The busier life gets, the more I find myself stumbling upon important moments that I was too distracted to see coming. Birthdays and holidays sneak up out of nowhere, and I barely notice before they've come and gone. I don't like that. So during the month of November, I'll be offering some thoughts to help us get ready for Thanksgiving. Feast, in four parts. I need this. Maybe you do, too.
How does a table become a temple?
Why do meals sometimes feel sacred?
A lot of us share the conviction that there's more than calorie consumption going on when we share a meal, and I've been trying to chase down the reasons for that conviction.
When I was in middle school, my mom had cancer. I'm a momma's boy and it shook me pretty hard. It shook all of us. It was the first time I remember feeling how fragile things can be, how one day your biggest worry is whether you'll get stuck sitting next to the weird kid on the bus, and the next you find out your mom has this thing that could kill her.
Fortunately, they found the cancer early and it was treatable. My mom had one major surgery but that was it. My grandpa took me to the hospital while she was recovering and left me alone in the room with her so she and I could visit. While I was in there, a nurse brought her a tray of food. Because of my mom's operation, she couldn't really lift her hand to feed herself, so she asked me to feed her. I walked over to her bed, picked up a spoon, and began to feed her whatever passed for a meal in the hospital that day.
That was the moment when I lost my grip. I don't think I cried or freaked out on the outside, but inside, something gave way.
There had been all this pressure building up through the whole cancer experience. It started the day I came home from school and noticed my mom had been crying, when she told my brother and me she had some bad news from the doctor. It built up as I tried to understand what it meant, what the treatment options were going to be. When people at church asked how we were doing, when we prayed for her, when I thought about what life would be like without mom… through all of that, I had tried to hold myself together, to keep the growing storm of fears and sadness from tearing me apart. My knuckles were white from the effort. It's possible to hold on so tightly that your hands become frozen, locked up and unable to let go. When our hands are locked up like that, it takes something like a miracle to open them. And that crappy hospital food was the miracle. My fists unclenched and I let the feelings flood me and then pass over.
It was as if some jello on a hospital tray had been endowed with supernatural powers to overcome all the ways I had tried to protect myself from the experience of my mom's cancer.
Hospital jello. A sacrament.
I tell that story because though the meal was a far cry from a Food Network special — there was no dining room table or glassware — someone I love needed fed, and I got to do it, and it was sacred. The meal was the moment when I was confronted with my mom's illness and comforted by her healing.
Whatever we eat, whenever we eat, we are faced with our need. Our contingency. Eating exposes our dependence. We can make ourselves strong and fit. We can shelter ourselves from the elements or build up endurance to face them. We can pad our checking accounts and build up our resumes and make ourselves impressive in so many ways. But then we have to eat. We can lie to ourselves about whether we need love and community by burying ourselves in isolation. We can live in myths about sex and work and a lot of other aspects of life, and we can persist in those myths for years without being confronted with their true nature. But our bodies will quickly disabuse us of any deception if we think we don't need to eat.
And there, in that space, where we are exposed as more frail and needy than we're comfortable with, God has met us with so much more than hospital food. We live in a world where food can taste good. Really, really good. We live in a world with sage and rosemary and salt and and honey and butter and cheese and peppers and cinnamon and thyme and bacon and milk and waxy potatoes and sweet strawberries and pungent truffles and earthy mushrooms and bright green asparagus and nutmeg that always makes me think of Christmas and raspberries that force a smile on your face as you eat them and onions that can be transformed into golden brown and sweet if they spend hours over low heat and crusty bread that can set your soul at ease with just a scant whiff of its aroma as it comes to life in the oven made just a little bit sour by the yeast that transforms it from some flour and water into a staple that has sustained humanity for thousands of years. All of that extravagance meets us at the place where we are in need. And we share that extravagance when we feast.
I wonder if one the reasons a table can be a temple is that it is a place where together we share our vulnerability and receive God's kindness.
This makes sense when I think about how the Church gathers for its Thanksgiving feast around the Eucharist table. That Holy Communion happens at the intersection of our need and God's provision.
The apostle Paul talks about that meal in a letter he wrote to the church in Corinth, and he offers a double entendre that we miss sometimes. He says we desecrate that scared meal when we eat and drink it without recognizing 'the body'. I usually hear preachers talk about how this means we need to think about Jesus and about our sin and His grace when we take communion. That may be true — I certainly think we should focus on Jesus when we take communion — but it seems to miss the context. The reason Paul is talking about communion is that some people in the Corinthian church were ignoring their fellow believers when they ate and drank. (He talks about it a few verses earlier.) And 'the body' in the New Testament often refers to the Church. If a table can be sacred because it's a place where we share our weakness and enjoy God's blessing together, then I wonder if we desecrate the temple of the table by ignoring each other, brushing past each other, forgetting what we share in common.
Sometimes I'm guilty of thinking the people around the table are just a distraction from my meal. But that's me at my most unholy. And I think it makes the meal unholy, too. But as I look forward to Thanksgiving, I want a meal that's consecrated by the love we share for each other around the table, and the recognition that God has met us in our need with overwhelming, staggering abundance.