Friday, November 20, 2009

What is Family? (and Baby Elsa Update - 20 November 2009)

I’m sitting here working on my talk for next Tuesday, laboring over exactly which angle to take in teaching the Christmas message to the students of El Pozo since it’s our last En Vivo of the semester … but I can’t concentrate. I am too excited about the arrival of my brother, Britt, and his wife, Candace, later tonight. They are coming to visit for a few days and I am giddy. I can’t wait to eat tacos and catch up on life with my bro. I can’t wait for him to see how this ministry, which he helped found and has continued to support in many ways, has grown. And of course more than anything I can’t wait to see Britt and Candace hold and hug and kiss and fall in love with their first niece!!! After Erin and me and tied with the grandparents, these are the two people who love little Elsa Lynne more than anyone else on Earth, and take the most responsibility for her well-being. The imminent arrival of my brother and sister-in-law along with two other recent events have conspired to fill my mind today with thoughts of FAMILY…

What exactly is “family”? By the strictest definition, it means people with whom I am blood related. But I think this definition is weak. Too limited. I will explain, but first, the two events I mentioned a second ago…

Event number one: Last Saturday was the annual Fall cookout at my brother’s house known as “The Bo Bo Bash”. It has become a McDade family tradition, on the short list of best days of the year for dozens of people. Erin and Elsa and I, sadly, were unable to attend. But we heard stories and saw lots of photos. A couple of people wrote to let us know that we would be missed, and we really appreciated that. Other than a handful of folks who were under the weather or recovering from surgery (We are praying for your speedy and full recovery, Uncle Bill!), all of my relatives on the McDade side were there. Aunts, uncles, cousins, distant cousins… Many even brought their dogs. Babies everywhere. But you know what else I noticed? There were many other people there with whom I have zero blood relation but whom I totally consider my family. There were friends and former classmates and roommates and teammates who have been lovingly adopted into the McDade clan, some of them twenty-some years ago, some of them much more recently. There were girlfriends and boyfriends and in-laws and neighbors and more. It looked like, as always, everyone had a great time and ate lots of great food. A beautiful, fun-filled day spent among FAMILY…

Event number two: Yesterday morning, Carter and Emerson Cooper, children of our teammates Clay and Amanda (and nephew and niece of our other teammates, Heath and Karen), had a big presentation with all of the other kids from their school. It was called “Grandparents’ Day” – which their school has a tradition of celebrating in November, even though actual Grandparents’ Day is in August. They do this so that the kids have time to get a presentation together. This year’s theme was musicals. Carter’s class did a rendition from “High School Musical”, complete with basketball dribbling and dancing. Emerson’s group did a piece from “The Sound of Music”. Then the whole crew did some singing and instrument playing at the end. It was adorable and very entertaining. And Erin and I were in attendance because we were graciously invited to attend as aunt and uncle, since Carter and Emerson’s grandparents are all far away in Tennessee. We were extremely honored, and we got dressed up and smiled and laughed and took photos and swelled with pride alongside Clay, Amanda, Heath, and Karen in spite of the fact that no Cooper blood that we know of runs through our veins. Heck, I don’t know if anyone in my family has ever even owned a barrel, much less made one. But there we were, Carter and Emerson’s FAMILY in what is, to me, a very real sense…

One of my favorite literary characters of all time is Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. One of the things that Atticus teaches his precocious daughter, Scout, is that people – especially in the South – tend to be way to preoccupied with blood relations. In the words of Scout: “I never understood the preoccupation with heredity.” And: “Atticus told me one time that most of this Old Family stuff’s foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s.” I totally agree.

