May you find a home in God this Christmas

Growing up, I always wondered if my dad ever   celebrated Thanksgiving. Every year as soon as the    Thanksgiving Day worship service was over my parents would pile my four brothers and me into the station-wagon and we would head to Oshkosh to have Thanksgiving      dinner at my grandmother’s house. It was a three hour drive. And if you have never experienced it, let me assure you, there is nothing like having seven people and a dog in a station-wagon for over three hours. I don’t think we even left the Chicago city limits before my dad for the first time would throw out the empty threat, “If you boys don’t stop  bothering each other we will turn around, and we’ll have peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches for Thanksgiving.” He didn’t mean it. We knew he didn’t mean it. But during the three hour drive he would occasionally raise his voice and make the same threat.  Don’t really know why. Maybe it gave him a sense that he was keeping things in control. Maybe he thought that with it  being  Thanksgiving and all that we would listen to him, or that my brothers and I would treat each other a little more civilly. We didn’t.  So the pestering, the poking, the whining would continue. As a child in the car the drive was long, from my dad’s perspective it was endless.


Shortly after arriving in Oshkosh my mom and dad would go inside to unwind, visit with relatives, and help my grandmother with dinner. Us boys would round up some of our cousins,  and maybe a couple of the neighbor boys, and soon we would divvy up into teams for the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl football game. But in truth it was more than just a football game. When asked we would say it was two hand touch below the waist, but we would smile knowing that an occasional tackle would be just fine. If there is anything that is more satisfying then playing football after spending over three hours frustrated in a car, it is having the chance to     pummel the one who was frustrating you without really the fear of getting into trouble. And in truth, it was more than just the frustration over the three hour car ride.    Sometimes it was a years worth of frustration. As the game would proceed, someone would get hurt, nothing too serious, maybe a bloody nose, a scraped up knee, a ripped shirt. Someone would end up crying. My dad would have to come outside to remind us that it was Thanksgiving. “For one day, couldn’t we just get along,” he would sigh before going back inside.


At some point my grandmother would come out and call us into     dinner. From the time of childhood I have always found the first moments of sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table a special time, a spiritual time. Before my dad would offer grace, there would always be a moment in which I would look around the table and see the faces of my four brothers, my mom, my dad, grandma, and usually a handful of other relatives. “This is it.” I would say to myself, and for a moment, maybe just for that moment, I would think kind thoughts towards my brothers. I would see my mom and dad for the loving parents that they were. I would even look at my other relatives and think that maybe they really weren’t that strange. “This is it. This is who I am. This is who we are. And if any of us are going to make it in this world, we have to make it together.” And then my dad would say grace, it seemed that often his words flowed from my own mind to his, the words, the thoughts, the deep sense of gratitude. “Amen” he would say. 

“Move your elbows.” The word Amen was still in the air. “Move your elbows!” one of my older brothers would say again. “What?” I would respond. “Your elbows, they’re in my space, move them.” So much for the kind thankful thoughts. Within a few minutes my father would be sitting between us. And often by the end of dinner I, or one of my brothers, would be sitting in the kitchen by ourselves.

No sooner then the last cup was washed and put away, my mom would round all her boys up and load us into the car. And the seven of us and our dog would head back to Chicago. The sky was now dark, and there was a joyous crispness of fall in the air. And it was in that moment that I can imagine my dad looking over at his loving wife of so many years, and glancing into the rearview mirror at us boys, no longer fighting for private space, no longer poking or pestering, but now trying to find the softest spot of the other as we nestled into the ride home with our eyes soon to be shut. The only sound would be the soft voice of the man on WBBM telling the news of the day, letting my dad know where the traffic backups would be. And as he moves his eyes through the mirror to get a glance at all of us, and then back to the road, I can almost hear him offer the simple prayer, “Thank You.”

As we enter into November may your hearts be opened and your lives filled with gratitude

- Pastor Joel


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