8,000,000,000 Cousins

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about what I call, “Prayer Points.” Each day of the week, I make a “point” of spending some of my prayer time on a particular issue– one day a week, I focus on the community; another day on global issues like poverty, war, and the environment. The other day, I was focused on “family and friends,” when I realized something, or rather, remembered something. I began by focusing on immediate family– my husband, our kids and grandkids. Then I spread the focus a little wider–our moms, siblings, and their families. Then aunts, uncles, and cousins…and their families! Pretty soon, I was thinking about second cousins and third cousins– the ones I see at family reunions, or catch up with on Facebook every once in awhile.

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And that got me thinking about my family tree. I research and work on genealogy for my family. My family tree stretches back several generations, and “branches” out several times over. There are nearly 28,000 names in my family tree, and I’ve only scratched the surface! My family tree is a tiny drop in the world population of nearly 8,000,000,000 people (7.96 billion as of this month, and growing). But it represents an incredible mix of people. Some of my family are of European origin; some are Native American; some are of African descent, or Asian. Many of us are a mixture of races, ethnicities, and native languages. Some of us are rich; some are barely getting by. Some of us are tall; others are short. Some are healthy; others have health or developmental issues. But we are all family.

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And, by extension, we are ALL family– all nearly 8 billion of us! We are all God’s children, and when we pray for “family and friends,” we can include anyone! That’s a mind-blowing thought, and I was really excited to be reminded of the fact. But it’s also a sobering thought. I certainly don’t know all of the living people I’ve included in my family tree– most of the information has come from public records and other family’s research, rather than personal knowledge. No one can possibly know 7.96 billion people– we’re lucky if we can remember the names and faces of more than 5 thousand in a lifetime. We could not possibly pray for them all.

But far more sobering is the thought that there are people I do know for whom I might not WANT to pray– people who have hurt me, or people I have judged unworthy of my time or effort. Yet are they not also “my family?” What difference does it make in the way I pray when I remember that I have, not 50 cousins, or 500 or even 5,000 cousins, but almost 8 billion? That the next person I meet on the street or at the post office, or at church–she or he is not just my neighbor, or my friend (or enemy), but my cousin? Shouldn’t I consider how I can pray for them– even a quick prayer? Shouldn’t I listen better, look closer, and seek out opportunities to show love for another of God’s children?

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It’s easy to speak in “relative” terms, but it can be a challenge to really live as “family.” Praying– sincerely and thankfully–for others can be a start.

We Like Us

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I’ve been very blessed with a large extended family–in-laws, cousins, step-cousins, half-cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, second cousins–well over 600! (and counting). I’ve spent a lot of time recently attending family events, and each one has been happy, encouraging, and invigorating. I know that is not always the case in families. Some families argue; some won’t even speak to each other. And there is not perfect harmony, even in the best of human families. We’ve had divorces and divides, too; but mostly, as my one cousin is fond of saying, “We like us.” We like belonging to a family, but even more, we like belonging to our family. As our family grows, it is becoming more diverse, and we like that, too. Many years ago, most of our family members were farmers from a small area in southwestern Michigan. Now, our family includes truck drivers, mechanics, teachers, architects, coaches, doctors, office managers, car salesmen, nurses, dispatchers, accountants, chefs, shopkeepers, ministers, photographers, cosmetologists, pet groomers, medical transcriptionists, cinematographers, artists, dancers, contractors, factory workers, and yes, some farmers, too. We have family members with varying skin tones and ethnic backgrounds, and differing physical and mental abilities. And we LIKE “us.”

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Jesus likened the Kingdom of Heaven to a family– it is made up of many members, but we are all brothers and sisters “in Christ.” And, like a family, we are supposed to like “us.” More than that, we are supposed to LOVE one another! We are to be there for each other, in good times and bad; in mourning and in rejoicing. “For better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health..” It shouldn’t matter if our brothers and sisters live close by or halfway around the world; whether they belong to our local congregation of “that other church across town.” And it SHOULD matter when we see some of our family members being persecuted or facing hardship while others live in comfortable apathy.

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But Jesus went even further. We are to love those who are not “US.” We are to show love and mercy to those who don’t “belong.” We are to reach out to those who dislike, despise, and even persecute us. The way we treat each other as “family” and the way we treat those “outside” will either attract or repel others, and it will show whether or not we have learned to love as Jesus did.

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God “Likes” us. He wants to share life with us –any of us who will respond to His call. And God LOVES us. He treats us with the same compassion and love, regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, or how we’ve responded (or failed to respond) to His outreach.

