It’s a simple concept to grasp: we grow stronger when we have to work at something. I have calluses on my fingertips because I am constantly mashing them against steel guitar strings. If I want strong arms I can make myself lift iron weights until my arms are in pain, let the muscles heal and do it again, if I repeat this often enough I will have strong arms. We all know this.
My grandma was a small woman who never weighed more than 90 pounds in her life but to heat her home and to cook she had to carry buckets of coal from the shed every day. When I was a child I asked her to show me her muscles and when she fired up her granny guns, it looked like two rock hard oranges had been shoved under flappy old lady skin. I’ve never seen anything else like it.
It was not fun carrying the buckets of coal, it was not pleasant but it made her strong.
We all know the saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill us only weakens us unto our ultimate demise.” No, wait, that’s not quite it. “Whatever doesn’t kill us, makes us mad?” “That which does not kill us…” I’ll look it up and get back with you later.
I’m talking about how our families shape us into who we are, whether we like it or not.
Have you heard of peopleofwalmart.com? It’s a website that exhibits a gallery of photos taken of the most remarkable Walmart shoppers. These are photos of people without shame roaming the aisles searching for the very least of the least common denominator. You will see things that cannot be unseen. Grown men, full-on mullet, permed in the back, morbidly obese, wearing a ballerina tutu, a hunting knife and a wife beater. Perhaps he is accompanied by a mountain of a woman sweating gravy, wearing yoga pants and a bikini top, she has clearly drawn her own eyebrows with black eyeliner but she didn’t quite understand where they were supposed to go because she looks perpetually surprised. They are followed by a child wearing only a sagging diaper, thick yellow goo running directly from nose to mouth. There might be a teenage daughter with her overly painted face locked on her cell phone, she looks like she might be talking to her pimp. Their cart is filled with snack cakes, generic soda, cheap beer and more yoga pants. I can’t look away.
I’m not telling you about these people because I think I’m better than they are. I don’t cringe when I see them because they are from a world that is so far removed from my own. In some ways these are my people. When the little boy with the sagging diaper grows up he might shave his head and stand in front of a congregation and talk about the challenges of growing up in his particular family.
We all have families and not one of them is normal. I grew up in a couple of small towns in Central Illinois and driving down the streets looking at the small white houses you might think the most normal people lived inside with their boring little cozy lives—but that was never the case. Inside each home was a unique family with their own private version of dysfunctional crazy broken soap operas. Every one. And every single one of them wishes they had a normal life like other people. I’m convinced there are no normal people. There are only people like us, people who have been warped in particular ways by family members who were supposed to love us. We all have stories we could tell.
In II Samuel there is a perfect example of this. Israel’s first king was a man named Saul. He was a handsome fellow, a head taller than most men, he was a mighty warrior and he was the anointed king. How can it get any better than that? To anyone looking from the outside he had it all.
The problem was that he was also crazy. Saul was completely obsessed with his son Jonathan’s best friend who was named David. David was also a tall handsome young man, and a mighty warrior. He was also a musician and a chick magnet. Saul had everything but the only thing he could think about was destroying David because of his jealousy.
This is the same David who slew Goliath, wrote most of the Psalms and would later become king.
Things didn’t go so well for crazy king Saul and one very dark day three of his sons, including Jonathan were killed in battle, and Saul took his own life in despair by falling on his sword. David became king and the rest of Saul’s family died one by one, except for one young boy. That young boy is the focus of our attention tonight.
2 Samuel 4:4
(Saul’s son Jonathan had a son named Mephibosheth, who was crippled as a child. He was five years old when the report came from Jezreel that Saul and Jonathan had been killed in battle. When the child’s nurse heard the news, she picked him up and fled. But as she hurried away, she dropped him, and he became crippled.)
Five-year-old Mephibosheth was paralyzed for life. For the next twenty years he lived off the grid, fearing the new king would certainly put him to death if he knew about him. Kings did not usually tolerate anyone who might have a claim to their throne.
Things went well for King David and one day he thought of his childhood friend Jonathan.
2 Samuel Chapter 9:
One day David asked, “Is anyone in Saul’s family still alive—anyone to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” He summoned a man named Ziba, who had been one of Saul’s servants. “Are you Ziba?” the king asked.
“Yes sir, I am,” Ziba replied.
The king then asked him, “Is anyone still alive from Saul’s family? If so, I want to show God’s kindness to them.”
Ziba replied, “Yes, one of Jonathan’s sons is still alive but he is crippled in both feet.”
“Where is he?” the king asked.
“In Lo-debar,” Ziba told him, “at the home of Makir son of Ammiel.”
So David sent for him and brought him from Makir’s home. His name was Mephibosheth; he was Jonathan’s son and Saul’s grandson.
Mephibosheth had been living in a trailer house somewhere in Boonies county. I can’t prove Makir would take him to Walmart to hide Sudafed and lithium batteries in his wheelchair pockets but do you really think it’s a coincidence that his name sounds so much like Meth Chef?
So, a special task force of the king’s men show up, knock down the aluminum door, and take Mephibosheth by force to stand in front of the king. Except he can’t stand. He had to be carried and he must have been scared of what this was all about. He never really knew his father and he had spent his whole life trying to avoid this moment. Let’s see what happens next:
When he came to David, he bowed low to the ground in deep respect. David said, “Greetings, Mephibosheth.”
Mephibosheth replied, “I am your servant.”
