Growing up, my family and I would spend every Christmas Eve at my Aunt’s house. We’d pack up the car in the early evening and make the hour-or-so drive from Milton, Ontario to St. Catharines. St. Catharines was where my folks grew up, and is still, to this day, the hometown of much of my extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
On the drive, we’d always tune in to the CBC to hear Alan Maitland reading The Shepherd. Year, after year, we would be sure to leave at just the right time in order to hear this story on the drive to our Christmas Eve gathering. Sometimes, if the drive had taken less time than we had thought, we would wait silently in the parking lot for the final cadences of Frederick Forsyth’s classic short story.
We would walk around to the buzzer and call to be let up to Aunt Tena’s apartment. Inside we would find a feast of untold quantity, with classic Mennonite dishes alongside family favourites. Over the course of the coming hour, our extended family would also buzz up and more and more people would crowd into the living room. And there we ate together. Plates on laps, old amongst the younger, we would mix and mingle, we would talk about what was important to us, and we would share all that had happened in the preceding months.
When I was younger, and before the rest of the family had arrived, my brother and I played with the various stuffed animals that Aunt Tena kept on hand for just such an occasion. As I grew older, it was my cousins’ kids who would find themselves playing with those self-same toys, and I became one of the older folks coming alongside the younger ones to ask questions, to engage in conversation, and to receive at-times sheepish, at-times passionate responses.
We were family. Together. All ages. Perhaps it helped that we couldn’t all cram around the same table. There were too many of us. We had to find alternate arrangements. At other times, with other celebrations, we would have an adult’s table and a kid’s table. One year there was an adult’s table and a “teen’s table.” Aunt Tena joined that table instead, insisting that she certainly qualified as a teen. It was her name, after all.
These days, Kara Powell and the folks at the Fuller Institute for Youth Ministry are engaged in a bunch of research these days related to “Sticky Faith.” What makes childhood faith stick later in life? What are the factors at play in young people who stay passionately connected to the church, and its mission to the world? It turns out, a lot of it has to do with the way we set the table: