54. Meals Inside the City are Rarely Shared

My visits to several inner city churches revealed a universal focus on feeding ministries to the homeless and hungry, where programming ran the gamut from on-site meals to delivered meals, to organizing and sending church members out to already-established citywide programs as volunteers.  If you saw the photo posted with this post of a charitable serving of a Thanksgiving meal, you will notice what I have seen nearly everywhere I go: Servers are never eaters.  They are happy and smiling and gloved and “protected” from the “other” by keeping a physical barrier (usually a table or counter) between themselves and those accepting a meal.  And this is what a shared meal would NEVER do.

One large church of 800 members in metropolitan Washington, D.C. had multiple ongoing food ministries, many in partnership with established, reputable city social programs. Each was organized by different church lay-volunteers. For example, this church participated regularly in the interfaith SOME (So Others Might Eat)[1] ministry in the city by distributing a single casserole recipe once a month in an empty aluminum baking pan. Church members took home a recipe and pan, bought the ingredients, and assembled a casserole to deliver to church the following Sunday. The SOME ministry van picked up the casseroles to take to their dining room for feeding the homeless.

The church’s multiple youth groups and other adult small groups each took one Friday night (about three times per year) to prepare a hot meal and sack lunches for the homeless. The cost of the food is a line item in the church budget, and volunteers do the shopping and cooking. Once all the food is prepped, volunteers join a Grate Patrol[2] van and are driven to assigned intersections in the city to give the homeless one hot meal for the night and a sack lunch for the following day. This too was not something developed and run by the church-they simply tapped into the existing secular feeding infrastructure in the city. And although the church has its own large kitchen, its membership size makes on-site meal sharing challenging (not many churches have a dining area that seats 800). The church sponsors one banquet a year, at Christmastime, for its members. Seating is limited, and people have to sign up to reserve a seat.

When I asked why the church participates in different food ministries, the answers were fairly typical. One teen volunteer shared,

“These are people, just like us, so we talk to them. And sometimes they tell us their stories, and we just try to be kind to them. Respect their dignity, and all that. I would say that there’s more to it than just handing them food and giving them a bag lunch.”

An adult volunteer agreed,

“I agree. In my experience with GRATE Patrol, we still get to know the people because folks are at the same spot every time you go around. You begin to recognize faces, and they begin to recognize you. And they interact.”

This statement made me wonder; if you only participate three times per year, how are real relationships built?

In the end, hungry people eat, and the volunteers are a blessing in their own city.

The teen told me,

“We get a lot of ‘God bless you and thank you for what you are doing.’ Actually, at one point one fellow, who we recognize, we were going out around Christmas, and we were giving him his food, and he reaches into his pockets and says “Merry Christmas”, and he hands two of us candy canes. I got this great sense of gratitude. I get the great sense that they are… grateful.

But then she went on,

It’s really poignant, … we were driving down yesterday, on Great Patrol, and right there is the Capitol building, and we are literally serving these meals in the shadow of all these monuments, and art galleries, and everything, and it makes me think that, you know, we’re a first world country, and we can’t take care of our poor. It’s hard.”

In these ministries, food is shared. But the meal itself is not. One point that consistently came out in these interviews was the feeling amongst volunteers that this food is precious and needed by the homeless and hungry. Volunteers almost universally felt it would be like taking the food out of a hungry person’s mouth if they sat down to eat together. In essence, it was as if they thought, “I am not hungry. But, I can help feed the hungry with my care and time.”

This is where a faithful understanding of all the ways a SHARED meal as a Christian practice can make a significant difference in the lives of everyone involved.  Is it logistically difficult?  Yes!  Is it time-consuming?  Yes!  Is it personally risky?  Yes!  Uncomfortable?  Yes!   But it is the right way to eat.  We need to eat together.  And often.

In the next post (#55), we will take a concerted look at a church-initiated inner city meal program for the homeless.

