Setting a Table of Plenty

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. –Virginia Woolf

A good meal is one of life’s greatest pleasures. In a world of fast food, quick service, and complimentary bread baskets, we can quickly lose sight of the joy in planning, preparing, and sharing a meal with others. Having worked in the restaurant industry for a number of years, I’ve seen this first hand. Parents neglecting their children in favor of their iPhones, friends talking to each other without actually having a real conversation, and kids coloring on the windows (even my child has snuck an errant doodle past me). It’s discouraging to see the way people interact with each other in restaurants. Don’t even get me started on their interactions with servers. Many days I left work with no hope for humanity because I’d seen such rude and insincere behavior.

One shared meal banishes thoughts of restaurants and always reestablishes my love for people: church Potluck.

I have vivid memories of potluck meals at my grandparents’ church. A tiny church in a tiny town. Their congregation couldn’t have been more than 100 people of whom the average age was well over 50. But there was always plenty of food, home cooked food. Five kinds of bread, rolls, and biscuits. Three kinds of potatoes. Fried chicken. Casseroles. Green beans. Deviled eggs. And dessert to end all desserts. My mouth starts watering just thinking about them. But the most striking part of the meal wasn’t just how great the food was, but that there was always more than enough. There is nothing more disappointing (even as an adult) than being at the back of the line and finding all the macaroni and cheese pans empty. Never happened there. They made plenty.

Our current church home won us over with their potluck. They share lunch together every Sunday, I don’t know of another congregation that does that. Our first visit, people introduced themselves and made sure we stayed for the meal. Immediate and meaningful hospitality to me; kind words and food. I saw the huge bounty of food prepared and could instinctively gauge the health and vigor of the church. Big potluck = big hearts. They planned on having visitors, on having enough to give to whomever walked through the door. They made plenty.

This past Sunday, the sermon was actually about potluck and how sharing a meal expresses Christ in so many ways. Which initially caused me a little guilt; I’d made cupcakes Saturday from a new recipe and did not take them to church because I thought (a.k.a. my pride and perfectionism told me) they were overcooked. Once I got past that little pang of conviction, I sat through the rest of the message absolutely buzzing.

Remember how I said here the last sermon I heard was one of those indirect answers to my prayers kind of sermons? Well this one was the arrow to my heart, the frying pan to my head, and the chord at which I resonate.

God has not just made me enough, he has given me plenty.

Wait, what crazy thing did I just say? I, single mother living with my parents because I can’t afford an apartment, I have been given plenty?

I have never gone hungry because there wasn’t food available. Thank the Lord, Eva has never gone without a meal because we couldn’t afford it. There are people in this country and many others that go hungry every day. And I just can’t live with knowing that and not do anything about it any longer.

Feeding the hungry is one of the most basic and most loving things I can do. I’m sure it could be as simple as volunteering at the Food Bank but I think God may slowly be revealing something bigger. And it starts with me setting a table of plenty.

It’s been so long since I could visualize my future and now these hopes are bombarding my mind. I have been so hungry for purpose! I thank God for the walk in the desert that has made me long for His plenty. The closer I get to sitting at His table and seeing the bounty there, the more equipped I feel to set my fear and pride aside and say, “Ok, let’s go where you want me to go.” And the more I can affirm that, the more clearly I can see a way.

Help me set the table. I need your support, your thoughts, your prayers and your love. I am terrified of the crazy obedience this journey requires. I’m tired of the bad rap Christians have because not enough of us live in the radically loving way Christ calls us to live. I want to go there even though it’s scary. Once the plans I’m working on come together a bit more, I will share more, but for right now just hang with me and pray that I am going the right way.

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Never Alone

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I graduated from a small, private, Christian college in Tennessee. You’ve probably never heard of it. I tell people it was a great experience because all of my professors knew my name. Well, it took half a semester and a concussion for one of them to remember it… But after everything I put him through in my three and a half years there, he probably wishes he’d kept forgetting.

I enrolled in one of his classes every single semester–including my study abroad term. I think I am his only student to ever manage that so far. I’d sit in the back of the class (because I’m a “W” and grade school alphabetical seating stuck with me) and pass notes, and make snarky remarks, and occasionally have something positive to contribute. He’d teach us about life without us realizing it and then say something about metaphors and sexual relations with roses and we all just loved him more.

He saved me from dropping out my first semester. He passed me when I deserved to fail. He walked with me to my first therapy session. When I showed up to his office 7 months after graduating, I didn’t even have to tell him I was pregnant–he knew. We have an understanding that if his administrative assistant ever decides to quit (God forbid because she holds that department together), I am going to work for him regardless of where I’m living, what I’m doing, or what I’m being paid.

And he introduced me to The Merton Prayer when he knew I needed these words:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”
© Abbey of Gethsemani

I prayed these words so many times; they carried me through some of my darkest, ugliest times. Still do. My final semester of college was pretty traumatic personally–I can’t even remember what classes I took–my grandfather was diagnosed with brain cancer a week into the term and I had some things happen to me…that nearly drove me over the edge. I would lay on my bedroom floor with my Sacred Heart of Jesus candle burning, holding the piece of paper with this prayer to my chest, tears running down my face, begging God to make these words true. I wasn’t at the point where I desired to please Him, but I did want to learn that desire. I totally believed I was lost and in the shadow of death. And I was certain–without any doubt–that in no way, shape, or form did I know myself.

Oh, but the hope!

