A LIFETIME OF TABLES
You prepare a table before me ... PSALM 23:5
Food has manifested itself in my life in many diverse forms. Food as a peace offering. Food as celebration. Food as comfort. However, perhaps ironically, food and I got off to a terrible start.
My mom had me a few weeks late. The way she tells it, I just wasn't ready to come into this world. But a womb can only bear another soul for so long. So with my mother's hot and weary efforts and the forceps in the doctor's hands, I was literally pushed and then pulled into the world. I came with one blown-out lung, which promptly progressed into two deflated lungs. For three months, doctors poked and prodded and conjectured over me. And my mom, she labored over me, this time not to bring me into life but to sustain my life. I've heard, once you have a child, the laboring never ends.
I look back on my baby pictures and see what looks like a science project. Tubes weaving in and out of my body. Needles in too many veins to count. And a little broken body that couldn't eat. Everything that went in promptly came back up. It seemed almost as if I were on a hunger strike. Like I knew something of this busted-up world I was entering, and I was wondering if I could commit to doing life in this foreign land.
It's hard for me to believe that, as a newborn, I didn't have some real and unexplainable sense of where I had come from, of who God is, seeing as we are told in Psalm 139 that he forms us in the womb. I once read a story about a mom who walked into her baby's room to find her three-year-old son in the room with the baby, standing by her crib just watching her. When the mom asked her son what he was doing, he said, "Trying not to forget what Jesus feels like." I think in our own quiet ways, we're all trying not to forget what Jesus feels like.
But we enter this world. We come unable to express ourselves with words or even actions. Everything we do must be interpreted. When asked, most new parents say that the first few months of their newborn's life is all eating and sleeping. Unless you're my parents, in which case it was all crying and rejecting everything. Especially food.
For most babies, their first introduction to food in this world is intimate. If it does not take place at the mother's breast, it takes place while being held. A baby's first table isn't some beautiful whitewashed wooden structure. It's skin. Nestled by the belly, rocked by the rhythm of the beating heart. Secured by loving arms. It is just like God to plan it this way, to have us enter the world with mouths open, hungry. Receiving food from the body of the one who bore us.
It's designed to be an intimate experience. Satisfying. And, I am thinking, God intends the tables throughout life to be just as cherished. Sharing a meal together with someone can be deeply personal. If you take the time to feed another person, if you nourish their body, they naturally start to reveal their heart. Food is the answer to a basic need, and it can become a gateway to the need: redemption from a loving Savior.
Hunger runs deep in us, deeper than we fully grasp sometimes. Jesus saw this hunger, so when he came to this earth, he spent time in our homes. At our tables. He fed us fish and loaves of bread and wine overflowing. While we gnawed on our crusty loaf, he told us we'd need more than just bread. We're more than just hungry. Then, as his ultimate act of feeding us, he broke his body just like he broke that bread and said, "Here, eat my body and drink my blood, and you will never thirst or want again." It's visceral. It's us reaching for him and partaking of his life. He showed us that sometimes we are hungry for food, but sometimes hunger is a signal. It's a longing for something, or Someone, more. He still invites us today: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).
The connection between the saving work of Jesus and the meals we share is such a thing of beauty and wonder to me now, but this wasn't always the case. Seeing as my body was on wild revolt when I entered the world, my relationship with food was initially broken. As a direct result, I've been small in stature my whole life. When I was ten I found myself back in a hospital being poked and prodded again. My body didn't seem to want to grow up. But I gradually learned to love my petiteness, to understand it as a battle wound. The wound I received when I was trying to stay in the presence of Jesus, in the safety of the womb where he created me.
Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he placed me in my mom's body. She comes from a long line of cooks and bakers, and even though I initially rejected food like I was rejecting the evil of the world, she spent much of her life making up for my rocky start by feeding me some of the best meals I've ever had. She'd sit me at her table and show me the wonder of food.
Through the years of my mom's tireless commitment to cooking weeknight meals and inviting our family to come and eat, I started to realize that my connection to God had not been completely severed when I entered this world. I found him in my family's mealtime conversations. I found him while sharing late-night nachos with a friend at her table. Every time I'd pull up a chair to a table, I'd discover it was a sacred time, a holy place. I was learning that if I wanted to love like Christ, showing up to the table was the best place to start.
