November 30, 2020

family. unique characteristics of each.

'Dinner table' photo (c) 2007, Bev Sykes - license: Chaplain Mike

In our consideration of God’s common grace gift of family this week, I keep coming back to this sentence: “Bottom line, life is about how we deal with the family stuff, what we do with it, where we run from it, how we get reconciled to it.”

Today, we break down “the family stuff” into a few observable categories. Discuss any or all.

• • •

1. family size. Some families, like my own, are small, with only one or two siblings on most branches of the family tree. Our gatherings are modest affairs. In this mobile society, we are few and far between. My wife’s family, on the other hand, took “be fruitful and multiply” seriously. But then again, they have been farmers and rural folk, requiring many hands to harvest and tend to daily chores. At one recent event, celebrating two branches of the family, there was the possibility of over 800 people coming together. Small and large families carry different dynamics and yield different experiences.

2. table habits. In some homes and in some clans, the table is sacred. As much care is taken to prepare and enjoy breakfast and the midday meal together as with evening supper and Sunday dinner, it seems. You’d better have a good reason not to be present. In my wife’s extended family, everyday lunch (or dinner) looked to me like Thanksgiving, heaping plates of steaming hot food on generous platters. These tables served hard-working people who had risen long before light, feeding and tending to animals, cultivating fields and calloused hands, their work preventing the heat of the day.

Many families today struggle with the pace of urban and suburban life, the daily commute, the time demands of organized school and sports activities. The table is a lonely place. Instead, chauffeur (mom, dad, older sibling, or carpool driver) and children make a quick sprint through the drive-up lane, dropping paper waste and crumbs on the floor of the car, catching up on each other’s day through snatches of conversation at red lights, visiting with neighbors while watching football or band practice.

And “the table” can be everything in between. Table as cafeteria line. Pick up your food and carry it to your own TV tray. Table as occasional get reacquainted place. Table as “we’re going to have Sunday dinner together every week if it kills us” commitment. Table as eating out nearly all the time. But at least we’re together.

'Family Gathering in Hazen, ND' photo (c) 2008, David Becker - license: habits, continued. Each family has their own food memories from the table. Mine involve standard Midwest fare of the humble, comfort food variety. Meat and potatoes and vegetables. We drank lots and lots of milk. Modest amounts of dessert. If you are from a more distinguishable ethnic background, your story will reflect that much different culture. We were not adventurous when it came to food. Some families try new dishes all the time. With the explosion of cookbooks and cooking shows and diverse restaurants and the availability of more specialty foods, does your table reflect more variety these days? More experimentation?

Tables may be quiet places or boisterous. Some families simply attend to the business of eating. Others view it as social opportunity par excellence. My first dinner at my future in-laws’ home was exhilarating! Everyone talked at the same time, loudly and with conviction! It was all I could do to keep up, much less comprehend.

As a child, were you required to “clean your plate”? Eat some of each dish served? Were you allowed to eat at your own pace, or were you hurried along so that you kept up with everyone else? And, what behavior was expected of children at your table? Has any of this changed now that you have children?

So much to say. A separate entry on life at the table may be forthcoming.

vocabulary. Each family speaks its own language. We have code words that communicate whether someone is happy or unhappy, open to interaction or wanting to be left alone. Some households are clear, direct, look-you-in-the-eye, make sure you understand what is expected communicators. In some homes, people keep you guessing. Verbal content varies, too. Some families have no problem talking about earthy realities, body parts and functions, using language and discussing matters other families consider vulgar and embarrassing. The use of nicknames, the limits of humor and teasing, boundaries regarding criticism, complaining, and speaking one’s mind, the way conflicts are addressed (or not)–each family system handles things like this in its own fashion.

'kid conversations' photo (c) 2010, michelle m - license: relatives, black sheep, adventurers and special cases. Perhaps you have a notorious relative or two. Perhaps you are that notorious family member. For whatever reason, some individuals stand out. In some families, simply remaining single is enough to set you apart and cause considerable amounts of whispers behind your back. Perhaps there is a relative with a drinking, substance abuse, or gambling problem. One that can’t keep a job. A wanderer. The one who just can’t seem to get it together or get it right. What if someone in the family is openly gay, or suspected of being gay? Is that OK? Or not? And how does that shape the way you relate? Do you have prodigals in your family story? Who are they, and how did they achieve that status?

Families also have their adventurers, who become heroes by breaking the mold, shattering expectations, taking on challenges in life heretofore unimagined. They travel to or settle down in exotic destinations. They work in impressive or incomprehensible vocations. They take up unique hobbies or interests. They marry someone so different that the old prejudices can’t hold up any longer. Has someone broken out of the non-religious culture of your family and displayed enthusiastic zeal for God? Has a convinced unbeliever somehow sprung from the loins of your pious heritage?

