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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

How-to Friday: Set the Table

Years ago, I read a great book by Danny Meyer called: Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. At 27, Meyer opened what would become one of Manhattan's best restaurants: Union Square Café. Since that time, he has experimented and innovated on his ideas of "enlightened hospitality," where giving attention to the team you employ and the function of your space figures importantly in the purpose of gathering people communally around a table. This kind of gathering for meals around a table is a sacred act in the Christian tradition. Jesus gave us a meal for remembering Him, and there is much to be learned from the theology of the meal. Most obviously, Jesus gathers His people corporately and meets them in their gatherings. The church needs that reminder desperately when culture sings the song of the individual, and books today are being published with titles like, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. David Brooks' op-ed piece in the New York Times this week, "The Talent Society," is a good read for seeing some of the rising trends of our individualism. Brooks makes it clear that we are a society that prefers aloneness: but the question as Christians that we have to ask is, Should we? If Jesus gave us a meal by which to remember Him, I think the answer is rather obvious.

A meal is also so unbelievably material and concrete, a sort of forced reckoning with a life that isn't primarily esoteric and philosophical. I, for one, love to live shut up in my mind's attic, tending to my abstractions, bothered when it's time to actually get to the business of laundry and dishes. I struggle with feeling that it's the mundane responsibilities of my life that are interruptions to the real business of living that I want to be doing. But I'm starting to see this perspective for what it really is: a rejection of the meal and of the way God wants to embed His truth and reality into the everyday, material realities of my life. I am a mom whose life is incredibly busy with dirty socks and dirty dishes and crumbs underneath my table. I can choose those as interruptions, or I can choose the theology of the meal, which means finding Jesus in every dusty, cluttered corner of life.

It actually imbues my kitchen work with holiness: I'm grateful for that because it is many, many hours of the week that I stand by the sink and stove, stirring and peeling and measuring. The work of setting the table for seven people, two and three times a day, is monumental: there's no getting around it. But how will my life transform when I start seeing Jesus there and start giving the kind of sacred attention to our gatherings? When I let our meals become communion?

Enough of the philosophical: here are some practical things I've been trying to make our meals less rush, more communion.

First, time. Give them more time. In the mornings, I try to give ourselves thirty minutes for breakfast. At dinner, we try to allow for a little more time than this. Trust me when I say that there are days that we, too, rush around and don't sit as long as I wish we would. But giving time to our meals allows for letting the table be our invitation, not just to swallow our food, but to nourish our souls. Please, sit down.

Second, bring Scripture, prayer, conversation back to the table. I've said this before here. Once you've done the hard work of gathering your family, take advantage of your efforts and use the time at the table to pull out your Bible. We also keep a journal close by: this year we're working to count our good gifts from the Lord as a family. And after the writing retreat, I brought a book of poetry up from the basement to include to our table books, and we've been reading aloud from it. The children have actually insisted they do the reading aloud. So we read at our table, pray at our table, and generally, try to do a lot of talking. It's good, nourishing face time. And like I said, it doesn't happen every day in this way, but it's always the goal.

Third, turn off your screens. I love that my friend, Wendy, has her teenagers (and her husband!) drop their phones in a basket by the front door when they come home. Turn off your tvs, put your phones away, and do the work of seeing each other. Is it any wonder than research shows how one common factor for keeping adolescent children out of trouble is sharing meals together as a family? I think as parents, we set the tone for how our children will interact with their media. When we let our conversations with our children constantly be interrupted by texts, checking status updates, reading email, we should not be surprised when they, armed with their own phones, will learn quickly to tune out our voices and mute the conversations going on around them, the very conversations that will be arguably more important than those we're having today.

This is my body broken for you: eat this in remembrance of me.

This is my blood, poured out for you: drink this in remembrance of me.

Let's set tables of communion for our families and communities and cities. It is a good and holy work. If you, like me, are a mother with young children who resist sitting quietly in their chairs and who often complain they don't like the food set before them (two chronic sins around here!), don't despair. You are right to do a bit of insisting on the sitting and the polite waiting and the powering off the technologies. You are teaching them the theology of the meal and the beauty of gathering.