Thanksgiving is 2 days away. I’ve returned to some writing I did last year and sharpened it (hopefully), and I offer it as a way to help us prepare.
Our bodies and souls are connected. Holy encounters are waiting for us in the things we taste, touch, see, smell, and hear. A table can be a temple. But how does that happen?
When I was in middle school, my mom had cancer. 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 fear is that you'll get stuck next to the weird kid on the bus, and the next you find out your mom has this thing that could kill her.
She had a major surgery to remove the cancer. 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, her lunch was delivered. Because of her operation, my mom couldn't lift her hand to eat, so she asked me to help. 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.
The whole cancer experience was one long encounter with my mom’s vulnerability. It was an extended confrontation with the fact that her body, like everyone’s, could be weakened or even destroyed. I had been doing everything I could to avoid that confrontation, but finally, after the surgery was done and she was essentially healed, it was the act of feeding her that finally overwhelmed my capacity to pretend I hadn’t been shattered by the experience. It wasn’t the diagnosis, the prayer times, the knowledge of what was happening in the operating room, or the worst case scenarios of what the cancer could do that brought me face to face with reality. It was a meal.
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. Every time we sit around a table eating together, we are acting out a shared confession: we are in need.
And there in that space where our vulnerability is exposed, God has met us with so much more than hospital food; He has met us with abundance. We live in a world where food can taste good. Really, really good. Even sublime. 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 brings Christmas to mind and raspberries that force a smile on your face and onions that can be transformed into golden brown and sweet if they spend time 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 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 abundance meets us at the place where we are in need. And we share that abundance when we feast.
What does it say about God that He meets our vulnerability with such beauty?
And could it be that one of the reasons a table can be a temple is that it is a place where together we share our vulnerability and encounter God's love?
This makes sense when I think about how the Church gathers for its Thanksgiving feast around the Eucharist table, a holy meal that 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. He says we desecrate this 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 His death and our sin when we take communion. That may be true — I certainly think we should focus on Jesus when we take communion — but it misses 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. And 'the body' in the New Testament usually 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. And by forgetting where all that abundance comes from.
If a meal allows us to confess our need and meet God’s abundance, then surely it can draw us to each other and to Him. And any place where we are together before God is a temple, whether a dining room or a hospital room.
Tomorrow, a little more on how a table becomes a temple, with a lot of help from Andy Crouch.
And Shauna Niequist offers some questions here to spark meaningful conversation at the table.