This year, gather with gratefulness

All of us missed something about the weird winter holidays of 2020. Tammi and I did a four-state road trip so that we saw everyone last Christmas, but we saw them in small dabs rather than in our normal house full. We spent Christmas day alone, though the chaotic six-room Zoom call on Christmas day was wonderful in its own way.

This year, we gather.

I also remember without affection the hesitant way that our churches started meeting again last fall and winter. Our normal Christmas traditions were apologetic and pale in 2020, reflecting the grief and confusion of our diverse experiences of a worldwide crisis.

But this year, we greet one another as dear kin long-separated.

A long and solitary year seems to have made our interaction with people awkward. I guess we’re like hermits that go a little crazy after too much talking to ourselves on social media or listening to strangers on television. I expect any day to hear the annual complaint from those who prefer their selected and homogenous group of friends to their diverse relatives. I think the term someone coined is “Friendsgiving” in order to avoid Crazy Uncle Morty and his primitive political viewpoints.

There is a similar tendency in our churches whereby we cluster with those most like us to stare blankly at those who are least like us – we’ll talk more about that another time. But if we are going to gather this year, after a hopefully unique 18 months or so, how do we make it live up to our highest aspirations?

Leave it at the door

Hundreds of years ago, it was the custom in some places to leave weapons outside the feasting hall. That’s something like what I mean. We should check our grievances against our loved ones before we sit down to celebrate. I’m not saying that our differences are all petty. The point of our gathering, at home and at church, is to say that blood is more important than nearly all of them. If you look at your brothers and sisters and see only a Trump voter or a Millennial or someone less enlightened than you, you’re missing the point of family. See instead someone who has a very basic thing in common with you, perhaps someone with whom you’ll spend eternity. Politics, race, tribe – these things do matter in some contexts. You can pick them back up when you leave the gathering. But hopefully you’ll think of your blood relations differently after seeing them again.

Listen a bit

Uncle Morty may sound loony when he talks about the 2020 election, but is that all he’s about? Listen to his stories about being a scared kid in Vietnam. Hear his heart when he talks about his late wife and the beauty she was from the first day he met her. Have you ever heard his conversion testimony, or maybe told him yours? I think those are the conversations you’ll treasure in coming years. You may also wish you’d asked more questions of the relatives, or fellow church members, with whom you thought you had least in common.

Seek God’s purpose for your relations

The people around us may need something you have. It’s God who puts families and churches together. Although I Corinthians 12 is about mutual edification in a church, I think the parallel between a family and a church can go both ways a bit. On our worst days we complain about those dumped in our lap by an accident of geography or birth. On our better days we understand that the one who did the dumping knows best. If we are here to edify those whom God has placed in our paths, that includes the annoying cousin we dread seeing at family gatherings. Ask God “why” and then genuinely look for the answer. At the very least, look for the ways in which your irksome kin need you to be kind to them.

Please don’t hear in this an admonition against prudent caution in large gatherings. Prudence in this day can mean different things to different people and still be valid. But I am acknowledging that this year will be more like 2019 than like 2020, from what I can see from here. I also notice that our public dialogue is more toxic than it was a couple of years ago. It may not be the Coronavirus that caused this, but the virus did keep us in relative isolation for a while; for my part, that isolation did not help.

My hope and prayer for you is that this Thanksgiving, and this Christmas, your physical and spiritual family gatherings will be filled with gratitude and joy. I hope they will better for you than your fondest memories of the years pre-Covid.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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