Does your family include people with physical handicaps or mental disabilities? How has that shaped your family experiences? What special loved one succumbed to unexpected hardship, health problems, an early and tragic death?

• • •

When I speak the word “family,” I think I know what I mean. I have a picture in my mind. Actually, what I have is a snapshot from a single story that has been lived out in one little place that exists amid an unimaginable number of galaxies. My family. The more I get to know other families by hearing their stories, the more I learn what it means to be human, what it means to have a God who is infinite and personal, what it means that his creation is endlessly fascinating, beautiful, and complex.


  1. Being from the South I have to insist that when we refer to dinner we are talking about the largest meal of the day eaten usually around noon. Only Yankee’s and school children eat lunch. 🙂

    In reality dinner was often the largest meal of the day. When folks worked the fields and came home for dinner it was a large spread. As Chaplain Mike pointed out, if you didn’t get work done by shortly after noon it was too hot, and supper was typically left overs or a smaller meal.

    This was the case in my grandparents home (myself being the youngest grandchild of the youngest of 7 my grandparents were very old even when I was young).

    Both of my grandmothers cooked three meals a day seven days a week until the day they died. Amazing. I always knew when i went to visit there would be some left over biscuits and perhaps some sausage or bacon on the stove in a plate.

    Obvioulsy they had indoor plumbing, but they kept an old metal dipper hanging over the sink. There was no dirting a cup everytime you wanted a drink of water, you used the dipper then hung it back up after you rinsed it out. I need one of those at my house, now we use cups all the time.

    We would feast at dinner time and supper was for my grandfather almost without failure a cold glass of milk with cornbread curmbled up in it. Delicous.

  2. One thing that has been striking to me as I’ve married into and become part of a large, rowdy, amazing family with nine siblings. Seven of them live in the same small town, and most everyone really gets along. We see them regularly, far beyond the obligatory trip to the inlaws. It’s actually FUN.

    One characteristic of this family that differs greatly from my own is the idea of storytelling. Most of my brothers and sisters in law LOVE telling family stories – from childhood, from last week. Doesn’t matter. And, the nieces and nephews, the oldest of whom now have their own young families, have carried on this family trait. My 27 year old stepdaughter is no exception!

    My family is just not like this. I don’t know many stories from my parents’ childhood, I know even less about my grandparents. We don’t sit around and retell stories (funny, tragic or otherwise) about our life together, although I would say it is a relatively close family. They see each other almost weekly.

    Storytelling is not only a way to bond and pass the time together. I have heard many, many stories over the last three years, which has not only given me a better understanding of my new family, but it has been sort of a rite of initiation for me. A way to belong.

    A nephew introduced his girlfriend to “the family” last Friday night. Poor girl. Baptism by fire. Three of the nine siblings (including the nephew’s dad, my husband and a sister), six of the cousins, plus a slew of spouses and significant others. We took up three large tables. You should have seen her eyes when she walked in.

    It occurred to me as I was sitting there listening to the same stories (again) that she was experiencing what I had experienced – the same rite of initiation, generous welcome and sharing of personal histories. And, I was really, really happy – a story or two involved me as well.

  3. sarahmorgan says

    I love these essays, but I hope this series isn’t going to head down the track of ‘church is just like family’……I’ve unfortunately had the leaders of the last two churches I participated in tell me precisely that, as an excuse for the hurtful behavior I experienced by them and their congregants….seems like one is supposed to be OK with church communities that act like dysfunctional families (i.e., where people readily lose their tempers and yell at each other, lie to each other and attempt to manipulate one another to protect or further their interests, etc., no one is apologetic about their behaviors, and you’re the bad guy if you don’t ‘forgive and forget’ right away)….this just doesn’t work for me, since I was blessed to have grown up in a healthy and loving family, with parents who stayed married and didn’t raise their voices at each other, where now all of the siblings (adults now), love and cherish each other and our aged parents, warts & all, and I have a lot of trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that the normal condition for the family of Christ is somehow ‘supposed’ to be more dysfunctional than my own family was. :-/

    • SJ Gonzalez says

      Can I be honest?

      Alot of what you’re talking about when it comes to family is foreign to me. I grew up in a house where I would lock myself for hours on end to avoid the conflict that was present in the family. Whether it be between my mother and father or my parents and little brother, who is autistic.

      Indeed, sitting around the table is foreign to me as a person. And when we have tried such things, my little brother doesn’t make it easy. Or, my parents end up arguing about religion. Or, I ended up getting lectured at about some thing or the other.

      Yes, this entire series to me is like a man standing in a house looking at a garden and thinking “Oh, those are flowers? I’ve never seen them before”.

      And so, all of this is very new to me, this idea of appreciating family and it being a good thing.

