I just finished reading Shauna Niequest's lovely book, "Bread and Wine," which I have been reading in fits and starts for awhile now, mostly just before bedtime. The writing is lovely, and sometimes even mouth-watering, which is understandable given the fact that the book centers around hospitality and cooking and what happens when we welcome one another and care for one another at the tables we set for each other. There's an intimacy in this book: the stories around the table are filled with people she loves, both rejoicing and broken-hearted, in moments of sorrow and celebration.
I am going to confess right now that I don't do much entertaining, Christmas and Easter and a couple of other occasions are about all I can manage. Although all of her recipes sounded delicious, I can't imagine myself trying a single one. Shauna encourages her readers to plan dinner parties, to make entertaining a Christian discipline, although for most of her book, this is implicit in her writing, not stated aloud. Life around the table is transformative, she tells us.
I believe her.
I believe that life around the table is transformative, as she says. It matters not whether the meal is elaborate or simple, there is something about eating together, that activity most necessary for life, that binds us to one another and transforms us, makes us family.
I still remember the rare occasion that my family would go out to eat: at a popular Italian restaurant in the downtown area of our city. It was supposed to be a big deal, and of course it was; we all still remember the occasions. But what I also remember is that all of us knew the truth: my mom's spaghetti was far superior to what the restaurant offered. My mom's spaghetti was one of the things that bound us together, and not because it was a gourmet recipe. Simply because it was my mom's spaghetti. I actually made it for Easter once, when my niece and nephew were little, and my parents were away for the holiday. I was exhausted from Easter worship, but I wanted to have my brother and his family over, so I made my mom's spaghetti and salad.
Life around the table is transformative, and Shauna writes so well about how the food and company shared got her through hard times and somehow made life holy.
And yet, believing all this, I still think that something is missing. As I reflect back on the transformation that has happened around tables for me -- I realize that many of those moments involve not the intimacy of sharing with family and friends, but the utter grace of sharing with strangers. There were the curry rice lunches after church at Hiyoshi Church in Tokyo, especially at the beginning when I knew no Japanese. There was the meatball dinner my church prepared and served at The Banquet in South Dakota. Then we sat down to eat and share stories with all who were hungry. There was the time I was living in community in Denver Colorado, and we were told that a number of Arminian refugees would be staying with us for the weekend. It was my night to cook, I realized with fear and trembling, as I tried to figure out what to make for twenty people instead of ten, half of whom did not speak English.
Life around the table is transformative. This is most certainly true.
Shauna Niequest's vision is a compelling one. She tells us that it's not just Holy Communion, but every meal shared, that can be Holy. Every table can be the Lord's table. I can see the candles burning down, the table set, the wine glasses poured. I would love to be a guest at her table. I know I would learn much about what it means to be loved and welcomed. I wish I had her cooking courage.
And yet something is still missing for me. Perhaps it is because, when she brings up the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord's Supper, what comes to mind for me is not just the intimacy of eating together, but the utter grace of sharing with strangers, and how our tables and our churches are still, for the most part, not inclusive enough, in matters of race and class.
The stories she tells are holy, and the tables she sets are holy. But for me, more stretching needs to be done. My heart yearns for a hospitality that is even wider, a table set to welcome strangers.