Eating Together

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Eating together can be a holy event. Sharing a meal can nurture body and soul alike. Hearts are healed. Fractured relationships are mended. Bonds of affection are created. The diners come to belong to something greater than themselves: to each other.

That’s one of the things I suspect that Norman Rockwell was getting at with his classic Saturday Evening Post illustration called “Freedom from Want.” (March 6, 1943) It’s sometimes called “The Thanksgiving Picture” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

A large, multi-generation family leans forward over a tastefully set formal dinner table. The kindly, aproned matriarch is placing an enormous, sumptuously browned turkey in front of a beaming patriarch. Everyone is smiling and turning to each other in uncontainable delight in each others’ company.

Everybody belongs. Everybody is glad to see everybody else.

Some family gatherings probably feel like that. But I suspect that even Rockwell knew that he was reaching for a visual depiction of an ideal.

Plenty of dinners, especially big family gatherings at the holidays, don’t resemble Rockwell’s vision. An honest portrait would show us something like this. Continue reading

Facing Reality

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When I finally faced the truth that my father had physically and emotionally abused my mother, I was liberated from my deep need for his approval.

For decades I had labored—mostly unwittingly—to win his attention and his respect. My sense of worth hinged on getting the applause that I assumed would surely come with the next achievement or award or promotion.

A light came on as I read my stepsister’s account of his abusive relationship with her mother. It finally dawned on me that this was a man from whom I could expect only manipulation and condescension.

Facing reality changed who I am. My sense of self-worth derives from understanding that I am a child of God.

But you know, that whole facing-reality thing doesn’t happen in a single instant. Reality, as it turns out, is too big and complex and textured to grasp all at once. And every time we face reality, we get stretched in ways that we didn’t anticipate.

A couple of years ago, I connected with my half-brother’s daughter and my half-sister’s daughter. Continue reading

When the Barn Burns Down

“Don’t forget to give the dog her pill.”

That’s all my wife Joy had said. Her tone was perfectly pleasant. She didn’t make a federal case out of it. But my blood started a low simmer that, over the next half hour, rose to a silent but steady boil.

When my feelings are hurt, I don’t usually go on the attack. I shut down. When all is well with my soul I start conversations and crack jokes. Once my emotional clouds roll in, my responses are clipped and my tone goes flat.

Now you would probably think that I could simply say, “That hurt my feelings.” But you know, then I would have to admit that my feelings were hurt. And revealing hurt feelings makes me feel weak and vulnerable. Besides, I realized how stupid this was going to look. And I hate to look stupid.

“Is something wrong?” Continue reading

Dirty Laundry

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In Gail Godwin’s novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter, a character named Katharine shares a lesson she learned while on retreat at a monastery. It’s a lesson that Jesus and the writer of Hebrews conveyed long ago.

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Edgar Degas’ “In a Laundry”

A retreat among the brothers can involve full participation in the rhythms of monastic life. St. Benedict famously summarized the pattern of their community with the phrase ora et labora: pray and work. At set times each day the monks pray together and work together. Katharine gathered with the community for prayer, and she accepted a work assignment. Between 9:00 and 1:00 she and one of the monks served in the laundry room.

The washing machine was an ancient, outdated model. It had one of those wringers for the clothes. On their first day together, the monk steadily put each item of clothing through the wringer. Katharine took each item and hung it out to dry in the sun.

As the morning stretched toward the afternoon, Katharine realized that there were still heaps and heaps of dirty clothes. She began grabbing the clothes from the monk and rushing to the clothes line. Finally, he asked her why she was in such a frantic hurry. Continue reading

Learning Peace the Hard Way

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A friend of mine and I are exchanging emails about spiritual growth. She recently shared with me a paraphrase of something Bishop Desmond Tutu once said.

We are like light bulbs. God is like electricity. Light bulbs illuminate their surroundings. That is to say, they shed light when they are connected to a source of electricity. Unscrew a bulb from a fixture, and out goes the light. The bulb is what it truly is only when it is connected to a power source.

In keeping with this light bulb analogy, God created humans to be connected with us. We are what we were always meant to be when we stay connected.

The apostle Paul has something like this analogy in mind when he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and contrasts it with the works of the flesh. The fruit of the Spirt is what we become as a result of our connection with God in Christ. The works of the flesh are what we make of ourselves.

In an intellectual landscape shaped by thinkers like Plato and Descartes, we may mistakenly think of Spirt and flesh as two different kinds of stuff. We might think that Paul is contrasting our immaterial soul with our physical bodies, counting the one as good and the other as evil. Continue reading