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Sunday, May 7, 2017

"You Can't Stand Up All By Yourself"--Thirty Years Of Celebrating Families at FLRC

At last night's fundraising dinner marking the 30th anniversary of our agency, the amazing local men's a cappella group Cantore sang,
Ah, you can't stand up all by yourself,
You can't stand up alone...
Those words by Jesse Winchester were especially appropriate as an introduction to the talk I was asked to give at that event, as follows:
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The family is an amazing institution. I love being a part of an agency that has “family” as a part of its name and its mission, something we celebrate this evening.
     I remember reading about this little boy who announces to his mother, 
“When I grow up I want to marry you.” 
His older sister chimes in with, “Oh you can’t marry your mother,” 
“Then I’ll marry you,” he said, disappointed. 
“No, you can’t marry anyone in your own family.” 
He’s shocked. “You mean I have to marry a total stranger?” 
     Well, that’s the way families start, two unrelated strangers forming a new social unit, then their children leave them to repeat the same thing, and the cycle of life goes on.
     We each owe our very existence to this kind of social organism. As someone has said,"There is no such thing as a baby. It is always a baby and someone." Without some serious nurturing by  some other human beings (even the less than functional ones) a child would not survive, or if it could, it wouldn’t be truly human, or even animal, but more like a vegetable. We need relationships with others in order to become ourselves.
The Ancestral Family
But FLRC is about more than just supporting the nuclear family of father, mother and one or more children. From a family systems perspective, we see each of us as linked to a lineage that includes all of our many ancestors, who have not only given us our DNA, but whose stories have shaped us in far more ways we realize. The more we come to know about them, the better we understand and know ourselves.
     As African-American author August Wilson has said, “Children who do not know their grandparents, and their grandparent’s stories, are lost people.” So in the spirit of something my oldest son once said, “If you want to make a point, tell a story,” I’ll begin with some of my own ancestral story.
     In 1742, one of my great, great, great, great, great grandfathers, Christian Yoder, at age 16, got off a packed and loaded ship, the Francis and Elizabeth, at the port of Philadelphia with his father and we’re not sure how many of his family members, to start a new life in a world free of religious persecution and likely, as a person of peace, to avoid being conscripted into the Swiss army. 
     Later, in 1776, when his own sons were of draft age, he packed up his family and belongings in a Conestoga wagon for a 200 mile trek from eastern PA to move to what was then the wild west of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, in part to keep his own sons from being coerced into fighting and killing, either on the side of the occupying British army, or with the rebel Continental army. From there his descendants moved further west and finally into Oklahoma and Kansas. We all have such migrant stories, unless we’re native Americans, or our forebears were brought over in slave ships.
     Then in 1946, when I was 6 years old, my parents, Ben and Mary, packed up their belongings in a freight car which my father accompanied on a 1400 mile journey by train from eastern Anderson County, Kansas, to Augusta County in Virginia, and my mother shepherded us eight children on that same long journey by passenger train. 
     The older I get, the more I realize how much my life has been shaped by my family story. That became so impactful the last night I spent with my father at the Waynesboro hospital in October of 1985. He was dying from a lung disease, and in taking my turn being with him at night, I was in the reversed role of parent looking after a needy, diminished and sometimes confused version of my father. 
     On my way home after that emotionally exhausting night, I found myself crying, not just over missing the extraordinary father of my memory, but crying for my past missed connections with him, growing up as I did in times of financial stress on our 120 acre farm, often wishing Dad would have more time to go for a walk or go fishing with me, or just have conversations with me. And yet I realized he gave me so much more than he had ever gotten from his father, and his own childhood. 
     My dad’s mother, grandmother Elizabeth, died at age 35 when dad was only three, from complications in giving birth to what would have been her fourth child with my grandfather Dan. And this was, tragically, the third of Dan’s wives to die. His first wife Lucy died at age 23 of measles, leaving him a widower with two young children, John and Anna, named after his parents. On the day of Lucy’s burial, little Anna also died, of measles. Dan’s second wife, Rebecca, at age 29, died of tuberculosis, leaving him with young John and five other children, the youngest of whom also died, of tuberculosis, within six months of her mother’s passing. After losing his third wife, my grandmother, Dan married a fourth time when my father was eight. In an extended recorded conversation I had with my father, he told me he had often cried himself to sleep wishing he could have a mother like other children did, rather than just his grief-stricken father and others who helped take care of their household, He knew Dan mostly as a “man of sorrows”. 
     But along with the blessing of gaining a stepmother at age 8 came other sorrows. The fourth wife, Miriam Mullet, was a widow with fifteen children and stepchildren. When Miriam married my grandfather Dan, a number of her oldest children were already grown and gone, but the remaining family of fun-loving Mullets never blended well with the somber and strict Dan Yoder side of the family. The resulting stress and ongoing grief could have turned my father into a bitter and negative person. Instead, he and my mother, who has a fascinating story of her own, were known as among the most hospitable and gracious people you could find. I can never be grateful enough for all I’ve gained from this part of my story.
     Without a doubt, my becoming involved with hurting and distressed people as a pastor and as a counselor was shaped by that history, and here at FLRC we are always interested in encouraging people to become better acquainted with their past story, and to get in touch with more of themselves by becoming reconnected, by "re-membering" forgotten or dismembered parts of their past as a way of their finding greater wholeness.