      Saying that.

      The Church has functioned as a pseudo family for me. I have mother figures, father figures, big brothers, little brothers (and alot of little sisters!) and brother and sisters that are “my age”. Indeed if it wasn’t for the Church i wouldn’t know what a normal relationship between two people is supposed to look like.

      Saying that.

      I too have suffered at the hands of an abusive church, and so, I understand that the Church isn’t perfect… but golly you are right when you imply (I assume) that the Church is supposed to be safe, and functional, and dare I say it, Christlike?

    • We’re not “going to church” at all in this series. We’re “staying home.”

      However, to respond to your comment, yes church is like family-good and bad- but it is also more than that, and we mustn’t leave the other parts out.

      • One more thing: imagine the two commenters above being part of the same church community. Imagine them trying to relate to each other out of their very different family backgrounds. Now multiply that by the number of people you have in a congregation. It is a wonder any churches have ever survived!

  4. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    Something I’ve noticed in my family is that a lot of these things have changed since my siblings and I grew up. Mom didn’t used to work outside the home, and now she does. My sister was always quiet until her brothers left the house and now we can’t shut her up. Thus, the family’s way of doing table, vocabulary and everything has changed. I wonder if such change is a typical companion for such dramatic family change as 2/5 of them moving out of the house.

    • That does remind me of “the church” and how things have changed in the family there too. Things aren’t the same as they used to be, and we have to deal with the way things are now…..not just lament about things not being the way it was before. We can talk about those family stories, but we do have to live in today too, and look forward to things to come.

  5. In my immediate family there are nine of us (my wife and I and seven children ranging from 20 down to 5). We are very focused on family unity, spending time, dinners together (with the exception now of the kids in college), chores/responsibilities and fun. We try to encourage an atmosphere of openness and faith is talked about too.

    My wife comes from a family with three children, a tumultrous childhood – yet we all live in pretty close proximity. Some past issues have been worked out but still flair between my wife and her mother – I try my best to keep the balance. We do get together for extended family dinners periodically – her italian side especially focuses on remaining in touch and this is fun for all – especially the kids.

    On my side I have two siblings who never had children and an overbearing, aging father. As a result I am the blacksheep being that my wife and I did not conform to the expected position in the family. And being my siblings cannot understand how much time a family can take there is always tension so I see them seldom (except when they feel the need to call me to let me know how I am failing them).

    For a time I lost my mind and actually had my parents come live with me – it ended miserably after 11 months because my father was tearing up the family dynamic insisting on being the patriarch – just added to my role as blacksheep.

    The rest of that side of the family lives about 500 miles away so I never see them or keep in touch (my father has seen that my name is mud with them anyway). Ahhh families… what fun!

  6. My family exemplifies religious diversity. My grandfathers on both sides were non-religious. In fact, my mother’s father was pretty much anti-church and definitely anti-cleric. This lack of religious tradition seems to have had the effect of allowing their children to explore spirituality in a free way. So among my immediate family, me and my sibs are Jewish, Catholic, and Atheist. My aunts, uncles and cousins are Jews, Wiccans, LDS, Baptists, Catholics, Atheists, Hindus, Animists (Wea Native American religion), and I’m probably missing one or two. Some married into their religion, others converted due to conviction. And people move between the strands frequently.

    Yet despite this incredible diversity, we do not, as a family, shy from discussing our spirituality with others in the family. Because no one is attempting to convert others (not even the retired Baptist missionary–I think he gave up decades ago), we can listen respectfully and share our own stories of faith. And while we may doubt each others place in immortality, or even immortality, we are able to be family with each other. We offer helping hands when their needed, because we’re family, it seems for us, a shared family tree trumps a shared religion.

  7. What if you got in trouble at the dinner table Chaplin Mike? For example…what if the Eagle was a good brother and out of the interest of sibling rivilery started an occasional food fight or two 😛

    Is that allowed in the family?

    • What’s a family without the occasional fisticuffs ( I love that word)?

    • At my house as long as you aren’t making nonsensical noice for the sake of noise I’m ok. We can get a few conversations going at the same time at the table and sometimes the younger ones start to make random noise – just to contribute to the controlled chaos. You can also jag (pittsburgh word meaning kid in a good natured way) another person but out right nastiness is frowned upon.

  8. David Cornwell says

    This is a very fascinating post. I love it. I started writing a piece for it, then it became so long I had to stop. Maybe it’s because I have so many years behind me! If I’m able to edit it some, I may try again later.

    Family is truly one of the old old stories that goes on and on.

