They call it “downsizing” – deciding what to take and what to leave when you move to a smaller residence.
I downsized recently. In the process, I had to assess the importance of certain pieces of furniture. Tables, I found, had a special place in my memory.
There was the dining table. It had welcomed many family gatherings, but what surfaced when I reflected on it were our times there with guests.
We’ve come to know many people in breaking bread with them, members of our congregations as well as others. Sometimes they came carrying ordinary day-to-day experiences with them, and other times deep grief or great joy.
There was an international dimension to the table: visiting scholars from around the world! Twice-yearly potlucks had sprung from the English-as-a-second-language class Alice taught in our living room.
It was for the wives of men doing advance work in Berkeley at the University of California. The husbands knew English, but many of the wives did not.
Wouldn’t it be natural for the families, including children, all to come together at the table? To us, such occasions were gifts – deepening our sense of the diversity of the planet and forming friendships to be maintained over the years.
Some table guests were simply friends – people dear and meaningful to us. We concluded that they must have found our dining chairs comfortable, given the way conversations extended into the night. This was a table of hospitality.
The round oak table in the kitchen is where we gathered as a family, morning and evening. There were no expansion leaves for the table, but the number who sat there could expand, as, for example, when Anna came from Sweden to live with us as an exchange student.
Experiences, hopes and concerns were shared at that table.
A son, 9-years-old, could tell excitedly about seeing a tornado while on a cross-country trip with an uncle and cousin; a daughter, 7-years-old, could muse she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up, only to halt mid-sentence to say, “But I can’t be a doctor; I’m a girl!” (The insidious influence of social injustice begins its work early!)
And here, Alice could say how much beyond “teaching” she sees is needed by challenged teenagers struggling to create life in a fragmented society. This was a table of intimacy.
We must sometimes say farewell to tables once important to us. But can’t there be a table that will remain with us unfailingly?
We find such a place at the center of the faith tradition of those who follow the way of Jesus. It was in the homes of early disciples, in the catacombs of persecuted believers, in the cathedrals of Europe, in the meeting houses of New England and in neighborhood churches we’re familiar with.
It’s a long table; it reaches back to the table where Jesus ate one last night with his disciples and extends ahead to the heavenly feast of God’s people at the end of time.
Some have attempted to “preserve” its purity by “fencing” it. Others have prescribed pedigrees for those who can preside at it.
I’ve wrestled over the years with how open that table should be, and a picture of the heavenly feast points me toward an answer.
It’s of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9), and it’s large enough to include the “other sheep” whom Jesus claims as his own (John 10:16).
I thank God for the festive table of heaven and its welcome, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God” (Revelation 19:17).
Might we do well to fashion our current tables of fellowship on this hopeful vision?
Retired pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Edmondson previously served the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, California. He is an alumnus of Berkeley School of Theology and Regents Park College, Oxford University. Edmondson was a founding member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and in retirement taught in the College of Theology at Central Philippine University. He lives in Oakland, California.