As Christmas draws closer, some will be looking forward to catching up with family they haven't seen for a while. But for others, the season brings with it a sadness as it highlights their loneliness.
I was struck recently by how Jesus subverted the meaning of the word 'family'. His words in Matthew, for example, might seem quite harsh:
"While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, 'Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.'
"He replied to him, 'Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?' Pointing to his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother'"(Matthew 12:46-50).
But Jesus wasn't belittling the importance of honouring your family – in fact even on the cross He was thinking of His mother and best friend: "When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to her, 'Woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' From that time on, this disciple took her into his home" (John 19:26-27).
His overall message was that family is not limited to bloodline. The Bible teaches us that we are born into God's family when we accept Jesus as our Lord and that we are to love and serve one another with humility and grace. In the passage in Philippians 2 which in the New International Version is entitled 'Imitating Christ's humility', Paul says: "Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others" (verses 1-4).
Jesus went even further with His suggestions on serving others. His was a wider definition of family; He said by reaching out to any that are poor or needy we are in fact reaching out to Him:
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me...whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me"' (Matthew 25:34-40).
So, in these last days before Christmas, may I gently challenge you to think of 'family' as a wider term, encompassing those in your church family and those in your neighbourhood? The reminder that Christmas is a difficult time of year is vital, but it shouldn't make those who are going to be celebrating with family feel guilty. Family is an important part of Christmas – but let's open our doors and our hearts wider this year to include a more extended family.
If you aren't sure how to go about reaching out beyond your own immediate family, here are a few ideas:
• Christmas crafts event for kids
This year our church is trialling this event for the first time among our church families. It's a great chance for them to come together and have fun, creating decorations they can take home as they do so – including their own advent bunting that tells the story of Christmas each day. The idea is that we will see what works best by using our church families as guinea pigs, then in future years we will open it out to any families in the area.
• Christmas carol services in old people's homes
You don't need an amazing choir and speaker, just a few faithful people willing to sing some carols, read the Christmas story and, most importantly, spend time with those living in the home. It's so simple and yet blesses the socks off the recipients.
• Collection for the homeless
As it is the first year our church has had its own building, we are thrilled to be able to be a base in which food, non-perishable clothing, sleeping bags, toiletries and small gifts can be collected up ready to give out to homeless people in central London. A few days before Christmas a group from our church will be travelling up to London to join with others to distribute what we've collected.
• Christmas day service
This is an important way for the church family to celebrate together and it also gives a chance for anyone in the community who wants to be at church on Christmas day to join in. It helps everyone who attends feel 'together' on this, one of the most important days of remembering and thanksgiving in our calendar.
• Setting another place at your Christmas dinner table
It is wonderful to enjoy good food and fun with family over Christmas, but what about finding out who is likely to be on their own for the day and inviting them to join you? Families who make a point of always inviting those who will be on their own say it enriches their family's experience of Christmas hugely.
• Buying an extra present
Local hospitals often ask for present donations for children who are going to be in hospital over Christmas, so why not find out whether yours is collecting?