As a boy growing up with four brothers, fighting was an everyday occurrence. It didn’t help matters that we were all about the same size and shared a communal shelving unit in our laundry room upon which we stored our clothes. Part of our morning ritual was to get up early and grab the best outfit for school. Unfortunately, more times than you would think, you would find another set of hands on the same shirt or pants.
This tug of war, of course, spilled over to every aspect of our lives. We were always tussling for something, whether it was for bragging rights on the football field or second helpings at the buffet line. Competition was the name of the game.
On the balance, I think these sibling rivalries drove me to work harder and achieve more than I would have achieved on my own. But they also had some negative consequences with which I still struggle. My focus on winning has sometimes prevented me from being fully in the moment, from enjoying activities for all the beauty and meaning they have to offer, and from being attentive to the feelings and experiences of others.
I remember my internship at Kingston Presbyterian Church in New Jersey where the pastor had to pull me aside after watching me play volleyball with our youth group. He said, “Tom, winning isn’t everything,” contradicting the famous coaching exhortation of Vince Lombardi’s. I think he was worried I was going to spike a ball off of one of the kid’s heads.
The insight was that my competitiveness was getting in the way of a higher goal, namely to build a Christ-like community with the youth.
It’s funny. When my brothers and I reflect back on some of the epic fights we had as kids—throwing baseballs at each other in the house, ripping down curtain rods and using them as swords, locking each other out of the house—we have no memory at all of what precipitated them. Apparently, they took on a life of their own, which sadly took over everything else.
My father, who was basically a pacifist (probably because he didn’t have any brothers) couldn’t bear to watch us fight. Any time our roughhousing looked like it was going to turn into something more, he would say, “If you are going to fight, go down under the avocado tree and do it there.” Then he would admonish us by asking, “If Christians behave this way, what hope is there for the world?”
To this day, I don’t remember ever making it down to the avocado tree to fight with one of my brothers. We respected my father too much to continue the conflict after receiving his admonishment. His kindness, giving spirit, and commitment to peacemaking exposed the destructive surfaces of our rivalries and selfishness.
Only to protect the life of others was violence the answer for him. He continually called us to something higher, to be “all in” at work or in play, while at the same time building each other up and drawing the best out of each other. Because of him, we trusted that there would always be enough for all of us.
I share this story because the avocado tree has become a symbol of peace for me. It is the place where brothers and sisters never go to fight. Around its gangly trunk is a peaceful hollow which calls me to something higher, even when two brothers have their hands on the same shirt or have their eyes on the same slice of Christmas ham.
We are at a time in history where deep social divisions are raising many important questions for people of faith. From his humble birth in a stable, to his sacrificial death on a cross, to his victorious resurrection from the grave, our Messiah subverts the worldly notion that “might makes right” and instead calls us to be people of peace and justice. To follow in his footsteps means to be the people who find a way to share the same shirt and the same slice of Christmas ham.
As we enter this Advent season I’m grateful to be part of a presbytery that at every turn is pursuing the “art of living, loving, and serving God together in a diverse community.” What our world needs now more than anything is for Christians, in all our diversity, to model what it looks like to be the joyful and redemptive community that God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.
So this Christmas, if you are lucky enough to have an avocado tree in your back yard, do as I am going to do, and hang a few lights on it. Peace is worth every ray of light we shine on it, and every sacrifice for justice we make to achieve it.
For as the prophet Isaiah foretold in anticipation of our Savior’s birth, “A child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).