Please leave comments in the Leave a Comment box.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] So Others Might Eat. http://some.org/   March 31, 2016

[2] Grate Patrol. http://virginiasalvationarmy.org/ncac/files/2014/04/Grate-Patrol-One-Pager.pdf   March 31,2016

Photo Credit:  http://charity-matters.com/2013/11/25/the-opposite-of-full/#.WPYSlRiZN-U

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53. When your church building is used for the community meal-but you can’t say grace.

One of the most interesting models I came across was a semi-rural church of less than 50 members struggling to remain vibrant and relevant in a town in the throes of significant economic decline. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to maintain its 500-seat building, this small congregation sat squarely in the middle of a town with an increasing need for food ministries across the local population, most especially among the elderly and developmentally disabled. The church had a large institutional kitchen and dining capacity for 250, but, by themselves, they did not have the human or financial capital to begin and sustain a food ministry. So the church successfully partnered in plurality with others across the county- a local college, the Girl and Boy Scouts, the local home for disabled adults, and other churches (to name a few), today providing a community-wide free and shared meal twice a month supported by donations and grant monies, and directed by part-time paid personnel who are not church members. It has become quite a social scene. Meals are cooked by a chef, people get a plate of hot, home-cooked food served through the kitchen window. They eat together around beautifully set tables. Beverages and dessert are served by volunteers who also eat after everyone else is served. At the meal I attended, the mood was buoyant-people had come to eat, but, perhaps even more importantly, they had come to be together for an hour. In informal conversation, diners shared how much they look forward to getting out for this meal, for the companionship, hot food, and warm welcome it entails. They remarked that it was like eating a meal with a big family. And, the food was exceptionally good-nothing “institutional” about it.

But, by definition, this was not a shared meal as Christian practice where people eat around the table together in God’s presence giving voice and assent to that presence.  This is because the plurality of the partnerships essential for the program to survive also necessitated that all faith-based activity, including grace before the meal and a sharing of the gospel were unacceptable to most of the sponsors. So, it is a meal that is shared by the community in a beautiful old church building where explicit references to the coming kingdom of God are muzzled, and the church members can only hope that coming to the church for a meal will encourage more people to investigate the church itself. An organizer, who is also a Christian but not a member of any church, said that religion is off the table at the meals because,

“I don’t want to exclude anybody. I don’t want the conflict. And it hurts me to do that, but I’ve seen it before. I have to pick sides. There’s people who told me, this is the first time they have been inside of a church. Could that be a start?”

Another interesting phenomenon at this church is that most of the church’s members do not really participate – they don’t support the program as volunteers, they don’t come to share the meal, and they are somewhat threatened that “outsiders” are using “their” church. One significant reason is that they are elderly themselves. But, the real threat is that the church membership has dwindled from 500 to 50 since its heyday in the 1960’s.   It is easy to see how these elderly members conflate the two issues in their minds- that their own congregation faces extinction, and that the hospitality of a warm and sincere welcome to the “other,” including the developmentally disabled, the poor, and the non-Christian elderly, always has an element of “stranger danger”.   They would very much like to grow their membership, but not necessarily if it threatens the church’s historical way of life.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for members in established churches to oppose opening the door to people considered undesirable in the world’s eyes. Such hospitality is viewed as a threat to the shared history and family-like “feel” within the congregation. The assumption is that needy outsiders will never be able to contribute to the larger community, a belief sown in our human refusal to recognize the dignity and worth of all people made in the image of God. But, as Christine Pohl graciously reminds us,

“[People] not valued by the larger community are essentially invisible to it. Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect… Deep sensitivity to the suffering of those in need comes from our ability to put ourselves in their position, and from remembering our own experiences of vulnerability and dependence… If, when we open the door, we are oriented toward seeing Jesus in the guest, then we welcome that person with some sense that God is already at work in his or her life.”[1]

It is difficult for many of us to even think of sharing a common meal with people on the other side of our doors, people with whom we can’t conceive of sharing the Lord’s supper, people that we, if we are honest, don’t want around our children. We must overcome our fears. If we truly understand the depth of our own sin, the magnitude of God’s mercy in Christ, then we cannot help but become merciful to others. It is the way of the disciple outlined by Jesus in the Beatitudes. We don’t feed the needy stranger out of our own moral superiority, but out of our poverty of spirit. It is our own bottomless neediness for God that should drive our desire to share His kingdom with the stranger.

