Families of the Heart

a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie


Often this month is hard as it brings so many different memories of family. I find hope in Andrew Solomon’s words, “if the physical and psychic place to which you were born wants no more of you, an infinitude of locales of the spirit beckons.” What he is saying is that when families to which we are born are not welcoming, or change over time, we can find families of the heart, places of belonging, of rebirth. My sermon tells my story of such a journey and invites you to ponder yours.

First Reading – From Hope Edelman’s book “Motherless Daughters”

Dear Ms. Edelman,
I lost my mother to cancer when I was twenty-five years old. She was diagnosed in April and died in July. Nothing prepared me for the pain or the depth of the loss. Every thing you said about a lifetime of grieving is true. And everything you said about being mentally strong because there is no mother to help you is also true.
I am 38 years old now and although the pain is no longer present every minute of the day, somewhere in the back of my mind is always a sense of missing her and needing her. Sometimes still, that sense of loss won’t stay in the back of my mind and comes forward with such intense pain that I don’t know that I will be able to bear it.
I truly believe that the death of my mother has made me what I am today. I am a survivor, mentally strong, determined, strong-willed, self-reliant, and independent. I also keep most of my pain, anger and feelings inside. I refuse to be vulnerable to anyone, especially my husband. The only people who sees that more emotional or softer side are my children. That too is because of my mother.
Bulverde Texas

Second Reading – From Maree Adrienne Brown “Emergent Strategy”

“Being Seen”
Interdependence requires being seen as much as possible as your true self. Meaning that your capacity and needs are transparent. Meaning even when I don’t want to look in the mirror I chose to be open to the attention of others. Sometimes I start with my “woes,” my friends who are “working on excellence”, and with whom I am co-evolving. I show something to them I’ve been hiding, and hope I’m still loveable. This generally goes better than expected, every single time. I can walk towards this “being seen” and experience the beauty of releasing all that guard and protection. Or I can resist and only be seen in moments of trauma and loss of control. But I will be seen, and the more I open to it, the gentler and more necessary that attention feels.

The Sermon

We are here far from the center, says Mark Bellitini, on the outer edge of the galaxy, far from our origins, still forming on the front line of time. His words are true cosmically, we are evolving in an ever-expanding universe, and his words are true theologically, that the work of expanding the circle of love happens from the margins, far from the center. To form on the front line of time theologically asks of us a steadfastness by which we accept and transform the norms that shaped us, and break down the barriers to love with both new found wisdom and authenticity.

C.S. Lewis says it this way,, “family is the place you develop spiritual muscle that Grace or good fortune may put to use.” And for me this is true. That my experiences as a daughter in the family that raised me, a child of an alcoholic, a second generation Scottish American and a motherless daughter are still inside me informing my counseling, my preaching, and my presence. I began to develop my spiritual muscle with my family after hearing Mark Bellitini preach about coming out as a gay man in his conservative Italian family. Like him, I know that if I am to be honest in my desire to engage with difference, then I need to have a sense of my own struggles with the cultures that formed me. In Mark’s words, I am wondering if multicultural understandings are possible for me at all without me being honest about my own diverse cultures? And without this honesty can I truly see what justice might look like? Is this justice that I imagine, for others only or is it for my self? Am I part of the continuum with all human beings or not? This sermon explores these questions in the hopes of building some spiritual muscle to expand the providence of love.
I begin by looking closely at the traits I inherited from my birth family, or what Psychologist Andrew Solomon calls my vertical family .

Ethnically, I am as pure Scottish American as you can get. My dad’s grandparent’s came to this country in the 1900s and my mom’s parents followed several decades later only to face the depression. In my Scottish heritage women are strong voices of authority, emotions are to be controlled and class is understand as kin, historically structured as clans. As a kid I was very attached to my clans, Ogilvie on my mom’s side, from the highlands, and Foster on my dads, from south of Edinburgh. I spent many hours imagining my life amongst my people there. So much so, I learned how to play the bagpipes when I was 12 thanks to my mom. When my husband , Ben, first watched Brave Heart, (do you know that movie with Mel Gibson) he said he felt like he truly understood me for first time.
Culturally, I grew up in an alcoholic household with my twin brother and two older sisters. My mother, the center of our universe, resented my dad’s drinking, understandably and angrily carried the weight of the world, while my father wrapped himself in the cocoon of several martinis every night. Like many adult children of alcoholics, I was taught by my family system that my presence was the problem and I responded by living in a world of fantasy, a world of what life would be like IF…What would my parents be like IF… The things that would be possible IF… I survived by anticipating my mom’s anger and by withdrawing. All four us suffered my mom’s temper differently, but she was the fiery sun around which our world evolved, and when she died when we were in our twenties, the disconnection, the clear lack of welcome, I felt with my dad and siblings over the years appeared to become permanent.

