{Reflections prompted by mugs. Strange but true. One odd Lenten practice.}

I love this mug. Because I love the photo. Because I love the boys. Here aDSC05627.JPGre my grandsons, in younger days, as photographed by my daughter Wendy. A parent knows just the right time to interrupt play and ask kids to pose. And this was the moment.

Thanks to my parents’ old Agfa Ansco “folding camera,” and my mother’s photo storage (albums), I have a large collection of pictures of my two brothers and me in poses much like this one. By the time my three sisters arrived, I was the one taking the pictures and I disappeared from the albums and slide trays. What a gift it is to be able to look back at our childhoods through old photos. Well, for most of us anyway. Some didn’t have many affectionate moments to save.

We assume that what holds families together, and tightly, is love. Sadly, there are households where love and affection are scarce. You know the reasons as well as I do, so we needn’t list them here. I’d rather look at that mug, enjoy the protective arm around the shoulder, the lean in, the touch of vulnerability in the younger face…and see love there.

Truth be told, these two guys aren’t in this pose constantly. Brothers don’t always get along. I have a chipped tooth that reminds me of a fight one of my brothers and I had in the living room one day. What the disagreement was about, I don’t know. I do remember challenging that younger brother Kim to an out-and-out fight. “Let’s just go have  it out!” I said angrily. He said okay, and we stood facing each other in the front room of the house. He socked me in the mouth. Bang. It was over. And I’m sure I went crying to Mom, the bloodied big brother sorry he ever made the stupid challenge.

In later years at home, there was far less drama. I was the older brother by two and-a-half years. My second brother came a year after the first. That meant, I guess, that Kim and Steve, being just a year apart, were closer to one another in the family. They shared a room, friends, neighborhood adventures. Yet Kim and I had some things in common. When I invented a literary hillbilly character (Homer Bushberry), Kim came up with Crabbush Brooks. I played trombone; Kim took it up too, and actually practiced and played it in the high school band. I took up photography, and so did Kim. I was active in youth group at church. Ditto Kim. And he followed me into two teen jobs, taking over my paper route and working at the same local pharmacy as I.

Then family dynamics changed considerably. I went off to college. The whole family moved out of state. My youngest sister, who was born when I was 16, told me a few years ago that to her I was the brother who was “away.” As she grew up, I was miles (and almost a generation) away, and my visits “home” were infrequent and brief. I missed the “growing up” years of my sisters. As I look back, of course a regret is having been so out of touch, not due to any estrangement, mind you. It was just a matter of life happening “across the miles.” Steve has died. But Kim and I talk by phone and exchange internet greetings, complimenting one another on our photos. We no longer have trombones nor paper routes in common.

I look at my grandsons who are seven years apart and see many brotherly commonalities. The difference in their ages means they don’t go to the same school or have the IMGsame friends. I know that one thing they do share is playing hockey! I have a neat picture of them walking away from a rink after a game Ryan played. Tyler was barely big enough to hold a hockey stick, but he was clearly following in his big brother’s footsteps. I have other pictures of protective Ryan watching out for Tyler. Seeing the boys now, a few years later, on the ice together, Ryan refereeing one of Tyler’s games (totally objectively I add), I see two brothers who will be friends for forever.

The Bible has some fascinating stories about brothers. Start with Cain and Abel, move to Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and then Moses and Aaron. In the New Testament, Peter and James, and Jesus…he had four younger brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. (Poor Simon…he wasn’t a “J.”) In one of Jesus’ best known parables, there is the “prodigal” and his “older brother,” neither named, but both familiar. Maybe they all, at one time or another, exhibited for each other that brand of love called “brotherly.” But there were rivalries, too, and misunderstandings, disappointments, and, in that original brother story in Genesis 4, murder. Did I mention my chipped tooth? I got off easy.

I’ve been focusing only on the male brotherhood; obviously some sisters have brothers too. But the mug I found this morning centered my consideration on the boys. The affection I feel toward my brothers (certainly still including my late brother Steve here), the bond between my grandsons, all the signs of love between those who share parents, rooms, friends, neighborhoods, and lifelong family connections — these are gifts that reflect the unconditional love called ἀγάπη (agape — ah-gah’-pay). In some Greek class wordplay, it was said that we stand agape at ἀγάπη. That undeserved, unearned love is awesome. In the best of times and circumstances, brotherly love helps define a love that stretches with open arms to the whole family of God, regardless of gender, race, or class.

It’s not much in the headlines these days, is it? But if we look at pictures of children at play, children we older ones have not yet taught to distance themselves from one another, through discrimination, greed, or conceit, we can glimpse protective, comforting, tender, and affectionate love that may yet bloom among us all. In that sense, let us become like children…