This spoken word poetry by Jasmine Mans of Strivers Row hits me hard every time I listen to it.
I will let its truth speak for itself but I wanted to share this amazing work with my followers in preparation for my anniversary post for Omar’s death.
This spoken word poetry by Jasmine Mans of Strivers Row hits me hard every time I listen to it.
I will let its truth speak for itself but I wanted to share this amazing work with my followers in preparation for my anniversary post for Omar’s death.
Chicago does not lend itself to quiet moments. Most of the time horns are honking, people are shouting across a crowded street and an airplane is flying overhead to land at one of the airports in the near vicinity. Quiet never comes.
This morning I was walking to my usual bus stop in the heart of the city’s Little Italy neighborhood that is more little than Italy these days. As I was about to cross the street, a siren became audible from a few blocks away. Another delightful symphony produced by city life. At first, the cars and pedestrians around me were hesitant but continued to their destinations knowing that they still had moments before they would have to stop to let this ambulance pass.
As the flashing emergency vehicle approached the intersection that I was standing at, a rare thing happened. Everything, everyone stopped. I had always seen this happen, obviously, since the law requires you to stop at the sound or sight of such a vehicle, but I never noticed the quiet that results. Now I’m not talking about actual quiet, since the blaring siren was loud enough to urge the woman next to me to hide her ears beneath her hands trying to produce a type of faux-earplug.
The quiet that surrounded us at that intersection was the quiet of a crisis.
I have only experienced a few crises in my life, but they all produce that same still yet acute quiet that I saw on the corner this morning. Cars came to a halt, people walking on the streets instinctively stopped their movement and looked at the approaching vehicle, the world for a second became completely centered around this ambulance. Centered around this symbol of unrest, of emergency.
Such a quiet is not peaceful for it stirs within you a worry for the outcome, a desperation for resolution, and an anticipation of its passing. Crisis in life can come as an unexpected death, the recurrence of an illness, the dissolution of a relationship, the loss of a job, or the questioning of your own purpose. Crisis can look different, but crisis always results in the same. A chaotic quiet.
A quiet that is self-centered, survival focused. One of my crises was my own acceptance of my on-going battle with anxiety and depression. For months, my life was like that scene at the intersection. Nothing else moved or mattered except my sickness. No one existed except myself in relation to this crisis. Everyone and everything revolved around navigating around my own crisis. But see, unlike the ambulance that speeds quickly past freeing the surrounding world to return to its noise and routine, crisis feels like a slow motion switch has been hit and you are waiting, watching, hoping that the ambulance passes next week, next month, next year.
Crisis is an unbearable quiet that demands not only your attention but your entire world. As I was waiting this morning, thinking about this idea, though, I became encouraged in a way that only a person not experiencing such a crisis at the moment can. I was encouraged by the passing of such quiet and the world resuming to its own rhythm and pace. For it always does.
Yet during a crisis you can’t see that. You spend most of your energy reorganizing your life around this crisis that you get to the point where you can’t even imagine losing that quiet in your life. You begin to love the self-focused quiet. But that quiet fades. And you return to a more aware world where things happen that are good and bad but that are, in the end, bigger than yourself. And you find equilibrium within the noise once more.
We must remember that equilibrium when crisis is far away. We must learn to live in this noise without the fear of yet another pause of crisis. We must learn that crisis is not a permanent state, but it is, just like the ambulance, just a passing moment of stillness, of navigation, and of quiet.
Such an idea reminded me of one of my favorite songs, Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell. As you listen to this song and read the lyrics, remember that life changes, it is fleeting, it is filled with both noise and quiet. But what this song reminds us of most importantly is that you are not alone in this silence. All around are other people preparing for crisis, in their own crisis, or emerging from a crisis. We must take heart.
Comes and Goes (In Waves) by Greg Laswell posted on youtube by GregLaswellMusic.
As a self-proclaimed introvert and longtime social anxiety sufferer, I have a serious problem with goodbyes. No, not in the sentimental way that I’ll miss being around a person or even a fearful way that I hate being alone. Honestly, no offense to all you good people out there, but most days I’d much rather be by myself. Other people really freak me out.
Let’s get this straight, I may often be awkward in new, overwhelming social settings, but hellos are much more manageable for me. Hellos are straightforward. If I haven’t met you before, then obviously a handshake and an introduction satisfy even the most extroverted person’s need for a greeting. After that, I can fade to the background or make multiple unnecessary trips to the bathroom in order to give my mind a minute to relax from its incessant flittering.
What should I say next? What if he asks what my job is, how am I gonna explain that? Man that silence lasted a couple seconds too long, now we are all doomed. Am I talking to loud? Am I talking too quietly? Am I not talking enough? How much longer are we going to talk about the newest season of Orange is the New Black? Shit! I don’t have an already prepared response… scramble, Mackensey, scramble. What are you gonna say?!
Yes, trust me ladies and gentleman if this was your internal dialogue you would make a few extra trips to the bathroom too, even at the expense that people may assume you are having a serious reaction to the Thai food.
