Grandparents: A Sermon


Woolly Home


Week 1, 2, 3,

Week 4, 5, 6

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Week 16, 17, 18

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Week 34, 35   Sermon

Week 36, 37,    Sermon

Week 38, 39




  Siem Reap

Week 44, 45, 46

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Week 50, 51, 52


Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme:  pilgrimage.  It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along.  It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis


“Congratulations!  You made it!”  Bill Bryson starts his A Short History of Nearly Everything.   He identifies the remarkable series of events necessary for you, yes, just you and no one else, to have made it here this morning, Sunday, September 19th, to the St. Paul Church Center.

This is the setup for the book.  He decided he wanted to know everything it took to get him, Bill Bryson, to where he was in his life.  He pushes his search back to the very beginning—or just after it—to the big bang. (He admits no one knows what happened just before that.)

Then, the entire coincidence of a universe set up with constants and laws just so and favorable, it later turns out, to a solar system with a third rock out, bearing the necessaries for creation of life as we became it.

After all the single-celled, multi-celled, dinosaurs, mammals and ice ages coming and going, australopithecus, Woolly Mammoths, and, the emergence of homo sapiens, the neolithic and French revolutions, there had to be still a sequence of men meeting women, sperm swimming up and meeting eggs to create the exact individuals required to meet the particular people who passed on the family DNA to you through your mother and father.

Or, as Margo Chavez-Charles puts it in part of the words chosen to close the service today: 


          “I want to say that I come from leaves and rocks and trees, that they are my ancestors just as much as my grandmothers and grandfathers, mother and father.  These are my favorite objects in the world.  And also my ancestors are birds, the ones who wake me every morning, and those who almost make my heart break when I see them twirl in the sky.”

Of course, the persons most critical to this sequence, after your mom and dad, were your grandparents.  Yep. 

Grandparents, where would we be without them?

Most of you can name your grandparents, but, consider, even with their absolute necessity to your existence, how many of you can name one of your great-grandparents?


This is an important clue to the fragile and shallow (historically and comparatively) nature of American kinship patterns, especially those of the middle class.  

The pictures and stories of grandparents  you have already shared root this presentation, put it into the idiom of your experience. 

You might be surprised to know that anthropologists and sociologists, along with some primatologists have yet to figure out why grandparents are important to the family, or the culture.  Yet, it seems undoubtedly true that they are.

Wait a minute, you say.  Their importance is obvious, as Bryson and the title of this presentation pointed out, “Grandparents, where would we be without them?”

Well, yes, the scholars say. but, what point do they have after reproduction?  After all, women past the point of reproduction appear redundant, since from the species point of view, that’s their primary purpose.  Older men might try to participate in procreation, but they’re mostly past it, too.  So why are they hanging around?

(Most of what follows comes from articles supplied by Susan Sternfels.  Copies of which I have along.)

This is where the primatologists come in.  Chimpanzees hit menopause about the same time humans do, somewhere in the vicinity of 45 or so, but for them, like most other animals, the end of reproductive capacity comes close to the end of life. 

Archaeologist Rachel Caspari has an interesting answer to the question of why grandparents.  About 30,000 years ago tool-making, and arts and crafts show an increased level of complexity, possibility indicating the rise of shamanic religions. 

2 million years ago, according to dental analysis, only 1 Australopithecus in 10, lived to twice the age of sexual maturity.  When the homo species emerged about a million years later (habilis, erectus, afranesis, africanus) the number rose to 1 in 5.  By the era of H. Sapiens and Neanderthal, between 130,000 and 30,000 years ago the number increased  to 4 in 10. 

Then, at the 30,000 year mark, the numbers change dramatically and you have two older adults for every one younger adult, instead of 1 in 5, now 2 to 1.

Caspari suggests that these older adults, especially the emergence of longer lived postmenopausal women, created a cultural revolution. 

Why?  They help rear the young, (a survival advantage), and allowed larger populations.  Older adults would also help with the transmission of cultural history, arts and craft knowledge, and religious ideas.                 

Caspari, and other anthropologists, believe this is support for the Grandma hypothesis.   The Grandma hypothesis is this:  postmenopausal women survive (unlike even close relatives in the chimpanzee and gorilla species)  because they provide an adaptive advantage for their grandchildren. 

Archaeologists, as thinkers, are prone to over reaching their data with hypothesis, and this could be an example, since there are other rationales as plausible to explain the sudden increase in cultural complexity, among them asking the question whether the increase was, in fact, sudden, or gradual and the evidence for the transition is yet undiscovered.

Still, there is interesting support for the Grandma hypothesis.  Baboons, an exception to the postmenopausal early death rule, show grandmothers help care for their own grandchildren, and, in fact, may live longer because of their interactions with them.  Old, childless baboon females die younger than their fertile counterparts. 