In post 54, we will begin looking at some of the shared meal practices of the inner city churches I interviewed.  Stay tuned!

~J.A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] Pohl, C. Making Room, 1999. pp 62, 65, 68

 

 

51. Reaching In, Reaching Out: Meals, Food, and Church

I have taken a long hiatus from the blog to relax, rewind, refresh, and rest in Scripture this winter.  Thanks for sticking with me!  Here is the beginning of the final chapter of this e-book about shared meals as a Christian practice.  This, and the following weekly posts can help nudge you to think about the food ministry at your own church.

There are multiple approaches to food and hunger through food ministries in the North American Church. All do good things. Some give out food from a pantry or a cash gift card to a grocery store. Others prepare or organize a meal to feed new parents, the ill, the grieving, or the aged. Still others use a meal for evangelical purposes, always letting participants hear that God loves them. And some intentionally create a formal atmosphere more similar to the original practice of marrying the meal with worship and teaching. Some churches work alone, others together, often in partnership with local secular organizations.

I interviewed stakeholders from multiple and different ministries in an attempt to describe the scope of mission and vision where meal ministry is concerned, and to get a sense of how that is working out in practice.[1] Certainly, feeding the hungry is an action believers are called to do, no strings attached. But my visits were predicated on the desire to know if feeding someone a meal rather than sharing one around the table together were practices with different motives, possibilities, and results.

Going in, my intuition said that feeding people can become a community’s collaborative way of loving neighbor without necessarily bringing Jesus and the kingdom of heaven into the shared conversation. And this phrase shared conversation is critical. If the shared meal as a distinctive Christian practice was and is always about being around the table together in God’s presence, and giving voice and assent to that presence, then programs in which one can stop in to pick up some food (no shared meal), or come in and be seated and served by church members (a meal served but not shared between visitors and believers) is fundamentally different from the shared meals of the first century church.   The people providing the meal go away feeling good about themselves, about having met the physical needs of their neighbors, but with little to no acknowledgment that we are all hungry and in need of God’s grace-filled presence and provision, no different than my experience in Seattle with the unnamed and hungry homeless woman. (see post #18)

In essence, it is a fulfillment of the second commandment that may give little or no regard to the first, and as a practice it is not distinctively Christian because it misses this point: we should know the names of the hungry and share with them a meal and Jesus’ favorite mealtime teaching that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We must remember that a Christian practice is only a practice when it is done together, regularly, and with a focus on the presence of God and his kingdom. The meal, then, is meant to be an intimate shared practice, one which most of us must admit is an uncomfortable proposition because adding strangers into the mix intrudes on our personal space and plays on our insecurities.

It might be easy to become defensive at this point and insist that the shared meal of the first century church was shared among believers. But scholars contend that although the early church did meet for worship and teaching and the breaking of bread together, all were welcome to eat and hear and see God’s goodness, believers and unbelievers, Jews and Gentiles alike. These meals did feed the hungry, but they were not focused first and foremost on that goal. The emphasis was (and still should be today) on Christ and the kingdom.

Moreover, the distinctive Christian practice of hospitality is at play in the shared meal. The four components of hospitality outlined by Amy Oden elegantly describe how these meals should proceed. First, the greeting and welcome. Second, nourishment and dwelling together (food and Word). Third, a challenge to know God and live a life which pleases him (this is a most important component of the practice that is usually missing when a meal is not shared). Fourth, the sending back into the world fortified with Word and prayer as well as a full stomach. And so I set out to do this research because I wanted to find out what people and programs are doing and why.

Over the course of two years, I met with stakeholders, visionaries, pastors, and lay members of various churches-inner city, rural ones with membership challenges, and suburban ones with lots of resources. Several overlapping program characteristics emerged from these interviews, including the type of program and individuals carrying out the programming, as well as the ownership, faith basis, and sustainability of each program. My main goal was to try and identify the commonalities and substantive differences across programs, and see if the shared meal-as a Christian practice- was an ingredient in the recipe of various church food ministries.

