the rights of any of us who seek to lives of meaning outsider the so-called “traditional family.”

But, this gets us to Jesus’ stunning rebuke of the traditional family…

His biological Mother and Family come to him. Somebody runs to tell him, “Hey, Jesus! Your family is here…come see them…”
(Again, the plan appears to be so that they can “take possession” of him…)

But Jesus deftly turns this into a teachable moment.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?”
And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
(Mark 3: 33-35)

Jesus —in a single sentence—eviscerates the modern claim that he only supports the traditional, biological family. In fact, I would argue that whether we realize it or not, many of the roots of our more modern conceptions of “Family” have a beginning in this more ancient Christian view. In our day, the Queer community has taught many of us about the concept of a “Family of Choice” that stands-in for biological family that has rejected them. Jesus was talking about this, two thousand years ago.

Christians were never called to exalt their own biological families above all others.

Despite this super-awkward moment (I can’t image what his Mother must have felt like in the moment…) Jesus would always remain connected to his own family. His Mother would badger him to make wine at weddings, and shed tears at his crucifixion. His brother would become leader of the Jerusalem Church, and the Gospels talk of his family traveling with him. Jesus stayed related to his biological family.

But there is no question he also redefined family in ways that should make the heads of today’s Evangelicals explode.

Christians are called to see all God’s children as potential members of God’s family. Alongside the commandment to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” this is among the most challenging of ALL Jesus’ teaching.

Because the urge to defend and uplift the biological family above all others is deep inside of us all. When my daughter was born, I found strange and powerful feelings, welling up within me. Even to this day (as is happening right now…) when she is sick or hurt, there is almost nothing I would not do to defend her.
That’s a biological urge inside our DNA, that has helped us survive as a species.

But what makes Jesus’ message unique is his call to push beyond this visceral urge. It’s God call us to see this kind of biological familial love for ALL God’s children…

To love the immigrant families as much as citizen families…
To love Queer families, all non-traditional households, as passionately as our own biological blood…

This is NOT an easy thing.
But it’s one of the most profound callings of Jesus.

So, during Pride Month, I celebrate all our Same Sex Couples and Queer families…but also all our CIS gendered straight couples and families…single parent families…in all their forms. Celebrating one kind of family never excludes anyone else, unless we foolishly believe there is only one kind of family.
(And if you want to believe that: Please read that Gospel again…)

A part of my views on “family” comes from my own experience, in 30-years of pushing back against a more “traditional” view of marriage. It’s made me empathic with the many views of family all around us, and given me at least some understanding of how hard it is to push back against the cultural view of the “traditional family.”

But a big part of my views of family also come from the absolute and irrefutable truth that a broader view of family is what Jesus calls us all to live out too.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” is a call to us all to embrace ALL families in their beauty, diversity, and love.

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