Thirty-five years ago my family packed me up and sent me off to Sweden, so that I could broaden my horizons with an experience of living abroad. (Little could they have imagined, perhaps, that as an adult I would end up living in Europe more or less permanently.) I had just turned 15 the month before I left, at that age when one’s world is expanding exponentially, and I was fascinated by my first taste of European culture, of buildings and ideas that had been around long before my own country was even born.
I was fortunate to be placed with a most extraordinary family, who were ever so kind to the little Yank in their midst, caring for me, patiently teaching me, supporting and loving me as if I were one of their own, as I found myself in the midst of a new environment, culture and language for the first time. I was truly welcomed into the family, and soon had acquired a Swedish father and mother, two brothers and a sister.
Those relationships have endured over the course of these thirty-five years, and we have marked the normal passages which occur in every family, even if we live in different places. We have been able to visit one another, to challenge one another, and to support one another, and even grieve with one another when death sadly took the family's mother.
Last week, I was honoured to officiate at the blessing of the marriage of my Swedish sister, an affair that saw the entire family back together once again on the sun kissed beaches of Antibes. (It’s not always drudgery, being a priest!) The first reading we chose was from the first chapter of the Book of Ruth, in which Ruth refuses to return to her own land because, in Naomi, she has discovered that she has found her family elsewhere: Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you. (Ruth 1.16-17, NRSVA)
Those who know me know that I speak about my family a great deal. Over the course of my life I have drawn - and continue to draw - understanding and insight from their presence, their care, their concern and, of course, their stories. The family, for good or ill, is the initial unit which helps form us and give us our identity, and I am grateful that I have had the people I have had in my family who have done just that for me.
But looking around the faces gathered at that wedding, seeing the different connections that existed, but that were not limited to blood, experiencing relationships that perhaps didn't fit into easily-identified boxes, I was struck at how expansive the notion of family truly can be, if we have eyes and hearts open to see and feel it. Family is that which continues to nurture, support, challenge, give identity, and love us in a world which, at times, would seem to want to tear down such connections. And so anytime we can recognise this connection, this commonality, this love - be it in the Church or out of the Church - we should do so.
Last month’s BREXIT vote shocked and hurt many. For me, a non-European and a non-Brit, what I find most disturbing is some of the racist rhetoric and divisive discourses that the vote has brought to the fore. Coming from a country in which we seem unable to escape the evil spectre of racism, it is distressing indeed to hear of incidents in which people in the UK are exhibiting intolerance and hatred. The key, I think, comes in understanding that ultimately we are all family; ultimately we all need one another to support and nurture and challenge; ultimately we are all sons and daughters of the same God, sharing the same planet with which we have been blessed. Regardless of the consequences of the referendum, we all need to pray that we can feel, more and more, this sense of family, and that this love and connection will rule the day, and not hatred and division.