Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Norman Rockwell Holiday

I grew up in a small town in Nebraska, surrounded by extended family and friends.  Nowhere is this idyllic image of small town America more powerful than during holidays like Thanksgiving.  Even though my family was small, two boys and my parents, we were a large group gathered around the table at every special event or holy day. Actually, until more recently, that meant some of us were not at the table per se but at TV trays or holding plates on our laps sitting on the stairs.  But that is fodder for another post...

Whether or not we actually tried to mimic the famous Norman Rockwell painting of Thanksgiving Day in America, we did strive to reflect the values of that powerful image.  There was food in abundance reflecting the abundance of a rich and resourceful land -- the very reason for Thanksgiving was to give thanks for national blessings upon us as Americans.  There were people of all ages around the table reflecting the extended family gathered together in one place and the familial building block of American history, culture and life.  There were images of our prosperity but it was a humble image and reflected the values of humility and deference that were inherent to a Swedish-German town on the prairie (and to America as a whole -- at least a couple of generations ago.  There was the picture of politeness and nice manners as a family sat calm and patient waiting for the food to be served, the prayer to be prayed, and the pecking order of respect to be observed.  There was a sense of roles and responsibilities that made it clear we knew who we were and we were comfortable with who we were (women cooked and set the table and men worked and brought home the bacon -- not in a sexist sense but as people who learned from their past and grew into the roles and responsibilities defined more by servant roles than authority or dominion).

In conversations I heard about the folks who are eating out today (some by choice and not because of lack of family or friends who issued invitations).  I listened to those who eschewed the familiar turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie in favor of pork loin and a ton of other alternatives as they make the holiday their own.  I know about families divided by miles and intention for whom Thanksgiving is no reunion event.  Some of these are military families in my parish but many of them reflect the diaspora of our modern day world where distance is not only a reality but a choice made against the values of community and closeness that once defined us.  I thought about the many single who had no family even as I spoke to my middle son who lives out of state and who will not be at my table (though he will be with his grandparents and extended family).  I could go on...

My point is this.  Rockwell's American Thanksgiving is not just an image of the past, it is a past which many in America are intent upon rejecting (either formally or informally).  We have become a culture at war against who we were, whether we understand it this way or not.  I once thought that Rockwell's Thanksgiving remained the desire of people even though they had to live with limitations and the deficiencies of a circumstance in which parents and grandparents were not local and jobs and cultural mobility tended to isolate people.  I don't think so anymore.  I think for many Americans, our Thanksgiving traditions reflect a rejection of the Rockwell era.  Family is more and more me and the person I live with.  The kitchen is a beautiful and well equipped place where we heat up food made by others.  Family are folks you call a couple of times a year but not people you live with or even want to live near.  Marriage is struggling as much because we are not so sure we desire to be married as it is because of other factors. Roles are confused and conflicted as much because we refuse and reject the old patterns as it is because of necessity or circumstances.  Responsibilities are forced upon us but we bristle at the imposition of thinking about or serving others.

If Rockwell were painting today, would he paint a picture of people camped out for the bargains early Friday morning?  The interesting thing about this picture, is that we are shopping as much for ourselves as we are for others in those early morning bargain hunting expeditions on Black Friday.  I am concerned about this -- not so much concerned about those who find their Rockwell holiday impaired by circumstances beyond their control as I am those who no longer see the importance of the values of family, community, responsibility, and humility.  We are uncomfortable in our old skins and still not comfortable in the changing skin of the day but we are determined not to go back, never to go back.

It is no wonder that the Church is more and more out of step with our culture and the patterns of the world around us.  We continue to speak of family, community, responsibility, unity, and humility as these gifts and this pattern of new life flow from Christ -- but we are speaking to people who have embraced the values of me, individuality, diversity, difference, license, and aggressiveness.  We have come to like a culture of vulgarity, crudity, and self-interest and this not only mars the old portrait of Thanksgiving, it has created a very difficult barrier to speaking the Gospel in our world not convinced that there is anything wrong with the direction of life and culture.

I did not mean this to be such a downer... but thought I would share a few thoughts as my own family, still many miles away from our extended family, tries to live out the Rockwell Thanksgiving still. . .


Sue said...

Interesting post. I hadn't quite put those thoughts into words but it sums up what I feel, once I read it. I really miss the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners from growing up. Between my Dad and his 3 sisters there were 15 children. My Grandpa till I was 10, great-aunts and uncles and other relatives. Very crowded and I loved it. This year I will drive 30 miles to my older son's home, where I'll be with him, his wife, and my new 6 week old grandson, Henry, and their landlady, who lives across the road. Sadly, my younger son has to work (no, not at one of those stores that will be open today!) I noticed that a number of stores in my town plan to be open for shopping today, and a friend plans a shopping trip! I am telling myself, I will never contribute to causing another person to be away from family on this day because people want to shop. At the same time, I realize this is an empty gestures, because people who go out and shop don't care.

On the other side of the coin, I WILL be with loved ones, I will worship in my beautiful church. I was there last night to decorate the altar with products of the earth's bounty, which the Lord has given us.

And no matter what happens to me in a year, there is still SO much to give thanks for!

Happy Thanksgiving, Pastor!

Tim said...

"We have become a culture at war against who we were, whether we understand it this way or not."

As if people weren't already at war with themselves, and who they were created to be.

Anonymous said...

The 21st century culture of America
is not God-centered by man-centered.
The God who created us in His image
has been forgotten. God the Son who
has redeemed us from sin, death and
the devil has been ignored. God the
Holy Spirit who seeks to convert the
human heart has been rejected. The
true triune God has been reduced to
someone on the pages of ancient
history. Today's Americans are
Biblically illiterate and worship

Janis Williams said...

Fr. Peters,

THANK YOU for standing in the place of Christ last night. His Word was preached. His Body and Blood were fed to His people. Truly the more important meal.

That said, I agree. It is sad that so many have willingly abandoned the possibility of having that Norman Rockwell time.

We will have a much smaller meal with family today, inclusive of one friend far away from home. Divorce, separation, death, and dementia have reduced our number to six. Here's to those who continue against all odds....

William Weedon said...

Fr. Peters,

Still fighting the good fight here. 11 sat down to dinner (9 family members across three generations and two guests), after singing many Advent/Christmas hymns. It was joy indeed. Homemade everything. Rockwell is alive and well in some parts!

Anonymous said...

It's not that the church is out of step with our culture, but our culture is out of step with the church.