Since those earlier days, I've eaten at so many kinds of tables. For me, a table is so much more than a physical piece of furniture; it's everything that happens around it that gives it such transcending significance. The form the table takes is of little importance. It can be a picnic table, a beach towel laid out on the shores of white sand, the wooden floor of a tree house, or the carpet of a friend's living room. If the purpose of that area is to gather around a meal, I immediately recognize it as a table.
And the food never has to be extravagant, because the person at the table always is. The meal can be as simple as a feast of sweet, tangy oranges washed down with crisp water. Or chunky, fresh salsa dipped and even double dipped (oh yes!) with crunchy chips. We don't have to overthink things to partake in the multifaceted beauty of the table; that's what I'm learning.
We will have the honor of sitting around so many different tables in our lifetimes.
My favorite table so far has been one I had the privilege to sit at in Thailand. I was there for two months with a group of girls doing mission work. For the first week, we stayed at the pastor's house in a tiny village known for leprosy. Fourteen of us rolled out our sleeping bags every night in a small playroom, and in the morning, we'd roll our beds back up to make room for the kids who gathered every day for Bible school. The days were long and hot. We didn't get much sleep, and I think we were particularly drained by the realization of how devastating life was for so many of the villagers, several of whom were plagued with leprosy. But each evening the pastor's wife would put together slats of wood as a table. It was only about one foot off the ground. She would lay pillows on the floor and then cook us the best Thai meals I have ever eaten to this day.
The first course was always steaming soup. A clear broth so hot that when we dropped in a few shoots of raw vegetables, they were instantly poached and flavored by the juice. This soup went down savory and finished with a touch of spice. Then, just like that, a parade of Thailand's best meals seemed to magically appear out of that tiny kitchen.
The pastor's wife had just one stove with one burner and one big pot. To this day, I'm not sure how such amazing and bountiful food came out of her kitchen. Feeding all fourteen of us was no small task, but she did it every night for one week. She served us pad thai piled high and studded with the freshest cilantro. She made basil chicken so aromatic and savory that I ached for it even while I was eating it, knowing I would probably never taste anything like it again. Dessert was always sticky rice with mangos that we peeled right there at the table, the syrupy juice running down our hands and slathered onto our every taste bud. Those meals were a bright light amid some dark days. They were the reminder of God's provision, the strength that took us from emptiness to "we can do it again tomorrow."
One of the saddest tables I've ever sat around was in a hotel lobby after the funeral of a young friend. So many of us gathered from all over the country, and we pulled tables and chairs from every corner of that building together into one big gathering. We ate cold pizza and drank warm soda and toasted to one of the best we'd ever known. Our sobs crescendoed into laughter and then back to sobs. The tables we had puzzle-pieced together seemed to make us brave, and we gripped the sides while asking questions we would never find answers to. It was a safe place for us to let the tears flow, and then just moments later it acted as a stage as we each tried to do our best impressions of the friend who'd always made us laugh. Ultimately, those worn hotel lobby tables gave us a place to gather and melted us down to our truest selves: children of God. They made us family.
Then there was my best friend's wedding table. I sat at her reception and raised my champagne glass to all the many blessings being poured on her and her new husband. I ate the wedding feast and forked up bites of cake in between dancing and chatting. And then she got into her car with her new husband and drove away, at which moment I collapsed and heaved big tears, thinking of all the ways our relationship would now be different, what with me being still single and living states away. The other bridesmaids rushed me back into the wedding venue and quickly made a place for me at a vacant table. They fed me more cake while I unraveled. They prepared a table for me.
I look back on that memory, and it seems a little odd at first, that I would erupt into tears right there in front of everyone as the bride and groom made their exit, and that the safest place my friends knew to usher me to was a table. But something about the steadiness of the chair and my elbows braced against the table made me remember that it was all going to be okay. My friends joining me at the table with cake and jokes to make me smile reminded me that God was still with me and his plan was good.
God has no limit to the tables he will seat us around in our lifetimes. Tables of sorrow and brokenness. Tables of joy and celebration. Tables of everydayness. I believe with all my heart that we all have at least one life-defining moment that has happened around a table. Look at Jesus' life here on this earth. So many life-defining moments for him (and life-defining moments for all of humanity) happened around a table. The gospel of Luke barely shows Jesus in a scene where he is not eating, or at a table, or on his way to a meal. In fact, Jesus ate so much that in Luke 7:34 we find him being accused of being a glutton and a drunkard.
