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September 12, 2016

Practicing the Presence of the Table

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Two weeks ago, my good friend Margaret Austin wrote an excellent blog on how to begin to Push Back the Darkness.  And it’s had me thinking…what are other practical ways you and I can push back the encroaching darkness in our culture, our families, our own personal lives, and in our children?  There are many ways to push back the darkness, but I can think of two simple ways right off the bat.  One is prayer, a topic I blogged about last week.  But the other is practicing the presence of the table.

High school was hard for me.  Really hard.  I never felt like I fit in, and I always felt like I was walking uphill or swimming against the tide.  I can still remember the feeling of driving up to campus in my 1986 red and gray suburban, hoisting my ginormous, green, Lands Ends backpack onto my back, and lugging my books, my nagging worries, and all of my insecurities and feelings of failure around with me to class.  My school was on the other side of town from where my family lived, so at the end of the day at 5:00pm, after my sports’ practice was over, I had an hour long drive home in rush hour traffic to look forward to.  By the time I walked in the door at the end of the day, I was weary and spent from battling the hardships of the day.  But I always had one thing to consistently look forward to – my mother’s table.  I can still remember the feeling of opening the side door to our house and stepping into the kitchen.  My mom always had a candle burning in the kitchen window, a signal we knew was there to welcome us home, and her table was always set, complete with placemats, cloth napkins, silverware, and candles burning in the wooden barley twist candlesticks.

When dinner was ready, my brothers and I each had our own place at the table, a place that remained consistently ours from elementary school through college, and it didn’t matter what paper was due the next day, what exam we were studying for, or what math problem had our stomach in knots.  Each one of us stopped what we were doing when it was time for dinner and took our place at the table.

I miss those meals at my mothers’ table.  I miss the consistency of being known, fed, loved, cared for, and heard, no matter what had happened during the day.  I miss the conversations about theology and politics that took place as we grew older, and I miss the laughter that my brothers always provided.  Now that we are older with families of our own, we sometimes get to sit around the table again at my parents’ house, but it’s never been quite the same.

My mother’s table was a refuge for me, a place where my family consistently practiced the healing presence of one another.

Fast forward to the present day.  Over at the Baker household, I really can’t remember the last time I used cloth napkins at my table. I have “paper plates” on my grocery list as a staple item, right up there with laundry detergent and toilet paper, and most of our conversations consist of me trying to convince my girls that I really did think the joke they told was funny (my best fake laugh at the end of the day usually just isn’t all that convincing), telling Caroline to sit on her rear end, not on her knees, reminding Lizzie that if she gets up randomly from the table one more time, she will eat by herself in the next room, telling Lillian for the third time to put her book down and actually look at the rest of us while she is eating, and trying to coax Mia Grace to actually chew her food and not hold each bite in her mouth for thirty minutes.

Just so I don’t throw in the towel on family dinners all together, I have to consistently remind myself that my mother did not start using cloth napkins at the table until I was in high school, and I don’t remember any deep, theological conversations taking place until I was around the age of 16.  Up to that point, the most theological thing that was said was, “Please stop passing gas at the table.”

With that being said, I have to remind myself at the beginning of each and every school year when schedules ramp up and my patience and energy dwindles that no matter where my family is in its stage of “table life,” profound healing has the potential to occur and lessons in theology are preached each and every evening around the table.  And whatever I have to do to fight for my family to actually sit down and eat together is worth every ounce of time, effort, and creative energy I can muster.

Why?…Because as we practice the presence of being together, we are literally pushing back the darkness.

The table communicates to a child that he has a place, no matter what his day was like at school or who left him out.  The table communicates to a child that she has a voice and people who want to hear what she has to say, no matter how deaf the world around her can be.  The table communicates to each of us that community is important, that practicing the presence of people is necessary, and that true nourishment cannot occur living life on our own as an island.

In an article by Anne Fishel in The Chicago Tribune entitled “The most important thing you can do with your kids?  Eat dinner with them”, she writes, “[A] stack of studies link regular family dinners with lowering a host of high risk teenage behaviors parents fear: smoking, binge drinking, marijuana use, violence, school problems, eating disorders and sexual activity. In one study of more than 5,000 Minnesota teens, researchers concluded that regular family dinners were associated with lower rates of depression and suicidal thoughts. In a very recent study, kids who had been victims of cyberbullying bounced back more readily if they had regular family dinners. Family dinners have been found to be a more powerful deterrent against high-risk teen behaviors than church attendance or good grades.”

Now don’t get me wrong here.  What I am not saying is that I do not think regular church attendance is important or even vital or necessary.  But what I am saying is that I think Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 6 are true: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8).

Children not only need to hear theology preached from the pulpit, but they also need to hear it when they sit in our homes, around our tables, throughout the regular rhythms of daily life in order to really know and believe that it is true.  The pulpit is often where theology gains entrance into our children’s heads.  But the table is where theology becomes embedded in their hearts.

In her excellent book Table Life, Joanne Thompson says it this way: “Don’t miss the meaning of Jesus stepping down from eternity to eat his oatmeal.  His choosing to come to the table sets the record straight: Mealtime is sacred.  A meal is not a church service, but the table remains an altar. It’s the centerpiece of family life.  Mealtime is set apart as an enduring expression of God’s kingdom provision.  ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’  Time is God’s good creation, and mealtime is God’s metronome designed to bind our body lives to the Father.”

As I think about the commitments of this fall and the effort it takes to put just one good meal on the table, I need encouragement, reminders, and the ability to focus on the importance of the table in my family’s life in order to push back the darkness on a regular basis.

If you need help like me, consider buying a weekly meal planner.

image (It obviously doesn’t have to be a work of art – chicken scratch will do.)

At the beginning of each week, plan your dinner time menu while looking at your calendar.  On the planner, don’t just plan out the meal and the ingredients, but plan out the times you are actually going to sit down together.  To help with that, I number the meals where we can sit down around the table and circle them so I can have a visual as well as mental reminder.

My goal at the beginning of each week is to sit down together four out of seven nights.  Reality hits, and it is usually ends up being three.  But putting pen to paper helps me to make a commitment at the beginning of the week to our family time, something I believe is deeply valuable and important, and it helps me to say “No” when commitments, no matter how good they are, pop up.  The planner provides an easy and valid way to say, “I’m sorry; we already have plans that evening.”

So often I succumb to the temptation of thinking that I need a masters degree in counseling to help people.  Or I need a medical degree to become a healer of the soul.  Or I need fancier dishes or matching placemats or gourmet meals or all the time in the world to offer those around me a place at my table.  But that isn’t what God’s Word shows us.  All that we need is a table, and the presence of mind to say, “Pull up a chair, your place is waiting.  Sit down for a moment so we can talk.”

That’s it.  So this fall, as you plan out your schedule and think about your family’s needs, don’t forget about your table.  Make it preimment.  Make it a priority.  And make sure you become present at the table one meal, one week, one season at a time.  Don’t feel like you need start perfectly.  Just start.  And don’t even be afraid to start badly.  But don’t miss the fact that one of the greatest ways you can push back the darkness in your culture, your family’s life, and in your friends’ lives, is to set them a place at your table.

Let the meal times begin.