Family is not a brood of vipers, but…

Holidays are abundant with family gatherings. Whether its for a meal, a party, a gift exchange, or just a movie night, many occasions occur that bring families close…in proximity…and hopefully  in relationship.

We hope for the best when we’re setting the table for Aunt Gerry to be near Cousin Frank…they have opposing political views. And Sister Margie who indulges in her quiet, single life can’t stand sitting near Brother Bill, the doting father of six curtain crawlers. Mom wants to sit beside Dad, but Dad wants to sit by Uncle Paul and talk football, which Mom discourages because the brotherly competition gets too loud every year…and then Dad gets snippy with Mom, which makes everyone uncomfortable.  And then there’s the question of where to put the wine…in the kitchen or on the sideboard…near or far??

Family. We share genes with them, but sometimes, that’s all we share. Holidays bring out the tension when we know we’re ‘supposed to’ get along with our blood-kin, but it’s just hard to do so. Even among people who all claim to be Jesus-lovers, there is judgment.

I was amused when I reread over the passage in Luke 1 (verses 57-66) that tells of the family gathering after Elizabeth and Zacharias welcomed their baby boy into the world.

‘When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah,  but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.” They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.” Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.  He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.”  Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.  All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.’

The family was thrilled that Elizabeth had given birth in her old age, shedding the shame of her barrenness. They came to rejoice with her. You can imagine how this went: the veteran mothers gave advice, while the younger moms were whispering that they had some new ideas about baby care. Some relatives wanted to help with housework and others just wanted to hold the baby. The men were probably helping Zacharias fix something outside the estrogen-crowded house, and any little cousins were chasing each other in and out and around the busy home.

Then, came the all-important naming ceremony.  In the reverent Jewish tradition, the priest presented the baby to God and gave him his Hebrew name–Zacha…what?  Imagine Elizabeth shaking her head and saying, ‘No, we’re not naming him after his father. We’re naming him John.’ The questioning looks pop on the faces of the friends present, while the relatives begin mumbling ‘Who is John? I don’t remember him. How far back are they reaching to get a family name? What’s wrong with Abijah, or great-great-great grandfather Hashabiah…or his dad Kemuel? John? Where did she get that one?’ The sun rays of acceptance and rejoicing that previously shone throughout the house were now covered with clouds of doubt and disappointment. ‘Why is she changing the tradition?’

So they turned to ask a second opinion, that of Zacharias, for clarification. Now, Zacharias had been mute since the angel spoke to him in the temple, nine months prior to this happy, though increasingly awkward, situation. When he was questioned by the crowd of family and friends, he concurred with his wife. The baby would be named John. Immediately, Zacharias received his voice back and was able to verbalize his joy over the birth of his child and the message that Gabriel had delivered to him. “He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17)

When the gathered crowd heard their friend speak again, after months of silence, and heard his story of the angel’s visit, the promise of the child, the vow the son would take to purity, they knew something was special about this baby. And they began to chatter and rejoice and spread the news. Like people do. ‘Ohhhhhhh, I am so thrilled for them. They’re going to need more cloths to wrap that growing boy in! I know I have some at home!’ ‘Did you hear what he said? That’s the vow that Samson took. I hope he doesn’t make the same mistakes Samson did…’ ‘It’ll be another Delilah debacle all over again.’ ‘I still can’t believe they chose that name, I mean, I know the angel told them, but still…’ ‘I have the perfect lamb casserole recipe that I’ll share with Elizabeth.’

As families will do, they had their opinions. What will become of this boy? His birth was a miracle. His arrival was angel-announced. His future has been forecast. He will bring our nation back to God. What? How? Why?

In a few years (Luke 3), John was doing exactly what the angel had predicted. Calling people to turn from their selfish ways and prepare their hearts for God’s work.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”  As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. “

Long story short, families are going to have joys and opinions and quarrels and chasms. There will always be some loving  relative who questions our choices. But we don’t model our lives after them. Our focus should be on what we can do on this earth to draw people to God. I don’t suggest calling out the fam as a ‘brood of vipers’, but see them for what they are…needing God’s love.  We can’t do that with brow-beating, critiquing, arguing, or ignoring. We do it by showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Before all the family came over to see new little baby John, I am certain that Zacharias and Elizabeth spent time in prayer, both being from priestly families. And that’s what we need to do. Wrap each gathering of friends and relatives in prayer, like the precious, temporary gift that it is. And then enjoy it for what it is…an opportunity to share the message of God that was given to us directly.  Love.