Anyway, so hellos are the easy part, the middle conversation and mingling is a slow painful road to exhaustion, but the goodbye is where my own self confidence goes to die.
You know how I said hellos are straight forward? Stick out your hand, look them in the eye, and introduce yourself. Now sometimes I even mess that up but usually that’s where I get it right. Well goodbyes, they are nowhere near straightforward.
Goodbyes force you to be ultra conscious of the crowd. Is this a hugging crowd or a second handshake bunch? Did I make enough of a connection with so and so to warrant a more intimate parting gesture? Do I go the conservative route with a handshake at the risk that the other person felt some close bond that put us on that new “hug level”?
Now I want to pause for a second and speak to all you “huggers” out there. You know who you are and if you aren’t a hugger than you know the people I’m referring to. You are the people that had functional families that showed appropriate amounts of affection leading to this crazy thing called secure attachments. Yeah, I basically despise you. You go for the hug after a social interaction lasted even just half an hour because of that intense human connection you feel with all your fellow earth dwellers. Blah blah blah…
Cut the bullshit. If I’ve only known you for half an hour, then most likely you don’t even know my last name, which means we are no where near the level of a hug. Now I don’t mean to sound harsh because I love a good hug as much as the next guy, but you huggers make it really hard for us goodbye-phobic people. Because essentially our whole goal is to avoid that handshake-hug confusion fiasco.
You know the situation. You reach your hand in toward the person’s torso only to have them extend outstretched arms in preparation for a bear hug. Not only are you left with your hand in a rather uncomfortable area you also have to deal with the resulting awkwardness with a cool and easy going recovery.
Folks, if you can tell so far, I am neither cool nor easy going.
Therefore, you quickly fetch your lingering hand that had landed all too close the person’s crotch and reposition it in the most awkward hug known to humankind. But you gotta be cool. You meant to do that. You were always going in for the hug. It’s all good. Nothing to see here. And you both drown in the awkwardness without once acknowledging it.
Torture. But not the worst of the hug fiasco.
Once one person sets that hug precedent. Everyone else in the vicinity of the hugger feels obligated to follow suit. So you have the worst kind of domino effect that can make someone with my level of social anxiety want to suffer through more small talk rather than conquer the receiving line of goodbyes that awaits you. Now you have found yourself among a group of people who you consider just above the level of absolute and complete stranger that feel this internal obligation to hug you goodbye.
Thank you, healthy relationship hugger man/woman. You have just forced someone else with a normal distrust of human connection and appropriate personal space awareness to face her own personal hell. And you are smiling about it. Basking in the glow of having met so many amazing people that you convince yourself are gonna be your new best friends.
Wrong. I just want to do a simple benediction-type goodbye with a wave and a universal “See ya’ll later” and get the hell out of there so I can lay in bed with my book or Netflix and bask in feeling safe from these catastrophic social situations.
But the risk of looking stand offish or unfriendly overpowers my crippling anxiety and growing resentment at Hugger McHuggerson over there. I walk the line. Hugging each person, some of whom I didn’t even share a hello. I begrudgingly do the “right” thing simply because it leads me closer to my exit.
So, now you know, goodbyes are the worst. Sure you can hug and hug freely! Hugging is awesome. But maybe as a human race we can figure out like a safe word or a signal to smoothly communicate the awkward message of: I really don’t know you very well and, although I’m sure you are a great person I do not feel the need to say goodbye like we are new soul mates. Please accept a nice wave or handshake as my token of acquaintanceship.
And maybe with that signal we could spare just one life from the devastating fear of goodbye.
Thud. The weight of the rush hour bus hurdling over the pothole-dotted Roosevelt Road threw Damarion up in the air then harshly back to his seat. He hated taking the bus. His mom’s car had been in the shop for months now. He missed that car, a well-worn Toyota Corolla in a shade of deep blue that had chipped in places, exposing the familiar rust caused by the brutal Chicago winter. Damarion called it his “bat-mobile”. His mother would smirk at him and talk about his extensive imagination…whatever that meant, Damarion thought. For him, that car was his escape. And after two months of riding the bus, Damarion was starting to wonder if his beloved car was actually at the repair shop.
In fact, his mom had only told Damarion this in order to quell the inevitable battle that was sure to rage when the truth was finally told. His father had taken the car. Marcus, Damarion’s father, showed up at the house in early October begging to see his son. Damarion’s mother could tell by the sacks of sleeplessness under his eyes and unshaven scruff around his mouth that it had happened once again. Marcus had failed at whatever new business venture he had begun this month and was clutching the remains of the savings that he hadn’t already spent drowning his sorrows at whatever local waterhole suited his fancy this week.
She couldn’t remember what this exact business plan had entailed but she had learned to ignore the details for they never seemed to matter. After only a couple weeks, Marcus would be back at her door asking for something. And here he was again.
She pushed the screen door open, which had been protecting her from the stench wafting from Marcus’s matted hair.
“Ay, babe,” mumbled Marcus as he cautiously inched toward her.
“Babe! Who you talkin’ to, Marcus. I damn sure ain’t your babe.”
