Peace in the Family?

I’ve been thinking a lot about child-parent relationships lately – mainly because I’m already trying to develop one with my own little girl. (A few months left before a face-to-face visit, but I’m already making sure to spend time with her nearly every night, talking to her, playing her music, and giving her some rubs. My wife’s not sure how to feel about the whole thing, but she’s being a good sport while I talk to her tummy.)

Not only has my own child’s impending birth got me thinking, but a passage in Romans got me thinking as well. See, Paul and I used to never get along. Growing up, my understanding of Paul was limited – I saw him as an angry grump who decided to switch to a Greek mindset once the Jewish community had ousted him enough times. I saw his trips to the synagogues in each town as more of a “let’s get this over with” deal. And because of that, the way I read his work was through a primarily Greek mindset – using philosophies built on Plato and Aristotle via the Middle Ages and Enlightenment. Recently, though, I have had a rather profound “duh” moment when I had an author (NT Wright) point out that Paul remained strikingly Jewish throughout his life and writings. Suddenly, I realized I need more insight into that line of thinking, and so I undertook a journey through the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and began listening to Rabbis to get a better grasp of how Jews view the Torah. And, fellow Christians, we’ve been missing so much!

Anyway, back to Paul, in chapter 5, he speaks about how we now have peace with God – a relationship… a parent-child relationship. In the previous chapter, he talked about how faith is the basis of Covenant membership now and how Abraham had been given covenant membership before his circumcision and the giving of the law. So now, the whole world is eligible for covenant membership based on faith – in trusting God who sent Jesus and raised him from the dead. And on that basis of being called “in the right” we have peace with God, a reconciled relationship.

The idea of reconciliation of family is a theme that runs deep in Jewish thought, and especially the Torah and Prophets. In Genesis, we see four sets of brothers, who become increasingly reconciled, but never reach the point of complete peace: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Joseph and his brothers come the closest, but his brothers still remain on edge in case Joseph decides to revoke his kindness and pay them back. The Prophets continually use the metaphor of family reconciliation to talk about the time when God will forgive the idolatry of His people and heal the relationship between them. Both of these threads tie up nicely in the person of Jesus who made that peace possible through his own faithfulness in Israel’s place.

Sigmund Freud’s lesser known theories include one that the source of all conflict is sibling rivalry – that each child is vying for resources, particularly parental love and affection. Children may perceive parental love as a limited resource, rather than the unceasing fountain that it often is.

As I’ve wondered, I reach this point: how will I make sure my children understand that love will never run out? How do I give them each the affection they need to keep them convinced of their status of peace in the family?

How does your love model God’s to your kids? How do your priorities show your kids that love?

Table Triumphs

I recently finished a book called Eight Flavors by Sarah Lohman, which is a history of several flavors that have become uniquely American. It covers several of my favorites, including vanilla, garlic, and chili powder. (I highly recommend the book. It’s written in a conversational tone, gives lots of stories, and provides surprising information.) Learning about the history of food helps me to appreciate the long, or surprisingly short, histories of the flavors that make up my favorite dishes. It got me to thinking… what are the flavors of my own history?

Honestly, the book has me pegged as far as flavors go. Vanilla has always been used in my house. Now, some houses use vanillin, the artificial extract which, scientifically, does work better in cookies. Growing up, my mother had discovered Mexican vanilla during her trips to Texas and visits to Progresso, Mexico. There is something unique about vanilla produced in Mexico that provides a depth of flavor that makes any dessert truly special. In fact, this stuff is so precious to us that any member of the family that goes near Mexico is charged with bringing home several bottles. To this day, I have a bottle of Mexican vanilla that I bake with, and I am looking forward to sharing this flavor with my little girl once she gets here.

