This Thanksgiving, many of us will gather with extended family to enjoy food, fellowship, and perhaps some football. It can also be a time of life-changing conversations.
When my wife, Jude, and I became parents, we received some unusually helpful advice from our friends, Dick and Sibyl Towner. Dick has been a long-time friend and mentor. I served for many years under his leadership when he headed up the Good Sense ministry at the Willow Creek Association (now the Good Sense Movement). Sibyl co-leads a ministry called OneLife Maps, which helps people understand God’s role in their story.
They encouraged us to tell our kids stories of those (especially family members) who overcame great challenges.
As Sibyl explained, many parents today are overly concerned about the comfort and safety of their kids, which can rob them of the opportunity to develop the biblical character traits of courage, perseverance, and endurance.
“When we sent our kids off in the morning, I wouldn’t say, ‘Be safe.’ I’d say, ‘Take a risk. Reach out to someone. Go sit by that kid who’s all alone. Ask a question in class.’”
Sibyl’s encouragement to live boldly was born out of her incredible family story. Her mother was an American who traveled to Germany to study architecture in the 1930s. While there, she married a German. Sibyl’s father was killed in World War II while fighting along the Russian front.
After Sibyl’s childhood home was bombed, she and her siblings and mother ended up in a refugee camp in France. After the war, they made their way to America where her mother eventually remarried. Sibyl remembers a three-year period when her stepfather was out of work, and how groceries often appeared on their front doorstep — anonymous acts of kindness from neighbors and friends who knew of their struggles.
“That had an impact on me. There were people who were kind to us. It made me ask, ‘Are there people we’re called to be kind to?’”
Early in their marriage, when Sibyl and Dick had just had their second child, Sibyl’s mother and stepfather died, leaving her five younger siblings without a home.
“The circumstances didn’t send us over the edge,” Sibyl said. “They sent us to the Lord.”
Still, their home simply could not accommodate four additional teenagers. The ensuing house search led to a home that was more than adequate, and a very atypical price negotiation. Upon hearing about their situation, the owner simply accepted what Dick and Sibyl could pay.
Seeing it as God’s provision, for the next 25 years, as a room would free up, they made it available to other young people who would become part of their extended family. In that home, they raised Sibyl’s brothers and sisters, cared for her grandmother, raised their two children, and at one time or another provided a home for 67 others.
I find Dick and Sibyl’s story moving and motivating! It makes me want to live the best possible story with my life and to encourage our kids to do the same. Aren’t those the best uses of a good story?
To make Thanksgiving especially meaningful for your family, Sibyl suggests telling the story from 1 Samuel 7 — how Samuel led the Israelites, how the Lord helped when they came under attack, and how Samuel responded.
“Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means ‘the stone of help’), for he said, ‘Up to this point the LORD has helped us!’” (1 Samuel 7:12).
Sibyl recommends having a container of stones on the Thanksgiving table and encouraging everyone to take one and tell a story of how God has helped them. Especially encourage the older people at the table to tell stories from their past — stories of overcoming, and of seeing God’s purposes in the trials they’ve faced. As your children or grandchildren hear such stories, Sibyl says they will learn that “within their DNA is the power to persevere, to endure, and that God has a purpose in each of life’s challenges.”
So, this Thanksgiving, enjoy the food, fellowship, and football. But tell some stories as well.