Creating Safe Space for others to Gather at your Table
Last summer when we were back in the States, my mom had the rare opportunity to have all 7 of her grandchildren, her 3 daughters and their husbands together for one meal. No small feat with the conflicting work schedules and thriving social calendars of these kids. The ‘kids’ ranged from 16 to 24 years old. Some were thriving, some were struggling, but great young people, every single one of them. This is the generation that will succeed us. They are holding the seeds of promise for the Church and it took my breath away.
As I sat in prayer the next morning, I couldn’t stop thinking of us all gathered around that table. In my mind’s eye I saw Jesus standing in the room with His arms open wide, and He said, “I gather.” I waited for Him to continue, thinking, “So you gather… to bless? to love? to forgive? to commission these kids? But He simply said it again, “I gather.”
Until that day, I had no idea what a “gathering God” we have! I started seeing the word ‘gather’ all over Scripture. He gathers His people to feast. To make covenants. To give them water. To lead into battle. To rest. To repent. To tenderly embrace in His arms. To bring the remnant home.
But I find it interesting that God gave me the image of Jesus gathering us around a table. Something signifiant happens when we break bread together. In that sacred space, our humanness is evident– the need to drink, to feed, to connect. And it’s different when you do it with others.
The view around our table will change from year to year as we go through life changes, additions, and losses. I consider it one of my jobs to create a safe place at the table for those who come through our home.
Sometimes our tables hold the GRIEVING mixed with CELEBRATION.
One of my favorite stories from Scripture– I guess because it’s so true to life– is the story of when the Israelites gathered to celebrate the rebuilding of the temple after it had been destroyed by their enemies. As the foundation of the new temple was built, the people began shouting and praising God at the top of their lungs– the glory of God’s house was going to be restored! But the priests and Levites, and the older people who had known the temple before and had witnessed it’s destruction, began to wail at the top of their lungs as well. “The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away…” (Ezra 3:13). Shouts of joy mingled with cries of grief.
And so it is around our table. Some years our grief is mixed in with our celebration. A chair is startlingly empty, the reminder that someone is no longer at our table because of death or conflict or maybe because they’ve started their own family table elsewhere. Our hearts are full of gratitude for those who still gather and we even recognize the great abundance around us, but our hearts are still sad. Safety at the table means that we may need to acknowledge grief in our celebrations.
One of our most precious Thanksgivings was the year we sat around my father, in his last few weeks of life. He ate on his TV tray, we held our plates on our laps. We knew this would be his last Thanksgiving feast. He joked, picked at his food, and told us how great it all tasted. We choked down our food, acting like this was normal. Every moment was painful and precious. Grief and joy– intermingling over our TV tray tables.
Sometimes our tables hold the LONELY.
If God has granted us the privilege of family and home, our tables need to embrace to the lonely. As Psalms 68:6 says, ‘He gathers the lonely into families.” Here we find one of the distinct purposes of family– to create a place of belonging and companionship. Gathering at the table most simply communicates, “You are not alone. We see you. We love you. You belong.”
This year our table will hold four single women. Four amazing women who have given their lives for the Gospel. To follow the call on their lives, several have had to release that they may never marry. One has sacrificed her grandparenting season to live overseas; she will love on someone else’s grandkids this Thanksgiving while her heart longs for her own.
The blessing is all mine to gather these women at our table. I want my girls to know these women who live dynamic, purposeful, and full lives even if they have never married or given birth to children. Such richness in the different journeys and surrendered hearts.
Sometimes our tables hold the PRODIGALS.
Every family has prodigals at some point– someone who is wandering, angry, confused, or lost. Never underestimate the power of an invitation to the prodigals. Because some year, they may show up. Saint Augustine was a wild and obstinate prodigal until he was almost 40 years old. When he joined a cult, his mother forbade him to come to her table. God came to her in a dream and told her to open her table again to her prodigal son. So she did. Years later, he came to faith–attributing much of it to his mothers prayers and pursuit.
You don’t need to correct a prodigal. You don’t need to fix a prodigal. Just give him/her a place at the table. The Father God did three things in the parable of the Prodigal Son: He let him go. He held hope for his return. He welcomed him home with an embrace and a feast.
And frankly, every family has the prodigal’s brother, as well, that person sitting in judgement because of what someone else believes or how they live. They may even refuse to come to the table themselves. I did that one year. My mom was dating someone I knew was bad for her, so I refused to come to her table when he was there. Her great disappointment in me was evident as she said, “I never once turned any of your friends/boyfriends away from the table. I would hope you do the same.” Yes, I’ve been a judgemental sister some years. Lord, forgive me.
Let’s hope our tables hold those who believe differently than we do. How else will people taste the goodness of God unless they experience His embrace as we gather?
This holiday season, make your table a place of safety. Here are a few simple guidelines:
- Celebrate the presence of God. God is always present, but our awareness of Him is not. Truly, God is as real as that turkey on your table, but we must develop an awareness of the unseen. “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18). The lasting effects of a meal at your table will be what happens in the unseen realm– in their hearts or yours. All through the ministering presence of God. I invite God’s presence to minister to every person exactly how they need it. Sometimes people just need to laugh. Or cry. Or talk. Or hear a word of encouragement. There’s nothing for you to manufacture here. Your job is to set up the venue, clear the space through prayer, and let God do the work.
- Honor others. We can honor others even if they are on the complete opposite spectrum of belief. We can honor people when they are stiff-necked or inflammatory or passive aggressive. Honor is not about agreeing with the other person, it’s choosing to speak kindly, setting boundaries when necessary, and choosing for ways to build on what you have in common. Honor says “I love you even though you drive me crazy!”
- You make the rules. It’s your table– so you make the rules about how others speak to each other around your table. You can decide what topics are off limits. Helpful hint: try to announce the rules BEFORE they are needed. 🙂 And use humor to redirect the conversation when you can.
This year, may you fix your eyes on the unseen realm and know by faith that Jesus is there, standing by your table saying, “I gather.” Partner with God by inviting His presence to meet your guests, big and small, this year. Pray BIG– for breakthroughs, restoration, healing, belonging, or centering. May He gather the grieving, the celebrating, the lonely, and the prodigals around our table and minister a food that will last to their souls.
Thanks be to God.