On the other hand, here’s another perspective:  successful grandmothers, those with grandchildren who both survive and thrive, may have better genes than others in the same pool, that is, genes which account for better  health, perhaps higher intelligence, and more sociability, say.  This reverses the logic, suggesting that the reason the grandmothers live longer is not because they survive to care for their grandchildren, but, simply, because they live longer; their children live longer, and their children’s children also survive longer.  According to Darwinian theory this succession of adaptive genes makes as much sense as a culturally focused hypothesis.

Regardless, the Grandma hypothesis has excited debate, apparently around the “utility” of ancestors.  This is an example of a peculiarly American fascination with the pragmatic efficacy of everything, including ideas and grandparents.  It does allow us, as a nation, to adapt technology to work at a rate that outstrips everyone else in the world, but is it an adequate way to appreciate the simple giveness of things?  Probably not.

And in the end ancestors are, as Bryson has so much fun pointing out, necessary.  Sine qua non.  Any other rationale for them seems secondary.


Once past 694, the northern segment of the metropolitan area’s ring-road, pick-up trucks begin to outnumber SUV’s, sedans, and luxury cars.  Those who live in the northern suburbs refer to it as the pick-up zone

Bumper stickers and vanity license plates reveal mindsets often different from  those in the Lexus zone or the mini-van zone.

This vanity plate, on a gold Ford pick-up, gives you an idea:  NRALIFE.  Now, there’s an interesting juxtaposition.  Guns and babies.  Hmmm.

But, the bumper sticker of interest to us here said this:  “If it takes a village to raise your child, you’re in the wrong country.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the joining of racism and xenophobia in the best Know Nothing tradition and look at this from the perspective of kinship.

Kinship is not often on the lips of the average person.  Kinship, after all, is the ocean we swim in, or the air we breathe; it’s so much a part of life that it goes by unquestioned, yet, as this offensive bumper sticker does accurately suggest, it differs a good deal from culture to culture.

Without getting too deeply into it, kinship results from descent principles and marriage rules, the mixture of these determine the nature of relationships in a particular culture.  You might not think there are too many ways to divide the relational pie, but you would be wrong. 

Here in North America we tend to have bilateral descent patterns; that is, you are a member of both your mother and your father’s families, and, by extension, all the issue resulting from both.  Thus,  you may have two family reunions each summer where, gathered in a churchyard or park shelter, you have an opportunity to wonder, “Am I really related to her?” 

You determine the answer to the question by finding out who married whom, and who their parents were and where those relationships intersect with your Mom’s family, or, your Dad’s family.

You also see yourself first and most closely related to two linked nuclear families:  the one into which you are born (your family of orientation) and the one in which you are a parent or partner (often called the family of procreation—Let’s rename it, right here—the family of personal formation).

As one  source consulted noted, this is a shallow and, as a result, fragile kinship structure.  Many nuclear families have missing parents or partners, often males, due to divorce, abandonment, death, or choice of a single life.  This can place a great strain on either the family of personal formation or the family of orientation, or both.

It is in this sense that the bumper sticker commentary is both true and illustrative of a weakness in our highly fragmented culture.  If we don’t have a village full of persons who define themselves as related to a child, who will see themselves as responsible?

You might jump, in your imagination, to foster care issues in the black community, but, an AARP fact sheet for Minnesota shows that of children being cared by grandparents here, 70% of them are in white families.  Interestingly, it is in such a shallow kinship structure as our American one that the Grandma hypothesis proves most hopeful.  It links, intimately, the family of orientation and the family of personal formation. 

An election judge in Anoka county, recently retired from US Bank, proudly wheeled his grandchild around the polling place while his wife, caring for her, voted.  He said he and his wife provide three days of child care a week for his daughter, who works part time, but would have no money to show for it, if she had to pay for childcare.

Another couple, he’s a financial planner and his wife a sometime caterer and event planner, provide daily child care for their grandson; and, his wife’s daughter from a previous marriage works for him. 

How many of you know of circumstances like this either in your own family or in the family of your friends?

There is, however, another scenario, one which also supports the Grandma hypothesis, at least anecdotally (which seems like the only real evidence for it, by the way).  That is a negative instance.

In addition to the shallow nature of our kinship structure (it’s really strongest between the family of orientation and the family of personal formation) we also live in a mobile culture, and, a mobile culture in which mobility is highest in the years surrounding family formation:  just before, during, and just after children arrive.  This coincidence occurs because mobility occurs most often in relation to employment.

Take the instance of a young teacher who found a job in the Anoka-Hennepin School District teaching art.  Two years into the beginning of his work for the School District a legislatively created budget crisis forced the layoff of all non-tenured teachers.  In this situation tenure took three years of employment, the young art teacher was laid off.

In his search for employment he ran into the budget situation throughout the state.  So, he looked elsewhere.  He found a position in Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. 

