A few years ago I made an appointment with the school principal to discuss a teacher I was incredibly unhappy with. And just to clarify, I am so not “that parent.” I am as un-involved as a school parent could possibly be. Dare I admit, to a fault. (how un-involved you ask? Well, when you welcome the “new gym teacher” to your school, and their response is, “This is my 7th year here” … well, yeah … that un-involved.)
So, here I sat, face to face with the principal, voicing my concern. I was nervous at first, but the fact that we were both moms of four kids, and could share “parenting of tweens and teens” stories, and laugh together as we found common ground, was a huge ice breaker. This commonality allowed us to see each other not only as “parent and school principal” but as real women, struggling with real issues, who can look each other in the eye, and say, “me too.”
But then something happened, and the conversation went like this.
“I just really hate the busyness so much,” I shared. “I have four kids that need to be in four different places at the same exact time, and so I am feeding them all quickly at different hours … I can’t even tell you the last time we were able to sit down at the table as a family and share a meal.”
And her softness hardened. Her glasses came off.
“I am so sick of feeling guilty about the eating dinner as a family nonsense. (only she didn’t use the word “nonsense.” I can’t write what she said on a Catholic website. And yes. This surprised me.) There is no proof that it helps the family … my family is FINE … we don’t need to sit at the table together every night to prove that. Such a ridiculous thing for us to feel guilty about. We have enough going on! If we can eat together, great, if not … no big deal. Dinner is dinner. As long as we all are fed, that’s what matters. We don’t have to be fed together.”
I did not respond.
Because not only am I “not that parent,” unfortunately, I am also “not that Catholic” who always has the right comeback when I disagree with what I have just heard. I need to work on that. Pray for me, would you?
But I do. I disagree. I did that morning three years ago, and I still do, today.
I believe that dinner as a family is important, because I believe that the table is sacred.
I believe that what happens around the table can be grace-filled.
I believe that we must gather our families around, and look into each other’s eyes, and ask about our days.
I believe in the importance of praying over the meal together.
I believe that preparing and sharing a meal is one of the best demonstrations of love for another.
I 100% believe that the family who eats dinner together every night is healthier, and stronger.
And I believe it is in that sharing of food, and fellowship, body and soul nourishment, that beautiful connections, transformations, and needed conversations happen.
Now, how can I be so sure of this?
I am so sure of this because my family has not eaten dinner together for a couple of years now.
And I have witnessed the disconnect, the brokenness and the weakening of husband and wife, of sibling bonds, of the child to parent connection, as a result of our not checking in with one another, all together, each and every night.
And yes, I am at fault. I have given into the conflicting evening schedules and my husband’s traveling, and the daily workload that bleeds into the night. I also kind of hate to cook. And since I am being horribly honest here, I will admit, family dinner for us always managed to turn itself into a family fight. There was always someone complaining about the food, always someone with bad dinner manners, always someone who didn’t come to the table when called, and I kid you not, always someone who left the meal crying. And often, the crying one was me. I cried because I desperately wanted to have a peaceful dinner with my family. I cried, because I didn’t think that family dinner time should be so hard. I cried because I would put so much effort into the whole stupid process and not only did the two-hour preparation end in four minutes, but it ended poorly. And then I was left with the cleanup, because everyone else was angry behind a locked bedroom door. Hardly seemed worth it.
And so this “new dinner time” routine, while not ideal, assures me that the fights won’t happen. It assures me that I won’t be let down. Because you can’t fight with yourself (well, you can, actually … but usually not out loud while eating, because people will think you are insane) and if little effort is made, well then, little appreciation is expected. Not very good excuses, I know, but it is how I have rationalized it.
And the school principal would totally support this, because after all, my family, like hers, is at least, being fed.
But are we?
The night before my oldest left for college, I made it a point and got word out … we were having a family dinner. All of us. Together. At the same time. Everyone, be home by 7PM. I saw it as my last chance to feel like I did anything right as a parent to him before sending him off into his new chapter, that will no doubt, include less of me, at least on a daily basis (and was quite possibly fueled by the awkward comments I fielded of how strange it was going to be when there was an empty place setting at my table. In truth, there had been many empty places for years now, and perhaps the biggest, most emptiest place of all, was nestled deep within my heart, when I would smile back in response and say, “yeah, I’ll bet”.)
So, I made spaghetti and meatballs and a giant salad, set the table with six new bowls, and filled six glasses with water. I prepared the table, and I prayed as I cooked, asking God to bless this time … to please let there be no fights … to please bring us peace … to please, I prayed, that the oldest remembers to come home for this last supper. Then I called everyone down. And one by one, we gathered. All six of us. Around the table. At the same exact time. And for the record? I was terribly nervous. I feared that something would go wrong.