In Post 52, we will begin to survey the themes that arose from these interviews. Stay tuned!  As always, your comments are helpful as I continue editing the book.  Use the LEAVE A REPLY box below!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] As part of the formal research process, interviewees were required to give written consent to be interviewed in exchange for guaranteed confidentiality.

48. Lettuce & Ketchup Sandwiches

In this post, we continue the list of table/meal rules we began in post 47.  Once you have read them, write down the meal rules you followed as a child, and the ones you have instituted in your own family over the years.  Are there some that you would like to re-visit?  Begin to incorporate?

  • No talking with your mouth full or chewing with your mouth open.
  • No seconds of a particular food until what was served is eaten (or tried in the case of the ‘one-bite’ rule)
  • No trading foods at the table, or eating off another person’s plate, or sneaking food to the dog under the table.
  • No raised voices at the table.
  • Proper use of cutlery is expected (the knife is not a light saber).
  • Keep your hands to yourself and sit up properly in your seat.
  • Pre-determine who will sit where to avoid fights; a rotating seating chart is helpful, as is keeping track of who sits in mom or dad’s chair when a parent is out of town.
  • Everyone is expected to thank the cook(s) after every meal.
  • If you incorporate prayer and/or the reading of Scripture at a meal, decide ahead of time who will be responsible on a given evening.
  • No use of ugly words, inappropriate stories, gossip, or disrespectful tones at the table. Ugly words are just that, words which inflame, belittle, or create a vision of something too unpleasant to be considered acceptable at the table. In our family, this list includes words like hate, stupid, moron, pee and poop.
  • Involve all family members in the “making” of a meal, from menu planning, grocery shopping (and unpacking and putting away at home), meal preparation, table preparation, table service, saying grace, reading Scripture or devotions, and cleaning up afterwards. Encourage children to be in the kitchen- even small children can help put together a salad or stir the soup. Be ready for surprises like spills, cuts, or unusual menu items. The first meal our daughter, age six, proudly prepared for us, after shooing us out of the kitchen, was lettuce and ketchup sandwiches. We were compelled to pronounce every bite delicious!
  • Consider creating a useful rubric, or set of questions for guiding family meal conversation; here are just a few ideas:
    • Where did you meet God today?
    • Who did something nice for someone else today?
    • What’s the neatest thing you learned today?
    • Who knows why it’s good for us to eat this broccoli tonight?
    • If you could invite one other person, living or dead, to share this meal, who would it be?
    • If you could have a different first name, what would it be? Why?
    • What was in the news today? What should we pray about?
    • Did anything happen today that was unexpected or hard for you to handle?
    • Who remembers something from last Sunday’s sermon?
    • What two foods would you have to have with you on a deserted island?
    • What does it mean to be hungry?
    • What did Jesus eat? When he was a boy, do you think there was any food his mother Mary served that he didn’t like?
    • God gave the Israelites manna in the desert. What is that? Does God give us manna today?
    • With just a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, Jesus fed over 5,000 people. What do you think it was like to be there and see that happen?
    • Where does hamburger come from? What about ham?
    • Why do lots of people decide not to eat meat? Dairy? Eggs? Fish? Poultry?
    • What are some foods we grow right here in our own state?
    • What makes a Happy Meal so happy?
    • If you made dinner for the family next Saturday, what would you cook?
    • Is there anybody at church, or school, or work you think we should invite over for a meal sometime soon?
    • If a total stranger rang the doorbell right now, should we invite him/her in for dinner?

47. Screen-Free Meals. Or How to Build Real Face2Face Relationships at Home.

Posts 47 and 48 will consider some rules you can create and adhere to for a flourishing family meal time.  Because the table is an important training ground, children and adults both need to understand that certain table behaviors and attitudes are expected at every meal. The shared food is really only a small part of the power of the table. It is more important than you might realize that your family table be a place of nurturing, acceptance, and predictability.