 

 

 

A Tribute to my Father-in-law

“Look around and take what you want,” she said. We sat in her living room the afternoonIMG_5102 after the funeral mass and family lunch. It had been a busy few days, and we all appreciated the moments of rest. After a decade-long conquest with Parkinson’s and several months in the hospital, my father-in-law had passed away a few days earlier. The preparations, flights, drives, visits, calls, hours with family and friends at the wake, church, and cemetery were done. Now, we sat in the front room in peaceful silence, and his widow spoke.

 

“Look around and take what you want.” Those were the words to my husband and his sister. Not said in despair or sadness, but rather in a spirit of openness and generosity…Gary doesn’t need anything now. Take what he left. Take what you had given him that will remind you of times together. Take mementos. Take pieces of his life back home with you.

I looked around the neat house from my vantage point, and thought, he didn’t really leave anything. An avid Yankees fan, Syracuse and Cardinal Hayes alum, he had hats and shirts and some wall art…but he didn’t really have “stuff”. He didn’t buy for himself, though he could have. He didn’t fill his life with tchotchkes and dust-collectors. So what was his “stuff”?

His favorite room in the house was his little office. Maybe 5’x7′ with two windows to light IMG_5104up the all important computer desk. Here he kept his spiral notebook of contacts, from his elementary school classmates through his coworkers in education. Beside that, his 75th anniversary edition of the Cardinal Hayes High School alumni directory. He kept phone numbers of his children taped at eye level. On each of the three walls were notes and photos from his grandkids. In the computer were stored countless emails from people he’d known his whole life and research he’d done to help others with their illnesses or debts. To the left of the computer screen sat the Facebook Portal that he received for Christmas so that he could stay in touch with his classmates, colleagues, family, and peers from Hawaii to Germany, and all places in between.

Gary was a relational man. That’s where his “stuff” was. It was in his heart. It was in his conversation. It was in his connectedness to others. Throughout the house, there are pictures of trips that he and his beloved took to Europe and Disneyworld, photos from cruises and dinner parties, and framed reminders of events that they shared together. That’s the “stuff” of his life.

When he would travel by train to see our family eight hours away, he would always IMG_5105strike up a new friendship with a seated neighbor. One time he told me that the best conversation starter was the phrase “So, how’s your life going?” It was an open-ended opportunity for hours of chatter about the present, past, and future. When an issue arose about which he was ignorant, he would spend hours researching it online to learn what he didn’t know. He would call us to share his newfound knowledge because that was his “stuff”, sharing knowledge. Sharing relationships. Sharing life.

We have spent two weeks this summer, traveling around upstate New York and landing back at his home on Long Island. We have thought of him numerous times and wanted to share our new experiences with him…the kids’ first time at his alma mater Syracuse University, their impressions of the breath-taking Letchworth State Park, his grandson’s photos at West Point and big dreams of attending there in a few years, the shark that was caught on a fishing trip in Freeport, his granddaughter’s love of socializing with girl cousins…the list goes on.IMG_5107

This week back in his house has had me considering his legacy. To “look around and take what you want” of Gary means to live the life we are currently living to its fullest and share generously with others. He didn’t want trinkets and “stuff”. He wanted relationships and connectedness. My son is at camp this week with Long Island kids who live eight hours away from our home. Yet, he invited a buddy to come over and hang out after camp…and has been invited to the young man’s bar mitzvah. My daughter has bonded with her girl cousins while her brother has been at camp…and they have had tea and done crafts and played outside and talked non-stop.

Gary, I’m typing this on your computer, probably still feeling some jellybean residue on the keys…but I want you to know that we get it. We’ve looked around and we want to take YOU with us. We want your awareness of people, your desire for relationships, and your genuine love for humanity. We want that…and we miss you dearly.

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