Holiday get-togethers can certainly bring surprises, especially from family members who I haven’t seen in a while.
Wow, I’m thinking, Cousin Lynn is really looking old.
Meanwhile, she’s wondering how long I can last before they have to carry me back to the nursing home.
“Is that tall man on the couch Tom’s son, the one who lives up North?” Aunt Betty whispers to her sister Mary Alice, as if “up North” were a planet on the other side of the solar system where godless aliens eat their young.
My stomach tightens as I send up a prayer: “Dear God, please help everyone keep it light.”
“How are the kids?”
“So, Rick, you’re thinking about retirement next year.”
“Man, it’s been cold and wet this winter.”
“Earl, love the new pickup. Get a good deal?”
“You know, we did all our Christmas shopping online this year.”
Yeah, that’s what I was thinking – light, breezy, and superficial.
But at the same time, I’m hoping that somehow my unbelieving family members can see something of Christ in our home. So I throw up another prayer, a bit more sanctified than the earlier one: “Lord, may you somehow use this occasion to make a difference in the lives of these people I love.”
That’s a dangerous prayer, and I know it. Even an innocent comment about church or Jesus can be divisive these days, and an argument during a holiday dinner would be so … ah … tacky, as we say down South.
“OK, everyone, time to eat,” I announce. Since prayers can’t be openly criticized, at least in the South, I pray and don’t hold back. I say all the right things and use all the right words – God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, incarnation, blessings, thankfulness, forgiveness, faith, amen. There, I’ve done my duty. Now, anyone want to be saved? What, no takers?
Then, just as the dinner rolls reach the halfway mark around the table, the unthinkable happens. Cousin Jerry says something about the recent election. He is sitting just to my left, but I pretend I didn’t hear him.
“Aunt Edna, did you get any ’taters?” I ask louder than necessary in an attempt to throw up a smoke screen.
Susan, the cousin who moved to Chicago back in the 1970s, is directly across from Jerry. Her hearing is still pretty good, and there’s no way she can resist throwing a counter punch.
Ouch, that stung. Jerry staggers, but Mickey throws a strong verbal jab on his behalf. Susan deflects Mickey’s blow with the aid of a nonsensical comment from her brother Dave, the guy with the tattoo that reads “nolege is power.”
Stop! I silently scream. My blood pressure spikes.
Instinctively, sweet Aunt Evelyn offers an awkward attempt at peacemaking. In respect, everyone returns to his and her respective corners.
There is no round two, but the damage is done. The cat is out of the bag, and everyone knows it. This is not the family of our childhood.
We’ve changed. But why?
Maybe some of us have been worn down by trials of life. A job layoff that causes unending financial difficulties. A health issue that brings significant limitations. A rebellious teen who makes home life miserable. Life just takes its toll, and the optimism of youth turns to cynicism and bitterness.
Or perhaps it’s the opposite: Success and comfort bring arrogance and self-sufficiency. After all, who needs God when you’ve got a million dollars in your 401K?
It can happen either way. Through triumph or disappointment, success or failure, wealth or poverty, we change.
But some of us change for the better because God in His mercy enables us to see the utter futility of finding meaning and purpose in anything other than Him. Although our faith may waver, and we may question why things happen the way they do, His grip on us is secure.
It’s that desperate faith that Simon Peter expressed just after Jesus made some outrageous claims about those who would eat His flesh and drink His blood. Many who had been following Him were offended by His words and “no longer walked with him” (John 6:66).
Then Jesus turned to his 12 closest disciples and said: “Do you want to go away as well?” Speaking for the group, Simon Peter uttered words that have given hope to millions of struggling believers since: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:67-69).
Oh, how I relate to Peter’s you’re-the-only-game-in-town faith. In the end, isn’t that what you want for your family members who have yet to come to faith in Christ? That’s why, as followers of Jesus, we can never let politics, personal preferences, or tattoos close the door on a relationship.
Let’s start now praying for upcoming family gatherings.
As my family gathers during the Christmas season, there are those who feel beaten down by the trials of life and by their own failures. Others have put their hope in earthly things that in the end are meaningless.
By your mercy and grace, Lord, please enable these that I love to see the reality that You alone have the words of life.
And if I can be a small or large part of that change, please prepare my heart and my head to proclaim with truth, thankfulness, and humility the wonder of your saving grace. Amen.