The Family Of Faith
A second even broader concept of family that FLRC represents is the family of faith. Perhaps our special niche as an agency devoted to “hope, health and healing” is that of encouraging, wherever possible and whenever appropriate, clients maintaining life-giving ties not only with their biological extended families, but with their chosen kin based on spiritual or other kinds of communities with whom they share common values and a common care for one another. Our agency was birthed by members of the Virginia Mennonite Conference, folks with a tradition of strong ties with each other, where no one starves unless everyone starves, and where whenever there are losses or griefs nor special needs, that no has to ever go through them alone. We are never about proselytizing, of course, but to affirm that individuals, couples, families and children greatly benefit by being surrounded by constant care and accountability that add to their strength and durability.
      I’m often saddened by people in crisis in my office having a very limited network of care around them, making their distresses doubly difficult to bear. 
     I’ll never forget having someone from another community share with me something that happened to her years before as a young adolescent. Her family were relative newcomers in their town, and they had neither extended family nor congregational family ties, so her mother decided to invite some of her classmates and neighborhood peers to a birthday party for her.
       As a middle schooler she was somewhat overweight, subject to teasing and sometimes near bullying in school because of it, so the idea of having a nice party in her honor was special. The day came, with all the preparations made, her mother had decorated a special cake for her, the time came, and they waited. And waited.
     But no one showed up. No one. And no one had bothered to send any regrets or to see that she was given a gift anyway. It was one of the darkest days of her life, one she still can’t think about without re-living some of the desolation and rejection she felt. 
     That should never ever happen to a child, or to anyone. We all deserve to be a part of what in my German tradition we called a freundschaft (our blood relatives), and a gemeinschaft (a community of people with close ties) former strangers who enjoy birthday and other celebrations together, people who show up at weddings and funerals and graduations and picnics and Sunday dinners. Individuals and nuclear families thrive in the context of these extended families of people who love each other and who powerfully influence each other and each others’ children. It does take a whole village, or a whole congregation, to raise a whole person.
     Just last week we experienced the tragic loss of one of my grand nephews, Cameron Yoder, age 23, of a congenital heart condition no one had known about, leaving behind a young widow after a marriage of only three years, and two precious daughters, one just under two, and another only 3 months old.
     Hundreds of members of both their freundschaft and their gemeinschaft were present at the memorial service held at Bethel Mennonite near Gladys, with an a cappella music group singing “I’m Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger”, bravely claiming what we all prayed could be an anchor for this devastated young family--and for the rest of us who are left behind.
"I know dark clouds
Will gather 'round me 
I know my way
Will be rough and steep
But beautiful fields lie all around me
Where God's redeemed
Their vigils keep”
That, too, is a part of the FLRC concept of family.

God's Worldwide Family
But a final part is an even larger vision of family, one that includes God’s dream of a world "freundshaft" redeemed from every tribe and language and nation who are being restored to God’s shalom, that Hebrew word for peace that means harmony with all creatures and with all creation, where nothing is marred and nothing is missing. It’s the grand vision God has for a world in which wolf lies down with lamb, and no one will study war any more. In one sense, we can never be completely whole unless and until the brokenness of the world is healed and all are reconciled to God and to our every neighbor, including our enemies. 
     None of us can be fully whole until our starving fellow human beings, war and famine refugees around the world receive their share of God’s daily bread, where those who are cold and without shelter are offered clothing and safety and warmth.
     None of us can be fully whole until all of the tears in God’s family are being wiped away, until the emotionally and physically ill and disabled are being loved and cared for, the lost and the lonely, the orphans and widows, the sick and the aged are all sheltered as a part of God’s beloved family.
     None of us can be fully whole until the life and wellbeing of every child is nurtured from the womb to the tomb, where the married and the single and the celibate are honored and celebrated in our families and communities.     
     None of us can be fully whole until prisoners are released and restored and the oppressed go free and liberty is proclaimed throughout every land, until God’s will is being done right here on earth as it is being done in heaven, where God’s rule, God’s kingdom, unites us all as one family of grace and shalom, and where life becomes one ongoing Christmas gift exchange.
     We are all called to be a part of this, for the next thirty years and beyond, no longer just living by the values of the past, but inspired by the values and the vision of God’s forever future.
     I close with some words of the prophet Isaiah, with his grand vision of God’s dream family that I want to see people getting some taste of whenever they visit our FLRC house at Newman Avenue, and wherever they visit any of us wherever we live and work, 
      “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light…In that glorious day of peace there will no longer be the issuing of battle gear; no more the bloodstained uniforms of war…  For unto us a child is born…  and he shall be called “Wonderful Counselor,” “Mighty God,” “Everlasting Father,” “Prince of Peace.” He will bring true justice and peace to all the nations…  (from Isaiah 9)
     …the Lord Almighty is preparing a wondrous feast for everyone around the world—a delicious feast of good food, with the finest of wine…  he will remove the cloud of gloom, the pall of death that hangs over the earth…  The Lord God will wipe away all tears and take away forever all insults and injustice. The Lord has spoken—he will surely do it!”  (from Isaiah 25)
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To make a contribution to FLRC's scholarship fund to assist low income clients without insurance coverage go to: http://www.flrc.org/harrisonburg-counceling-services-family-resource-center-support-donations.html
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