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Dinner dispute yields clues to God’s will


I learned a thing or two on my summer vacation to the Seattle area. I learned I probably could have gotten away with riding ferry boats back and forth through Puget Sound all week instead of shelling out a week’s worth of grocery money for a two-hour kayak trip during which one child fell asleep not 20 yards into the water, one got seasick and one literally rocked the boat.

Kids are simple. Their favorite things? No, not a three-hour beach walk at low tide on a deliciously foggy stretch of the wild Pacific coast just south of the northernmost point in the lower 48 states. Not the breathtaking view of Mount Olympus from Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, no, nor the majesty of hikes through ancient growth forests with 500-year-old hemlocks and Douglas firs towering overhead. My kids seemed to prefer the 4H cat show at the Skagit County Fair.

We all hope for family vacations that will yield Kodak moments to share proudly with our friends when we get home. More often, we return to swap anecdotes about what a friend of my husband’s wryly calls “working vacations,” or family visits during which we try to be on our best behavior while negotiating the often murky waters of sibling, parent, in-law, and blended family relationships.

One night, at my father’s house, at a dinner table already laden with tension over food choices, issues of meal preparation and serving style, the other shoe dropped when my dad’s wife attempted to discipline my 6-year-old for playing with her food. Her words were something to the effect of, “God is gonna getcha for that.” Thinking she was doing me a favor by correcting my daughter’s behavior, she invoked an angry, judgmental God to shame my daughter into polite manners.

This old-school, verbal slap on the wrist did not sit well with me. My “mother bear” intuition told me to stand up for my daughter’s nascent friendship with God over the appearance of civility at the dinner table. I told my daughter God would most certainly not punish her for playing with her bread crusts. “She” rebutted with a comment about the hungry children in Developing Nation of Your Choice. My dad jumped in to implore us not to turn the discussion political. My husband backed me up. My daughter started to cry.


In the ensuing discussion we clumsily touched on our real differences of opinion about issues of child-rearing, God, and even our “Catholic-ness.” The incident opened the floodgates of every past perceived infraction I’d ever overlooked for harmony’s sake. And a light bulb finally clicked: I still feel angry at losing my mother. If she were still alive, I think petulantly, none of this would be happening.

Maybe it’s all the water surrounding us up there in the Pacific Northwest, but I was reminded of an image described to me some years ago. Imagine, someone said, Peter, James and John out in their small boat on the day that they despaired they would not catch any fish. Jesus told them to cast their nets once more, so they did, subsequently hauling in nets straining with fat fish -- an image of bounty and good fortune for those who trust in God. Okay. But imagine, said the speaker, how slimy, heavy, and smelly those nets full of fish would really be, how difficult to handle, how the weight of that incredible catch would rock the boat.

The most disturbing aspect of the dinner table scene and its aftermath is that I almost relished the self-righteous belief that I stood on the moral high ground. When I examined my conscience, I discovered myself resisting reconciliation and forgiveness, indeed, even nurturing my resentment by reading into every subsequent remark and gesture.

Many miles and days away, back home, I finally begin to “let go and let God.” My ego settles back down for now, creating a space for the voice of wisdom to be heard. It says, “OK, maybe you are right. So what?” This inner voice whispers, “Yield.” I hold out the olive branch the best way I know how, by writing a note of apology, highlighting what we have in common -- that we love the same man, my father and her husband.

God is present in the sea keeping our little boats afloat. God is present even when we doubt ourselves and each other, even in the midst of the most painful conflict. I cast my net out in stormy waters and hauled in resentment, anger, old hurts. God was encouraging me to cast out once more to see if I couldn’t haul in the riches of forgiveness, peace, agape. I may not have brought home an album full of picture-perfect memories, but I didn’t leave empty-handed after all.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, September 18, 1998