“Don’t be afraid!” David said. “I intend to show kindness to you because of my promise to your father, Jonathan. I will give you all the property that once belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will eat here with me at the king’s table!”
Say what? The most powerful, respected man in the nation, the king of Israel was treating him like royalty. Like a long lost friend. Like the prodigal son. He was having a hard time believing his ears.
Mephibosheth bowed respectfully and exclaimed, “Who is your servant, that you should show such kindness to a dead dog like me?”
It doesn’t record David’s response to this. It had to break his heart that the son of his close friend saw himself as a dead dog. That wasn’t how David saw him.
And from that time on, Mephibosheth ate regularly at David’s table, like one of the king’s own sons.
This is beautiful. From that time on Mephibosheth was treated as part of the royal family. His story is our story. Our family dysfunction leaves us feeling ashamed of who we are but God offers us a seat at His table. He treats us as His own sons and daughters.
When I was writing this message I kept thinking, “But Frank not everyone has a freaky white trash bloodline, some people aren’t going to relate to this message at all—the normal people are just going to judge you.”
It’s different for all of us. We might not have a nanny who dropped us on our head and made us a paraplegic but I’ll bet we all have ways our families have crushed us.
Maybe in different ways, maybe less obvious ways. Maybe you hear the critical voice of your mother or your father second guessing everything you do—and maybe you find yourself either being overly critical or overly passive of others. Maybe an uncle or cousin did something to you that left you carrying a lot of shame, things you don’t want to think about let alone talk about. Maybe there was abuse, violence, alcoholism, addiction. Maybe dangerous people who left scars on your body or your soul. Or maybe it was less dramatic, maybe you grew up with people who never talked about their feelings or issues and now you find it really hard to get close to anyone—conflict of any kind shuts you down. Most of us either repeat the patterns of our families or react against them and overcorrect by going the other way. For every person there are a thousand different ways our families have been used to hurt us to harm us.
Obviously I’m not trying to say that every family is an evil soul crushing machine. Most of us love our children and are thankful for our families. Most of us.
Mephibosheth probably knew that his family had once been kings. How do you think he felt about that? I doubt if it gave him any comfort or pride. His dysfunctional grandfather got his father killed and ruined his life. He probably saw himself as a victim of it all, focused on everything he had lost. He was probably sad and bitter. He is the very image of a broken young man.
But God uses the dysfunction of our families to shape us into who He wants us to be. I’ve always thought it was funny how many new parents believe these two things: First, they want their kids to grow up and be like them with their values, principles and morals. But second, they don’t want to raise their kids making the same mistakes their parents made with them. They want to end up in the same place but they are dead set against going the same route. I want my kids to be like me but not raised the same way I was.
It’s in our families that we learn how to be around other human beings. We don’t get to choose our family, we just get what we get. We can be picky about who are friends are, who we go out to dinner with, or who we invite into our private lives, but our mother is always going to be our mother, our father is going to be our father, and year after year we will find ourselves sitting around the table trying to show grace to our brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. Most likely no one can get under our skin faster than the people around that table. The family table. That table is where we learn to either show grace and forgiveness or not. We learn to talk things out or crawl inside ourselves and hold grudges. We learn to show kindness, patience and gentleness or we practice anger and hostility.
Who is the most difficult person in your family? Maybe everyone has to walk on eggshells around them, maybe they are rude, or controlling with passive aggressive manipulation. Maybe the most difficult person at your family table—if you were to be honest—is you.
Grace is never easy. It’s not easy to offer to others and it’s not easy to accept for ourselves. It’s not easy to forgive the people who have hurt us, and it’s far too easy to wallow in our pain and shame feeling like a victim, being mad at the world, mad at our situation, maybe even mad at God.
Listen to these words from 2 Corinthians 4:16-17:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison
God uses our families to force us to grow. He is making us holy, sanctifying us to become the person He created us to be. The best version of our self. He is making something beautiful out of our pain.
In this story we are all Mephibosheth and the King has invited us to His table.
Don’t lose heart, don’t be afraid, He didn’t call us here to harm us. He’s invited us to join His family. Maybe you feel like you don’t belong here but look around, everyone feels that way. We are all scared crippled children. None of us got here by our own power, we all had to be carried. None of us has done anything to deserve the feast that is set before us, none of us could afford it on our own. There’s not one of us that has a clue about how to act now that we’re here, we all have our elbows on the table, we chew with our mouths open, we argue with the other kids around the table and we wipe the gravy on our sleeves. Even so, the King smiles at us, He knew what He was doing when He invited us to dine with Him.
Forget about not belonging here. Let go of your anger. Let go of your sadness. Let go of your shame.
God loves us. In time He’ll teach us how to sit at the table and show each other the same grace He’s shown us. There’s plenty of time for that, but for now let’s be thankful there is plenty of wine and bread for all of us.
You have not been left alone to rot in your family shame. All of our families have crushed us in one way or another but we can take heart in the fact that God will redeem our suffering. We are being renewed day by day and the troubles of this world are to be seen as “light momentary afflictions” preparing for us an eternity that is glorious beyond all comparison.
Whatever doesn’t kill us will be used by God to make us more like Jesus. In fact, He will use it to kill the old us and raise us to new life in Christ. He will carry us to His table and one day we will be able to walk again. Can we begin to show a little grace to each other, and can we begin to accept the grace and forgiveness that has been offered to us. May we learn to be thankful to have a seat at this table. AMEN