At a family meeting, make a list of table rules. Your rules should stipulate that family, as a unit, always comes first. Perhaps some useful rules might include: (you will need to determine the consequences should a rule be violated)

  • All meals take place around a shared table set aside specifically for that purpose on set days at set times. While flexibility is a hallmark of good hospitality, the more consistent you can be in this area, the happier your family meals will be.
  • No one eats until all are served and thanks to God has been prayed.
  • Determine how grace is said, either corporately or by an individual; memorized grace said in unison is an important means for training children in the rhythm of gratefulness and family concord, while a free-flowing prayer by one individual allows for the influence of the Holy Spirit and for practicing the skill of “public” prayer.
  • Everyone eats the same foods. After teaching college nutrition for fifteen years, I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of not giving in to the power struggles food can cause between parents and children. I have shared meals with a host of adult students who still remove the crust from a piece of bread, who won’t touch a vegetable, and think cereal is an adequate substitute for a meal. A child’s taste buds do take time to mature, and some foods which are delicious to you are bitter, or have a ‘yucky’ texture to your child. You must learn to acknowledge that although they won’t like some foods, they still need to try each food presented. As taste buds mature, more and more foods become acceptable, and multiple attempts to “try it, you’ll like it” have been proven to create palatability over time. It is unrealistic, counterproductive, and servile to prepare separate food items for a family meal based on what each individual member likes and will eat. This is exhausting, and does not adequately prepare a child to view God’s great variety of foods with joyful expectation, respect, or thankfulness. Food aversion is natural, but yielding on a consistent basis to a picky eater can hamstring a child for a lifetime. Obviously, a child with a food allergy or food intolerance is a far different matter. If you have one family member with, say, a peanut allergy, it is important that peanut products are kept out of the home altogether, an adaptation each family member willingly makes out of love and concern for the affected individual.
  • Everyone must try at least one normal-sized bite of each food at the meal without theatrics or whining. If you serve something you know will meet with disapproval, a “one and done” rule can save a mountain of unpleasant confrontation.
  • Everyone is expected to help before and after the meal in age-appropriate ways. This can be an assigned service (don’t call it a chore) or a rotating one. ‘Everyone’ means all adults and children in the home.
  • No one leaves the table until everyone is finished- this is family time. Allowing children, especially, to leave the table early fractures the family dynamic, and means that an untended child is off doing his/her own thing with no adult supervision. Young children do have trouble sitting still over long, protracted meals. But, they should learn to sit through and participate in a normal family meal. They must also understand that once they do leave the table, they are officially done eating. A child who wanders away after a few bites, then returns to the table only to leave again is disruptive. You will have a hungry child on your hands by 8:00 p.m., but you need to stand firm. The table is where we eat, and meal time is when we eat. Period.
  • No electronics during dinner. This rule applies to all family members. Do not allow cell phones or other personal communication devices, computers, or headphones at the table. Do not answer a ringing phone. Do not eat on trays in front of the television.[1]

We will continue looking at some more rules in post 48.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] My husband and I were seated recently next to a large, three-generation family at a nice restaurant. To our amazement, the father pulled out a laptop device and started a loud, intrusive (to us) movie for the children at one end of the table so the parents and grandparents could ‘enjoy’ conversation at the other. This is no way to build intergenerational relationships or significant family ties, and it is rude to other diners in a restaurant.

44. Tricky Balance:Food Idolatry vs Quick, We Need to Eat!

Actually, food preparation is an important concept to think about. We are currently experiencing a rash of new writings about food- what constitutes real food, why fast food threatens our health and way of life, why we should consider eating only locally grown foods, and why the planet cannot sustain food production for the anticipated population of nearly nine billion people worldwide by 2050. The latter chapters of this book attempt to address our individual connection and ease of access to food in the United States with issues of food and water scarcity in much of the rest of the world. For now, suffice it to say that our present national attention to food is, perhaps, overindulgent, and a fascinating study in human nature. On the one hand, we idolize food and nearly make food practice a religion. Food critics, cable cooking shows, and internet bloggers remind us that the world of food has its own language and rules, where food takes on godlike characteristics. On the other hand, such obsession-compulsion and misplaced fidelity is contradicted by a post-modern and relatively mainstream insistence that food be characterized, above all else, by convenience. We don’t have time to fuss over food, and we just want something to mollify our hunger. Somewhere in this dilemma, most of us find ourselves having to work very hard to find middle ground. We want to provide healthy food for ourselves and our families, and wish we could enjoy it together more often.

