We decommissioned the family boat this past weekend in Kirksville, Missouri, at our annual family ski weekend at Thousand Hills State Park. Laurie’s father purchased the little blue used 15 foot ski boat back in 1983, probably because he got the “boat bug” from his sister who owned a cabin on the Mississippi in Iowa – and they all skied. I came into the family in 1988. The little blue Starcraft Capri 15 footer was the only boat I ever knew. Now it’s gIMG_1508one, and there are waves of emotion crashing.

Laurie’s folks lived in Kirksville and when we would visit it was all-out furious action the entire time: running, biking, skiing – repeat. Ski at sunrise, ski at sunset. During the down time we did home projects. It was small-town living at its finest. Laurie’s folks were frugal. They were nothing close to rich. They lived simple and helped everyone. It wasn’t their Kirksville home that brought us together, important and functional as it was. It was always the little boat on the little quiet calm lake at the state park that centralized the family. Over the years we continued to go to the lake as Laurie’s parents retired and sold the house and move to Arizona for retirement. We rented barely acceptable state park cabins. One cabin, two cabins, three cabins, now four cabins.

All the Edwards kids have children. The grandkids learned to ski and tube and play in the lake, stay in the cabins, eat Pagliai’s Ronzas (yes they are Ronzas I don’t care what the restaurant trademark lawsuit said), have s’more contests, sit around thIMG_1435e fire… but mostly tell stories of near-death adventures in the little blue boat: “we ran out of gas in the boat in the lightning storm with the six-month old baby” was the common story, because we never learned, and pretty much every grandchild was initiated in this same near-disaster story.

Laurie’s mother has since died of cancer. Her father still drives the 20 hours from AZ to get back for the ski weekend. Others come in from St. Louis, NYC, Chicago, and of course Lee’s Summit. Nobody wants to miss this family tradition. So when we had to say goodbye to the boat because the  motor blew up to the tune of $4k, there were lots of tears. The boat is our icon, our symbol, totem, controlling metaphor – whatever it is, it was the unadorned uncelebrated gathering thingy.

Now we are without a boat, that one thing that pulls the family together. I know what you’re thinking ‘hey, just get together – you don’t need a stupid boat to be family – what about LOVE?’ But I have come to realize that family traditions are created and happen around boats, cabins, county fairs, “the home.” Traditions (love) need space and time, not just a calendar appointment. I don’t think the family reunion that meets at ever-changing locations works as well.

Extended family needs a focus point. And even better, the more the family story struggles, the better… “we scraped together $500 for a boat…” “we each put in $250 and bought the piece of land in the middle of nowhere, and built a cabin with our own hands…” You get the idea. The best traditions are scrappy and location oriented. Ours is the boat and the lake, the cruddy cabins, the simple quaint marina, and Pagliai’s Pizza on the town square. It helps that it is in Laurie’s hometown. You see if we had a $300k lake home and yacht it wouldn’t be the same. We’d constantly be wondering if it was all worth it. We’d be slaves to the stuff. It would cost everyone. Perhaps this is a test for a strong family tradition: if you don’t question whether or not its too expensive to keep up then it is a good tradition. If it is too comfortable then it is not a good tradition. This is why family camping is so powerful. Camping struggles. Camping bonds. Disney World, not so much.

Now we don’t have a boat, and we are seriously thinking of buying a new one. But buying a brand new boat feels wrong. Is it materialism? Where’s the struggle? So I’m looking for a used boat. Actually, the simplicity is forced upon us: the lake requires all motors be outboards, no more than 90 horsepower. “Only small boats please.” Nothing fancy.

Christianity and particularly Lakeland is down on conspicuous consumption and materialism. Our church has so many projects in the works that serve the poor, the persecuted, the marginalized, and the forgotten. Any dollar spent on “stuff” like boats is sort of frowned upon. It’s like the end of the film Schindler’s List – “this gold ring could have saved several lives!” Over the years Laurie found that anytime we got to go on a cool vacation we unknowingly felt we needed to say something like “yeah, we used frequent flier points,” or “the house was free” or “we went in the off-season.” Nobody at Lakeland would dare say ‘Yeah man, I live large and expensive! To heck with the poor; they made their bed, let ’em lie in it.’ Not cool.

So here I am being forced to decide between what appears to be conspicuous consumption and family tradition. Yeah, we can rent a pontoon. We did this summer after the ski boat broke. It is not the same. With our own dumpy boat we always went out at sunrise and sunset to ski the glass. Now we lack flexibility with a rented boat. The marina closes at 8pm or 6pm. Yep, that’s a first world suburban consumerist attitude (see the conflict within the protagonist?)

And where is the scrappiness? Laurie and I save. We still give away about a quarter of our income. I will never say we live simple. I’ve been amongst too many poor around the world to ever say we aren’t rich by a world standard. Billy Graham once said that if you have shoes on your feet you are rich on a world scale. I have several pairs of shoes. I’m rich. I’m rich so I have a Jesus responsibility to others – think Good Samaritan. Or here’s Paul’s teaching on how rich people (middle class Americans) are to behave and think:

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. – 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Paul, how much can we enjoy our money, and how much should we give away? Know the difference. That’s the art of charity. The point of this post is to recognize that family traditions might require a location or a thing. $omething or $omeone or $omeplace – or all three need to be in place to create strong tradition. Laurie’s mom and dad started the family tradition. Now perhaps it is our turn.

I am sure many of you have good family traditions that are strong and don’t cost anything. Ours didn’t either – at least not me. Laurie’s dad underwrote the whole thing and mostly still does. You can share your stories below in the comments. But for us, I think we need another boat to keep our family tradition intact.