I have a nemesis. She is the only person outside my own family ever to berate me at top volume and the sole human to manage such a feat in front of an audience. (EVERYBODY HATES YOU! WE ALL TALK ABOUT YOU WHEN YOU’RE NOT HERE! I WANT TO PUNCH YOUR STUPID FACE!) It was a movie-caliber castigation, and that it occurred at our place of employ was really just icing on what was pretty much the worst cake ever.
This happened years ago, but ours is a small town, so our paths still cross. She artfully avoids eye contact and feigns (my) invisibility, even if we’re in the same shop or hallway at church. If you saw us on the street, you might think us strangers, but her scorn for me has bound us more like estranged family.
My family was in town for Christmas, and my dad took us out for Transylvanian-Hungarian smorgasbord at a wood paneled restaurant resembling the civic clubs of generations past, when people took belonging seriously. Every parking space, table, and seat at the bar was full, and an old man regaled the pink-faced patrons with polkas, Christmas tunes, and classics on the accordion, while we polished off plates piled high with pierogies, stuffed cabbage, and all manner of stewed meat.
We were seated caddy-corner from my nemesis, because of course we were. She has a husband and toddler now, and they were joined by mutual friends (see: small town) and their kids who played while the parents ate nut roll. On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens, two turtle doves, and my nemesis in a Transylvanian pear tree.
The pickings on the buffet dwindled to lonesome green olives on iceberg lettuce and poppy seeds spilling out of errant danish scraps, and we lingered contentedly in the early glow of an eastern European food coma. When the accordionist played the first bars of “Sweet Caroline,” and the whole room broke into song, I thought my sister might actually explode in delight.
I live at a Christian camp, and every summer dreams die when our college staff realize the mythical Christian community they’ve idolized is alarmingly less sexy in actuality. The work is hard, the quarters close, the people smell, and they’re kind of annoying, too. Life together isn’t a non-stop “mountain top experience,” even on the literal mountain top.
But it is a lot like family. We may never have chosen each other, but we love each other fiercely, and that’s what makes it velveteen-real. The sweet spot is enough room for varied perspectives, multiple personalities, complementary strengths, and disparate quirks and foibles. Any semblance of unity grows not out of tenuous or illusory sameness but a shared purpose and the rare, fruitful soil of hospitality.
The Kingdom of God is like Yuengling and chicken paprikash with your family, your nemesis, and a roomful of strangers singing Neil Diamond by accordion at the Hungarian bar after Christmas. Selah.