Setting the Table in Grace

November 24, 2019

Matthew 6:31-33 (seek ye first); Ephesians 6 (The whole Armor of God)


        The Rabbi’s tell a story about the afterlife. It is filled with long banquet tables full of food set for a feast. But all the people have these metal sleeves on their arms so that they can grab the food with their hands but they can’t bend their elbows to get the food to their mouth.

        God takes them to one room where everyone is incredibly frustrated by this limitation and they are all feeding themselves by dropping the food on to their face, making this huge mess that they can’t clean up properly. Everyone is kvetching at the horrible plight they have, a literal living hell.

        Then God takes them to another room where everyone is sitting at the banquet table with the same long tables of food and the same metal sleeves on their arms. Only this time, people are picking up the food with one hand and feeding a neighbor, stopping to wipe of their mouth when they make a mistake. And the whole room radiates with harmony, contentment and love. It is a living heaven because everyone is taking care of each other.

        I got to thinking about that remember the worst parts of the worst Thanksgiving celebrations. Your family gathers with tension in the background because people aren’t getting along. You bring some of the frustrations and anxieties and self-doubt that can mount towards the end of the year anyway. You sit in traffic with your kids screaming and you get to your family destination only to find that there really aren’t options for play for children really. Someone starts a discussion on a controversial subject, say the impeachment process in Washington just now. You add to that two parts resentment from unresolved family dynamics from your childhood, two parts alcohol that has suddenly made a couple people around the table florid and animated, a splash of sarcasm and a squeeze of insult. The next thing you know, you have people screaming at each other like they are auditioning for a part in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.

        We are not only missing each other’s cue’s, we stop even trying to be civil. We let the partisan divide in our country become alcohol amplified with wounds from the past and we are all eating a dessert filled with ugly. Thank God for the NFL, where we can each retreat into the isolation of defensiveness and self-pity.

        Given the state of our world today, it is pretty easy to accidentally slide in that direction just leaving things on auto pilot. Spiritually we need to change the channel.

        The good news is that we can. Our gratitude needs to be intentionally invoked. That has been the history of the holiday, not surprisingly. The original celebration by the Pilgrims was born out of tragedy. Half of the original pilgrims died the first year they were in the new world. Of course, their encounter with the Native Americans would eventually kill most of the Native Americans in our land, not by violent conflict, although there was plenty of that, but through the spread of disease from coming in contact with the Europeans.

        Out of tragedy, they were invoking their sense of gratitude, to change the channel from grief, frustration and anger.

        And Abraham Lincoln suggested the holiday as a national remembrance in the middle of the Civil War, the most fractious period of American history. More people died on both sides of that war than all of the rest of the wars we have ever fought in together. Somehow, he suggested, we need to spiritually change the channel.

        Peace, like war, must be waged. St. Paul invites us spiritually to put on the spiritual armor of God, like a warrior would put on physical armor. He says, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against transcendent evil. For our struggle is not simply against flesh and blood, but also against the spiritual darkness that permeates our world. So, put on the full armor of God, so that when evil surrounds you, you make be able to stand your ground. Stand firm with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the gospel of peace.

Hold before you the shield of faith that can extinguish the arrows of evil. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”.

        Be intentional. Set your table spiritually with grace. For we are arrayed, St. Paul would say, against “principalities and powers” that you have to be focused on the emotional and spiritual tenor or else you will be overwhelmed.

        I’ve been reading the psychological literature on the effect that a positive group ethos can have on developing ‘Prosocial Values’ in the next generation. It reads like it was funded by the clergy on why you should go to church because almost all of the things they correlate, we are already doing each and every Sunday when we worship together.

        And we need to build them into our family life as well because modeling them at home is the most powerful thing we can do to instill ‘prosocial values in the next generation.’

        One practice our researchers highlighted got my attention because my grandchildren learned it at camp from their Aunt Ann, who runs the camp. Each day, the campers gather with the other kids in the cabin and form a circle. They go around in turn, each person listing off their ‘rose’ and their ‘thorn’. You have to name one good thing that happened to you that day and one bad thing that happened to you that day.

        It is a great thing to do at the beginning of a family meal. It helps our children process their lives and parents can use that entrée to help their children name their emotions so that they become more emotionally attuned.

        More than that, it gives our children a daily opportunity to engage your gratitude and engaging your gratitude turns out to be fundamental to accessing your positivity. Among other things, as we head towards Thanksgiving and your extended family gathers, I hope you can develop a ritual into your family gathering, adults and children together, where you all take turns going around and explicitly make a point of the things that you are grateful for in your lives this year.

        It reminds us, in what is said and in what is left unsaid, just where everyone is at emotionally this year. It is powerful to be reminded that some people are in grief, some people are looking for jobs, some people are new parents, some are excited about going to college soon. It allows the rest of us to focus on each other and engage our compassion.

        And gratitude is contagious with humans. When one of us is grateful, others around will become grateful. It is infectious, like laughter. When a couple people start laughing everyone else will spontaneously join in. We release our positive spiritual energy.

        Psychologists say that socially, communally, in our families what we hope to do is develop six dimensions of personality.

        The first is extraversion. We want people to engage each other, so develop family rituals (like we do at church) that get your boys out of their video games to do something with each other. The proverbial football game is great. Actually, sharing what we are grateful for is even better.

