When I was a child, my grandparents had a working ranch near Dodge City, Kansas. It was a couple thousand acres sprawled across sandy slopes of alfalfa and corn bordered by the Arkansas River on the north that always ran dry. This is where my family vacationed as a kid. I have many memories here; cowboys and Indians, the grumpy dog, football, pet raccoons, riding the moped on the dusty farm roads hours upon end. But some of the greatest memories I have is dinnertime with the family.
My family is large. My grandparents had 4 children, one being my mother. When all four aunts and uncles and all their progeny were present, it was a sight to behold. At a minimum we had 10 adults and 16 grandchildren. To pull in the vernacular of the ranch, it was as a herd. And how dinnertime went is best described as a controlled stampede.
The adults ate in the main dining room while the kids were relegated—for logistical reasons—to the breakfast nook—within ear shot of the adults, but outside the effective parental visual control perimeter or EPVCP. The adult table sat 10 comfortably. The kids table sat 4 comfortably. So cramming 12 more children around that table just added to the mystical experience of family.
As you can imagine, dinners were wonderful and raucous. The adults ate in some form of regality and poise interrupted only by their frequent threats of bodily harm if we didn’t “turn it down.” We relished dinner time. We cut up. We laughed. We did impressions of our favorite Goonies character. We made faces and spilled drinks. We poked fun at the middle child in each family until one of them cried. We strained jello between our teeth. It was the best of times.
Then there were the times when not everyone was present. The kids, therefore, weren’t relegated to the breakfast nook and we were invited to sit at the table of adulthood in the sanctuary of seriousness. Elbows off the table when you eat your corn cob. Napkins in your lap. No un-useful chatter. No Goonies impressions. No sugar in your tea. From this vantage point you can sense the tensions that time brings into relationships. You can hear the quiet echo of pain in the short conversations. The uneasy smiles. The diverted glances. Is there love here? Truckloads. It’s undeniable and palpable. But, it is not perfect love. This is the erosion of time upon love. This is what love looks like when it carries the wrinkles of age, limps with pain, and is scarred with unmet expectations. This is how we have taught each other to love.
I’d give anything to sit at that table again.
I started writing this post because I wanted to make the analogy of the church being a table that we set for others—all generations need to be present and valued and given a voice. But this is pulling my heart strings a little deeper than that. There comes a time in our lives when we cease just sitting at a table and we become the ones who set the table. Think on that. We go from sitting to setting. We become the ones who make others feel welcomed into a family.
And how do we do this? It’s not the silverware. It’s not the fine china. It’s really not even what is served, although much can be said about that.
But to set our table in a way that invites others to belong and feel welcomed begins with intentional love. And I would submit that what that looks like, more than anything, is forgiveness. Love doesn’t exist apart from forgiveness.
When we set the table with forgiveness as the tablecloth, everything placed upon it and done around it flows from love.
It’s what made Jesus’ cross so powerful. If He couldn’t look at his accusers and abusers and say, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing,” then the cross was a needless exercise in how to endure physical pain. But the cross was more. It was the showpiece of the incarnate God revealing His everlasting love and enduring forgiveness for the world. Jesus was showing us how to set a table.
Let’s forgive grandparents for being tired and not hearing well. Let’s forgive parents for being absorbed in their careers in order to provide shelter, food, and safety. Let’s forgive our siblings and cousins for carving out their own lives independent of us. Let’s forgive our children for the emotional toll they take from us. Let’s forgive the newborns for demanding our precious attention and energies. Let’s forgive the stranger for not looking or talking like us. And let’s forgive ourselves—because whatever crappy standard we force everyone else to live up to is ultimately the standard we hold ourselves to.
And so if we can sit around a table offering forgiveness to all who come, laying down judgements, with no expectations other than to just be present with one another, to listen, to speak, to laugh, to make the middle child cry (we can’t let that go), then all of sudden the smells of Kansas come wafting back into memory—a blend of sweet manure and lime jello salad—and we experience once again the joy and whimsy of a love that is slowly being perfected. And when we have this, we have community. We have family. We have church.
Go set your table.