The last post tried to demonstrate how a shared family meal is powerfully generative, with the power to produce, or generate a way of thinking, acting, and responding to circumstances. In particular, children learn from the adults at the table not only civilized table manners and social customs, but about life and death, good and evil, right and wrong. In short, the table is a place for a child to observe what it means to be an adult. For believers, this becomes even more significant, because this is our shared practice for learning what it means to be a man, woman, child, and family of God.
It is also deep mystery how shared table time as a routine practice helps children develop a healthy attitude toward ritual and tradition. It has a potent and lifelong carryover effect on their sense of family and belief, acting as a liturgy of sorts for creating that daily rhythm of how a flourishing family life should flow. And, in this day and age, when culture kidnaps our children at younger and younger ages, this table time protects them. The physical food they eat with us is a symbol of God’s ever-present provision, help and sustenance. This family table is the place we can teach our children what we know of God, and where they can watch us live that love out.
Over many years as a professor at a Christian college, I had students regularly tell me of their struggles to know God. They are so fraught with an urgency to seem grown up without really wanting just yet to actually grow up, that they tend to leave looking for God by the wayside as they try to find themselves. This is quite natural for that age, but they almost universally and wistfully wish they could balance school, work, friends, and faith better than they do. In nearly every situation, my best counsel to them was to become more familiar with who God is, and to study his attributes, his Word, his actions throughout the generations, his dying and undying love for them, and his unchangeable nature. For my students, so focused on mission, I point them toward God because they need a better-developed sense of co-mission as they train (this, too is practice) for a lifelong vocation.
What does that have to do with the family table? The table, with its rich undertones of grace, acceptance, sustenance and togetherness is where parents can use, no matter how brief, the stories of the day just ending to teach their children about God. Mary wasn’t much older than a child when Gabriel announced God’s favor upon her. In her song of response, Mary demonstrates a deep knowledge of and trust in God, exclaiming, “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” (Luke 1:50-55)
Mary knows, fears, and reveres her God. It is nearly impossible to revere or fear a God you do not know well. When our knowledge and understanding of God is unformed, we are vulnerable to the human tendency to revere and fear the wrong things. When we revere money, we find ourselves fearing a fickle economy. If we revere health and youth, then illness, aging, even dying frighten us. Our reverence for providing for our own safety and security is born out of a fear of tragedy or calamity. But, at the table, we learn about a God who says throughout history, “Trust me, let peace rule in your heart. I care for you. I give you bread not stones. I love you so much and so completely that I died for you. I am here for you, present among you, and I will never leave you.”
The table truly does provide a powerful opportunity for testimony to our children. In our families, sharing our lives, our family history, our joys and our tears around the table, we also share in the love and knowledge of God. Our children not only learn the stories of our faith, they learn the stories of the family’s encounters with God through its history. We model for children what it means to trust God, to love him with a sincere and devoted heart out of fear and reverence for his holiness, his incarnation, his substitutionary death, and his promise to return. “Food is a direct route to the intimacies of life.” This is food for hungry souls.
Think about planning some family meals this week-for everyone’s sake!
~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.
 Weinstein, The Surprising Power of Family Meals, p. 69.
Featured image by J.Holberg, 2016