The Lord said to Moses, "Tell Aaron and his sons, 'This how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.' So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them." Numbers 6.24-27
I once worked with a pastoral counseling client, who I will call Stacy (not her real name), that shared with me her experience of being lonely at the dinner table while growing up. Stacy explained to me that, for whatever reason, her family never ate meals together. Her dad would always cook, place her meal on the table, and then retreat to a separate room. Her mother would be absent most nights due to work responsibilities. Stacy told me the details of her lonely childhood dining arrangement in a very stoic and detached way.
Upon hearing Stacy's description, I asked, "What did you do?"
"What do you mean?"
"How did you survive all those nights alone?"
"I don't know. I guess I talked to myself."
"Do you eat alone now or with your current family?" (Stacy was married with three kids.)
"Oh, I eat with family. But, honestly, it's really easy for me to detach at dinner time and fall back into the same pattern I had when I was a kid."
"What do you mean?"
"I want to grab my plate of food and go off by myself."
"Yes. It's almost like I'm afraid of being at the table with other people."
"Afraid? Of what? I wonder."
"I don't know. I know for one thing, I hate the silence."
"Yes. I hate the silence at the dinner table. It reminds me of how lonely I was growing up."
"Are there ways you overcome the silence now? You obviously have done something to at least learn how to sit down and tolerate eating with your family."
"I mostly hum and sing, but I've also discovered that I actually feel more comfortable the more people are around the dinner table."
"Really!?" (I was surprised by her answer.) "Why is that?"
"Because I don't feel as lonely and it's not as quiet when a bunch of people are gathered around the table laughing and telling stories."
My client and I later went on to process the fact she felt her "loneliness gap" (her terminology) filled the more people gathered around the dinner table. I helped her apply the Biblical terms of redemption and salvation to understand what took place at large meal gatherings; her lonely childhood was being redeemed and saved by large table experiences as an adult. Unfortunately, Stacy's story is shared by many; they grew up in a home where they felt lonely or abandoned and because of their lonely childhood, they are hungry for relationships and community.
Stacy's story is not only shared by many, but it goes back to the beginning of time. Adam and Eve experienced a "loneliness gap" after they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. They experienced a loneliness, not ultimately from each other, but from their creator; God. Due to their disobedience and sin, they lost the perfect relationship they had with God and with the loss of that relationship; they lost the ability to FACE God.
Think about it. Can we be in a healthy relationship with someone if we never look at them? Can we effectively listen to someone if we are looking in another direction as they speak? Can we effectively speak to someone if we are talking in the opposite direction of which they are standing? Can truly engage in a loving embrace if looking away? The answer to all these questions is "No." In order to be in a healthy relationship with someone, we must FACE them.
The concept of FACING is what makes the blessing above from the book of Numbers so powerful. God blessed the Israelites with what was ultimately lost in the Garden through the establishment of this blessing, God's FACE. According to the Psalmist, God's FACE equaled redemption and salvation, "Let your FACE shine upon your servant; SAVE me in your stedfast love" (Psalm 31.16) or "Restore us, O God; let you FACE shine, that we may be SAVED" (Psalm 80.3). The restoration of God's FACE upon the Israelites in the book of Numbers meant that redemption and salvation were once again present in the Israelite community. (Sadly, the Israelites did not respond so well to God's reestablished FACE as they continued to sin and rebel.)
What does God's FACE or FACING have to do with my client, Stacy? What Stacy was missing time and time again while sitting at lonely dinner tables was the FACING of her loved ones. That lack of FACING equaled lack of relationship. Why does Stacy now crave large dinner gatherings? Because of the many FACES that surround her. Those FACES equal abundance in relationship and redeem the lonely experiences of her childhood.
This week, as many of you gather around the dinner table, I hope you take time to look at the FACES of those with which you will share a meal. As you do, I encourage you to be reminded that those beautiful FACES equal meaningful relationships. So, slow down and enjoy those relationships. And, I encourage you to reflect upon the most important FACE of all, Jesus Christ. Who, according to Scripture, is the very image or FACE of God (2 Corinthians 4.4). Happy Thanksgiving!
(Emphasis through all caps is mine.)
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” Matthew 18.15
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12.18
As the holiday season of many shared meals begins next week, I think primarily not of the wars occurring around the world. (Although addressed they must be, for the violence has been heartbreaking and hellish.) Instead, my head and my heart fear the impact of many other smaller in scale, but just as impactful wars that will occur time and time again around the tables we will share. Husbands, wives, moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, step-brothers, step-sisters, cousins, and a host of many others will gather around tables to eat, celebrate, and enjoy one another’s presence. Sadly, for many families, peace on earth will be nowhere to be found. Instead, the larger scale wars being fought around the globe will be modeled over a shared turkey leg and cranberry sauce.
What do I mean?
Families rob themselves of loving and meaningful interaction when they carry hurts, heartaches, and grudges to the dinner table that could easily be addressed through honest and holy conversation. Instead, a daughter will sit down next to a father that she holds a deep resentment against because the father never encouraged her to pursue her dreams. Instead, he slowly but definitely dismantled her self-trust by not believing in her. A heartbroken wife will sit down next to a husband she longs to be intimate with and smile at him while she longs for him to hold her. She knows that he will retreat to the recliner and a nap after dinner, like he has done for the past five years. Two cousins will sit across from each other and refuse to make eye contact because Cousin A started a rumor about Cousin B that ruined Cousin B’s junior high reputation. Since then Cousin B has retaliated against Cousin A and now both of their reputations suffer. A loving grandparent will be seated at the head of the table and wonder, “Do I even really matter anymore? They treat me like an old person in an old aged home. I feel like a nuisance.”
Again, many of these hurts, heartaches, and grudges could be addressed through honest and holy conversation. Instead, our tables will resemble mini-cold wars where withdrawal and dishonesty-communicated-through-silence is present. Or, our tables will resemble hot wars where accusations and contemptuous comments are lobbed at those who have hurt us. The great move Christmas Vacation points out that some conflict is inevitable, but does unaddressed conflict have to ruin our holiday gatherings?
What if our tables instead became places of healthy and holy conversations? What if we practiced the principles of Matthew 18 and went to a brother and sister and actually talked through the pain or heartache they caused? What if we went to a family member we know we have hurt, confessed our wrongs, and asked for forgiveness? What if we actually strived to live, as Paul said, peaceable with all men, especially with those we share a chicken leg? I pray that our holiday meals will resemble the Christmas characteristics of peace, hope, love, and joy instead of the conflicts we see on TV.
How does one work towards peaceful resolution and healthy conversation? It’s not easy, but here are a few tips.
1. Pray for clarity of heart. Ask God and yourself, “Was I hurt by their actions? Did I the cause the hurt? Or, is this a shared problem?
2. Pray and process through what to say. I have found it helps to write down and practice what I feel like I need to say. I even take my written thoughts with me to stay on track when nervous or anxious.
3. Really strive to listen and understand what the other person is trying to say.
4. Focus on repairing the relationship more than being right or fixing the problem.
Daring to bravely address conflict in families is very, very difficult and scary. However, it is deeply necessary. May the Lord bless and keep you as you strive to live at peace with all those with whom you will share a meal this holiday season.
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Harrodsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.