Growing up, dinner was a sacred event in my family’s house.
Throughout elementary school and junior high, my family ate dinner every night at 6 pm. In high school, dinner time fluctuated depending on my extracurricular schedule. Despite this, because of its value in my house, we never ate on the run, frantically running to and from activities. Instead, regardless of what time we ate, one thing remained the same: Dinner was eaten together around the kitchen table, as a family, each and every day.
From this I learned that the table is a place of community, connection, and sometimes, healing.
No matter what our moods were before dinner, there was something about that act of eating together that lifted our spirits. If people sat down at the table angry with one another over something, the simple act of sitting across the table from that person while being forced to look at them helped to restore the fractured relationship.
I was reminded of the importance of the dinner table last week, when my mom, dad, husband, and I sat around my parent’s kitchen table, eating dinner together. As I listened to the conversation and the laughter, I felt extremely grateful for this family – no matter how angry we sometimes make one another or how imperfect our family is.
As with biological families, I think the table is a sacred place for churches.
Throughout the nine years I’ve been in ministry, I’ve had a love / hate relationship with the church.
If I’m completely honest, there are probably far more times when I’ve hated the church than when I’ve loved it. So often, the churches that I have been a part of have just seemed inadequate – unable to address the very real hurts and injustices of a broken world. At other times, church leaders have frustrated me – with their arrogance, righteousness, and stubborn adherence to their convictions, even when those convictions are wrong. At other times, I’ve watched churches wrong both church workers and parishioners. I, too, have been wronged by a church.
For those reasons, even though today I am part of what I believe is an exceptional community of faith, there are times when I honestly just don’t want any part of church.
Last week was one of those times, as I watched multiple close friends struggle with the church’s response to various crises in their lives.
For that reason, last Sunday, I walked into church not particularly happy to be there, especially when I remembered that it was commitment Sunday, the day in which we ask parishioners to return their commitment cards for the upcoming year, indicating their financial pledges, worship attendance pledge, and service pledge.
Yet, almost as soon as the service began, I felt God move on my heart, shifting my attitude from one of bitterness to one of gratefulness.
For me, the most meaningful moment of the service happened after our pastor finished his sermon, when he invited everyone to come forward, drop off their commitment card in the waiting basket, and then gather around the alter – the table from which communion is served every week.
Several minutes later, some 150 people were clustered into the front of our church, gathered in a circle around the alter. Unlike in our pews where people normally sit at either end, as far away from one another as possible, due to the size of the space and the quantity of people gathered there, it was nearly impossible to stand around the alter without touching someone else. And unlike when we sit in pews, facing straight ahead, the circular nature of our alter gathering forced people to look around and see the faces of our church family – faces that are easy to overlook on most Sundays.
As we stood around the alter, our pastor led us in a rite of celebration that I was later told included an affirmation of baptism.
To be honest, I didn’t hear a word he said.
I was too mesmerized by the faces in the circle.
As I looked around the circle, I noticed a mom who I had received an angry e-mail from, a colleague who I sometimes butt heads with, and a leader who I recently had a difficult conversation with.
Yet, when forced to look at these individuals from across the alter, what surprised me was that I no longer felt anger or bitterness toward them. When forced to stand shoulder to shoulder with these people, looking at their faces, I saw their humanity and they became for me instruments of God’s grace.
Perhaps for the first time since arriving at Faith two years ago, I saw these individuals not just as thorns in my side, but as members of my church family – A family that, like my own, is far from perfect but is, nonetheless, mine. A family that God has called me to love and be a part of – regardless of its inadequacies and flaws. A family that, though capable of causing people immense grief, can also help people experience tremendous healing.
This is what I learned on Sunday when gathered around our church’s table – A table that, like a family’s dinner table, was, on this day, a place of powerful community, connection, and healing.