Listen To Article
I’d never really been in a church until I was ten years old. Oh sure, there’d been a couple of funerals, and a Mennonite wedding when I was quite small that was churchy (I’ve seen the pictures but I don’t recall the memory) but nothing much substantial in my mind until then. We weren’t churchgoing folks. Then, kind of abruptly, we were. But that’s another story for another time. My young impressionable self took a lot in during those early years though. One thing was what Pastor Scott said while standing over—or behind, as it was—the communion table. “This table does not belong to us.” I was a bit incredulous even then. I may have been new to church and only a kid but I knew a lot of these people. I saw the way the various women’s Circles kept care of things around here, ran a tight ship, how the elders did stuff—much later I would learn, decently and in order. It just seemed so odd that this piece of furniture, a dark stained wood table that matched the rest of the trappings of the sanctuary somehow didn’t belong to the church. Pastor Scott continued, “It is not the possession of the Presbyterian Church or of our local congregation, or of any church. It is the Lord’s table. It belongs to Christ and he invites us to it.” That was almost thirty years ago, but still I can picture him standing there, see the weird way he’d extend his neck while he was speaking as if he was trying to loosen a kink or something. And I remember those words, the significance that I would only partially understand, but still settled with me.
Maybe it was because I was young and impressionable, but my image of Christ—my understanding of God—has been greatly influenced by those words. When I picture Jesus I don’t imagine the long flowy robes and the sheep, the two of which put together always seemed rather silly. (A working shepherd wearing a robe! As if.) But I can picture Jesus at table. “He prepares a banquet for me…” Now, that’s an image I can relate to, and even inspires a physical response hoping to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
I remember Pastor Scott’s words vividly, and confess, have borrowed and used them myself on numerous occasions. “This is the table of the Lord, it does not belong to us…” I am particularly mindful of how not only our disposition can be changed, but also of what the table can communicate and translate. I think especially of the words in the communion liturgy, “mindful of the communion of saints,” and how that simple piece of furniture becomes an extension of God’s great dining table and of the loved ones gathered around it. It even hints to a possible change in our own messed up economies that just maybe all tables could become God’s.
I’ve got tables on my mind today. As I write this I’m on a train somewhere between Harrisburg and Altoona having left New York late this morning enroute to northeast Ohio via Pittsburg where my brother will pick me up and we’ll brave this snowstorm that’s spreading from the middle of the country to the northeast. I can say that the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is quite beautiful covered in snow. But I also hope that PennDOT will have effectively cleaned as much of that snow as possible off of Interstate 80 as I will be driving back across it tomorrow evening in a rented U-haul van carrying furniture, including two tables back to New York. The tables are not communion tables as such, yet my mind readily makes certain like connections.
The first table, the newest one, is really more like a writing desk. It was crafted just a couple years ago, but its story is older. It started off as a sapling on my great grandfather Noble’s property, a black walnut tree. It was transplanted to my grandparents’ “new” farm back in the ‘60’s where it took root and grew strong situated on the south side of the old farmhouse between the chicken coop and dog kennel. My father in his adolescent years grew up alongside that tree, and many years later so would I. The tree was prodigious in the number of walnuts it produced, providing both Grandpa and many neighboring squirrels with more than enough nuts. It blew over in a storm a few years back, and not wanting to waste quality timber as firewood, my grandfather had it milled and eventually crafted into the table it has become. This table, while new, connects me to four generations of my family and the places where we have inhabited. It may not be a communion table, but it certainly reminds me of the communion of saints.
The second table is old and looks it, a dining table that I wouldn’t be surprised was a hundred years old. It shows the seasoning of age, worn and weathered through the years. It once served as the dining room table of another set of great-grandparents. My grandmother told me stories that involved this table when she was a little girl. She grew up on a farm where her parents raised poultry and her grandparents were retired dairy farmers. This was the early twentieth century and during the summer months, various farmhands would join the family at the table with a larger number joining during harvests. The table includes twelve leaves that can expand seating for as many hands that needed fed. I picture in my imagination my grandmother as a wee child sitting at that table and her mother and grandmother, my great and great, great grandmothers respectively, feeding the multitudes at this table. I meet five generations of my family around it.
These are no simple pieces of furniture. They are liturgical vessels connecting me to my loved ones who have gone before me. And in the mystery that is God, they can become extensions of God’s great banqueting table. Unlike the church communion table, these actually do belong to someone other than Christ. I don’t take that lightly. Later tonight I will gather with my family and we will celebrate the holidays as so many others have. It won’t be around these particular tables though. But still, we will pray, and invite ourselves to be aware that Christ is with us. And perhaps even my grandparents will be there, and my great grandparents, and so on. Because sometimes a table is so much more than a table.