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familiar and unfamiliar

familiar: from the Latin familia, pertaining to one's family or household; intimate, very friendly, on a family footing

Dean and I just returned from an epic trip which took us through France, Italy, and Spain. Our senses came alive and our feet nearly died as we walked and walked and walked the streets of Paris, Venice, Rome, and Girona. Everywhere we went was a place we had never been before. Everytime we got off a plane, a train, a bus (in Venice it was a waterbus), a subway, or stepped out of the car, we were in unfamiliar territory. Every day we were surrounded by different languages, different foods, different climates, and different cultures. Most everyone we met was a stranger.

This kind of travel is an adventure in unfamiliarity. One is always encountering the unknown and therefore never quite sure what is coming next. Will it be a good experience or a bad experience? Will I find this new food tasty or will I want to spit it out? Where will this road lead me? When living in the unfamiliar, one must expect to make a few wrong turns, to have some moments of confusion, and to find some things slightly disappointing. This is normal. Just because something is unfamiliar or new does not automatically make it wonderful or exciting. But neither can we equate unfamiliarity or newness with undesirability or even danger. Unfamiliarity just means that something is not part of the family, does not make us feel at home. Yet.

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Now if I go back to Rome, I will definitely head right to Made in Sud to order a slice of Napoli pizza. What was unfamiliar to me just over a week ago is now familiar and valuable to me, because I know it to be very tasty. A trusted friend recommended Old Bridge Gelateria to us so, in a way, it was familiar to us before we ever put a spoonful of that silky smooth, cool treat in our mouths. Becoming familiar with something is a way of knowing which changes an unknown entity into part of your household or family.

The thing about households is that not everything is perfect or functioning or even likeable, but that does not make it any less part of your household. There may be a ratty chair in your living room that anyone else would toss in the garbage heap, but for some indescribable reason, it is the favourite seat in the house. There may be broccoli in the fridge of your household, and even though you find broccoli inedible, you readily accept it in your household because other members of the family do like it. There may be an expensive new rug in your household which is beautiful and in very good taste, but over time, everyone agrees that it is a bit scratchy and doesn't go with the rest of the furniture, so you get rid of it. Some things are just familiar (familial), while others are not.

In the modern world, we tend not to categorise by familiar/unfamiliar but by empirical evidence (is something provable or not provable), by available data (is something reliable or not), and by high numbers and ratings (is something valuable or not). The weakness of these approaches is that they lack relational or familial elements. In other words, empirical evidence, research data, and popularity have us relying on the words of strangers, on unfamiliar voices, in order to make judgments or decisions. Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with these methods, but they have their limits, especially in the context of community.

I find it a bit troubling when church families place a lot of weight on unfamiliar voices when considering how to be the growing, maturing family of Christ. We can look at the data, we can listen to management specialists, we can read articles on marketing and branding, we can cultivate awareness of cultural trends and keep up with popular leaders. Information is good, but it can never be a substitute for familial connections, because data does not take love and compassion and mercy and forgiveness into consideration. The facts are cold and hard and unalterable. Families are warm and soft and by their nature, always growing and expanding and changing. Households are not based on ratings, trends, or undeniable evidence. They are based in living together, in community, in relationship.

In my household right now, there are a number of issues. My dishwasher no longer drains properly. My air conditioner is prone to leaking. One of the toilets just began to drip water on the floor. My ceiling fan needs cleaning. A light bulb above my head is burnt out. And the milk in the fridge expires today. I do not feel less at home because of these problems, nor am I less familiar with these items due to their issues. In fact, in many ways, I am more familiar (intimate) with these broken bits of my household because, yes, they have been with me for some time, but now they also require special attention and care. Taking care of broken bits is what one does in a household.

In Galatians, Paul uses the phrase "household of faith" to refer to those who follow Jesus. The Greek word here is oikeios which means belonging to a house or family, intimate, kindred. In other words, familiar. He writes: "So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all (both the unfamiliar and the familiar), starting with the people closest to us (familiar) in the community (household) of faith." [1]

A household is not just a place of responsibility or service (that would be the workplace) it is where we live, where we feel at home, where we know others and are known. It is where familial ties matter more than the bottom line and eating together matters more than putting on a good performance. It is a place where a chewed up toy is just as valued as a new dress. It is a place where unfamiliarity is always being turned into familiarity. We are the household of faith. Pass the pizza and the gelato.

[1] Galatians 6:9-10, The Message, words in parenthesis mine.


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