Family at the Table

When I was 15 years old, there were only four people at my family’s Thanksgiving table. That was it, because that was the extent of my family. My mom, my dad, my grandma and me. We basically ate our Thanksgiving dinner in the breakfast nook. No bringing in the table leaf to make room for the crazy uncle. No card table in the next room for all the cousins. It was just us. Which was okay. As appealing as Norman Rockwell makes it look, the traditional Thanksgiving experience has just never been ours to have.

Things have changed now. My last remaining grandparent passed away and I got married. When I did, my wife became the sixth member of my family (I have an uncle and a cousin in Alabama). The funny thing is how my wife is from a large extended family. At the time, I think I became the 28th member of her family. So, this week, whether your experience will be like my childhood or your driveway will look like a parking lot of family visitors, Thanksgiving is upon us.

Family is such an incredible human experience. A variety of emotions experienced like that passing of side dishes. You have family members you know and love really well, while others still you only see once a year. There are those you really enjoy being around and those you avoid all day. Yet, for better or worse, they are all family – and for at least one day, all under the same roof, giving thanks.

Christians are not immune to dramatic family situations. We do not get a free pass on family members who cause tension or induce stress. My family story includes a dad who continues to battle alcoholism. A dear friend shared with me his cousin will bring her partner to Thanksgiving for the first time this year. Maybe in your family there is a scenario that is less than ideal – addiction, LGBTQ relationships, co-habitation, debt, divorce, arrogance, bitterness. Life experiences and decisions made in the other 11 months of the year are now sitting across the table from you. A person with whom you do not agree, do not understand, and possibly don’t even like is now the person between you and the pepper shaker, just out of your reach.

So, what might the life and times of Jesus’s earthly ministry be able to teach us about the Thanksgiving table? My encouragement is to come back to the refrain, “love without affirming.” A fresh perspective on, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

The interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 is a powerful expression of loving without affirming, engaging without endorsing. Jesus interacts with Zacchaeus but does not leave him the same. This is the greatest goal for loving others. This is when you know you have loved someone well. That by the Holy Spirit working through you, they are not the same. As a Christ-follower, that “not the same”, the “difference” we hope to see, is that the person’s heart and life is changed into a heart and life that glorifies God. So with that as our guide, let’s take a brief look at how this happens.

One of the first truths we learn is that all people are seeking Jesus, knowing there is something more, there must be a rhyme and reason. God created us with this curiosity (Eccl 3:11-15). Even though Zacchaeus had a prominent job, held authority, and was wealthy, he still had a longing in his heart to see Jesus. No matter the lifestyle, accomplishments, or clout a family member may have, all of God’s creation longs to know Him. Consider Acts 8. The story of Philip, the goer, and the Ethopian Eunuch, the seeker. God divinely appointed a space and place for the goer and the seeker to intersect. When that moment comes, will you be more committed to being right, having your say, or making your family think like you do? Is your goal to have them vote Republican, break up with the partner, or put out the cigarettes? Or will you be ready and willing to share the love of Jesus? Will you evangelize by testifying to the grace and mercy God has shown you?

It is really remarkable about how Jesus interacts with Zacchaeus. Many of us would seize the platform. We know many (often hundreds) followed Jesus every day; it’s reasonable to conclude there were many watching the interaction of verse 5 unfold. There is something in the human ego which loves to be right and to be right in front of as many people as possible. The chance to “get someone” while everyone in the family is watching, listening. But this is not Jesus. He did not point His finger and lecture Zacchaeus. This did not become a viral moment. Jesus saw past Zacchaue’s actions and saw his heart. Zacchaeus’s curiosity was met with an invitation, not with condemnation.

Duck season opened last weekend here in Arkansas. A record number 1,000+ stamps were reportedly sold this year. Needless to say, duck hunting in AR is a really big deal. Almost as big as hunting ducks is eating ducks. There could be as many ways to prepare it as there are hunters to hunt it. One of my favorite ways is wrapped in bacon, covered in Italian dressing – marinated for hours, then grilled to perfection. Truth is often best delivered in the same way – wrapped in love, covered with compassion, marinated in relationship. The bacon and the dressing do not change the quality of the flavor, it does not compromise the veracity of the meat. In the same way, love and compassion does not dilute the truths of God’s Word. If we follow Jesus’s example, we will commit to delivering truth with love and compassion.

Do not miss this final principle. Jesus did not affirm Zacchaeus’s lifestyle. He did not meet Zacchaeus where he was and then invite him to stay where he wants to be, trusting that “love wins.” Jesus invited Himself into Zacchaeus’s most intimate place – his home. Using a little Spirit-inspired imagination, I see Jesus sitting in Zacchaeus’s living room with a fresh cup of drip, a fire crackling in the fireplace. Rather than abrasive, direct, and obtrusive posturing, Jesus pierced the heart of Zacchaeus with compassionate and loving sincerity. You see, the on-lookers grumbled that Jesus was failing at His mission since He did not rebuke Zacchaeus publicly. They would declare Jesus was compromising His truth by being the guest of a man who is a sinner. But Jesus was the perfect example of how to love someone without affirming them. How to engage a person without leaving them the same as He met them.

So, this Thanksgiving, let’s commit to praying for one another. Yes, for safety of travel and that grandma doesn’t forget to make the cranberry ice. But more important that each of us would not shy away from those family members with whom we disagree. That we would not condemn, judge, or lambast someone for the sake of “making them right.” This Thursday you will sit where you sit by God’s sovereignty. You will be next to that family member on divine purpose, by God’s intentional design. How will you respond to your family at the table?