It had been four years since she had loved Marcus. Lured by his light brown eyes and unbeatable ambition she had fallen…fallen too hard. Within a year of meeting him, Damarion was on the way and she was left nursing Marcus’ hangovers and his all too fragile ego.
“Ah, you know what I mean. Let me see my son. It’s been a long week.”
Every week was a long week for Marcus.
“He’s at his piano lessons, Mar. And no need for him to see you like this anyway.”
“Whatchu mean? He’s my son, he can see me any damn time.”
“Alright. You gotta leave.”
“Wait! If I can’t see him, can I at least borrow the car for the night. I got this new business deal comin’ and I gotta drive down south to meet up with one of my guys ‘bout it.”
You would think after knowing Marcus all this time she would have learned the ability to say no to these frequent requests. But after a pause she shrunk back into the house and appeared a few minutes later with a key chain jangling in her right hand.
“Now, you lucky Damarion is getting a ride back from his lesson tonight. Boy, you betta be back in the morning. I gotta work the afternoon shift and get Damarion to school.”
“Yeah, no worries. Your car will be back. Man, always naggin’ me. No wonder I ain’t with yo ass anymore.”
And with that less than endearing goodbye, Marcus turned and marched to the car.
It’s been two months and no word from him.
Thump. The bus ran over yet another pothole jostling Damarion out of his blissful thoughts of the “bat-mobile.” He shot a hostile glance at his mother hoping that in that single look he could show his complete disdain for this form of transportation. To his dismay, though, his mother, Rose, issued a graceful smile back in his direction.
She always seemed to be teaching Damarion about the importance of being grateful in any situation. He almost expected his mother to start clamoring on about the importance of experiencing potholes, somehow relating it to the “long, hard road of life.” Luckily Damarion had learned how to distract himself during these sermons by watching each new passenger ascend the buses steps.
Mostly the passengers formed a predictable parade. Young mothers with distraught babies in tow, commuters traveling to and from their downtown jobs, food service employees with exhausted stares out the large rectangular windows, and kids Damarion’s age with see-through backpacks, which had become an identification badge for all Chicago Public School students.
Softening his glance back to his mother, Damarion asked, “Ma, when am I gonna get to go back to school? It’s been a long time.”
Rose worked full time so without the car it had been hard to get Damarion to school consistently. The past few weeks he had to skipped school and travel with Rose on her commute to work. Even though Damarion thought his seven-year-old self could handle a two-bus route to his school, Rose knew differently.
“I’m working on it, babe. I told you the car is in the shop. Once it’s done you’ll get to school every day. Lemme see if Auntie can pick you up this next week. Alright?”
Rose had worked out a system with Damarion’s school. They knew the situation with his dad and were pretty lenient about his attendance when events like this happened. David, his cousin, had been picking up homework for Damarion to do for the days that he had missed.
“Ah, alright,” Damarion surrendered and returned to watching people ascend the front stairs of the bus.
Mom and her toddler-aged son. Man in an oversized business suit. Teenage boy with short braids. Damarion liked the consistency of the parade. He had gotten pretty good at guessing the people that would join the ride at the different stops. A game that passed the time on these never-ending commutes. His dad had taught him this game.
Damarion remembered Marcus as well as any six year old can remember an important person in his life. It had been almost a whole year since his dad had come to visit him—Rose hadn’t told him about Marcus visiting a couple months ago. She worked hard to allow Damarion to have some type of relationship with Marcus without bringing her own baggage into it. Damarion was getting old enough, though, that he knew he didn’t have a father…Well at least not a father like some of his friends had.
One of his most vivid memories of Marcus, though, happened on this very bus route when Damarion was four. Marcus wanted to spend some time with Damarion so he decided to take him to the Shedd Aquarium because he knew that Finding Nemo had instilled in Damarion an obsession with sea turtles. After the trip, Damarion was tired and hungry so, in order to distract him, Marcus thought up this game.
“Mar.” Marcus enjoyed calling his son by the same nickname that he had acquired as a young kid mostly because it reminded him that Damarion was his. Reminded him that despite his many failures he had created something.
“Mar. Look, look. Daddy’s got a game for you. Now watch. Hear that dinging sound? That means that the bus is gonna stop. So you gotta pay attention.”
Damarion stared into his dad’s eyes motivated partly by amusement and partly by a heavy exhaustion that had settled into his eyelids.
“When the bus stops, see, people get off and new people get on. Ain’t that cool?” Silence. Marcus hurriedly continued, worried that the short attention span of his four year old was wearing thin.
“Yeah, so new people come on and each one is different. See, there’s a momma with her baby. Oh wow there’s a soldier, you know, like your G.I. Joe action figure? Whatchu think? Fun to watch right?”
Damarion had yet to grasp an appreciation for differences and was not gonna be fooled by his dad’s poor attempt to distract him from his growling belly and sleep-deprived body. He answered with a swift head swing away from Marcus and toward the bus window, finding the progressing darkness outside much more entertaining than the people on the bus.
Excuse me. An elderly woman next to him gently nudge Damarion’s shoulder in an attempt to get him to stand up and let her out from the window seat.