Two years after his move to Colorado he found a fellow teacher, fell in love, and they were married this August.   Their two mothers-in-law and their father-in-law await news about grandparenthood with some anticipation.

But:  Grandma paternal lives in Minnesota and Grandma maternal (both prospective) lives in North Carolina.  Here the Grandma hypothesis faces the reality of American mobility.

Returning for a moment to our pick-up zone xenophobe, we now see the doubled effect of his distastefully revelatory bumper sticker, there is no village to raise this potential grandchild, and, no Grandma.  According to the hypothesis, this bodes ill for the child.


Anthropologists identify three forms of relationship:  affine’, consanguineous, and fictive.  The first two are straightforward enough:  Affine’s are kin created by affinity bonds:  in our instance, marriage (in-law brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers). Consanguineous relatives are kin created by shared DNA.  The term, originated in Rome, refers to a time when people thought the blood carried the relational characteristics among family members, therefore consanguineous, with blood.

Fictive, an unfortunate term in its connotations, denotes kin created simply by definition.  Adoption is a fictive kinship bond by these definitions, thus, fictive refers to the non-affine’/non-consanguineous nature of the bond, not to its truth value. 

Curiously, in the case of the young art teacher, his students come from a Mexican-American culture which creates quite strong fictive bonds.  In the Roman Catholic influenced Mexican culture god-parents are as bonded to the child as their parents.  You know the strength of this bond through the commonly used Spanish term, compadre, which refers to the male godparent, the co-father.  Compadre is a common term for a strong bond between two men.  The female godparent is a comadre, or co-mother.  They are, then, in addition to the grandmothers, a strong source of help for the family in the raising of a child.

One option available to the Colorado couple would be to reach into the culture of their students and develop god-parents for their children from those friends of theirs who live close by, but, this is not a common option among Protestant or secular American couples.

It is this potential lack of support for a nuclear family raising young children which reveals the weakness of the “it shouldn’t take a village to raise a child” bumper sticker.  And, of course, this fragility is even more evident in the matrilocal family where the male parent is missing due to divorce, death, or abandonment.  If the matrilocal family is also in a physical location distant from grandmothers, then life can be difficult indeed.      

To illustrate the difference between our shallow, fragile kinship structure here in the US, we only have to compare it to the lineal descent patterns common in the Middle East and exemplified by the reading from the Book of Matthew.  These lineal descent patterns establish, through a careful remembering of ancestors (though not as careful as the Matthean list seems to suggest), relationship with a distant, powerful ancestor, in Jesus’ case, King David.  This was important because the Jewish messiah could only come from the lineage of David.

In addition to lines of descent, most Middle Easterners in Jesus’ time were members of a tribe, the twelve tribes of Israel, for example.  Within these tribes kinship was determined by various definitions of affine, consanguineous (the lineal descent), and fictive bonds.  These offered many more opportunities for support in child-rearing, especially in situations where even the most basic needs like food and shelter might be difficult to obtain.

Native American communities have tribal bonds, bonds by clan, and by band.  Again, these offer a broader range of kinship possibilities than our Euro-American patterns.

What, you might reasonably ask, does any of this have to do with the religious life?  There are multiple answers to this question, but let’s explore two, one public and one private, or, one with implications for public action, and one with implications for private, within the congregation, action.

An e-mail, distributed to Groveland members, referred to a homeless shelter at House of Hope Presbyterian church.  Homelessness itself is a reflection of the fragile bonds of American kinship patterns.  Homelessness of course means there is no one willing to take you in at a time when you can’t care for shelter needs yourself.

Ironically, House of Hope was initially a mission church in downtown St. Paul with a focus on the indigent, therefore the name, more usual for a mission congregation than an upper middle class bastion like House of Hope later became.  House of Hope is a congregation whose genesis lay in the fragility of the American family and the hopelessness it can engender.  Homeless may also be familyless; and, congregations, in their original form, the oikeumene, Greek for house, were family structures opened up to a wide array of social statuses, including slaves.

Thus, Groveland could become paragrandparents or god-parents to familyless persons at House of Hope.  No matter what your age, having a grandma is a good thing (well, at least potentially a good thing.)

The private action, that is within Groveland, might be, first, a frank and open discussion of family realities.  Who needs childcare?  Anyone?  Anyone interested in having a little one around for a certain amount of time a week?  Or, another look.  Are there any single, isolated, homebound persons who need a friendly face now and again.  These kind of internal looks at your own reality could capitalize on the small, intimate nature of Groveland as a congregation.

In other words, recognizing the fragile nature of American kinship structures, especially among folks like those of us in this room this morning, might yield opportunity for congregational mission work very close to home.

So, if takes a village to raise a child, our pick-up driving friend might be in the wrong country, but we don’t have to be.

         Charlie Buchman Ellis                  Top                    < Previous