When Kristin and I decided we were ready to have children, we made a few of crucial decisions I’ve never regretted. One of the best is establishment of the the evening meal as sacrosanct. From the time our kids were old enough to sit in a high chair, even before then, we started the family meal at six o’clock every evening. We’ve been going now for almost ten years now, only missing on rare occasions when one of us is out of town, and even then the evening meal goes on with a definite sense that someone from our circle is missing. I’m beginning to see the full power of this ritual.
The evening meal is sacred space in which we instill the virtues that are constitutive of the Christian life. One of the mistakes I see parents make consistently is the attempt to instill virtues/morals in their children by talking about those things. Virtues are instilled through ritual not through talking. Teaching and conversation about virtues are only effective when they come after the ritual, in support of the ritual. Our conversations over the evening meal are this space where we are helping each other (and it goes both ways, my boys reveal things to me all the time), to understand and interpret the rituals that are already a part of our common life. Virtue isn’t taught, it is caught via consistent, habitual ritualized behavior. So, the impatient parent cannot teach patience to a child. The over-busy parent cannot teach on rest. The worried parent cannot teach on trust. Those virtues will only be caught from a parent who embodies those things first, making them concrete in their lives via daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rituals. Only then can they talk about them, and then it is really just an interpretation of what the kids already see in action, (think sand-the-floor Daniel-san). Through the evening meal virtues like hospitality, delight, community, service, work, cooperation (clean up is great for teaching work & cooperation), and so on, are embodied and rooted in a daily practice and the space to talk about those virtues is provided as well.
The evening meal is where our children learn the ropes of hospitality. Hospitality is the most central of all Christian disciplines. There is no way to understand the gospel, nor is there a way to participate in it apart from hospitality. Learning to share food, to make space at the table for strangers, those who are hurting, family members, and one another teaches us how to get beyond ourselves. Blessing the table, delighting in the goodness of tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and the beauty of food together is rudimentary discipleship.
The evening meal builds identity. Over the meal we tell our stories. Our boys tell us stories about their lives, what they are working on, who their friends are, their highs, their lows… We tell them stories about our lives as well; stories about growing up, stories about their grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles; stories about the world, the bible, history… Perhaps more important than anything else they ask questions. Questions are the necessary medium from which understanding can grow. You cannot anticipate the questions – in this way our kids lead us into the necessary subject matter – you can only be there when the questions come out. Then you answer not with the correct rational abstraction, but with stories, questions, and more stories. If you keep answering their questions they will eventually stop asking. If you answer their questions with stories they’ll never stop listening. If you answer their questions with more questions, they’ll never stop asking them. If you tell them stories, they’ll grow up always knowing who they are.
The evening meal cultivates fidelity. I have yet to meet a divorced couple for whom the evening meal was a consistent part of family life. I’m sure it happens, but I can tell you that it happens less frequently. I see the evening meal smoothing off my rough edges, forcing me to change and grow and grow up. The evening meal subverts the ego. Every night I look into the eyes of my kids at the dinner table and they are like a giant mirror reflecting back to me exactly what I’m putting out there. If I’m impatient, I see them trying to not antagonize me. If I’m grumpy I see them trying to cheer me up. If I’m sick I see them trying to comfort me. If I’m being petty & small I see them struggling to find a way to connect through my brokenness. My course corrections come pretty quickly when I realize that these moments are precious & holy. To share a meal is to get beyond ourselves and to connect with another human being in a significant way. Over and over the evening meal pulls me out of my bog of self-pity and self-concern. It’s making me a better person. And so if I am cheerful, kind, loving, patient, and so on, I see it in the faces of my kids. I watch them flourish. I know that I’m passing on to them a deep down sense of virtue, that they are catching hospitality, identity, healthy pace, and fidelity.