Unless you have hired help, procuring, storing, and preparing food is a necessity that someone in the home must meet on a consistent basis. Because nutritional needs across the age span can only be met by regular consumption of a variety of healthy foods, we need to understand the importance of the roles of planning menus, buying food, keeping ingredients on hand, and making time and space for preparing food in ways that are appetizing, wholesome, and, yes, even convenient. What’s more, most of us need to do this on a tight budget.

More often than not, this obligation falls to the adult women of a household, but more and more, men are taking an active role in a family’s food needs. One of my colleagues is a single father with two elementary school-aged daughters. The three of them have a routine for the four nightly meals they share each week. On Mondays after school, they go together to the grocery store. Each girl plans the menu for one meal and dad plans two. They walk and talk themselves through the store, picking out the ingredients they need for their planned meals. Once home, they work together in the kitchen to put foods away and begin the evening meal prep. It is not unusual for some of the girls’ friends to stay for a meal with this little family. Each meal begins with prayer, and dad intentionally guides the conversation around biblical stories and themes while having the girls replay the day’s events. My colleague says that this activity of planning, shopping for, making and sharing meals has bonded the three of them together like nothing else they do. In the process, the girls are learning to shop and compare prices, consider substitutes, store and prepare food, and entertain friends in their home over a shared meal.

No matter who sees to the food provision in your home, that person must be well-versed in the age-appropriate nutritional needs, within budgetary limits, of all of the family members being fed. And, if time is tight, it is a job that requires planning, discipline and creative thinking. In Post #45 we will begin to address where to start.

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

Photo credit:  K. Luymes

42. The Dining Table: Food for Hungry Souls

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.”[1] This is food for hungry souls.

Think about planning some family meals this week-for everyone’s sake!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

[1] Weinstein, The Surprising Power of Family Meals, p. 69.

Featured image by J.Holberg, 2016

41. Be GENERATIVE. Sit. Eat. With. Your. Kids.

You must make it happen. There is NO OTHER WAY.  The evening family meal is restorative; it provides time, space, food, and companionship for soothing the rough patches created by the demands of both this day, and of the day anticipated tomorrow. It helps cement people together and organize the family as a team. Table time as a family is for discovery too. We share our experiences and the things we’ve learned, and can discuss whether our responses to particular situations were the right ones.

When our daughter began fourth grade at a new school she encountered her first bully. Week after week, we spent time as a family, almost always at the dinner table, discussing what the bully said today, how she acted on the bus, and what we, as a family should do about it. We prayed together. My husband and I advised our daughter to adopt a “kill the situation with kindness” attitude, but not because we wanted to teach her non-confrontation.[1] On the contrary, we felt that intentionally-responsive smiles and kind words on our daughter’s part comprised precisely the type of loving confrontation Jesus would have practiced. At first, our daughter’s responses only infuriated this bully to grander displays of meanness (all verbal), but, to give her credit, our daughter persevered and trusted that this decision, made as a family at the dinner table, was the right course of action. We also counseled our daughter to try her hardest to imagine what could make another little girl so angry and mean, and to pray for her to experience the joy of a changed heart. Was this bully unloved at home? Was she sad? Did she really just need a friend and not know, socially, how to make one? Our daughter prayed for this girl for many weeks. Eventually, the bullying stopped. Our daughter learned that responding in kind is never as good as responding with kindness. She learned that some people are unloved and unloving. She learned to pray for an enemy, and to ask for prayer. And, she learned that, as a family, we took her problem seriously and were concerned for the outcome. All in the intimacy of the family table.

This helps demonstrate how a shared family meal is powerfully generative, meaning that it has 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.