Could we have predicted that the Savior of the world would come and eat so much? That he would appear in our homes, at our tables? That some of his greatest lessons and hardest truths would spill out around a table, over a meal? It's so preposterous. It's so completely average. But how could he not? Jesus left the comforts of heaven and came down in human flesh to save all of humanity. And he happened to find us, eating. At a table. It's clear Jesus knew something about the power of a meal. It's clear that for him it wasn't as much about what was placed on the table as who was placed at the table.
The ministry of a meal didn't begin with Jesus' life on this earth. God modeled it long before that. Let's look at the Old Testament prophet Elijah, for example. He worked tirelessly on God's behalf, healing and performing miracles and proclaiming the one true God. But at one point in his journey, he learned that Jezebel, a hateful queen, wanted to have him killed. This was his breaking point, and Elijah fled into the desert. How often have we faced our own end-of-rope moments and retreated into the desert of doubt and hopelessness? But God had great compassion on Elijah and ministered to him first through a meal.
And behold, an angel touched him [Elijah] and said to him, "Arise and eat." And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, "Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you." And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. (1 Kings 19:5-8) God prepared a table for Elijah in the desert. He met Elijah's basic need first with a meal, and it opened the door for Elijah to journey to the mount of God and speak honestly and openly with God. Can a meal be the strengthening for our journey into the heart of God? Can a meal give us the durability to speak candidly and vulnerably to the living God? And is God preparing tables all around us because he wants us to approach him? To commune with him? Do we believe that in all seasons God is preparing a table for us, if only to draw us near?
If God strengthened his people by first feeding them and then Jesus came, flesh and blood, and revealed himself to us by entering our homes and eating with us, maybe a meal is more powerful than we have ever imagined. Maybe we should start looking more intently at the tables God is preparing before us.
In a generation of individualism, high shrubs and fences, fast meals, and fierce independence, the call to come and eat is needed now more than ever. Will you come with me and pull up a chair as we explore the power of the table? Let's look more closely together at how Jesus used his time over a meal to teach and heal and extend great compassion and mercy. How he chose to change the world by starting inside our homes, at our tables.
PRAYER FOR THE TABLE
Jesus, thank you. Thank you for meeting us exactly where we are. In our own homes, at our own tables. Thank you for meeting our basic need so that we can have a window into our deepest need: your saving grace. May we receive not just this food we are about to eat but also your great love. The love that provides. The love that prepares a place for us at the table. Amen.
QUESTIONS FOR THE TABLE
1. Take time to reflect on all the different tables God has placed you at over the years. Share a favorite memory from a meal you have had.
2. What was so amazing about that meal? Was it the food? Or the people? Was it the conversation? Or just the way you felt?
3. What are your thoughts on how many times Jesus appeared at a meal in the Gospels? Is this new to you? Why do you think it is significant?
4. Is there anyone in your life right now who, like Elijah, might be at the end of his or her rope? Plan as a family to take a meal to that person or to invite him or her over to share a meal with you.
RECIPE FOR THE TABLE
THE EASIEST AND TASTIEST ROAST
Serves 5 to 6.
Think of this recipe as a kickoff to your journey of coming to the table consistently and enjoying a meal with the people you love. It's the easiest recipe I have in my arsenal, and my friends have told me time and time again that it's one of the tastiest roasts they've had. The simplicity of this recipe is a great reminder to me that the focus at the table is not the meal. It's the people.
1 (3-pound)chuck roast 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 (16-ounce) jar pepperoncinis 5 whole garlic cloves, peeled
Pat the roast dry. Season with salt and pepper on all sides.
Optional: Brown the roast before adding it to your slow cooker. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the roast, and brown it on each side for 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the roast to a slow cooker. Pour the whole jar of pepperoncinis, including the juice, over the roast. Add the garlic cloves. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours. The meat is done when it easily shreds with a fork.
Alternate cooking method: Dutch Oven
I like to cook this roast in my Dutch oven when I can. I do this so I can brown the roast before adding all the ingredients (which gives it great flavor), and because I love using my Dutch oven!
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Season the roast on all sides with salt and pepper.
Heat a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the roast, and brown it on each side (1 to 2 minutes per side).