It was so tiny, so dim, I didn’t really know it was there. Barely a candle in an empty coliseum. I didn’t feel hopeful, I just felt like maybe I could make it through another night without taking a whole bottle of ibuprofen. That wasn’t a good feeling per se, but I was still breathing and that’s what mattered.

I found my little flicker of hope in two phrases:

“You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it..” and

“..for you are ever with me…”

Believe me, I could do a line-by-line analysis right now and still have more to say about this prayer, but those two phrases… Those two phrases took root deepest in my heart.

When I prayed aloud, I always exhaled through the “know nothing” line because I had to take a deep, reassuring breath before I could say it. That nasty being-in-control issue again. And I could almost never affirm “for you are ever with me” without my voice breaking or tears flowing.

Ever with me?

Really, Lord?

Even when my grandfather is laying in a hospital bed with part of his skull removed and it feels like my family is falling apart? Even when my sister is blacking out for inexplicable, undiagnosed reasons? Even when I have been abused and assaulted? Even when I can’t get out of bed for crying?

Yes.

Even then.

I cannot know where my path leads now, but I know I wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for that professor (along with others in that department and the French one, as well). I don’t know that I would have had the courage to keep Eva. He was the one I was scared to disappoint. I knew there was no escaping my parents’ disappointment and anger. I knew that my female professors/mentors would still love and accept me. But if I had disappointed him… oh no, I could not have borne that. But he wasn’t disappointed. In fact, he told me that if he had to pick anyone he knew to be a single mother, he’d pick me.

Without his care and the love of all my mentors there, I don’t even know that I would still believe in God, honestly. That’s how much they have done for me.

I have seen my daughter in his arms when she’d never been in her father’s. I have cried in his office when I felt like i had nowhere else to go. I have gotten better life advice from him in one sentence than in whole discussions with others. And I will never, ever stop being grateful.

So I am returning to this prayer now. One, because I need to practice spiritual discipline and lectio divina is a good way to start. Two, because I am starting to feel lost like that again. And three, because when I hold those words in my hands, I am strengthened by his (and my other mentors’) support. So even when I feel more lonely than seems humanly possible, I know I am never truly alone.

False Happiness

What then can God do in our interests but make our own life less agreeable to us and take away the plausible source of false happiness?

–C.S. Lewis

Read it a couple times and think about it before you continue.

What else can He do to draw us closer to him?

I’ll be honest, I don’t really like the way this convicts me. I don’t really want to have my sources of “happiness” and “comfort” and “relief” taken from me for my own good. That just seems downright silly.

But the more I sit and consider it, the more I see that this is the light at the end of my tunnel, not whatever I’m using at the moment to distract/comfort myself.

Things That Provide False Happiness:

-Relationships that are driven by lust, not love
-“Love” that is without commitment or trust
-Comparing one’s self to others in order to feel superior / Gossip
-Retail Therapy (so guilty here)
-Conforming to society’s standards (ie. Keeping up with the Joneses syndrome)
-Food / Drugs / Alcohol
-Escapism
The list goes on…

It’s so easy to take advantage of these avenues to “happiness.” and in the moment, they work really well. Sex feels good. Wearing new clothes feels like a self-esteem booster. Getting shiny, new, brag-worthy things is exciting. Being drunk is fun.

Those feelings don’t last. They each have their own particular brand of hangover that leaves you going back for more to make reality go away again.

Doesn’t it make sense for God to take those opportunities away from us when we can’t stop ourselves? Don’t I hide the scissors from Eva when she cuts her finger even though she loves shredding paper?

Eva had a fever yesterday and I had to miss going out with friends for dinner. Things have been rocky all around for me (job, relationships, parenting, emotions) this week and I was so looking forward to the chance to unwind and socialize. I “needed” it. And even this afternoon, I’m still a little resentful I couldn’t go.

Is it really that a big a deal to never go out on the weekends anymore? No. Would I rather be out than at home being a responsible mother? Heck no. But basically since I wrote the “When No Means Yes” post, I have been scraping the bottom of my hope barrel. And I’ve spent more time today getting cranky at God about it than I have all week.

He took away my stress relief so I took my stress to Him.

Yeah… Shoulda seen that coming, right?

This is by far the hardest thing about following Christ for me. I really like God and I really like Jesus…but I also really like being in control. I try to operate under a “let’s see what I can handle and then you can help me with the rest” approach. Yeah, that sounds more like a group project strategy than how I want God working in my life.

I know I am being challenged to hand over that control, to take a bigger leap of faith than I ever have before. I hear it in my heart; I feel it in my gut. Even becoming a mother, there was so much I could do to prepare: read books, save money, stock up on diapers, plan… I don’t know what I am preparing for right now. That makes me nervous, people! I don’t like not knowing! (You can visualize me stomping my foot on the ground here. Yes, Eva does get her sassiness honestly.)

When it’s all said and done, no matter what God asks of me, whatever sacrifices are required, however painful it is to get past all my willfulness (and it will be painful), the result will inevitably be joy.

Look what he gave me in Eva. Look how wonderful my friends are. Look at the great church we just found. Look back on all those times of provision and blessing. And look at the burden I still make Jesus carry for me.

That’s my real happines; God loves me anyway. Most days, I forget or muddle through passably. Too many days, I do everything my way. Some days, I even blatantly rebel. But that happiness is available every moment of every day.

What does it take to choose it every day?

Not faith, something much more difficult (and scary):

Discipline.

But I didn’t get enough sleep to deal with that too, so I’ll stop here. We’ll save that for a sunny day…

Thanks for walking with me today.