Only a few stops away and Damarion could not wait to get out of this packed bus. The seat near his mom opened up so he scurried over there before another passenger could snatch the coveted real estate.
“Hey, boo.” His mom greeted her with her beautiful smile gleaming in his direction.
“Hey, ma. We’re almost home, right?”
“Yup. Only a few more stops. Whatchu been thinkin’ about over there mister?”
Damarion hated that his mom could always tell when he had something on his mind. He could never keep a secret from her because she always knew.
“Ah, it was nothin’.”
“Oh yeah? It didn’t look like nothin’. That vein in your forehead look like it was ‘bout to pop out.”
“Pshh. Ma, why you gotta be like that? Can’t a man have his own life?”
“Oh you think you a man do ya? Alright little man, whatcha makin’ for dinner tonight.”
“…you know what I mean, though.”
“That’s fine.” His mother pouted. “Don’t tell me then. You all grown over there.” Rose always had a way of guilting him into divulging the exact thing he worked so hard to keep to him self.
“Uhh, fine. I was just thinkin’ ‘bout Dad.” Damarion sheepishly admitted.
“Oh yeah, hun? What were you thinkin’ about him? You know it’s okay to talk to me about him. Your father and I have our differences, but he is still your father.”
“Yeah, yeah I know but it’s gotta be weird for you to talk about him with me right?”
“Not really.” Rose held back even though she knew he was right. She hated the subject. “So go on.”
“Naw, I was just playing this little game in my head that I remember he taught me on the bus a few years ago. Not really a game…even though he tried to act like it was. You just watch the different people come and go on the bus.”
Rose laughed. And whenever she laughed it was impossible to not laugh with her. “See that wasn’t too hard now was it?”
“No. I guess it wasn’t. I just… Oh, nevermind.” Damarion didn’t really feel like talking about it anymore so he hoped she’d be satisfied with that one confession.
“Okay, baby. You can always talk to me.” As she said this, she reached her arm up and yanked the thick wire that hung from above the bus window.
Ding! The firm pull his mother had dealt the wire issued forth that most familiar sound. Damarion was relieved they were finally home but that sound brought his mind back to that bittersweet memory of his dad on the bus.
After Marcus realized from Damarion’s less than enthusiastic response that his son was not enjoying the ride, he would have Damarion guess when the bell would ring next. Some stops no one wanted to get off so the bus continued its forward journey uninterrupted. Marcus made it Damarion’s job to guess these stops.
That first ride, Damarion was not good at anticipating these stops. He would randomly pick and choose the stops and he maybe chose correctly once. Now that he was a veteran bus rider, he knew that the stops near the shopping centers, movie theater, and train stops were automatically requested but the ones in between were always a crapshoot.
Obviously, Marcus was pleased that this last minute addition to his “game” succeeded in distracting Damarion enough to get them to their stop.
Something about that bell, though, stuck with Damarion. He was so young but had already experienced his father leaving late at night and not returning until the next evening. He knew he didn’t have a father…well he didn’t have one like his friends had.
Even after this bus ride with his father he remembered getting home and being told to go to sleep immediately. His parents hoped that the thin door separating him from the living room would keep out the noise of their argument. But it didn’t.
“Whatchu thinkin’ keepin’ him out this late. It’s a school night.” Rose exclaimed.
“He’s fine. We were having a good time. I didn’t wanna ruin the day by telling him we had to go home.”
“Yeah cuz you are the fun guy. Why don’t you try taking care of him every hour of the day sometime, huh? Instead of just picking him up here and there and taking him on these trips you like to do.”
Damarion wished he could force himself to sleep, but even the weight of two pillows didn’t block out the words that his parents hurled at each other. He doesn’t remember falling asleep that night but he’s sure he did because he always did at some point.
That bell. That bell haunted him, which is another reason he hated the bus. That bell reminded him of his father and his father’s game that Damarion kept playing on every bus trip.
Have a good day, son! The overly-friendly bus drive smirked as Damarion followed his mother down the stairs of the bus. He had become one of the leaving passengers. He quietly wondered if there was some other kid bored on the bus watching him as he left.
Probably not, he thought. Because most kids have dads that teach them real games like Checkers and baseball…not this weird bus game.
As they walked the mile more to their house, Damarion thought more about his dad and about this game. He even found himself chuckling to himself about the game. Luckily it wasn’t loud enough for his mother to hear. Lord knows she would interrogate him like always.
He laughed at the game because his dad wanted him to watch people coming and going. His dad was teaching him that people come and go. God. What a fucking brilliant plan! Damarion was only seven so he wasn’t allowed to curse so he took great pride in cursing in his thoughts sometimes. He thought it made him seem more like a man…whatever that meant.
That’s why he couldn’t stop playing that childish game that his dad had taught him because every day with each annoying bell ding that echoed through the bus he hoped that one of the men climbing the front stairs was Marcus.
He had gotten so use to his dad coming and going from his life. Leaving without telling him. Showing up for Christmas with a brand new PlayStation game. Calling in the middle of the night even though he knew Damarion was asleep. Marcus was always entering Damarion’s life and then pulling the string to make a quick exit. Just like that shitty bus, Damarion thought.
