Jane Hoober Peifer, The Family Song (Herald Press: 2008). <https://www.os.mennoniteusa.org/product_info.php?manufacturers_id=0&products_id=10359>
This year for our family Thanksgiving Time together, I chose the book The Family Song, written by Mennonite pastor Jane Hoober Peifer. Each year I try to introduce a new song for our table thanks. The song helps create special memories.
This book was unique in that it not only included a good mealtime song but it also was a story. Besides, simply the words family and song in one title are sure to grab my attention because those are and have been vital themes in my life.
Mealtime is the one moment in the day when eight adults and eight children, ages 11 years to 11 months, are focused on one thing--food. I've learned that what I want to teach I need to do quickly and it needs to be catchy. The Family Song really did it this year.
Imagine it--the 16 begin to gather around the table, there is the usual shuffling, chairs screeching, reminders of, "Did you wash your hands, Caleb?," "It's time to eat now, you can finish the puzzle later..." I pop in the CD, turn up the volume, and soon all are seated and joining in the catchy song, raising our hands for the chorus. Of course, we had not read the book yet so we didn't understand why we were thanking God for Elizabeth and the last verse made us wonder also. Thanking God for this whole mess...do we ever thank God for messes?
The song soon attached itself to us and we'd find ourselves humming the song or we'd hear one of the children singing it as they were playing. About the second day, the interest was so piqued that we listened to Jane read the entire book in her crisp, strong voice. We learned that family for the Stranowskys meant gathering together around the table many different kinds of people. There were the Stranowsky children who brought friends, there were neighbors, friends, young and old, some were grouchy, but all were part of the meal around the table and all helped sing The Family Song. Elizabeth, we learned, is the neighbor's wife who passed away. So they thanked God for Elizabeth, which comforted the grieving, neighbor man who was eating with them. One evening with all these different people around the table, a number of unexpected surprises created quite a mess. That's when they thanked God for this whole mess because God was with them right where they were--in the middle of the mess.
We had our own mess during these four days. The 12-hour flu found its way among us. Only four of the 16 did not get some form of it. The undeniable theme of the book and the song, of God being present with us right where we are, was palpable as we knelt in prayer the third night, praying God's healing for our granddaughter who seemingly could not stop vomiting. By the end of the fourth day we had no trouble singing at the top of our lungs (those who could sing!), "Here are to thank you for this whole mess. Here we are to thank you for this whole mess. Here we are to thank you because we know you're with us right where we are." (The photo is of Caleb, age four, who is praising the Lord, glad that he only had a bellyache!)
On the seven-hour trip home to Ohio, however, my reflections went much further than the flu which seemed to "mess up" our perfectly planned four days of family togetherness. There are other things which threaten to "mess" up our family times. Mike and I have four adult children and they bring their families to the family table. They are diversity! They represent different Christian denominations and beliefs, ranging from conservative to liberal, some voted for McCain and others for Obama, they are strongly opinionated, they embrace different lifestyles, and they teach and live different values with their children.
I often feel torn between the desire of having a perfectly planned, cozy family time and the challenge of embracing each family member in his/her diversity of belief and lifestyle. There is a real messiness about trying to hear each other when what I am hearing is so different from what I hold dear and sacred. There is a real messiness in giving the other the benefit of the doubt and not yielding to the temptation of oversimplifying, minimizing, judging, or avoiding. There is a real messiness in opening myself to hearing another opinion, and admitting that there are things I may be able to learn from the other to broaden the way I think of God and to make me more Christlike. There is a real messiness in opening my home and my table to those who embrace a different way of living. It's messy and sticky.
However, we are family and therefore, we are connected with a strong bond. We hold in common the commitment to live the Jesus Way and these things we share compel us to never tire of reaching out to each other in our diversity of beliefs, values, and customs. Can we see these messes as opportunities to grow in faith in God, to learn from each other and most of all to genuinely love, honor, and respect each other? All this messiness talk reminds me of one of my favorite books by Michael Yanconelli, Messy Spirituality. If we follow Jesus and reach out to others, things will get messy. Messiness may be a sign that God is in charge. I take comfort in those words. They ring true.
I continued to reflect that our mini Mast family time is not so unlike the struggles of our church family. Struggles of how to be family and embrace and love each other in our different ways of understanding the Good News and of following Jesus. Struggles of how to be family which includes all kinds of people who God sends our way. I do firmly believe that we are the Sent Ones--sent into the world to embrace those persons put into our lives to love as Christ would love, to understand as Christ would sit and be present with, to include all of them around our table...and that will mean there will be a level of messiness, because God's in charge, not me. Thank you, Stranowsky family, for giving us a model!
I highly recommend this book. You've heard the saying, "whatever I needed to know I learned in kindergarten." I'd like to say, "Whatever I need to know about mission and outreach I can learn from this book."
Mattie Marie Mast is associate pastor of Sonnenberg Mennonite Church in Kidron, Ohio.