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.

 

 

 

Scratching the spot

Mia is our fourteen-year old, beloved family dog. She has been with my husband and me since we were newlyweds. She’s grown old and gray as our kids have grown up and active. Currently, she spends most of her time sleeping on the couch, monitoring neighborhood activity out the window, or occasionally escaping to see her best bud down the street. We love our old gal.

miawindow            miadog

About a year ago, the vet told us that Mia had become paralyzed in her back legs. We had noticed that she would drag her back feet a bit when we would take her for a walk. In the snow, you could see the imprint of her front paws and a dragged streak representing her hind steps. But she could still run and play, just slower…and maybe a bit clumsier.

We noticed another way the paralysis affected her when we scratched ‘the spot’ behind her ears. For years, our family has relished in seeing Mia’s hind leg twitch when we would successfully find ‘the spot’ on her neck that activated her scratching reflex. She’d lift and twitch her back leg while we actually did the scratching work around her collar. But now, her legs don’t feel that reflex, and she certainly can’t lift either back leg or stand on the remaining one to scratch her neck. So, we find her special spot and do the work for her, since she can’t do it herself. Her head twists to the side, her eyes get that ‘Oh my gosh…that feels sooooooo good….’ glaze over them…and there’s a little bit of ‘Thank you’ in those big brown eyes, too.

 

You know, we all have our times of being the old, crippled dog…or the loving caretaker. There are seasons in life when we find ourselves limited by our circumstances, and we need someone else to help us. Unexpected family crisis can freeze our life progress…our thoughts are locked on solving that problem, and we can’t focus on anything else. Conflict at work can be so monopolizing that we bring it home with us, and it lives in our house too, paralyzing our relationships with others. Finances, seemingly the base of our existence, can falter, leaving us standing helplessly and aching for solutions. Grief, depression, illness, transition…all stifling, limiting curses to our happy little existence. So many irritating itches, and no way to satisfyingly scratch them. We desperately need help, whether we lift up our beseeching eyes to anyone or not.

mia                               miab

We need connection with others. We need to metaphorically, or even literally, curl up on the couch with those who love us. We need to rest our head on that able body and moan, whine, wish, weep, and even snore. There has to come a time that we seek help from those who have loved us, those who have spent time caring for us, those who will love us no matter what ails us.

That said, sometimes, we will be the caregivers to our friends as well. Are we ready for that? Are we keeping ourselves emotionally and spiritually healthy? Do we lift up ourselves and our dear ones in prayer, seeking help for things that we are powerless to change? Daily, we should seek God and his merciful grace on our lives, so we are prepared to live this life he has given us. With this empowerment, we will be ready to ‘scratch the spot’ of those beloved companions who need us most.

miame

Second Corinthians 2:3-7

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Second Corinthians 7

Make room for us in your hearts. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have exploited no one. I do not say this to condemn you; I have said before that you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you. I have spoken to you with great frankness; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds. For when we came into Macedonia, we had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn—conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever.

 

To the boys who stop…

To the boys who know that “Stop” means ‘stop’, thank you.

To the hormone-crazed, adolescent male who understands that “No” means ‘no’, thank you.

To the guys who are tempted to push and manipulate but don’t, thank you.

You deserve some recognition.

Someone has taught you a vital societal skill: respect.

Maybe it was your dad, who wanted you to be an upstanding citizen. But maybe it was your mom who was respected by your dad. Or maybe it was your single mom, who wasn’t respected. Maybe it was an older, wise friend…maybe it was a family member who didn’t want you to screw up your life and someone else’s as well. Whoever taught you, thank them. And thank you, sir, for listening…and heeding.

It is so tempting, when you’re with someone you care about deeply, to seal the bond with more than a kiss.

The moments get heated, the mood is ripe with feeling…but she says “No”…and you listen.

Mentally, you’re face-palming, lip-biting, eye-rolling, screaming with desire…but you stop. You’re listening to her. And you’re respecting her.

And that respect means everything. EVERYTHING. EVERY. THING.

It matters to her now. And forever.  It matters to you now…and it will matter to you later as well. When you don’t have to hide what happened. When you don’t have unexpected complications for your actions. When you don’t have a criminal record. When you can look at your wife without regrets. When you can talk to your son about respecting women, without being a hypocrite yourself. When your daughter asks you for advice about dating…and you know what to tell her because you’ve been the right kind of guy.

Stopping means everything. And you, sir, know how to do it.

Tell your friends. It matters.

When they tell their tawdry stories, ask them if they respected her.

When they imply what they’re going to try, ask them what is their plan if she says ‘No’.

Make them think about it…because it’s not just about them. It’s about her, too. Which you know already.

Influence them with your self-control and confidence that you know you’re doing the right thing. 

It matters. Now and in the future.

Thank you, for stopping. Spread the word.

Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts? - Confucius

 

Chains

FullSizeRender(6)

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed making paper chains at Christmas time. Maybe it was the challenge of how long it could grow when competing with school  friends. Maybe it was the monotony of rolling, stapling, rolling, stapling…a menial task with maximum benefit in the midst of holiday rush. Maybe it was the simplicity of the decoration…paper and staples could fill a lot of gaps on the tree when ornaments were scarce. Whatever the reason, I liked making paper chains.

As my Christmases have become more umm…involved over the years, I haven’t had the pleasure of sitting down with a pile of colored paper, scissors, and staples in a while. Until tonight. These post-Thanksgiving days have been uncharacteristically relaxed. The weather has been balmy and perfect for children to run their vacation energy off outside. Their ages make it easier to release them to an independent activity while I relax on the couch a bit. It has been eerily calm.

While my son was biking with friends this afternoon, I was working on cutting some paper for a church project tomorrow (first Sunday of Advent!). I had a pile of decorative FullSizeRender(1)paper spread out in front of me and some scissors, some loosey-goosey little paper scraps and a roll of tape. I asked my nearly-six year old daughter if she’d ever made a paper chain. She said she didn’t think so. As she is methodically minded like her mom, I figured she would enjoy this project. So I grabbed the stapler (I know that makes it more rewarding, more quickly) and showed her.

StarFullSizeRender(3)t with a circle of paper, stapled together. Slide a strip of paper through the circle and staple it to itself. She grasped the simple concept within a few loops and began to connect them herself, just asking that I do the stapling. ‘This is fun!’ she observed after about 8 loops. I knew she was hooked.

As I recalled the last time I made a paper chain, probably elementary school, I considered how much my life has changed. How the plans I had then didn’t exactly happen the way I expected. I had visions of a chain of life events, a certain color scheme, a certain length, but that wasn’t the order God had for my life.

Each little loop of the chain of life has a special meaning, a connection to the rest of the sequence. A preschool friend who has grown up with me, my first job FullSizeRender(5)where I overcame my shyness, my few athletic successes, the job I didn’t get, the guy who shattered my heart, the day I saw my future mate, the church who allows me space for my visions, the book that opened my eyes, the evenings of mommy failure…each momentous connection to others adds a loop to my chain.

Long before paper chains were invented, Seneca said ‘Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.’ (That wasn’t just a late ’90s Semisonic lyric…) More recently, though not much, the psalmist David recorded, ‘You have taken account of my wanderings. Put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?’ Our days and weeks are full of new experiences, some we want to cherish, others have brought us tears. They begin, they end; new ones begin and become old and end. But God keeps an account of it all…he has a list of our life events, our chain of events. And through those events, he crafts colorful connections to other people, those who need us…and those we need.

We don’t know how long our chains will be, but we can appreciate the simple beauty of the fact that they exist. Each twist or turn, new or old, makes another link that forever joins us with those around us.

FullSizeRender(4)