[1] This particular eight year-old girl was not a physical threat, nor did she act as part of a larger group of bullies picking on our daughter, and this happened before social networking made e-bullying a reality. This little girl was just miserably mean. One reason we monitored the situation so closely each night at the supper table was to discern if adult intervention was called for.  But, we also wanted our daughter to learn to positively handle life’s challenges on her own with God’s help and wisdom.

Until next time!

Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

39. What if WE ate like this?

A Summary of the Shared Meal in ACTS

Eating together, sharing food, inviting any who would come, and using those meals to testify to the life, death, resurrection, and saving grace of Jesus was a common theme throughout the earliest days of the nascent church. What would it look like if we “did” meals the same way?

Most importantly, our tables would no longer be empty, instead reclaiming a rightful place as the central gathering place in our homes, and standing as a visible testament to the importance of shared meals in the life of believers. In our homes, we would not only participate in regular family meals, we would create a new habit- a practice if you will- of intentionally inviting others to join us- people from church, our neighbors, our work colleagues, our children’s friends and their families, visiting missionaries and scholars, and even the stranger we just happen to meet on any given day. Food could be simple fare like bread, soup, cheese and a piece of fruit- anything that would stretch to serve a tableful of guests and family, and be easy to prepare. And every table would always be capable of accommodating “just one more” hungry person.

Such a meal would begin with praise and thanksgiving. Today, we might call this “saying grace”. After the meal proper, invited guests would be asked to bring a word, a letter from a missionary might be shared, and Scripture read. A hymn would be sung. There would be prayer. And these types of meals would happen over and over again throughout the year.

At church, we would gather frequently to share meals and we would be intentional about inviting anyone in the neighborhood to join in. And, just like our home-based meals, the shared meal at church would contain specific components of praise, thanksgiving, breaking of bread, testimony, Word, and prayer, a model we’ll consider later in this book.

As a reminder, these posts are numbered in a specific sequence because they each contain pieces of the chapters of a book on shared meals and Christians.  So, they are meant to be read IN ORDER.  If you have comments or questions, send them via the LEAVE a REPLY box provided.  I am more than happy to discuss the topic with you!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

35. Food Fight!

Paul was a major player in confronting early Christians about their need to set aside personal and heated differences over their food practices of the past to enjoy fellowship meals of mutual edification and submissive accord. A careful read of Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians clearly shows that some of the biggest divisions among early believers were sparked by radically different food customs and practices at the meals of the gathered community. Try to imagine the consternation of the Jewish Christian eating with a Gentile Christian. The Jew would be upset by the so-called unclean practices of the Gentile. The Gentile, not caring to adopt the ball and chain of the Jewish purity rituals would also be made to feel inferior for eating certain foods, in particular the meat from animals sacrificed to idols. Paul worked tirelessly to get all believers on the same page where sharing food was concerned; his letters, most certainly circulated and read at the shared meals of the early Christians, are filled with admonitions that they stop their petty bickering over food and the separatist notions these disputes fostered.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul wrote, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal 2:11-12). Apparently, Peter’s conviviality with Gentiles was met by separatist Christian Judaizers with such disapproval that he had begun to withdraw from meals at which Gentile Christians were present. Paul insists that it is not the Gentile Christians who must act more “Jewish” but the Jewish Christians who must live like Gentiles, and he publicly calls Peter to account for his legalistic behavior. Accusing Peter and the Galatians of being brainwashed, Paul instructs them to justify their actions solely on Christ, and resume their shared meals together, because “the table was a prime and powerful image in Paul’s world for boundary marking and community inclusion.”[1] Paul scolds Peter for succumbing to the pressures of some Jewish Christians who were still following the Jewish requirements for ritual purity. Imagine the irony if you can. This is the same Paul who once bragged of his righteous keeping of the law, and the same Peter who was with Jesus when he condemned the Pharisees for the blind way they assumed ritual purity was counted to them as righteousness. It is no wonder Paul confronts Peter to his face.

In post 36, we will continue this discussion!

~Julie A.P. Walton, Ph.D.

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[1] Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist, p. 186.