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Clearly, there are those who do not like us; who do not wish us well. And God does not call us to be victims, dupes, and doormats for abusive relatives or strangers. We are to Love– but wisely, and with the strength of God. Liking someone does not obligate us to betray our conscience, or enable abusive and immoral behavior in others. Loving someone may mean setting boundaries where they are needed. But it also may involve tearing down false walls of fear and “inconvenience” that we’ve been using to excuse action.

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Who can we reach out to this week, extending the kind of welcome and acceptance we give our family? How can we begin seeing more of “us” in the people we meet, and less of “them?” And, if there are family members (either our birth families, or our church families) with whom we have a broken relationship, are there ways we can make a move to try to mend fences? How can we set wise boundaries, while tearing down false ones? One sure way is to begin praying– pray for those we meet, whether or not we consider them “family.” Pray for those who have hurt us– and those we have hurt. Pray for those who seem different and hard to understand or accept. Pray for God to bless them, encourage them, meet their needs– Pray that God will give us wisdom, opportunities, and strength to reach out.

When We All Get To Heaven…

Last week, I attended the funeral of my mom’s cousin. It was a joyful funeral–not only was it a celebration of a life well-lived, and an acknowledgement of God’s grace, but it was a reunion of sorts. Not only were there cousins I hadn’t seen in awhile, but I met people I hadn’t known before, but we were connected through my cousin and through the legacy of a tiny country church and the faithful witness of those who have been blessed there.

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Friends and family spoke of my cousin’s generosity, his quiet and steadfast character, his diligence, and his love for Jesus Christ. We sang together, prayed together, and remembered. And some of the stories shared involved a small country church, once pastored by my cousin’s in-laws, and the site of many confessions of faith, prayer meetings, weddings, funerals, evangelistic services, pot-luck fellowships, Bible Schools, Easter services, Christmas programs, and weekly worship services. It was the church where I was introduced to the gospel. It was the church where I met my husband. It still stands, attended by faithful friends. It has, over the years, sent missionaries to Zambia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, and the Philippines. It has supported local rescue missions, and local families in need. It is a tiny country church; I can remember when it had hard wooden pews, no fans or air conditioning in the summer, a damp and leaky basement with the occasional toad or salamander on the stairs, and no indoor bathroom.

Bethel Church

After the funeral, Mom and I went to the fellowship meal at another local church. It was beautiful, with a small cafe, a large sanctuary, two sets of bathrooms, a fellowship hall, and all the modern conveniences– located in an old strip mall. A far cry from the church of my youth, but filled with caring and gracious people who were there to provide food and comfort for the family. I don’t know how many local or foreign missions are served by the congregation there, but I suspect it would look similar to the list above.

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As we found a seat for the meal, we were joined by a woman I had never met. As we made introductions, we realized two things– we were distantly related, and we had both attended Bethel Church as young children (though separated by a couple of decades). We both had fond memories of that small country church, and the wonderful people there.

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Over the next few days, I thought about all the amazing people I have known–family members like my cousin, and this distant cousin I was able to meet; the various families who came and went over the years at Bethel Church and other churches I have attended; missionaries and evangelists, pastors, teachers, and their families; the people I have met through mission trips and conferences–and how many more amazing people I have NEVER met, but whose lives are intertwined because we belong to God’s family.

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Someday, we will all be in the same place at the same time–HOME– with our Loving Father! When we all get to Heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! Until then, we are scattered by distance and circumstance. We worship in different ways, different languages, in different types of buildings, in small house churches, cathedrals, arenas, and strip malls. We have different outreach opportunities, different social challenges, different budgets, and different worship styles. But we are connected:

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There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6 ESV

Heaven will be incredibly diverse; and uniquely cohesive– brought together by a Love that transcends differences, disparity, and even death. And we will meet those whose lives paralleled ours, even if we never met on earth. We will meet those whose faithfulness brought about the little country church where I grew up, and those who planted churches in malls, and jungles, caves, hills, forests, and “underground.” All our amazingly diverse stories will be woven into one eternal “Hallelujah” as we praise the author of them all.

Funerals can be anguished events. But I was blessed last week to remember God’s incredible faithfulness. One of the verses quoted during the service was Psalm 116:15–“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Earlier in the same Psalm, the writer has this to say, “I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my supplications.  Because He has inclined His ear to me, therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.” I have seen and experienced God’s faithfulness– through the lives of other saints, through the work of His church, and as He has personally “inclined His ear to me.” May I be faithful to all upon Him for as long as I live. As my cousin was blessed and blessed others, may we hold true to our “One faith” as we await that day when we all get to Heaven!

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