Butter. Scoff all you like, butter was and still is a flavor in my house, as it was growing up with my parents. During the “oil is better” craze in past decades, my parents still believed in butter. Butter added a richness to grilled cheeses, a presence to mashed potatoes, and provided a weight to scrambled eggs that is unmatched in my opinion. Butter was a topping on popcorn, a way to fry food, and a lubricant for pans and baking sheets that did more that create a non-stick layer – it added flavor. Today I live differently by using unsalted butter, but the butter is still ever-present. As I grow and cook more, I’m beginning to truly appreciate butter and how it behaves in the pan and in dishes. My family has never been able to make good friends with margarine, but butter has always been welcome.

Sage. Why sage? It seems like such an odd herb. To me, this herb has just the right about of bite, savoriness, and sharpness to create something magical – see breakfast sausage. Sage is one of the primary flavorings of our breakfast sausage (or at least the way I make it.) Sausage was something that we ate often growing up – Tennessee Country Pride, if I recall the brand correctly. We’d usually go for the mild, but every once in a while we’d accidentally grab one of the hot ones and have quite the surprise at the breakfast table. My dad prepared sausage – and was up earlier than the rest of us, so he made breakfast every morning for us. Sausage and egg days were the best. And then, on the weekend, that same sausage would be crumbled up and made into a cream gravy that would cover our biscuits in a goodness so rich, you’d have to take a mid-morning nap after eating it. Sage’s sharpness would shine through at each stage of that process, providing a lightness to the gravy that might not have been there otherwise.

Banana. And here’s where we take the turn into left field. There is one dessert that will cause me to go out of my way – banana pudding. Call me simple, that’s fine, but even an adequate banana pudding is ambrosia and joy to me. My mother would get a wild hare every once in a while and make these banana puddings, layering pudding with bananas and nilla wafers that I still remember. We’ve always talked about driving over to the Banana Pudding Festival (yes they have one, and it must be a beautiful sight!) near Memphis, but we usually have something else going on that weekend. If you ever go, eat a second helping in my stead. Or, really, whenever you eat banana pudding, go ahead and eat a second helping in my stead… Or better yet, bring me some?

Mint. I love mint. Put it in just about anything and I will be exceedingly happy. My dad and I share this flavor – and it all started for me when I ordered mint chocolate chip ice cream like my dad. My tongue fell in love, and has been adoringly enamored ever since. We both put mint jelly/sauce on our cuts of lamb, and enjoy it in candy bars. To gripe for a second, who at Hershey’s decided that getting rid of the mint chocolate cookie bar over a decade and a half ago was a good idea? No, seriously, and the nasty white chocolate cookie bar survived that purge? Did someone mistake one for the other, because I have been a touch bitter about that ever since – and yes, it was over 15 years ago at this point. I still remember spending the night at my friend Aaron’s house in high school and we would brew tea with fresh mint from his garden. Sure, maybe we were weird, but sweet tea with freshly crushed mint is a delicious treat on any day, especially those hot summer days.

These are just a few of the flavors I love, and that my parents passed on to me. These flavors make up a part of who I am, and are flavors I will hopefully pass on to my kids. See, to my family, food is something to be celebrated and shared… unless it’s unbearably good, and then you stash it and hope no one finds it. Seriously, though, we tend to tell long stories about the meals we’ve eaten, while eating a meal. We reminisce about trips we’ve taken, and the restaurants or snacks we found on the way. My grandfather always said, “All you get is what you wear and what you eat.” And we take the second part of that statement and run with it… right to the kitchen.

Consider that food is important, especially in the Bible, as a way to remember. Don’t forget that God commanded a yearly meal to remember the Jewish family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery in Egypt. Jesus instructed his followers to eat part of that same meal to remember his family’s story of being rescued by God from slavery to sin and death. Food tells a story. What story does your dinner tell your kids?

What flavors make up your history? What flavors have you shared with your kids? What are your food stories? What places can you take your family that you went to as a child?

A Storied Life (My Grandmother)

Everyone has a fun name for their grandmother. I’m not sure which of us actually came up with the name, but it was probably my cousin who called her “Memom” first, and it stuck. Memom is my mother’s mother, and she is a woman who has lived a long, storied life.

