A crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Mark 3:32-33
Family can be a great training ground for learning about love, forgiveness, acceptance and encouragement. Some families learn many of those lessons around the dinner table. Some never have that opportunity.
Pastor Craig Barnes tells a powerful story about lessons learned around the table. Craig’s dad served a congregation in a tough part of town. There were a number of drug addicts in the congregation, and Craig’s dad reached out to them as best he could.
Twelve-year-old Roger was a member of that congregation. Roger had two heroin addicts for parents. Although it didn’t seem that Craig’s dad was making a difference in the lives of those who struggled with drugs, Roger’s mom had written the pastor’s phone number on the wall by the phone in case the pastor was needed.
One night the phone rang at Craig’s home. It was 12-year-old Roger saying that both his parents had OD’d and he couldn’t wake them up. The pastor jumped in the car and drove to the projects. He got there about the same time as the police. Roger watched as the coroner zipped bags over both his parents and carried them out of the house.
There weren’t any other family to care for Roger, and the police were ready to put Roger into the system which was not a good thing in that time and place. Craig’s dad convinced the police to let him take Roger home at least for the night.
Somewhere on the way home, Craig’s dad decided to adopt Roger. Those were the days before cell phones, and later in life Craig wondered how his mom figured into that decision. But when Craig’s dad and Roger got home that evening, Craig and his brother were awoken and introduced to Roger. His dad said, “This is Roger who will be your brother from now on.”
Well, that sort of thing doesn’t happen every night! Craig was amazed that by the sheer declaration of his father, Roger was now his joint heir.
Did Roger earn it? No.
Did Roger figure out he needed it? No.
Did Roger finish studying the catechism first? No.
Simply by the declaration of Craig’s father, Roger had become part of the Barnes’ family.
Now Roger had been raised by addicts, and Craig’s parents were not only pietists, but actually the ‘green beret’ of pietists! While it was clear to them that nobody gets into heaven by careful living, they would have been first in line if it were possible.
Roger had a lot of learning to do about what it meant to be a part of this new family he had entered. And as Craig reflected on those years with Roger, he was pretty sure that most of the lessons Roger learned happened at the table.
Most of the lessons Roger learned at their table were from Craig’s mom. She was the Holy Spirit figure in their family. She kept trying to help Roger figure out what had happened to him when he was adopted into this family. For the next five years, the most common phrase in their household was, “No, no, Roger – we don’t do that here!”
When the table was set and they all sat down, Roger would lunge for the food. He had grown up with addicts, and IF there was food on the table, you had to grab it for yourself. No one was going to serve you or look out for you.
But Craig’s mom would say, “No, no, Roger – we don’t do that here!” And she would intentionally start the food next to Roger so that it would have to be served all the way around the table before it reached Roger. He would watch it, counting the servings and the people, before it got to him.
Then after supper, Roger would leap from the table. And Craig’s mom would say, “No, no, Roger, it’s your turn to do dishes tonight.” That was another new concept – chores.
Roger would get angry and start yelling, but Craig’s mom would say, “No, no, Roger – we don’t speak in loud voices here.”
Occasionally Roger would break forth with some words that had never, never – ever, been said in the Barnes’ home. And Craig’s mom would say, “No, no, Roger – we don’t ever, ever, say that here!”
Bless his heart, Roger made a lot of changes. It wasn’t easy on him receiving all that grace!
Craig is the one who told me this story, and he went into the ministry like his dad. Craig said that almost every time he stands at the table to preside over Holy Communion, he looks out over his congregation and he watches them try to bring all kinds of stuff to the table that doesn’t belong there. He thinks about his mother’s phrase. He can hear the Holy Spirit saying, “No, no – we don’t do that here… Don’t bring that anger to the table; not with your brothers and sisters. No, no – we don’t do that here!”
“Don’t bring that victim-thing here. You’re actually going to try to be a victim at the table of Christ, for Pete’s sake?! No, no that won’t work here. You can’t be a victim in this family!”
There is transformation that happens when we commune with our true family identity. Roger learned and was changed by that. Roger learned what it meant to be adopted into that family he entered.
Roger was just enough older than Craig and I that rather than be caught up in the draft during the Vietnam era, he chose to volunteer. He wanted to do something to make his mom and dad proud. And, like so many of the volunteers in Vietnam, Roger was sent to the front lines.
One day Roger lost his life in a heroic act of sacrifice that saved the lives of many of his buddies. It was a dark day in the Barnes’ home when that telegram arrived.
Craig most remembers his mother’s tears. One day she stopped crying long enough to look at Craig and ask, “Do you think any of those crazy table lessons had anything to do with Roger changing from someone who was frightened and lost, into someone who was a hero?”
Absolutely! Welcome to the table! The table has always been a place where incredible love is offered. As Jesus has commanded us, choose to love one another, as difficult as that can be. May we all take the lessons learned at this table to heart and be changed.