America, are you ready for this? After a long political season fraught with conflict and tension, after a year filled with heartache and geopolitical unrest, and in a culture that seems increasingly hellbent on divide and conquer, you are cordially invited to celebrate the great national feast of giving thanks and breaking peaceful bread with your neighbors.
They might be your actual neighbors, from down the street. Or they might be the neighbors you share a mortgage and a last name and a dishwasher with, a little closer to home. You’ll probably be seeing a few neighbors who share some of your genetic makeup and perhaps inhabit a zip code far from yours, and there’s a high probability you’ll encounter your least favorite neighbors during this blessed occasion.
You know, the one’s you’ve unfollowed on Facebook in a fit of exasperation or anger. The ones who don’t understand reality, who have infuriatingly different political or spiritual identities from your own. Who don’t understand, who won’t understand, who intentionally misunderstand — you’re sure of it — your point of view and your way of life.
But you’re going to be sharing a turkey with them in a few days. (Or a ham. Or a vegan casserole, in which case, you have my condolences). And so this thing that impossibly separates you from a harmonious and cordial relationship is going to have to be sorted out. Or at the very least, set aside for the express purpose of maintaining a loving, charitable atmosphere for the sake of the entire party sitting around the table.
That’s a tall order in the era of unfriending, unfollowing, unwilling and unrepentant. We have become much accustomed to life in our virtual echo chambers, even if unintentionally, and so mingling peacefully with varying and diverse points of view may be a dull or nonexistent tool in our kits.
And that’s okay. There’s no time like the present to get it sharpened up again, ready for use when you gather with friends and loved ones later this week. But the important thing is to use it. It is increasingly important to cultivate the beautifully human and necessary skill of encountering the other. And doing so in charity and real acceptance.
Acceptance of their dignity, their humanity, and their fundamental identity as a beloved child of God.
We live in a culture that has confused acceptance and tolerance with tacit approval. So when we actually do encounter competing worldviews or differing opinions, we don’t know quite how to behave. Do we smile and nod in false approval, pretending for the sake of getting along? Do we angrily cross our arms and exchange heated words, destroying the atmosphere around the table for the rest of the crowd?
Or is there perhaps a third way?
A way to embrace what we hold in common without embracing the sins and sufferings that really do cause pain and division.
A way to sit down for a peaceful, joy-filled holiday meal without exchanging regrettable words or sitting in stony silence.
I would propose that there is. But that it is only possible with Christ. And only to the extent that we are able to invite Him into our homes this holiday season, and into the most difficult and strained relationships with our friends and family, asking Him to sanctify and strengthen what has been broken, and what is still broken.
Being Jesus to your family members means loving them where they are, and realizing that love does not equal approval or acceptance of the brokenness, but rather, approval and acceptance of the person in their brokenness. Like Christ Himself. His thanks-giving dinners where fraught with potential conflict as he dined with sinners and tax collectors, mingling His divinity with the brokenness of our humanity, meeting us in our suffering and extending a merciful hand to be reconciled with love.
(A necessary aside, as this gospel is often misunderstood to paint Jesus as dining with we sinners and clapping us all on the back with a jovial “keep up the good work!” and definitely not making any demands that we start behaving ourselves, or that we take His proffered hand and climb out of our wretchedness and misery. No. He came to rescue us from our sin, not to pat us on the back as we wallow in it.)
So for your family gathering this year, bringing Christ might mean having a hard, potentially painful conversation with adult family members beforehand, expressing both your unwavering love and your expectations about how everyone will behave in front of the impressionable and innocent children in attendance.
It might look like a frank discussion of what will and will not be tolerated, in terms of language and behavior, while you are gathered together.
It might look like biting your tongue and resisting a snarky comment about politics or a pointed criticism of such and such a public figure. And offering up the desire to be right and praying instead for the grace of humility.
And try to avoid igniting sparks. This year doesn’t have to go down in the books as Adele’s SNL skit.
Try talking about sports, instead. About the first thanksgiving and how remarkable it must have been to see two cultures mingle together and celebrate the miracle of having survived that first long, hard year in a new land, and how unexpected and radical the charity offered between those first American neighbors. Talk about the miracle of our peaceful experiment in democracy and that it still stands, and avoid particulars if it will ignite the table. Talk about books you’ve read this year, about trips you’ve taken, about crazy stuff your kids or your bosses have said.
Get to know each other again, without an agenda or any seething animus. Set aside past year’s hurts and take this year at face value, taking the chance to start fresh and make amends, if only by behaving like grown ups for the occasion.
And be sure to eat more pie than you think is wise. Thanksgiving, after all, only comes once a year.