by Bobette Hatteberg, Children’s Ministry Director
All of our extended family (except our son) live out of state. That means when we’re together it’s usually for at least a couple of days. Several years ago, I realized that every time we were together I always came away a little disappointed. I’d go into our time with great plans, expectations, and desires. And while we’d have a great time being together, I’d still come away with frustrations, disappointments and sometimes even hurts. One particular Thanksgiving, I took some extended time to pray about our time amidst my usual planning of food and activities. At the time I was studying Ephesians.
I was struck by what God was calling me to do. He was calling me (and every reader of Ephesians 4) to be different…to love others in a way that required sacrifice and purposeful planning. God calls us to dwell with one another in love. I began to think about what that should look like during our time with family, and prayerfully considered ways in which my own selfishness may have caused me to often come away disappointed. While I’d like to think we have a really exceptional family, most of whom are believers, none of us are perfect, most notably myself!
As I prayed through these verses, I began making a list of ways I could apply them to time with family. I rehearsed past times together that were stressful and thought about how I could respond differently both in my thinking and my actions. Did that visit go perfectly?! Of course not! In fact, if I remember correctly it was one of the harder holidays together. But something was notably different…I had a constant grid by which to view our time together. Numerous times that weekend I would retreat into the bathroom and read through this list I had put on my phone. I’d pray that God would strengthen me to love others better and to set aside my own desires and opinions for the sake of Him…for the sake of love and unity. Since then this is a verse I pull up every time I’m planning to be with family (or other groups of people). I now spend more time preparing my heart and planning how I’ll respond to people problems than I spend preparing food and activities. Is this a magical list? Absolutely not, but anytime we meditate on and apply Scripture, God does amazing things. Hebrews 4:12 tells us “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (ESV) God’s Word continues to change my heart, and that in turn has changed how I look at our time together.
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
- Walk worthy of my calling as a child of God – Dwelling together in love has much to do with our expectations and goals. Is my goal to have a perfect family holiday or to lean on my identity in Christ to honor Him no matter how things go? I realized that my expectations were half of my problem. Instead of expecting a picture-perfect holiday, I now try to expect there to be opposing opinions, differences, and maybe even some conflicts. At the same time, I expect God to be bigger than those things and able to help me honor Him no matter what happens. This changes the entire framework of our time together. Be careful of expectations. Be flexible, realizing each person has different expectations and plans about how our time together should look. I’ve learned to hold my expectations loosely while I expect much of God.
- Put on humility – Am I responding in humility? When there are opposing opinions or differences, I ask myself if I’m responding in humility. I can offer my ideas humbly versus telling others what to do or think. Seek others’ wisdom and thoughts, especially as I plan.
- Put on gentleness – Are my words gentle and gracious? Can I share my concern, opinion, or plans in a more gentle way? Find the right time and way to share graciously if something difficult needs to be said.
- Put on patience – Am I showing patience to others? I need to examine my heart before I speak. I tell myself not to be easily irritated, but instead overlook small offenses.
- Bear with others – Remembering we are all sinners has helped me to not expect sinners to not act like sinners. There will be offenses. There will be occasions of hurt. But God has provided a solution for that – it’s called forgiveness. I must seek to forgive others as God has forgiven me…of much!
- Put on love – Show love in order to honor God, not to receive something (such as thanks or appreciation) We love “because He first loved us.” (I John 4:19)
- Maintain unity – Maintaining unity is more important than executing my plans!I pride myself in my planning. I’d like to think my plans are good and if everyone follows the plan we’ll all be happy!I now try to remind myself that maintaining unity is way more important than executing my carefully laid out plans. Remembering that God has sovereignly placed each of these people in my family for His glory and my good helps me maintain unity. I was not placed in this family to change everyone to be like me. One of the hardest parts of being with family is that we are each uniquely created. Yet, how wonderful that, as much as we share similarities, God has purposefully and wonderfully created us different.
- Celebrate the bond of peace we share – Our time together is important to God – not just because we are family, but because we share a bond through Him. When the people we are with are also believers we have a bond that is stronger than the bond of bloodlines. We have the bond of Christ. That is what we should celebrate! My family loves to reminisce and do things to celebrate our heritage and our sweet memories. But the reality is, while I love my family deeply, it is the bond we share in Christ that must be celebrated first and foremost. So while our traditions are fun and are a part of our bond, living out our bond in Christ is even more important. This bond also reminds me to long for heaven. One day we will be free of sin and those of us who share unity in Christ will celebrate every day without any sin! I long to be with family. I eagerly await family visits. But how much more I must long for heaven!
I realize that these verses in Ephesians are not easy to apply. I know because I still labor to apply them. The reality is they are impossible to apply without God’s strength and power. Just a few verses prior to this, we read a powerful prayer which I have made a habit of praying as well.
“ For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:14-21
This is my prayer for the holidays and every family gathering. I want God to be glorified through all generations of my family. Why wait for the holidays?! Start practicing this now. With the holidays approaching, most of us will be with family and this year certainly adds other unique challenges. As you begin your preparations, I encourage you to take some time to study these verses and make your own list of how you will dwell together in love. Consider using this as a family devotion, perhaps taking each sub point a different day of the week. If you’re a parent, help your children find ways to practice these points now in your immediate family and prepare for how to apply them with extended family and friends. Just as having a great holiday dinner takes some planning, so does dwelling together in love!