While he was arriving at that conclusion, their house was in sight. Something was different though. Parked in front of their stone two-flat was that blue car, chipped paint and all. And leaning on the back bumper was Marcus, looking much better than when Rose had last seen him.
Damarion could see the frustration on his mother’s face. She looked like she could cry. He had inherited his mom’s peculiar talent for reading people…she couldn’t hide much from him either, even though she tried.
Marcus rose from his makeshift seat and yelled down the sidewalk toward them. “Hey, fam!”
The words met Damarion’s ears with a sweet sting. Rose let an audible sign of disbelief escape from her pursed lips as they both made their way toward him. Damarion wished he didn’t miss his dad. But he did.
Before he knew it, his scrawny legs had picked up a great amount of speed. He began to run toward his dad with outstretched arms choosing to ignore that persistent bell ding in his mind reminding him of his dad’s inevitable exit. Because in that moment he had a dad… not a dad like his friends had. But a dad that always taught him that life is often a shitty, long ride and people will come and go quickly, but the best you can do is notice them, enjoy them, and join them in the ride while they are there. And that was a good enough lesson for right now.
Image credit to Transit Chicago.
“These are the gifts of God for the people of God. Come to the table.” Two simple sentences that transformed my understanding and practice of the sacred communion. Transformed from a simple wafer and mini shot glass full of grape juice passed from pew to pew on oddly-shaped, stackable, saucers into a tangible experience, a communal gathering and a transcendent reality. A reality, lived and partaken in around a table that calls us into a dysfunctional family, an on-going justice, and, for me most importantly, an inclusive community.
Before hearing those two sentences, my thoughts of this sacrament were wholly separate from my life outside of Sunday mornings. But these statements made sense to me. These statements reminded me of the warm, intense, and often challenging times that I experienced around a number of different tables. Tables around which I was welcomed, invited, nourished, and accepted regardless of my imperfections or differences. Hence, why I decided to write this blog series about such experiences in hopes to explain both my fear and my love of this particular Communion table.
“These are the gifts of God…” Nana knew that everything on her table from the food people enjoyed to the imported china was a gift. She intimately knew what it meant to have nothing but through this knowledge she learned how to cherish every good thing. She prepared her food as if it was a spiritual exercise and for her it was. For what she knew even more than the gifts of such precious physical nourishment was the irreplaceable gift of those around the table through which her soul was nourished.
Thinking of this image of my Nana’s joy in preparing her table brings a new depth to the image of Jesus around the table at his final meal. A meal with imminent importance and unimaginable finality. Yet this meal was most likely seen as a rather ordinary Passover celebration to those others around the table. Many meals had been shared between Jesus and his apostles, many blessings and most likely they didn’t realize the extreme importance of this final meal.
Thinking about this, though, I wonder if part of that was because Jesus was present this meal in the same way he had been present his entire relationship with them. I imagine that Jesus saw each meal, each gathering around a table as a important ritual. One where those present found nourishment both in body and in soul.
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said as he broke the bread before them. My body is for you. My body is broken for you. I am for you. I live and I will die for you. Through me the spiritual is made tangible, as tangible as this bread. And just as I have shown you complete sacrificial love and selfless giving, you too must sacrifice and give in order to nourish your souls and through that refresh in them my spirit.
That’s what I see when I partake of this sacred gift: a more perfect version of how my Nana cared for her table and those around it with an unassuming, selfless offering of her love and soul. When the meal was complete, she would sit silently, lovingly and be nourished by the love shared through the breaking of bread. For as we partake of the gifts of God around the table, our souls and bodies are meant to be nourished both by the sacrificial love of the incarnate God but also that same love alive in all those around us that are welcomed at the table.
“…for the people of God…” My family never really agrees on much. Maybe a sports team here and there but often any table with all of us around it carries only a mere semblance of harmony. In fact, shallow table conversations between my family members often carry the depth of past wrongdoings, painful words, or disappointing choices that are present in most significant relationships. And yet the table remains our table and we are welcomed however we are.
Hearing “…for the people of God…” for the first time in reference to communion frightened me. Ringing in my ears were the arguments from each side of the never-ending debate among churches, sects, denominations, or religions over who God’s “people” really are. ‘Yeah, because, yah know, sure they are Christians or spiritual people or humans, but obviously we are the real Christians…you know, the enlightened truth-telling ones. And, let me tell you, what a burden that is…’ Does that illustrate my fear well enough?
In the midst of my minor panic attack over the complicated debate my mind had just witnessed,I returned to Jesus around a table with his disciples, his family. Something that had always seemed significant to me when I heard this story is when Jesus points out that one of the men around this sacred, communal table would betray him and another would deny him. In fact, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus even says “one who is eating with me” will betray me. Someone around this celebration table.
But Jesus goes on to break the bread and share such a meal with the man that will go out and betray him later that night. This is a meal for the people of God. So what does it mean for our communion sacrament that even a denier and a betrayer shared in this gathering? What does it mean for our communion practice that even after this betrayal was announced, Jesus chose not to withhold the nourishment of this meal and blessing from this man?