She grew up in a large family, and has plenty of stories about her brothers and the trouble they would all get into. Whether it was a scheme as complicated as developing “purple medicine,” scaring one another half to death by jumping out from behind walls, or as simple as locking people into outhouses, her childhood was full of interesting stories. And, luckily for us, she loves telling them. She has worked in food service, and currently works in the optical business. And, truly, she has been working in the optical business in one form or another since before I was born. She knows the “Old Ways” and sometimes her knack for finding solutions borders on magic.

My early memories of her are of playing at her house, sometimes with my cousin, sometimes on my own. I did take a turn locking her out of the house, which, if I recall is something of a tradition in the family. We often got each other wet. I practiced “cooking” at her house, which usually involved dumping a mess of ingredients in a bowl and mixing it up, only afterwards realizing that the combination I had created tasted quite terrible. I managed to eat through a box of high-fiber cereal one weekend… which didn’t end well. There may or may not have been a moment where I ruined a perfectly good VCR with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the exact details aren’t important.

As far as food goes, Memom introduced me to some of the simpler pleasures. (And, yes, every member of my family has food associated with them. That, too, is a tradition.) She always made great fried okra and mashed potatoes, which we would have at almost every family gathering. She has also always enjoyed the carrot souffle at Picadilly – which for some may sound like a place in England. Picadilly is a cafeteria-style restaurant where you walk down a line and pick your food a la carte style – but the carrot souffle was always a must. Memom also showed me the joy of an Egg McMuffin. To this day it’s one of the foods I associate with memories of her. (And also my dad, who managed to engineer a homemade one.)

Memom has always been a storyteller. She reveled in stories old and new, and has always been an avid listener and reader. As long as I can remember, she has always had at least one or two audiobooks in her car at all times. She wrote one of my favorite interpretations of the story of the ten lepers, giving that one who came back to thank Jesus a marvelous character arc of change and repentance. It was a stirring retelling of the story. Some of my earliest times of service were going to church with her every so often and getting to work the puppets for her church’s children’s ministry. Could be that set me on the path to becoming a children’s minister. Her love of stories certainly passed down the generational line. I love hearing stories from all kinds of places, people, and time periods. I consider myself a collector of stories.

She also encouraged my education. In middle and high school, she would reward me for every A, which meant I worked extra hard to make sure I had a full list of them. She also encouraged me at college by sending me snacks and food so that I could eat well while studying.

She put up with my special brand of strange while making sure that I knew that I was loved, by her and by God. It’s nice to know that I am part of a story that started long ago and is continually being written. And I hope that my part of the story can be as unique and as much of a blessing as hers.

Listen at Dinner

I had planned to write a double feature for today: one post for Trump voters, and another for non-Trump voters in order to get some perspective for myself and maybe someone else. The posts are taking longer than I had intended, so look for them sometime next week.

That said… take time to listen at dinner. You may have some people at your table who are more than a little anxious about the topic of politics arriving, which it inevitably will. Be willing to listen. Be willing to empathize with your family, friends, and others, regardless of which side you are on. We’ve had enough division, so let’s let food and gratefulness bring us together.

What is thankfulness? Thankfulness to me this year is being content no matter what my situation. Thankfulness is holding our kids a little closer this week. Thankfulness is seeing the red face of a newborn boy and the pride reflected in his parent’s faces. Thankfulness is watching a gaggle of little girls in princess costumes dancing with their daddies on a cruise ship. Thankfulness is waking up on a cold morning and realizing how amazing it is that my feet touch the floor and feel the tingle of cold hardwood.

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Thankfulness is knowing that no matter what this trip-through-Willy-Wonka’s-horror-tunnel of a year throws at me, I still have my family, and we can laugh, and cry, and share life together. Thankfulness is getting sappy on a blog post that everyone can see.

Listen, share, forgive, seek understanding. Don’t let miscommunication drive you apart. Seek reconciliation, seek common ground. Pursue love. The most profound thing pointed out to me about 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s poem which describes love, is that Paul ends his poem not with “So be like this” but rather ends the poem in 14.1 simply with, “Pursue love.” We can pursue each of love’s characteristics and wind up missing most of them, but if we pursue love itself, seeking the good of others above our own, “all these things will be given to you as well.”

