November 18, 2016 Tom Berlin

Thanksgiving After the Election

After a contentious election, the thought of sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast is anxiety producing to many this year. It is probably good to think about how you will handle that time for a few reasons:

  • Few of us gather with family or friends who have our exact same voting patterns. If some of the people at your dinner love politics or have deep loyalty to a party or candidate, they may be prone to sharing their thoughts with others.
  • Big events tend to emphasize whatever we are. Dysfunctional people, for instance, do not become more functional with the pressure of gathered family at a holiday. That is probably not the day your crazy Uncle Cosmo will choose to embrace sobriety and clean language.
  • Elections in the United States usually remind me of the time I wired my daughter’s dollhouse. I used thin wires hooked up to a AA battery to hang the lights. The wire tingles, but you get over it and move on. You had your preferred candidate, but you did not feel like the world was going to end if it did not go your way. This year the voltage was cranked up to 220. The shock of the whole two-year experience still smarts.
  • Social media brought a new dimension as well. Some of us have carpal tunnel syndrome from all the family and friends we hid on our Facebook feeds. You were blown away that your college roommate would “like” a quote from a woman in West Virginia stating that she was looking forward to getting rid of the First Lady and calling her an “ape in heels.” You were shocked when your cousin suggested that the opposing candidate should be drown in a river and then posted an “I love Jesus” graphic the next day. When your two neighbors began to openly insult each other online, it was just too much. If incredulity was turkey, we could feed the world right now.

So what to do? I am a Christian who is a United Methodist. John Wesley, the founder of our movement, had three simple rules that might help your dinner plans.

Do no harm. Wesley encouraged his people to avoid personal and communal sin. There has always been a tension in the Christian life between being true to one’s identity as a follower of Christ and the work of reconciliation to which Christ calls us. On the one hand, we have to have self-definition. For Christians this means following the rule of love, guarding our tongues and forgiving others. It also means calling out injustice and oppression and not looking the other way when people are being harmed or abused in some way. At the same time, we are called to be peacemakers and offer acts of reconciliation to others that build community. That contrast is a delicate tightrope right now.

This means that you may want to consider creating some boundaries on conversation. Tell people ahead of time that the dinner will be an election-free zone and ask people to commit to that goal. There are four topics most of us never want to discuss lightly: income, sex, religion and politics. Political banter over the bird produces the likelihood of a bad outcome. It will leave you with everything but feelings of gratitude. You may need to create boundaries with individuals. Call your brother and ask him if you can both agree not to discuss topics that you know will produce stress and ill will for others. Go see your daughter and ask her what she plans to do at Thanksgiving, knowing that the topic may come up. To do no harm you may choose to make alternative plans. A rotisserie chicken in silence beats a turkey and all the side dishes in the midst of a verbal UFC match. If the car simply won’t start Thursday morning, it may be a blessing in disguise.

Most of all think about what you will say and what you will not say, and where you will go if you start to say what you should not say. The only person you control at Thanksgiving is you. Charity, as they say, starts at home.

Do good. How we see each other is the key to good conversation. When you look at the assembled family and friends at Thanksgiving, see them as the children of God they are. I know this is not easy work given some of the bad behavior on social media or in other venues. One way to do this is to be curious. Get people in a one-on-one space. Take a walk with them. Then ask why they think what they think. Then listen. Listening is some of the best we can do for each other. This is not a debate to win, but a conversation to engage. Engagement means thoughtful listening and careful response. Before you respond, ask permission. “Can I share my view with you?” is a holy question. It demonstrates respect, just as listening without huffing, squirming, eye rolling or interrupting. Remember James: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Memorize that verse.

When you get to the end of the conversation and you know the air has leaked out of the balloon but you still differ greatly, you might ask, “Can we still be family/friends given our differences, and if so, why is that important to you?”

Stay in love with God. People are disappointing. I knew that before this election. It is no less true after the election. Some have said things that you find deplorable. You thought your friends or family members were in a different place on issues of race than they actually were. It makes you sad. I have heard a lot of people say that the election brought out the worst in America. It would be nice to blame one candidate or the other or say that it was fault of a political party. There was a lot of bad behavior by everyone involved. But there is a more personal truth as well: if the worst came out of us, it means that the worst was in us the whole time. That is the greatest disappointment of all. Undoubtedly, the high voltage turned things loose, but it was there anyway. Now at least we can talk about it.

I have to stay in love with God because I need to be reminded that I am loved even with all my sin. I also need to be reminded that others are loved equally. I am committed to Jesus not because he supported any candidate, but because he offers a better life than this world offers. It is a way of love and justice and demonstrates that all people are God’s beloved. I need to experience God’s Spirit because I need help being my best self right now, and I am so grateful for the batches of insight, piles of patience and slivers of wisdom the Spirit brings my way. They help me avoid harm and do good, and goodness knows that this Thanksgiving we are all going to need a plate full of that.

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Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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