A few weeks ago my dad retired. Over a nearly fifty-year span his working life was divided into a few distinct phases. He spent nine years as a police officer, about fifteen in the building supply business, and the last twenty-three in full-time ministry. That last and longest “career” was divided unevenly between his time as the chaplain of the Halifax airport (1990-1994) and his service as pastor of our home church in Lake Echo, which covered the last nineteen years.

Two weeks ago the church honoured him with a retirement party that focused especially on his time at Lake Echo Fellowship Baptist Church. I initially didn’t think I’d be able to attend, but finally decided I couldn’t miss it, so I took off after church that Sunday and made it just in time for the dinner and celebration.

My life has been inextricably tied to the life of that church. In the mid-80s, we were one of the founding families, forming the church as a “daughter” of our previous church in Dartmouth to serve the communities a little farther down Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Dad was in leadership as a deacon of the church from the beginning. When a church is young and small, meeting in houses and school libraries and gyms, everyone has to be quite heavily invested, so LEFBC was, from about age ten, the hub around which most of our family’s life turned.

I was entering grade twelve when Dad became the pastor, so I never felt like a “preacher’s kid.” But I did get to see church life and pastoral life from the inside, with all the extra strains and stresses—as well as blessings—that come with it. Because I lived at home until past my mid-twenties, and was increasingly invested in ministry at the church myself by that point, I really got to see how things are for a pastor and his congregation.

And what I saw looked like it was often painful, often a headache. But it also looked like the rich life I’ve learned from personal experience that it truly is. In my father’s (and mother’s) relationship with their congregation I saw the love of a family at work. I watched as many people besides me began to look at my father as something of a father to them as well. (Amusingly, as pastor in my first church, I noted that I related to most of my congregation not as father-to-children, nor as son-to-parents, but as grandson-to-grandparents! And it worked in its own way too.)  In what must be the biggest impression Dad has left on me as a pastor, he invested his life fully in their lives; true care was at the heart of his ministry. And on the evening of the retirement party we were able to give thanks together for what God had done through the relationship into which he had called this particular pastor and this particular congregation.

For me, the evening also brought home again what God really intends for the church to be: a group of people tied together in Christ to serve their Lord. They all look to the same Heavenly Father, and in doing so they become a kind of family. As I looked around the room, at both those who were biologically related to me and those who were spiritually related to me (which thankfully overlaps with the biological group too), the line between them was blurry at best. There was a sense in the room that evening of being at home, despite the group’s size and the fact that there were scattered around the room some who were strangers to me.

This is how it should be in the church. Scripture constantly refers to the members of the church as brothers and sisters. Jesus himself told some of his critics that “anyone who does God’s will is my mother and sisters and brothers.”  And the apostle Paul refers to one of his younger companions as his “son in the faith.” The church is a family.

Sociologists have a word for this: they call it “fictive kinship.” But in my experience there is nothing fictive about it. Being part of God’s family in the church puts you in a network of relationships that is like nothing else on earth except a family.

When I was growing into early adulthood, before I ever recognized God’s call for me to be a pastor, I would have told you straightforwardly that as close as my extended family of Kohler and Williams clans were (and we are very close), my church family felt every bit as related to me. It was true on the large scale of the sense I had when we were together as a whole church. And it was true on the small scale in a number of particularly close relationships I have gained through the Lord. Biologically, I have one brother. But over the years, and for certain times, I have been additionally blessed by a number of people who can only be termed for me brothers and sisters in the fullest sense.

During the retirement evening, my parents each independently said to me (of two different guys a bit younger than me, but they agree with one another about these two), “Here is our third son.” One friend spoke up in the tribute time and touchingly shared about the relationship she has had with our family through the years. And before I left for the evening another friend said to me, “You’re the brother I never had.”

This is what God does in this new community he has created. When we come to Christ, we are invited to a party at the Father’s table. And as a pastor I get to see this especially clearly. I saw it in Dad’s church growing up, and I am blessed to see it in the church we currently serve as well. I’ll always be thankful for it. Granted, when you’re bound that closely to people, there are also many hard times and sorrows. But our Father is watching over his family. He cares for it and desires its unity as well as its joy. He wants it so fiercely that he gave his own Son, his own heart, for that goal. That unity and joy, bought at so high a price, is one of life’s most precious gifts.