Photo Credit: Thanksgiving Dinner via Wikimedia Commons

Putting the Blessing in Dysfunctional

I was reading Genesis 29-31 this week and my commentaries struck on an idea.

First, to summarize, Jacob and his family are a mess. They’re a dysfunctional, jealous, lying, cheating, conniving, bragging, deceitful bunch of misfits that drag other people into their family drama. They’re extended family brings the heat as well with their own brand of deceitful trickery, which only adds to the chaos of Jacob’s life.

But here’s the kicker: God still used them. God’s purposes were still being accomplished even in that moral swamp. Judah would grow to become a leader and the ancestor of kings. Joseph would save his family. The Israelites would teach the world how to live and worship the one true God. And how did it all start? With a big, messy family… that God blessed.

Here’s to your messy family. May God bless you and turn your chaos into riches and your sorrow into joy. May he turn your business into productivity, and your rest into refreshment. May he bless your family’s efforts to reach others in His name.

God uses messy families, even yours, even mine.

Photo Credit: FUNnel Vision – FGTeeV: 300 CUPCAKES CHALLENGE! w Surprise FUNnel Vision Kids Get Messy via YouTube

Free Speech Doesn’t Exist

Bills. I hate them. If I had realized what a drag paying bills would be when I was younger I would have… well, I would have enjoyed the lack of responsibility more, I guess. Since no one has found a way to reverse aging or time, I am continuing on the inevitability train further into adulthood. And, again, I figured people at my age, and certainly older had things all put together. The older I get the more I realize no one has any idea what’s going on and some people are much better at faking it than others.

A couple of days have passed since the first 2016 Presidential debate and I have been puzzling over the debate itself (of which I watched only 20 minutes before vomiting a little in my mouth and switching it off) and the resulting flurry of analyses – oh and the Facebook posts and tweets, let’s not forget them. People feel as though free speech has been under fire now for several years, what with “political correctness” (whatever that actually means, now) and different movements pushing for understanding, justice, and inclusive language. Speech has never been free, nor will it ever be free.

Don’t tune out. This isn’t going where you think it’s going. You’re expecting me to launch into how men and women have fought and died for your ability to say what you think and feel. And I am happy to shortchange that expectation. You know that already, none of us need that lecture again.

No, so few of us consider the cost of our words. Jesus pointed out, rightly, that we will have to answer for every careless word we say. Our words interact with a kind of budget, and eventually we will have to have a divine audit to see what we did with our budget. I say cost in that whatever we say takes or gives. Consider that we are capable of saying whatever we want, but not everything is helpful, productive, or worthwhile. (Everything is permissible, but not all things are beneficial, to be Biblical about it.)

When we carelessly, or intentionally, say hurtful things we pay a cost in two ways. One, we carve off a bit of our own humanity to pay for that comment. Causing pain to others is not how God designed humanity, and when we go against that design, we remove, little by little, those things which make us most human. With each hurtful phrase we carve off compassion, mercy, empathy, understanding, and we become less. Secondly, when we say hurtful things, we also carve off a bit of the person we hurt to pay for our words. We carve off bits that make them human as well: dignity, self-worth, identity. As my family has always said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Meaning, no matter if it seems free, someone had to pay or work to make that free-ness possible. This is what Jesus is talking about when he talks about contempt in Matthew 5:21-22, contempt doesn’t just damage the abused, it also damages the abuser.

On a more positive note, though, we can make investments. in others, and ourselves, by using language that is uplifting, helpful, and thought-through. There is so much venom and hatred being spewed out like some nasty sci-fi monster on the internet today, why add to it or share it? Instead, why not pray for one another, use kind language, and listen to others when they speak? When we listen, understand, and think through our words, we give ourselves and others the dignity they deserve as images of God.

