A shared meal isn’t always enjoyed by everyone. Many of us can bring to mind times around a table when life was sour or empty, when anger, conflict, abandonment, sickness, sadness or fear made the food bitterly inedible, when dining companions seemed more like tyrants and enemies, when our physical hunger deserted us so that gathering around the table was torment.
And what of the many people who live and eat alone? For those who have no table to speak of? For some, there is little or no companionship. Others have little or no food, and life is lonely, hard and hopeless. An empty table shouts of hunger, need, longing, and abandonment, when people feel alone, forgotten, unwelcome, unloved, unforgiven, unwell and unfed. This table is misery, and we must keep this in mind as we learn to host and accommodate friend and stranger at our table, making room for those whose lives are malnourished in every sense of the word.
No matter the reason, our time at the table in one another’s company has dwindled in our day, one sign of an obvious shift in the way we view time itself. God’s gift of time is degraded to commodity in the post-modern era. The fifteen-minute meal, the microwaveable dinner, the pre-packaged convenience food, and the fast food culture in general have trained us to submit to hunger as only something to be fueled then forgotten, the more quickly the better. As a result, our eating is utilitarian, and nearly always self-concerned.
The practice of an unhurried nightly family dinner, of the days when wholesome fresh foods found their way to the table, when families and neighbors prayed together even as they ate together is nearly extinct. In one sense, this reflects the instability of the modern family. But, in another sense, we have simply abandoned the common meal, such that our tables have lost their cardinal purpose for uniting people. Many tables hold more mail and school papers than food. For families with children at home, after school lessons and sports push a shared dinner to the sidelines. More and more, cars suffice as the dining rooms many homes no longer have or use. At work, we toil alone at our desks, multitasking job and lunch. Or, we simply skip meals altogether for the sake of saving time as if it were money we could bank, because meals are no longer about setting aside time to meet God and the needs of one another, thankful for this daily provision.
Neither have our church families remained immune to this effect of time famine. The common, shared meal at church, whether picnic, potluck, or banquet has diminished in importance and in practice. Gathering together takes time we can’t spare. Really, we are thankful if we can manage to get ourselves and our families to weekly services, prayer-meetings, Bible studies, and youth group on time. Meeting at church for a meal, not to mention helping prepare or serve it, means yet another commitment a lot of us avoid making.
But there’s hope for positive change, as people begin to rethink the importance of sharing meals. A look at the meal stories of Jesus, and a study of the centrality of the shared meal in the first century church makes it apparent that meal-making and sharing are regular and critical practices for creating an environment conducive to learning and growth, both for individuals and the faith community at large. Jesus ate with Pharisee and tax collector, at weddings and funerals, in homes, on hillsides, and over beachside campfires. He used meal times to confront people’s assumptions and prejudices, to stand the religious and social practice of his day on its head. Jesus’ full presence at meals model for us those faith practices we can emulate: attentiveness, testimony, witness, thanksgiving, service, forgiveness, encouragement, confession, and hospitality. For Jesus, the shared meal was an epicenter where life, belief, and behavior collided head on with the at-hand kingdom of God.
~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.