My favorite definition of “family” ever comes from the wise sage Dr. LeRoy Lawson, a man who in addition to biological children has had many “Velcro kids”, as he calls them. These are the ones who, when taken in for a short time by the Lawsons, “just stuck” … and ended up becoming family. Some of the kids offered shelter and love by the Lawsons, on the other hand, rejected it. And this wealth of experience led LeRoy to come up with this definition of family:

*** “Family” is people who have made and kept promises to each other. ***

You see, at the end of the day, blood relations do not bind us together. They might make us look alike. They might make us act alike. They might force us into each other’s company on certain occasions. But they do not draw us back into each other’s company. Blood relations might be reasons we must tolerate each other at an obligatory Thanksgiving dinner, but they do not lead us to create, anticipate, and thoroughly enjoy extra events like The Bo Bo Bash (or the Crawfish Boil, or the Dam Party, or the men's golf weekend, or vacations together, or…). I know too many people who have little or no contact with their blood family. Some of them are not bothered by this in the least. Some find it tragic. In my life, I have blood relatives I know I cannot count on, and people of different races and bloodlines on whom I know I can depend until the day I die. Blood relations, in and of themselves, are neither good nor evil. They bring us all a mixed bag of traditions and tendencies both blessed and cursed. Where I have strained relationships with blood family members, I realize that the cause is broken promises. Where I see relationships growing deeper, I observe people who are faithful and forgiving to each other.

As I think about the McDade clan, I realize that what holds us together is not blood, but love. Love that forgives when hurtful words are said. Love that loads the kids up in the car and drives halfway across a state when there’s a chance to be together. Love that agrees to disagree. Truth spoken in love. Love that prays for each other and takes care of each other when illness strikes. Love that remembers birthdays and takes an active interest in each other’s lives. Love that buys a webcam and figures out how to use Skype so that faces and voices can travel the miles when bodies are unable.

As I think about my teammates; and Carter and Emerson; and Elsa Lynne who will knows Abril and Bego and Yuyo better than she knows Kim and Lynne and Britt; and my friend James who is based in Atlanta but has siblings in London, Wisconsin, California, and New York; and this global village we live in; and the holidays that are around the corner, I realize that what binds us simply cannot, must not, be the randomness of blood ties. It has to be something more, something deeper, something we can choose to embrace or reject, work at or neglect.

As I gain more and more understanding of the words of Scripture, I see a God who has a bigger, fuller view of family, too. A God who invites Jew and Gentile alike into the fold. A God who opens His banquet table to the riff raff and the outcast. A God who is a wide-open door for EVERYONE in all cultures and nations and generations into relationship through His son, Jesus.

My Granny and (late) Granddaddy McDade are legendary because, as I have heard SO MANY people express down through the years, anyone who enters their house immediately becomes family. Many of you reading this have been to Granny’s house and know exactly what I’m talking about! These days, I know of no one who carries on this legacy better than my brother. Everyone who comes into his presence is invited into the fold, showered in love and acceptance. And this is the way Erin and I, as we begin our little "family", are trying to live our lives as well. May our lives daily be an invitation, in word and deed, into the abundant life of the family of God! It is, after all, the only family that really matters in the final analysis.

It’s not about the blood. It’s not about the DNA.

It’s about the hospitality. It’s about the sacrificial love. It’s about the open arms, open doors, and open hearts. It’s about the making and keeping of promises.


Can’t wait to see my bro and his better half in just a few hours!!! Here are a couple of (blurry) photos of Carter and Emerson’s presentation, and the latest photos of Elsa. Enjoy!

Being "tios" at Carter and Emerson's presentation.

"The Sound of Music" in all its glory. Emerson is the one who looks like Smurfette.

Dancing it up. At one point, out of boredom, I thought Emerson was about to fight the entire green team. She would have won.

Carter k-k-keeps his head in the game. He is not afraid to shoot the outside J.

How long did it take you to spot the Cooper kid? 1 second? 0.5 second? 0.001 second?

The whole crew. I have to get a better camera before Elsa starts doing stuff like this...

Elsa attends her first ultimate Frisbee tournament. This one was in the nearby small city of Apizaco, near Tlaxcala and at the foot of la Malinche. Nice setup, no?

Hanging out with Mommy.



Learning about farming with Baby Einstein. She loves these videos.

Striking a thumb-sucking pose. She pretty much sucks whichever part of her hand arrives at her mouth first, so it's serendipity when it happens to be the thumb.

Enjoying the musical. No way of knowing for sure, but I think her favorite song was the "Hard Knock Life" Little Orphan Annie remix...

Much love to all of our friends and FAMILY out there!

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