This week’s sermon at SFC really got me thinking about how table fellowship affects the way I live my life, and what boundaries my family and I have. What are these unwritten codes of conduct as lived out in our family? Am I leading my family to have a defensive or inclusive view of table fellowship? What are my experiences in which other people shared a table with me that are especially meaningful? As Bob quoted Scott Mcknight saying “Tables build societies,” I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ vision for a table where sinners, tax collector who had betrayed their own country, and prostitutes sat alongside Jesus’ own disciples and shared a table with Him. Now I have experienced this kind of “come as you are” fellowship at AA meetings, but at church our conceptions and expectations do demonstrate our own kind of “purity code” which can push us more in the direction of perception management than inclusivity and hospitality.
One of my experiences of table fellowship that was most meaningful was at Lakewood rehab, back in Haviland KS. The facility was kind of a medium-functionality group living home for people with mental health issues like dementia, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. In many ways, it the last tier for people who could not make it on their own, but did need to go to the large state hospital. After some time, certain patients did end up back out on their own, and some eventually did go the big hospital in Larned after all. I volunteered for four years in various roles leading a Bible study there, and later started a student led worship service. At our Bible studies, we often met at a table in the cafeteria. I was on a first name basis with nearly everyone whether patient or staff, and in many ways I was like an unofficial chaplain and a part of the community.
Every other month or so a dance would be scheduled during the time that the Bible study met. The first time it happened, I tried to have the meeting somewhere else, but many people from the meeting would not miss the dance for the world. The next time it happened, I just cancelled the meeting and sat around to watch. I sat there, as nervous as a kid at a six grade dance. The difference was that unlike a sixth grade dance, the girls were more aggressive. Now I want to tell you there was nothing about dancing during rec time at a mental institution that was romantic, by any means. It was more like a square dance or folk dance in the eyes of most involved. There was no need to worry about a crush forming or my wife being jealous of some other woman, though I suspected she would be slightly anoyed that I was not taking her dancing somewhere else, perhaps somewhere more respectable.
Now dancing was simply not a part of my life since I got into recovery. There was a day once when I thought of myself as a good dancer—long before my recovery—when alcohol or some other chemical allowed me freedom from my inhibitions. Now, stone cold sober, dancing was the most intimidating proposition in the world. Even as I looked out on the dance floor and saw even people with the most awkward movements grinning and having a good time, my fear seemed to get the best of me. Unfortunately, a couple women from the Bible study would not let me sit there in my fear. I felt eyes lock on me, and a few of them almost formed a line in front of me as I tried not to look up. One asked me to dance—it was clear there was only one right answer— a red haired lady named Teresa twice my age who suffered from schizophrenia and limped with both legs when she walked. On the dance floor though, she moved as I had never seen before. As we danced, the fear and awkwardness melted away, sort of. It was like being invited to participate in the Special Olympics of dancing, I knew if I can’t get over my self-consciousness here in a mental institution, there would never again be a more forgiving environment, perhaps anywhere in the world. It made me think, if Jesus was going to dance anywhere, He would be dancing right here. These are the people he would want to dance with, not those talented people on Dancing with the Stars.
This table fellowship was extended to me beyond the physical table long removed to make room for the dance floor. This community was without a doubt a safe place to work on my fears, and share life in a marginalized little corner of the world that Jesus had not forgotten. Many of my peers thought I was so selfless in volunteering and pouring my life out in sharing Jesus with this community. Looking back, I owe them the debt of gratitude. I benefited the most from our relationship. They taught me how to be more Christ-like. They taught me how to preach and teach effectively to where they were at, by letting me fully into their lives. While I had no small amount of academic honors at my graduation, the honors I had as their pastor mean so much more to me. Those paper awards I have stuffed in a box somewhere are absolutely meaningless to me, what I miss the most is sharing Jesus in that place every Wednesday and Friday.
Bob’s sermon immediately made me think of Silverton Friends church’s unwritten efforts to live out the purity code. I know many of the people at Silverton avoid the local movie theater because its proprietor is transgender. Many among our congregation drive at least 15 miles away to go to a theater without this kind of baggage. Now, believe me I get it. I will never forget the way Stu dressed up for Pirates of the Caribbean night, and I have heard horror stories about Stu’s outfit for Rocky Horror Picture Show. How many parents of young children really want to invite the possibility of a conversation with their children about this strange movie theater owner, whose life decisions seem so outside those of many of our own? Others might not agree with this persons politics (for those outside our community this person is also the mayor) and for them, sending business Stu’s way could be seen as funding the opposition, on top of funding what they deem as a deviant lifestyle. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with everything Stu does. I just find this behavior of outsourcing our theater entertainment more an expression an unwritten purity code, and one that I am sure Jesus would not have tolerated. Jesus never told sinners sin was not sin, yet He ate with them and accepted them in His fellowship table. He did not expect people to pretend to be something they were not, nor did He expect them to have all the answers before He invited them into relationship with Himself. Yet this is exactly what we do to others. I think offering this grace to others is as awkward as learning to dance again. We can’t have it all figured out before we begin, we just have to start somewhere, and figure out how it works together in relationship.
What would it mean for our church body, and how would we live differently as a church community, if we really desired Stu to have fellowship with us? What if we really saw Stu as a child of God for whom Jesus died and for whom Jesus would have unquestionably shared a table with? Learning to dance again at Lakewood made me think not about how someone like Stu would benefit from a friendship with me, but about how I would benefit from a friendship with Stu. How he might help our church body to see Jesus in a new way, and how we might grow as a church if we could rise to the opportunity to show him/her a seat at our table.