Honor Your Parents

A lunchroom filled with schoolchildren raises the curtain on a familiar cast of characters. Perhaps most immediately:  

The Spillers and Wasters, the Yellers and Screamers, the Wigglers and the Jigglers – each as equally aggravating as the next, but nevertheless shaped and sized uniquely in the image of the God who made them.  

Then come the social standouts, like the Hot Mess – the little who walks in shaking, sobbing, gasping for breath because she f-f-forgot her b-b-b-backpack.  

Or the Gourmet, whose mom cuts the breadcrusts off his organic sandwiches – artisanal creations of careful preparation, sourced responsibly from minority-owned businesses in the developing world.  

Next, you’ve got the semper fi Marine, who – always faithful – keeps her meal safe and secure, never letting different choices even come close to touching, by keeping her foods carefully but firmly sequestered in the individual compartments of her tray.  

And don’t forget about the Machine. He overslept and missed breakfast, and now he plans to erase his midday calorie deficit and nourish his burgeoning growth spurt by wolfing down absolutely everything in sight, including but not limited to the bag lunch he grabbed from home, firsts and seconds from the cafeteria line, and several beverages of dubious nutrition. And he always somehow manages to be first in line for dessert!  

The Spillers and the Wasters, the Yellers and the Screamers – the Hot Mess and the Gourmet, the Marine and the Machine – composed the symphony of toddlers, tykes, grade-schoolers, and teen-agers whom we served through the Feed the Kids nutrition program, hosted at Zion UCC last month with ecumenical support from the First Presbyterians and other congregations.  

For whatever reason – good or bad, right or wrong – these kids were hungry. And we fed them. No questions asked.  

As the Lord strongly encourages in what he numbers among the greatest commandments, we were loving, feeding, and welcoming, to friend, neighbor, and stranger, as we ourselves would want to be loved, and fed, and welcomed.  

What makes such grace so amazing is that the blessing flows both ways – not only from host to guest but also and often even more so from guest to host. By this strange chemistry of God’s grace, server is served; feeder is fed.

And thus from the Old Testament book of Proverbs:  “My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will bless you.”  (Proverbs 3:1-2)

Which brings me to another young soul whose Feed the Kids lunchroom performance was nothing short of astounding.  

Every day, after cleaning every morsel of food he’d taken, this gangly, pre-teen boy would set aside his plate. Then, with edge of one hand serving as brush and the other palm as dustpan, he’d sweep all the crumbs from his place at the table into his open hand. And then, brace yourselves, he’d lick the crumbs from his palm with his tongue. Not once, but after every blessed meal!  

In no way did he intend to gross out everyone – at least that was the consensus opinion. He was doing it, everyone concluded, because he was still hungry. Quickly over his few years, a regularly growling stomach taught him that you don’t let any of your meal go to waste – not even the crumbs.

In that for me lay something of the Fifth Commandment: Honor and respect your mother and father (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16).  Connecting those seemingly random dots needs to start with my dad, Francis James VanderVelden.  

Like many boys of his day, my dad had a nickname: Fatso. However soul-crushing it sounds, “Fatso” intended not to bully. The alias beckoned sarcasm. My dad was svelte from life’s first cry to final breath. A nick like “Slim” or “String Bean” would have been a better reflector of my dad’s physical stature.  

As first explained to me in boyhood, my dad got tagged with “Fatso,” because, every day after school, he and his chums bellied up to the drug-store soda fountain and ordered up a chocolate or strawberry malt – for my dad, sometimes a double – both flavors! Therefore, his pals – seeing my dad routinely slurp two malted milks – teased that, if his “drinking problem” continued unchecked, he’d end up getting fat. The rest, as they say, is history, and my always-slender dad was forever known as “Fatso.”  

“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will bless you. Follow your father’s example, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.”  (Proverbs 3:1-2, 6:20)

That first explanation of “Fatso” satisfied my boyhood curiosity, but in adulthood I now spot a few holes in that fabric of family history.  

For starters, my dad – that’s him in the back row, No. 78, with the other members of Coach Hamman’s 1940 championship football team – came of age in midst of the Great Depression. And for my dad, that meant growing up in a prolific Roman Catholic family of eight. Then, their father was stricken with what in the day they called “palsy.” What probably was Parkinson’s or ALS left him unable to work and provide for his growing family.  

Thus the VanderVeldens living in their mill-town home on North John Street really didn’t have two nickels to rub together – much less any coinage to squander on such foolishness as pharmacy milkshakes!  

So, back to square one: From whence the nickname “Fatso”?  

The truth is lost to history, but I’ve reverse-engineered an explanation that at least feels favorable and likely in spirit and intent. So, here goes!  

In my boyhood, at the end of every meal, I’d watch my dad literally wipe-clean his dinnerplate. A piece of white bread operated as mop that soaked up every last drop of brown gravy, spaghetti sauce, or simply melted butter. Had we a dog, she’d have gone hungry begging for table scraps from my dad, because he never left anything behind.  

Now satisfying my curiosity about the nickname “Fatso” is belief that his unique eating habit matured in childhood, when he and siblings circled tightly around a table of simple food from Grandma Van’s resourceful kitchen. There was always enough for everybody, but going back for seconds wasn’t an option. And the meal bell wouldn’t ring again until breakfast.  

A boy thus eats what’s put in front of him. And he cleans his plate. Because he’s still hungry. And accidentally ends up with the lifelong misnomer of “Fatso.” And, more helpfully, develops the habit of appreciating the mopped-up last course of any meal.  

Similar frugality in her youth hard-wired comparable habits and behaviors into my mother, too, which might just have been part and parcel of the foundational glue holding them together as husband and wife, father and mother.  

“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will bless you. Follow your father’s example, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.”  (Proverbs 3:1-2, 6:20)

And now that’s me – not so much the palm-licking, saints be praised! But in the plate-mopping.  

Indeed I find nourishment in crumbs and mushy scraps of bread.

So, in gratitude, I try to exercise good stewardship of the provision that God has given to me – and to us, and to our posterity. I learned how to do it from my dad, Francis James “Fatso” VanderVelden. My behavior now mimics my dad’s example of well-nourished faith. Turns out, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – the highest of honors!  

And BAM! There it is! Ancient words, ever true! The Lord’s Fifth Word: Honor thy mother and father, that your days will be long! The only Commandment that comes with a sure promise of eternal hope!  

I bet that young crumb-sweeper over at Zion has a good father, too, and hopefully he’ll grow out of the whole palm-licking thing. But either way, the faithful nourishment of his youth surely bodes well for his earthly walk with the Lord – the eternal One who has ultimate authority over him, you, me, and all God’s children.  

To riff on C.S. Lewis and his explanation of Jesus feeding the hungry (Matthew 14:13-21), the Lord prepares a full meal for the multitudes from nothing more than a couple loaves of crusty bread and a puny catch of fish. Jesus feeds his adopted brothers and sisters not because they’ve earned it, not because deserve it. But because they’re hungry.

Like my dad. Like the palm-licker. Like all those other kids we fed last month.  

It is what it is: God’s fifth word of promise and hope, honor and dignity, respect and compassion – faith put into action that ensures “length of days and years of life,” for every hungry friend, neighbor, and stranger, even as you and I serve up heaping measures of refreshing patience with their failings – and with our own individual brokenness.  

No, our moms and dads weren’t always the parents we hoped or needed them to be. But by grace, even a broken mirror reflects light.  

“My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will bless you. Follow your father’s example, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.”  (Proverbs 3:1-2, 6:20)

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, August 13, 2023. It is the fifth in his current series on The Ten Commandments. 

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