Steve Taylor recently lead a session at the National Rural Ministry Conference in Barmera, SA. The session was exploring Festival Spirituality and other ways that people in the Hebrew Scriptures would gather as faith community, worship or participate as a member of a community of faith.
His framework categorised 5 ways that described how people would gather/share faith, the categories he used were:
Tonight I’m interested in exploring the idea of the Table. On initial thought this is a no brainer, the Jewish faith is full of table spirituality, the obvious example being the Passover Meal where the story of faith is shared with family over a meal. Less obvious might be a number of other feasts within the Hebrew Scriptures, for example the feasts that were held to mark a covenant (Genesis 26:28-31 or Exodus 24:3-11) and in many other cases you can see the table as a large part of the faith story of the Hebrew people as they remembered important parts of their history through sacrifice and feast, and as you read through the Psalms you’ll also find numerous mentions to meals or table fellowship.
In my rural setting meals serve as a large part of our community, practically as there’s large geographical distances to travel it’s wise to include a meal when we gather, socially the people are hospitable people and making sure people are fed is a large part of that identity and spiritually many of the people are producers of the food the community relies on. Wherever we go we are surrounded by natural produce, flour, wheat, dairy, corn, rice, meat, wine and fruit, all of it is produced in this region, food is a part of our survival, a part of our lively hood and in many cases it’s a part of our blood.
One of the observations I’ve made over the last many years is also how the act of table fellowship can serve to show people’s isolation from the faith community and, how some of this has been allowed to occur, or has been created through the church’s reluctance to let go of some of it’s theological and liturgical “power” and story. For many communities the closest ordained minister is over 200kms away, which for a community who relies on an ordained minister to preside over the celebration of the eucharist becomes a mark of isolation, imagine not being able to celebrate the one meal that connects you to the wider faith community because of this kind of distance. Recent years has seen us as a church coordinate and host workshops that have allowed the theological understanding of sacraments and, especially of the celebration of the communion to be discussed and re-imagined by people who are a part of the church, yet not “ordained” and the church has also worked hard to make sure that lay people have been given permission and resources to be able to preside over this meal in their own communities.
A friend of mine tells a story of a community who worshipped and lived hours away from a ordained minister, and so would celebrate communion only when a visiting minister was able to make their way to worship with the community, this might be once or twice a year. One time a minister suggested to some of the community that they hide some grape juice and bread under the table that the elements are placed on during worship, and that while the minister blesses the elements on top of the table the food hidden below the table would also be blessed. After the service it was suggested that they take this bread and juice, freeze it and then use them in the coming months to celebrate communion as a community. The community did this for a while until they participated in a workshop that allowed them to explore their understanding of and the theology of sacraments and the meal of communion where they recognised the practice as, well, a misunderstanding of the practice of the meal. As a community they revisioned the practice and now share in the remembrance and the meal together differently, liberated…
As much as meals bring us together they can also be the very thing that shows us how isolated we are if we hold onto the mystery and beauty of the meal to those who have permission.
Over the last couple of years my wife and I have been participating in a weekly meal with people from our community, (many of whom are not church people or christians) together we gather at whomever’s house it’s turn is and share a meal, some wine and great conversation. It’s the celebration of hospitality that I come to love, for some of us (like myself) its an excuse to express my faith in cooking, I bake bread, I create something nourishing and I get to share it with people I’ve come to love, and some whom I’m still learning to…
Recently my wife and I had a conversation where I felt she was suggesting that we need to do more church things together, I believe the direction we were talking was about hosting a bible study when I stopped and shared with her that the one thing I think I do that is faith building, nourishing and spiritual every week was this weekly meal, and that we do this together. The meal is church for me, much more than “church” is, and I’d probably sooner die than replace that with a “bible study.”
It’s in that meal that I’m reminded of who I am and who I’m called to be.
Food is central to our community, without it we’d starve… Our communities have found small ways to celebrate this, one of which is to host monthly Farmer’s Markets, I look forward to the local one in Wagga (second Sunday of the month) as my monthly bacon and egg roll. But there’s something more that happens there, in April I stood still for almost an hour and met up with almost everyone I know in the town, so much so that I’m now suggesting that we make a monthly picnic at the market a part of our community’s life, with the only rule being that we only eat produce from the market. A monthly harvest meal where we celebrate the community and people that we’re a part of.
The practice of table fellowship as spiritual and community space opens up for so many opportunities and ideas, I guess our task now is to help people recognise these meals as a part of their spirituality and communal faith practice, by which I mean providing resources beyond that of writing meal prayers/grace and more resources that open people’s minds up to the possibilities of mealtime together as a time to remember who we are and who we could be.