A few months ago I was reading an article when I came across the term “arsenic hour.” I had to google it. Turns out, it’s the hour right before dinner. It has different names in different places because–lo and behold!–the phenomenon is not unique to my family. Apparently it rears its ugly head in homes the world around. Everyone is hungry and cranky, ready to unwind after a long day of school and work. But we aren’t unwound yet. Mom and Dad could use a stiff drink, and the kids could sometimes use a stiff paddling. Tensions run high because everyone is running on empty, both physically and emotionally.
“Time to eat!” I call.
The family is rounded up and seated at the table. Dad is hungry and edgy, the baby is squawking, the boys are arguing about who forgot the drinks. And just forget about napkins. I keep rushing back into the kitchen to check the broccoli on the stove because I forgot to start it in time. I’m internally berating myself–as I have for nearly ten years–for not having dinner on the table earlier. “There’s no salt and pepper,” someone calls. Grace is finally said, but the troops are restless and a drink is spilled. Son 2 has ants in his pants and won’t keep his rear planted on his chair.
It seems strange to me, but secular studies point us to family dinner as the single greatest predictor of a child’s behavior and success in life. Diet habits? Sure, I buy that. But risky sex, academic achievement and mental health all correlate directly to time spent eating together as a family. Why would families made up of sinner dads and sinner moms and sinner kids benefit from something so very formulaic as eating dinner together? What is it about sitting around a table and filling our stomachs–a simple biological necessity–that forges physical, mental and spiritual health?
A teacher pointed out to me that if God is our Father, the Provider, and the Church is our mother, then family dinner is a picture for us of the Communion table. And the Communion table, in turn, is a picture of the wedding feast of the Lamb. Wasn’t it kind of God to fashion this sacrament after the family dinner table so we would have a better context for understanding it? No, no, no. That’s not how it goes. Can you imagine if the wedding feast was fashioned after my family dinner? The Bride would be late–as always–and the guests would certainly not be dressed appropriately. But isn’t that how we often think? We think that God formed his family using our families as a model. But of course, it’s the other way around. This doesn’t mean that we are serving the sacraments each time we sit at the dining table. But it does mean that family dinner serves as a small picture of the unity, rest, and nourishment provided for us each time we join in the Lord’s Supper.
But what about families that don’t recognize God as their Father, much less the Church as their mother? What about the families that don’t even believe in God? How could family dinner possibly do them any good?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. God’s rain falls on the evil and the good. And it makes crops grow for everyone. So in each way that our lives conform to the standard set by God, even when it is incidental or accidental, we reap benefits. If your unbelieving brother does the right thing for the wrong reason (i.e. providing for his family) he’ll still have a happier, healthier family. If your unbelieving neighbor serves family dinner just because that’s what the studies say works, she’ll still have a healthier, happier home.
Now let’s go back and take a look at my family dinner, now that everyone is seated and the broccoli is cooked. My husband Ben and I often have things on our mind to discuss, so sometimes the kids are expected to eat quietly while we talk things over or debrief for a little while. In this day and age, we mock past generations for expecting children to be “seen and not heard.” But it’s good practice for kids to sometimes sit quietly and listen. After all, it’s a skill they can put to use for the rest of their lives. As adults, we often are in the presence of those older and wiser and find it beneficial to listen without offering our own opinions. I was expected to sit quietly at dinner and listen to adult conversation often as a child, and I learned more from those dinners than I did from hours of schoolwork. And just as kids learn to love Tex-Mex food from repeated exposure at the dinner table growing up, they learn to love the Lord from repeated exposure to our love for the Lord, so let your speech be full of grace, seasoned with salt.
Then again, oftentimes the kids are clamoring for some attention from dad, and they can hardly wait to tell him something about their day. And that’s okay, too. Sometimes the baby is so disruptive that it’s impossible to have any conversation at all. And oftentimes it’s a hurried meal before we run out the door to some evening activity. Sometimes Ben has to work late, so he isn’t there at all. Sometimes it is a meal shared with friends or other family.
But there is always laughter, and food, and at least a small dose of correction. It tends to be the time of day where everyone recalibrates. Beginning with thanking God for the food, our hearts are put back in order. Squabbles are put away, if for no other reason than that it’s hard to take yourself seriously when you’re trying to glare and chew at the same time. With dad at the head of the table and mom dishing out the food, it serves as a regular reminder of the established hierarchy of authority in our lives, and that this authority is a gift from God.
So go eat dinner with your family. Make some mac and cheese, light a candle, turn on some music, use paper plates, whatever it takes. But have dinner with your family, even if you can only manage it two nights a week. And determine to enjoy it. Uphold a certain standard of conversation and courtesy, whatever that may be. Yes, you’ll have to brave arsenic hour to get there, but we have to take God’s promises at face value and walk by faith if we expect to receive a blessing. Remember Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God? Think of Jacob, and be tenacious. When family dinner occasionally feels more like your hip being wrenched out of socket, grin and bear it. Because God says if we walk in His ways, our children will be like olive shoots around the table.