I think that it means that this act must offer individuals hope and mercy, even if they are not ready to accept or fully understand it. I think it means that the definition of “the people of God” must be all that are called to the table. I think it means that even though my family is not the perfect family and is sometimes not even the family I wish they could be, they are always my family. The mess and the resentments, the hurts and the apologies, the uncomfortable silences and the inaudible whispers do not change the transcendent power of belonging to a family.
If we had to make amends, confess our sins, and right our wrongs before gathering around our table and receiving nourishment, then we would never come to the table. I think this is the beauty of the communion table. We trust in the sacrificial love of that it represents to be real and present regardless of our own heart and wrongs. Our imperfections, our mess could never decrease the spiritual presence and power of this sacred meal.
While this meal did not reconcile Judas to his community or change his decision to betray Jesus, it presented him with the mercy of still being a part of this gathering and the choice to seek reconciliation through the love experienced around the table. Sometimes I choose to not forgive my family members, I choose to intentionally hurt them, or I choose to disassociate myself with them. In those moments I reject the opportunity or the moment to create reconciliation. But sometimes I ignore the burning pride within me and ask for help or forgiveness. Sometimes I choose the reconciliation against all human odds and it’s in those moments that I see importance of always being welcomed at the table just as I am in that moment. For only at the table am I present to the hope of possible redemption within my messy existence.
While this suggestion in particular is a controversial one, it is one that I hold strongly to because I believe that if one is never welcomed or accepted at the communion table, the sacred gathering, the experience of sacrificial love, one would never see the opportunity for reconciliation and redemption, let alone choose such spiritual hopes. Judas was given the vision, the opportunity for reconciliation and even though he chose not to embrace it, he was still radically welcomed at this communion, celebration table.
“Come to the table.” An announcement that, in my Amate House community, could mean a variety of different gatherings from an actual meal to a house meeting to a skit video-taping. But such an announcement never failed to invite us all to gather together after long, exhausting days at our individual volunteer placements. A repeated invitation to be refreshed and remember each other.
Another reason why these words, “Come to the table,” uttered by a pastor at LaSalle Street Church before communion one Sunday, still echo within my mind is that they were accompanied by a movement by the congregation to approach the alter. While I had been to many churches where the congregation approach the front of the church to receive the elements, never had I seen it done quite like this. Instead of individually receiving the bread and the wine and then moving quietly back to your seat, we stood in a line probably ten or so people long and we each partook of the meal, waited for each other to be finished, and then the individual that gave us the bread and wine blessed us saying, “Go now in peace to love and serve the world.”
Come to the table. Come to the table together to be nourished. Come to the table together to be nourished so that you are reminded that you are not alone. So that you are reminded that you have a community. So that you are reminded that you do not bear the burdens of injustice, disappointment and pain on your weak, frail shoulders. So that you are reminded that people that may not even know you are united in love to you through this table.
Amate House taught me more about the communion table than any church service or minister could teach me. My community taught me how to come to the table without fear that I would destroy the bonds of our community with my own struggles and mistakes. My community taught me how to come to the table daily despite my desire to isolate myself and bear the burden on my own. My community taught me to come to the table so that I could finally be nourished instead of worrying about nourishing others. My community taught me to come to the table so that I would have the courage and strength to face the next work day full of injustice.
I came to the communion table every night around my Amate House table for I was surrounded by sacrificial love, offered the opportunity for reconciliation with others and redemption of my own story, and reminded of the presence of a community around me.
No wonder Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” For only through being surrounded by a community, by being nourished along side someone that is as desperate for nourishment as you are, by celebrating small mercies around a table, would even the son of God, Jesus, have been ready to endure future suffering. Suffering increases our desire to be alone but it increases our need to be with each other. We come together weekly, daily, hourly, to remind each other that we are safe to take risks even if we fail, suffer, or make a fool of ourselves because we are sure of the community waiting to celebrate with us regardless of the result.
Communion must be about nourishment for both body and soul, but it must always be an act of unity and community. Only around the table, any loving community table, can I muster the strength to do the work of justice every day. And on the days that I’m unable to see the hope and promise of redemption, the community that gathers with me at the table is living proof of the reality of this promise. We must always respond to the call of community, which we most frequently hear during this call to communion, but is also present around other tables. Responding to the call means giving up the crushing weight of the whole burden to instead carry your portion arm in arm with the person next to you.
I have not explained nearly half of my thoughts about this all important topic, but I have given you a glimpse into the tables of my life and how they inform my understanding of communion. May we never forget that despite our beautiful, human imperfections the power and the sanctity of this communal meal never changes. Each gathering brings a new experience, insight, and understanding. And through this we are changed by it.
“These are the gifts of God, for the people of God. Come to the table.”
If you missed this blog series, you can find the other posts here:
Picture from: By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Clang, clang, clang. The familiar noise rang through the converted convent on S. Seeley Ave. Clang clang clang. The dinner bell: dilapidated from many years of Amate House volunteers beckoning each other to the dinner table.
