How can congregational leaders respond with lively faith and also take seriously the cultural and daily realities affecting people’s lives?
How can the congregation partner with the “home” without adding to the guilt and demands on time that too many parents already feel?
How can congregations practice faith when people gather, so that people are equipped when they scatter?
How does a congregation create a cross+generational, caring community essential for passing on faith?
In Deuteronomy 6:6-7 adults are instructed to “write these commandments … on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night” (The Message). Not extra time, but all the time! Sounds easy, but certainly isn’t simple.
Acts 2:42-47 describes the spiritual practices of Jesus’ first followers this way: “They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, their life together, the common meal, and the prayers … . They followed a daily discipline of worship in the temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God” (The Message).
These words may not exactly describe mealtime in our own homes or those where caregivers squeeze in a hurried meal between jobs, chores, chauffeuring, homework and bedtime. Mealtime is often overlooked or even avoided as a means to cope with daily stress. It is rarely understood as a time and place to practice one’s faith. Yet, what is more basic than sharing a meal?
Research and mental health experts consistently tell us that rituals and traditions, like those around sharing a meal, ground us and give us a sense of identity and belonging. The simplest of daily acts are the glue that keep us together in the midst of chaos and crisis and especially in those times when there simply are no words.
Family dinner table
An article in the Journal of Adolescent Health summarizes the research around the correlation between eating meals together as a family and the promotion of healthy adolescent development: “Frequency of family dinner is a protective factor that may curtail high-risk behaviors among youth. Family rituals such as regular mealtimes may ease the stress of daily living in the fast-paced families of today’s society.”
A survey of 18-year-old National Merit Scholars, across all ethnicities, gender, geography, and class, turned up a common thread in their lives: the habit of sitting down together at the family dinner table.
At a Wednesday evening dinner at Joy Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Parker, Colo., the tables were set with tablecloths and flowers. A hearty meal was prepared and served on real dishes! There was a wonderful “hum” in the room as people sat at round tables and talked. Children were comfortable sitting with adults other than their parents. Singles and elders blended into the mix. There was a “buzz” about the special cake that had been baked to mark this night as “extra” special.
This midweek meal might be the only time all week that busy adults and kids sit and share a meal. The staff planning the evening did not assume that people knew one another’s names or how to pray or engage in conversation, let alone do faith talk.
This was more than a chow line. There were lots of thank-yous as people were caught serving one another. Multiple generations shared food around dinner tables and later gathered around the Lord’s Table in a youth-led worship. The oldest and youngest present were honored. The simplest of routine tasks and interactions had been well planned. Nothing was taken for granted.
Upon a closer look at the meal served at Joy, it was a time for passing the peas as well as passing the faith. The Four Keys for nurturing faith, developed and named by David Anderson of the Youth and Family Institute, were taught and modeled during the meal:
- Caring conversation: Sharing highs and lows or “Where did you see God today?”
- Prayer/devotions: Formal, written, spontaneous, silly, sung.
- Rituals and tradition: Any consistent practice, serious or silly, that defines us as a family or congregation.
- Serving one another: No such thing as chores. Only acts of service and care for one another, our community, world, and earth.
Some people departed the evening feeling affirmed, saying, “We do this at home too.” For others it was a rare or new experience. They left encouraged, believing, “We can try this at home.” And for those who normally eat alone or in their room or not at all, this was a time of grace.
In the midst of the challenges that our 21st-century congregations and families face, let’s consider the kitchen table as a “training table” for daily life in Christ. Isn’t this exactly what Martin Luther did as he invited peers and students of all ages to share a meal in his and Katy’s home? I am absolutely certain there was prayer, Bible reading, acts of service (I hope Martin helped clear the table), and lots of conversation, sometimes contentious, maybe even outrageous! Luther reminds us, “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life.”
Yes, our changing culture can easily engulf us and overwhelm us. But remember the power of mealtime in the midst of uncertain times. Obviously, Jesus did!