Andrew Solomon writes in his book “Far From the Tree, “If the physical or psychic place to which you were born, wants no more of you, an infinitude of locales of the spirit beckon.” In other words, when vertical families break down, the horizontal ones proliferate. Solomon says vertical identifies are attributes and values passed down from parent to child across the generations, through genes and cultural norms. Horizontal identities form around inherent or acquired traits that a child does not share with his parents, being gay, physically or mentally challenged, being a genius, or perhaps a person of faith, are all horizontal identities.

Andrew Solomon says every person has the pull of the horizontal that heals the vertical. My four kids were the pull of the horizontal that called me into a new local of the spirit. They reflect the birth order of my vertical family, two older sisters and a set of twins. As the years passed, I worked through just about every projection imaginable. The love and forgiveness they embodied summoned the courage in me to reach in from the margins, from dis-ease to health, to discover my distinct identity as a person of faith in a family of atheists and to find a home in the sense new sense of trust and kinship I discovered.

My relationship with my sister-in law, Anne is one example of kinship that changed me. “When we first met over 30 years ago she was experiencing her first bi-polar cycle in her early 20s. Like me she was experiencing a serious loss of self during a defining developmental stage, a loss psychologists say puts people at risk for a life long yearning for inclusion and intimacy. Of course I didn’t know this at the time, and not knowing much about her illness, we had some rocky moments especially when she was acting unpredictably around the kids. What I did know is that she was being blamed for the dysfunction in her alcoholic family, her father was mean to her, and that she was lost.

Kinship came when she unexpectedly offered to be interviewed for a pastoral case study paper I was doing on bipolar illness. “You know” she said, “during the manic episodes its easy to believe I am a messenger of the divine, but then during the depressive stage God is conspicuously no where to be found.” We talked about how important her support community is for telling her when she is in a cycle, because sometimes she can’t tell her self. And together we created a ritual of support and safety. With family and friends in a circle I wrapped yarn back and forth in between upheld fingers offering praise support and presence. To the circle we offered the words of the psalmist, “where can I go from your spirit, or where can I flee from your presence. For it was you who formed my inward parts, you knit me together in my womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.” And we added Anne’s picture in the center of the web, pledging to be her safety. I typed up our research and conversations into a 12-page paper. I happened to be visiting her Dad when she called him and read him the whole paper over the phone word for word. Anne summoned the courage to walk from illness to identity, to reclaim her center and break down the barriers to love. She gave me strength to overcome my sense of disconnect in my family, and knew I was not alone in the trying.

Solomon tells us that vertical families almost always reject horizontal identities, and that is what my family did when I became a candidate for ministry. My oldest sister, who at the time assumed my mother’s judging role and my dad’s drinking habits, promptly sent me Sam Harris’ “The End of Faith.” (at the time, the title felt ominous) My dad started policing and challenging my use of reverence language . My middle sister warned me against doing more harm than good. Good advice, but I wondered if this was her experience of me? But with grace and good fortune slowly things changed thanks to my relationships with my horizontal family, colleagues whose words and presence invited me into an intimacy and comfort with myself and my call. One year after I was fellowshipped as a minister my dad died of advanced Alzheimer’s. Yet, on the day I called to tell him I had gotten the highest score possible he said, clear as bell and with conviction. “That’s great honey.” My vertical and horizontal family became one. My sisters came to my ordination, but more importantly they both stopped drinking. UU values affirmed my parenting and have helped me claim a relationship in my heart with my mom. Her care became more tangible than her judgment as I cared for my twins, knowing she had done the same. Her fierce drive for achievement helped me tend to the every nascent interest of my young children. I was like her yet different, I decided to hug my kids often, praise them but still not quite enough, look at them and see myself yes, and something different, and then live to love every aspect of them.

I am fortunate that my family has just begun to heal, though still slowly. I have been a minister long enough to know we may never completely heal and that not all families do. Families I work with, wonderful families both vertical and horizontal experience so much brokenness. Like my colleague, Mark Bellitini, I understand that when as a minister I get engaged in justice issues for those who have been marginalized, pushed to the edge, I am engaged to do justice for myself. I am in one continuum with all those that have been marginalized. I am not engaged because I am redeemed but because I am broken hearted. I myself have known many cultures in my body and that is a lot of broken-heartedness. Those that have been broken can experience great love. I do.

Yesterday I received a card in the mail from Chris and Mary Jane, married moms who adopted Samuel and his sister Samantha who were removed from their vertical family because of abuse. In the card, Sam shared his idea on how people get connected in life. From a story he read in school, he learned that the man in the moon sees certain people and thinks they’ll be a good match for one another, so to bring the people together, the man in the moon sends out invisible strings to tie the people together. And this is how Samuel believes his sister and he got connected with Mary Jane and Chris. The moon is an apt metaphor for the infinite locales of the spirit from which we create the families of our hearts, families in which we recast our own narrative. Solomon, a gay man, always wanted his vertical and horizontal families to be integrated. He writes “I realize that I had demanded that my parents accept me but had resisted accepting them. Once I did I was glad to have their ubiquitous company.” Perhaps Samuel is right about the moon; we feel the pull of kinship as we explore the fertile slope or crescent, the space between our vertical and horizontal realities. The space where the immensity of families illumines us.