  9. David Cornwell says

    The family I grew up in consisted of myself, three younger brothers, my parents, and for much of the time with my maternal grandmother. We were pretty traditional in many ways. We lived in the Ohio Valley tri-state area of West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. My father’s family were Ohio River folks, growing up on its banks, knowing all about the steam boats and the commerce along its length. His father was the son of a river captain with an interesting civil war story, that I just learned about recently. My mom’s family were descendants of early settlers in Appalachia, one having fled there when he was wanted for murdering two Indians while a peace treaty was in effect. He was later pardoned for his service in the Revolution. All sides of my family were Scotch-Irish. In time most of them became Methodists, thanks to people like Francis Asbury. That’s the brief history.

    My dad was a man who became a Christian in the Methodist church where he met my mom. Their life before and after marriage revolved around this church, then later other Methodist churches, So did ours. My mom was a college grad, but seldom worked outside the home, and but later did my dad’s bookkeeping. Sunday was the day of our big meals. A special breakfast before church and a dinner in the dining room (noonish) after church. My brothers and I did have our fights, coming to literal blows many times. Unless they got way out of control, they ended fairly quickly without parental intervention. We had rules (more like understandings) about certain things like attending church, not swearing, not smoking, not drinking (teetotalers), not making purchases on Sunday. Sounds negative, but it never felt like law enforcment. Otherwise the had a lot of freedom. We came and went as we wanted, had few curfew rules, and were always trusted. When I was 15 I started working for my dad in his farm equipment business. He let me do everything and never doubted my ability. Once when I was 16 or 17 I drove his large flat bed truck about 250 miles (round trip) to pick up farm equipment.

    We did have some dysfunction however. My maternal grandmother became a widow fairly young. She made it clear she didn’t like men, including my dad. She had some mental problems and inner demons. I won’t relate some of the outworkings of this, but they were embarrasing and strange, and with a religious bent.

    My paternal grandmother had a serious mental breakdown because of her husband’s alcholism and resulting abuse. She may have had some chemistry that it either triggered or caused it, not sure. She was hospitalized for many years after she made a threat with a knife toward my mom. Needless to say, I’ve always worried about one of these mental issues showing up somewhere else in our family.

    Our family was like many others. We loved each other and were close. Yet we had some serious dysfunction at times. Some of these went away after my dad retired and they were some of their happiest years. Some of the dysfunction was related to my dad’s poor business management practices. My mom eventually took this over and things got better.

    Note: I got over being a teetotaler! Great fun. Some of my words wouldn’t pass inspection either probably.

  10. Coming from a broken home during a time when it was seen as outcast and misunderstood, my family unit which consisted of my dad, mom, two brothers and I would gather around the Sunday dinner table like we were still intact.

    It has been years since that time and I have since been told that my mom wanted to do that to keep some form of normality. What she didn’t know what just how abnormal that was. No one talked about the big, fat, obvious pink elephant in the room. You know, the fact that DAD DIDN’T LIVE WITH US ANYMORE! I became very accustomed to keeping the comments to a minimum, if at all, which trained me well to marry into the alcoholic family that I did.

    On the bright side, and yes, there is one… family today, which consists of myself, my husband, my two daughters, a son-in-law, a fiance and teenage daughter of his, we can sit around the table and feed our faces with whatever it may be; roast beef and potatoes or hot dogs and chips, we can share funny stories and laugh until we cry.

    I purchased a sign recently that I have hanging in the hallway with all our history of photos and it says this:

    In our house:

    We do second chances
    We say prayers
    We do I’m sorry’s
    We do loud really well
    We give hugs
    We do love
    We are family

    Something I never knew growing up or in the first 2 decades of my own marriage. It is not lost on me any time we gather together today.

  11. Interesting take on family dynamics. Since dinner was a trial in my family of origin (Eat fast-when Daddy is done, dinner is over. Eat every scrap. No complaining. Elbows down. Errant little hands got stabbed with fork tines.) I was determined to have pleasant meals with our sons. We talked about the day, learned something about each other.

    Nevertheless, now that the boys are men with homes of their own and it is just hubby and I….we eat in recliners to the evening news. it is not that we don’t sit and talk…we do that all the time…just not at mealtimes. I feel so relieved to eat at my own pace in a comfortable chair, relaxed and untroubled. AND…I had not really thought about this until now…thanks!

  12. Every dinner we had while I was growing up (being from New England, supper was something that you ate on a boat if you were on it overnight) was as a family. A small one, as I am an only child. Since I left home, I think the only time my parents sit down at a table together to eat is when I come visit. At one point in time, I actually had to ask for them to clear the table so we could have a family meal.

    There’s something about breaking bread with people you love and care for. I’m not going to say it unifies a family, as I’ve seen some truly horrendous fights and near divorces start during what seemed like normal dinner conversations. But sitting down to eat, instead of grabbing food and going to the tv or computer shows a level of respect for all there and that you do care about at least one person at the table.