“She has dressed her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table.” – proverbs 9:2
“We are having family dinner??!!!!” my thirteen year old exclaimed, wearing a smile as wide as the ocean. And each child, as they sat down, seemed to have the same excitement. And we passed around bowls, and we helped get each other served, and we prayed over the meal, and we had no fights. We might have looked the other way when the scraps were fed to the dogs, because we recognized the importance of all of us gathered. We laughed at stories shared, we asked for seconds, we looked each other in the eye, and we connected our hearts. There was real joy. We were a complete family. A family complete. Gathered around the table. Being nourished, body and soul. And no one left the table crying from hunger.
“Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35
But later? Well, sure, later I cried.
I cried out of sorrow for years of missed meals together.
I cried out of gratefulness, for having this special night.
I cried out of fear, that I had not done my job as their mother, that I gave into the demands of the world, at their expense.
And I cried out of the fullness of my heart, and for the reminder of how very much I love my entire family. All six of us. Together. Because let’s be honest here. Family can be hard. Really, really hard. And dinner time can be brutal. And so the tears were good. The tears were needed. The tears were confirmation that no matter how hard family can be, no matter how hard I may need a break from every person under my roof, I am most happy, most complete, most satisfied, when my flock is not scattered, when I can count all my sheep, and know that they are safe in the fold.
“It is you who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer a kingdom on you, says the Lord, that you may eat and drink at my table.” Luke 22:28-30
And so you see, this is why I disagree with that school principal.
Because there is so much more to feeding your family than making sure that they eat.
There is so much more to being truly fed.
It is not only in the feeding, but just as much as in the gathering.
And it starts at the table.
“They set the table, spread out the rugs; they eat, they drink.”- Isaiah 21:5
It is about the reclining around.
It is about the people who we invite to sit with us.
It is about the sharing.
It is about the stories told, the food passed around, the healing that happens when we break bread together.
It is about the preparing.
It is about the welcoming.
It is about the anticipating.
It is about the bond and the connection of those we join hands with.
It is about the grace we learn to give.
It is about creating meaningful relationships.
It is about filling chairs and filling hearts and having real, in the flesh, communion.
It is about taking a break from the rat race, and acknowledging that the people God has placed in our lives are more important that the places we need to get to.
The food is great and we all love to eat, but it is the nourishment of the actual gathering and sharing around the table that keeps us strong on our journey.
And it’s interesting. Every year when I host a holiday, I am determined to get the guests out of the kitchen and seated in my living room. I strategically place nuts in bowls and finger food on the coffee table. I light pretty candles on the mantel, and instruct my kids to guide the guests in that direction. But my extended family is like herding cats. And without fail, every single time, nobody makes it into the beautifully set living room. (Why do I even bother cleaning it?) Where do they like to gather? In my kitchen. Where in my kitchen specifically? Around the table.
The table is sacred. It plays an important role. It is not about how delicious the food is, or how much work you put into the cooking … it can be as easy as a cup of coffee and store-bought danish ring, as simple as a loaf of bread and bottle of wine. I think about the table, and what happens around it, quite often, and always, when I do this, I think about Jesus.
“A woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table.” – Matthew 26:7
How many times are we told in the Bible that “Jesus reclined at table”? From wedding feasts, to the home of the Pharisee, to Mary and Martha, to eating with sinners and tax collectors. How much detail do we find in Exodus over the creating of the altar, the cubits and bronze? And what about the Last Supper? Where Jesus invites all of us to come, to eat this bread to drink this cup, and to do this, in memory of Him? Everything that matters, everything we need to pay attention to, everything that changes our lives for the better, happens at the table.
“You shall make an altar of acacia wood, on a square, five cubits long and five cubits high. At the four corners there are to be two horns, so made that they spring directly from the altar. You shall then plate it with bronze.” Exodus 27:1-2
And it is something good to think about, not only when you sit down as a family, but anytime you have occasion to be at table with others. Sometimes we are seated next to people we may not care for. Sometimes we find ourselves sitting among strangers. Sometimes we even ask if we can have our table changed. But I challenge you to take another approach to the table. I challenge you to recall the many people that Jesus chose to sit with. I challenge you to look at the table as a sacred place, and to be open to the people around it. I challenge you to make this a habit, to invite in often, to link arms, and to honor everyone who gathers. I challenge you to prepare a table, welcome people around it, to not worry about the food, but to pay attention to the hungry souls that God has placed in your midst. We are not only called to sit and eat with those we like, we are called to sit and eat with those God loves, and who therefore, we should love too.
“While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners sat with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.” Mark 2:15
Miracles happen at the table, be it the sticky kitchen table, the dining room table covered with the mail, the crowded table at your local coffee shop, your beautifully prepared table at your Bible study, or the sacred altar at your church. And it is not enough that we just eat. It is not enough that we grab and we go, not giving the meal, and what it means, a second thought. We need to stop, we need to sit, and we need to eat together. Because it is precisely in this sharing, that we discover what we are truly hungry for. It is precisely in this communion that God makes Himself known.
“So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon! Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”- John 24:33-35
Copyright 2017 Laura Mary Phelps