And here’s the kicker… and the scary part. If humans are made in the image of God, any abuse or violence, physical or verbal, directed toward them is also directed toward God. Just sit with that for a moment and let it sink in.

What words do your kids hear you use to describe others? Do your children see you listening and using understanding, or leaping to conclusions? How can you better model a Jesus-like example of using constructive, beneficial language?

Special Delivery Babies?

It had been a busy July day for 7-year-old me. I had been on an airplane back from the grand state of Texas, down near the Southern border. My mother had been visiting some of her stores out their and dad and I got to tag along for the small vacation portion of the trip. We had enjoyed ourselves and had eaten well, of course. When we arrived home, the sun was setting and a knock came on our door. When the door opened, some of our family walked in with a baby boy… Truth be told, I’m sure I knew where babies came from at that point, but special delivery had never really been one of the options. From that day on, that baby boy lived with us, and we loved him. He was the roundest baby you have ever seen, and had trouble walking for the longest time because he was a such round baby.

Sometime later, I vaguely remember some legal proceedings, seeing some stress on my parents faces, and a final court date that still didn’t get me out of standardized testing. We all gussied ourselves up and went to the courthouse where the judge declared my brother an official, legal part of our family. (To be clear, he was part of our family the moment we first saw him, but leave it to the legal system to feel like it can declare when that sort of thing happens.)

I watched as my aunt took in foster children and adopt them. Christmas was always exciting there for a while, because we never knew who might be coming! Eventually that family hit its sweet spot, and I count all of those adopted kids as my cousins.

I grew up around adoption, though I haven’t actually been through the process as a parent, yet. I am watching friends go through the process, and their stories are different and wonderful, full of tension, compassion, and hope. I have met mothers who have presented their children for adoption in the hopes of giving that child the best life possible. I have met adopted children all over the world and from all over the world. I have even considered international adoption myself and wear a ring to remind myself of that dream (as well as to remain connected to Asia and China, in particular.)

I have a respect for all sides of the adoption process, from the adoptive parents, to adoptees, to the many counselors, case workers, and administrators that make adoption possible. The idea of adoption is so rich with spiritual implications that it is difficult to pick just a few to touch on.

Consider that adoptive parents have the opportunity to understand more deeply what it means for God to choose us, not on merit, but out of love, compassion, and grace. The adopted child has done nothing to earn adoption and acceptance, but these parents give of their love, space in their heart, and acceptance willingly, and gladly. How great the Father’s love for us, that we are adopted as co-heirs with Jesus, the King!

Take a moment and think about the selflessness of birth parents, who, wanting the best for their child, present as a precious gift this little life to open arms. These are not men and women selfishly removing a child from their lives, but men and women willing to place their trust in other family to raise a child. These parents are not “giving up” in any way, form, or fashion, they are stubbornly, admirably providing for their child in whatever way they can. This is much like when we entrust our lives to God, selflessly placing ourselves in his hands.

And everyone who helps to mediate this process: isn’t Jesus called our mediator? He is the one who bridges the gap between heaven and earth, who makes knowing the Father possible. These counselors, case workers, and other administrative personnel work tirelessly to make this process as smooth as possible.

Regardless of the reasons, participating in the adoption process on either end is an honorable, even holy, action. I say holy with no reservations, because in it, parents are imaging God and telling His story. Adoption, whether being a birth parent, adoptive family, or otherwise, is Kingdom-building work – it is holy work.

I have never personally experienced any negativity on account of my brother and my family’s adoption story, but some friends I know have. I wonder why fellow Christians take issue with adoption, treat birth parents with such contempt, or seem uneasy when the topic is addressed. Perhaps, this is just inexperience talking, a lack of knowledge and empathy.

If you know people involved any any aspect, past, present, or future, of adoption, support them. Encourage them. Listen when they tell their story – theirs are fascinating. Be willing to set aside whatever notions you have and replace them. Be open. Be Jesus.

Does your family have experience with adoption or the foster system? What conversations do you have at home about adoption? Who do you know who is or has been involved in adoption? How can your encourage them this week?