The Parable of the Christmas Dinner

Have you ever had a moment where things go horribly wrong? Where words produce strong emotions and cause a fight, which then spirals out of control?

Kate Smith had one of those moments in 1996, when she rang her sister Jess about Christmas dinner.

A number of years before, Kate and her husband Geoff moved into the old family home to care for her mother, who suffered a protracted battle with cancer. Kate inherited the family home after her mother died. For several years she maintained the tradition of having Christmas lunch with the extended family in the old family home. Kate and her two sisters cooked and cleaned and gossiped; the brothers in law played backyard cricket with all the youngsters after lunch. A fairly standard Australian Christmas.

But in 1996, Kate Smith had a bad year. Very bad. She had been bullied at work, leading to severe anxiety. Geoff suggested this year the family should have Christmas lunch as a picnic at a park, as the thought of getting everything ready for Christmas was contributing to Kate feeling overwhelmed.

Kate rang her sister Jess to discuss the idea of a Christmas picnic. Jess exploded. Seeing his wife’s tears and trembling, Geoff grabbed the phone and exchanged a few choice words with Jess.

Jess was shattered. For her, family Christmas involved a profound connection with her childhood memories, with her beloved father who died in his 40’s from a heart attack, and with her mother, who had died in her early 50’s from breast cancer. The thought of not going to the family home for Christmas was like a knife in her soul.

She promptly rang her other sister Beck. By now Jess’s fury had turned to sobs. She poured out how much family Christmas meant to her, and how horrible Geoff had been. Beck was outraged! She was close to Jess, and truth be told, she had always been hot-headed.

Beck immediately rang Kate and went berserk. What would their mother think of this? Their father? After inheriting the family home, how dare she dishonour them? How could she be so selfish? Didn’t she respect family traditions? Geoff once more grabbed the phone off his wife, and a predictable shouting match followed between him and Beck.

Beck and Jess organised Christmas for their two families that year. Kate’s family weren’t invited. Nor for the Christmas after that, nor for the one after that. In fact, the whole Smith family were completely shut off from the other two families. They still aren’t speaking to one another. The cousins grew up without seeing one another. The Cold War rolls on today.

The story of the Smith family is entirely fictitious. And it is preposterous. What family in their right mind would think something as trivial as whether to eat in place X or place Y was more important than their family relationships? Who would stop talking to their sister for 20 years after one argument?

Or is it so preposterous? Perhaps people aren’t always in their right mind; they are sometimes driven by deep feelings. Perhaps relationships are torn apart not by whether families should eat in place X or in place Y, but on what such decisions mean to them.

If this story is a parable, how do we interpret it?

I think about this parable in relation to church life. What is going on when people over-react, putting an issue ahead of good relationships?

It is an urban legend (perhaps a joke?) to hear of church wars over moving the communion table from one part of a chapel to another. Why would anyone behave completely irrationally over whether a table is in Position A or Position B? How can a table position mean more than the meal it is supposed to enable, a meal that expresses unity with Christ and his Body?

Is it not about interpretation? That someone believes that table position B is less reverent than position A? Perhaps they have assigned a meaning to table position A which is connected to a whole raft of their memories, emotions, values and beliefs.

So they over-react, like Jess and Beck in the parable. They might need time to process those feelings. They might also need a clear reminder of the things that REALLY matter. That being family, and living in love, might be more important than the position of the communion table. Or whatever issue happens to be… music, doctrine, a social issue, a management decision, where to hold a funeral, and so on.

How do we help others understand their own feelings, put them in perspective, and get in touch with their higher values? How do we do this ourselves? How do we keep our highest values front and centre as communities... values of love, acceptance, unity, and grace? How do we live out of our highest values when we don't get our own way?

I'm wondering if this parable makes sense, or if it evokes further thoughts for you? If so, can you share:

1) a story of irrational conflict… in the church, the family, or elsewhere? (the more absurd, the better!)

2) an issue that has been (or is likely to be) a flash point for conflict.

3) a time when two people interpreted the same thing/event/idea completely differently. What did you learn from this?

4) your insights on getting in touch with higher values when strong feelings and differences of opinion are present. (For individuals or communities)

I'd love to hear your insights!


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