        The second is agreeableness. It is getting along, developing harmony. So, the more we can create an environment where our children have the opportunity to volunteer, the better. By the way, it is enormously important that our children see us volunteer, so when we have people raise their hands in church to set up beds for our homeless guests, when your children see you come here and serve a meal, you are doing way, way more to help them become rounded than you realize. Build in some opportunities for people to publicly volunteer in your family rituals to set up and clean up, which you can do it you coordinate this with your siblings and whoever is hosting.

        The third is conscientiousness. We want people to take responsibility for their lives. We want them to follow through on what they say they will do. We want to leave this world a better place than the world we inherited. We can reinforce that in things large and small that we want to share the burden with the host and collectively strategize on what we can do for each of us to help out and do our part because it is about the group. It is about the “We” of family.

        Fourth, we want to develop emotional stability, which psychologists contrast with neurotic control. Neurotic control… name me one family without a couple of people that suffer from neurotic control around family gatherings. Please. But your children and grandchildren can watch you work around them positively and you can involve them in emotionally processing how you meet others where they are and work with their limitations as well as their strengths constructively, transforming frustration into a modicum of peace.

        Fifth, we want them to be “open to experience”. To see the virtue in venturing out, trying new foods, developing new traditions. The only constant in our world, as Alvin Toffler like to say, is the inevitability of change itself. Our families are constantly evolving with marriage and divorce. They are becoming more multi-cultural than ever.

        Finally, we want them to develop the self-transcendent values of tolerance and compassion. That is why we volunteer with our children, not only to demonstrate what care for others looks like, but to allow our children to encounter impoverished people that they wouldn’t routinely encounter in the insular worlds of their weekly routine.

        Psychologists say that when we expose our children positively to these pro-social values, they experience ‘elevation’. I love these technical words. It means, our children set their sights higher. It engages our children, so they become altruistic. It is why we go to church, to exercise the character muscle that makes us want to be better people.

        It is enormously important to model this in our families as well. Studies show that we are more likely to access our altruism with people that we are close to, people that are in our ‘in-group’. We are more likely to be altruistic towards people that might return the favor, at least theoretically. We will give them more, we will volunteer to be involved more often, we are more likely to match their good deed with a good deed of our own, we are more likely to ‘pay it forward’ and not receive any immediate benefit. We are more likely to act ‘pro-socially’ helping the group rather than being concerned about what we are getting out of something just for ourselves.

        Psychologists have a myriad of studies that show that viewing inspiration examples encourages altruistic behavior, most of them very subtle but still significant. For example, if you show a group of new mother’s inspirational videos of people doing good things or overcoming difficult situations, they are more likely to nurse their infants and they will nurse their infants longer.

        Subconsciously, they are acting altruistically, even though they don’t know it.

        I’ve noticed that this research is slowly creeping into our educational system as well. My grandson, John John, is in kindergarten. I picked him up from school this month and he had a badge on, like a name tag. It said, “I am a helper”. Trust me when I tell you, “No he is not”, at least not by nature. Surely half our boys are looking for every opportunity to dodge ‘clean up’ right?

        But the teachers are routinely building in volunteering as part of their day. They are identifying and praising qualities that make for ‘pro-social children’. When you raise your hand to be a ‘Helper”, you are more likely to actually become helpful.

        We’ve learned other subtle but significant insights as well. We are more likely to engage our altruism when we do something that ‘represents our essence’. We need to develop opportunities for our children, for our family members, to do things that demonstrate their character, to give things to others of some value (say at Christmas time) that are not simply materially fun things, but that represent who they are.

        Our Christmas tree has a lot of ornaments, but the ones I like the most are the ones my children made for me when they were toddlers out of popsicle sticks with their picture in the middle.

        And the best gifts you get are not the most flashy, expensive, indulgent presents. They are the ones where you are surprised that your spouse got you something that shows how well they know and understand you. They get you.

        Professor Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania says that our deepest fulfillment is when we are able to practice our ‘signature strengths’ (what it is that we are just gifted to do) and receive praise for doing it from people that are significant to us.

        I was at a family gathering where all the kids that could play an instrument, were invited to play and the entire family would applaud. You know what, they had some super musicians too.

        And we are more likely to be real when we are in public. We have a plethora of research that shows peoples behavior substantially improves when they know they are being videotaped. And that is equally true when you are public with your extended family (and when you gather in church). You are more likely to engage your ‘real self’.

        We care about our reputations. It is important for us to feel ‘related’ to others, to know that we have earned the respect and the care by exhibiting the best version of ourselves. And as we exercise that best version of ourselves, our character gets stronger.

        One final note that is significant for our time, our age. Inspiring acts have radial effects way beyond our personal scope of friends. When people see inspiring volunteerism on social media, they are much more likely to engage their altruistic selves, even though they barely know you.

        Knowing that, I’m hoping that we can start collecting selfies of our volunteer acts here at Christ Church and start posting them in various ways. We are engaged in a conspiracy of goodness and we need to let that pull other people into the orbit of goodness, directly and indirectly. And it will come back to bless us in ways you could not possibly have foreseen. This is how miracles happen in our day and time.

        My brothers and sisters, ‘become strong in the Lord… put on the whole armor of God that you might stand strong. Fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Lace up the boots of peace. Protect yourself and your people with the shield of faith from the arrows of noxious malaise that permeate our wider world. Strap on the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Pray, envision, what you would positively hope to see.”

        Lead your people in spiritual wholeness. Elevate their thoughts that they might become more noble for your having been together. And may you know the deeper joy that comes from being in harmony together. At the end of the day, may you find genuine rest, a modicum of God’s peace in our anxious age. The love of God be with you. Amen.

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