Slowly all 12 of us would emerge from our post-work activities and gather around a splintered, worn table. We called it a table, but in reality it was three tables. Three rectangles pushed together. It was a makeshift eating arrangement, but most things were makeshift in our lives that year.
After a few minutes of conversation while awkwardly standing in a large circle, which encompassed this beloved table, we clasped each other’s hands and blessed the food. This was our routine and we never strayed from it. With a glorious announcement of what the two cooks for the night had prepared for us, we all eagerly rushed into our often crowded kitchen and returned to our seats with our mismatched plates filled to capacity.
I’ve always wondered what this scene would look like from a passerby wandering down the streets of McKinley Park. Twelve people around a over-sized table talking rather loudly to each about anything you could imagine. When I imagine such a passerby peering into our dimly lit dining room, I usually imagine them thinking: wow, what a crazy bunch. There’s too many of them to be a family. I wonder what they are all doing there?
Ah, but see, they would be mistaken. We were a family. A crazy family crowded around a huge, unattractive group of tables with a unusual-looking Swan/Santa object standing in as the centerpiece. We were a family and this was our table.
The food on our table never lasted too long, especially if it was what we affectionately called a “solidarity meal,” which usually meant the cooks had miscalculated the correct portions for a group of twelve and everyone better be happy with what they have, goddammit. But we always had more than enough.
See, the food never lasted too long, but we didn’t come to the table for the food. No, this table was so much more than a holder of meals and physical sustenance. We came to the table for each other. We came to the table to be reunited and re-centered every evening. We came to the table to lift each other up, challenge each other, and truly know each other. We came to the table for communion.
We made this table our sacred place. We laughed, cried, shared, fought, debated, disagreed, rejoiced, and shouted around this table. More than anything this table represented our lives together. I remember many nights when I rushed through the front door at 7:30 after being called a motherf… I’ll let you fill in the rest… by one of the teenagers at my worksite or after a day when every kid decided to dump their “hot chips,” which is an enticing combination of Flaming Hot Cheetos and bagged nacho cheese, on the library carpet or a day when the guys had made yet another hole in the Swiss-cheese-like drywall with their soccer antics. I remember many nights when the last place I wanted to be was around a twelve person table.
But I came to the table. Those nights, I came to the table with the worst attitude. Those nights, I came to the table in hopes of finishing my food as quickly as possible so that I could escape to my room for the rest of the evening. Those nights, I came to the table exhausted, burnt out, defeated, and frustrated. Those nights, I probably didn’t deserve to come to that sacred table.
Yet despite my greatest efforts to remain in a terrible, self-pitying mood, something always happened. To this day I’m still not sure how, but it happened after every crappy day. I would come to the table miserable and leave in a much different place. Let’s get this straight, though, this table had no special powers that zapped bad moods out of you after a “Bless Us Oh Lord.” No. Usually I would bring my crappy day to the table and like any normal human being try to spread my crappy day to others…I’d complain about the kids, I’d be a little snippy when the Costco-size bucket of butter took a few minutes too long to get to my side of the table, I’d ignore the glorious details of my housemates’ days.
See that would only last so long, though, because I would always realize that I could never disrupt the joy that lived constantly around this table. When four of us had bad days, there were eight others to remind us of ourselves. To remind us of the strength that we all had, to remind us of the importance of what we were doing, to tell their own stories of victory and encouragement from their day. We were never alone. We were never alone in our misery or our triumph. And that’s what we learned around the table.
While every night was sacred around that chipped and uneven table, Thursdays seemed to hold an even deeper significance. I learned everything that I now know and believe about communion around that table on Thursday nights. Thankful Thursday began the first week we started our year in Amate House. We would take turns sharing a person, event, or story that we were thankful for that week. We shared everything from supportive families to health to cheese pizza. And every week we would pause in a not-so-silent meditation around this table.
Our thankfulness grew throughout the night since Thankful Thursday also happened to be Thursday wine nights. We would enjoy our community meal with boatloads of cheap red and white wine. Every Thursday was our celebration. Every Thursday we paused to remember that there is always something to celebrate, to be grateful for, to drink to. We celebrated each other. We celebrated our life around the table. We celebrated together. We celebrated community.
Each day we would travel to our respective work sites. Bearing the weight of social injustice, non-profit dysfunction and the suffering of the individuals we served on our own. But we always did so with the hopeful knowledge that each evening we would share that burden together around our table. No matter the defeats or victories of the day, the table was a constant reminder. A reminder that we are in this together. A reminder that we will all join in communion once again. A reminder that we are one crazy, huge, dysfunctional family that shouts, cries, laughs, and shares with each other. A reminder that when ever the twelve of us gather around this table, life is sacred and our community is one.
If you missed the first two posts of this blog series, you can find them here:
“Who wants to pray?,” my mom proclaims as the five of us scurry to the dinner table. Usually that question was answered with averting eyes and silent hopes that she wouldn’t call on any of us to bless the food before us on the table. The uncomfortable silence was often broken by Heath’s inner duty, as the oldest Carter child, to take the burden for us, even though we all knew he really loved doing it. After the prayer, you couldn’t blink without missing the food being devoured before your eyes.
