Musical Chairs

Musical chairs is one of those children’s games that teaches a wretched lesson.

You probably remember how to play. Somebody arranges chairs in a circle, making sure to have one less chair than there are players.

While a tune plays the participants walk in a circle around the chairs. As soon as the music stops, everyone scrambles for a seat. The person left standing is out. One chair is removed, and the game resumes. The game reaches its final round with two players and one chair. There is only one winner.

The lesson about human community is bleak. To have a place, you have to take it from somebody else. And only a very few are going to get the place that everybody is struggling to get.

I’ll bet nobody ever considered calling this the Kingdom of Heaven game. But musical chairs does bear a dismal resemblance to how our world too frequently works. And Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he has come to do something about that. Continue reading

Comfort Food

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When Ezra Tull was still a child, his father Beck picked up and left. Beck’s departure maimed and scarred Ezra, as well as his mother Rose, his brother Cody, and his sister Jennifer. Each in their own way.

Reeling from the feelings and the economic fallout of abandonment, the remaining Tulls grew distant from one another. The weight of loss and the sting of rejection frayed the fragile threads that bound mother to child, sister to brothers, brother to brother.

In Anne Tyler’s novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ezra tries to weave all of these scattered, fractured individuals back together. He repeatedly plans a dinner for them at the eating establishment he manages and eventually owns: The Homesick Restaurant.

Ezra believes in the power of a shared meal to mend his family. His restaurant provides a homey setting and offers a menu of comfort food designed to nurture and heal the homesick soul. Continue reading

Selling Jesus

Lots of television ads sell products by associating them with images and music that stir tender emotions.

Take for instance this Subaru commercial:

A young man pulls his Subaru to a stop in the woods, opens the door, and a chocolate lab puppy bounces out.

Time passes. The same Subaru rolls up to a cabin in the woods. Looking into the front seat we see a slightly older version of the man kissing his spouse. The young adult brown lab looks over their shoulder from the back seat.

More time passes. The same Subaru—luggage carrier now mounted on the top—delivers the couple and their toddler to their familiar wooded retreat. The same, yet more mature man opens the back hatch and out jumps the chocolate lab, his face now white with age.

With sentimental music playing in the background, a narrator says, “It’s not every day you find a companion as loyal as a Subaru. Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.”

The idea is that we’ll buy a life that we wish we had or that we want others to think that we have.  The advertisers never mention the sticker price, to say nothing of the operating costs, the maintenance costs, or the cost of insurance coverage.

A Subaru might be a terrific bargain on all these counts. But the automaker’s executives figure that talk about the cost of the car won’t sell people on their product.

And even when car commercials push cost to attract buyers, they’re telling you how much money you’ll save. They want to make any price look so low that it’s almost a steal.

Apparently Jesus missed that day in Yeshiva when the rabbi discussed marketing. Jesus not only talks about the cost of following him, he does so in the starkest possible terms. Continue reading

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