I blame this Carter habit on my inability to actually chew my food. With two older brothers, it was eat fast or don’t eat at all. So this survival technique has followed me into my adult years. Throughout the constant food-shoveling, we would often go around the table and talk about the highs and lows of our days in an attempt to have everyone’s voice be heard. This tradition, though, would often devolve into a argument about how long everyone got to explain all the details of their day, thanks to Ashley’s tendency to dominant the conversation with every minute detail, and whether “the end of this dinner” could count as one of our highs.
My family table. This is where I spent 18 years of my daily life and this is the place that continues to always offer me an open seat no matter where life leads. The Carter table never promised to be peaceful or quiet or even enjoyable, but we were always promised a seat. Often the table is where we would hash out the latest sibling argument or more likely sat in an unbearable silence as we all shot death glares at each other across the table. No words were necessary because everyone knew what we were thinking.
Our table was the center of our holidays and our celebrations. And even as my brothers left our house for college, it remained the central meeting point, the war room, the game center, and the reminder that no matter where everyone’s life took them, we could all return to this table. While it would be nice to be able to say that I learned the best manners, the most mature ways of dealing with conflict, and the best practices in handling a board game defeat, that would definitely be distorting the truth.
It was common for table conversation to be interrupted by a thunderous sound, which we soon deduce had come from the behind of one of the Carter men. This deduction would then lead to complaints and proclamations that the offender must spend five or ten minutes in the bathroom for his crime and in hopes to prevent a future offense from occurring in the general vicinity. Family game time would begin with Ashley’s typical speech about abhorring games and leaving the area in order to avoid being forced to join in on a round of Taboo or Scategories. I’m convinced, though, that it all stems from an embarrassing round of Scategories when he proudly announced his answer for “A Four Letter Word” and it happened to be one letter too many. Then, of course, family game time would necessarily end in tears, shouts, and accusations of cheating. Yet somehow we continued to gather around and play together.
My family’s table taught me that I can be myself, no matter what that looks like at the moment. I’m still accepted if I’m playing the role of the bratty youngest sibling tattling on my older brothers, if I’m mad about my assigned weekly chores, or if I spend the whole time gloating about my recent victory in Taboo or a good report card from school. I am always welcome at the table.
My family’s table was the picture of dysfunction and brokenness, but we always found a way to celebrate. We were able to bring our genuine, authentic selves into communion with one another with the reassuring knowledge that, in the end, we are family so we have to deal with each other. This table was the one place that we could all take off the roles that we often portrayed to the outside world and be our ugly, manipulative but extremely awesome selves. The end result was we all knew we were pretty messed up but we accepted each other and worked to love each other in the best ways we could each day. There was no fear of rejection, no pretense of perfection and no desire for winning the other over, because we were family.
I learned to embrace the mess that I often rejected in the rest of my life. I learned the practice of constant forgiveness and reconciliation. And I learned that even if we are angry, hurt or depressed we can still come to the table, shovel food into our mouths for nourishment and know that we can be exactly the messed up and disappointing people we often are.
If you missed the first post of this blog series, you can find it here: https://mackenseycarter.com/2014/06/05/life-around-a-table-part-one/
“One lump of sugar or two, dear?” My nana would gently call out from the kitchen corridor to the dining room table where her eager grandchildren awaited the arrival of tea-time. The answer was always two lumps, of course. And before those sugar cubes could dissolve within the piping hot tea, my nana would be right next to me handing out beautifully decorated tea cups on top of perfectly placed saucers. I always thought it was a luxury to be able to use her finest tea set, because my five-year-old self had grown rather accustomed to dinnerware of the less-breakable, plastic variety.
Life around Nana’s table was always a special event. And every event needed the finest of china even if that meant the occasional accident. My Nana would just smile, sigh and say “Dishes are for breaking, right?” I was never anxious around her. I could do no wrong.
After a never-ending road trip from California to Kansas, my family would fall out of our van into the warmth of her house knowing the moment our feet grazed the plastic carpet mats we would be treated like guests of honor. The secret was, though, everyone was treated as a guest of honor in her house, even if she had seen you the previous day. And every guest of honor, which meant any and everyone who walked through her door, had a seat at her table.
Every week Nana would make extravagant Sunday night dinners of pot roast and Yorkshire pudding, decadent desserts like her famous homemade apple pies, and the most exquisite cup of tea this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Till this day, the passing whiff of a baking apple pie brings me back to these days, back to sitting at my nana’s table.
While all of her extravagant food and drink was a delight to us all, that was not what made my nana’s table special. She made it special. We would all gather around with laughter, joy and the expected family quarrel or two and my nana would beam with excitement. Nothing mattered to her more than having people, her family, around her table. She would sometimes tell stories to her grandchildren in her soft and rather proper British accent but most of the time she was quiet, taking in the sights and sounds that engulfed her small living room. She breathed love into the space.
For my Nana, her table was communion. It was a time where, without even a whisper of a word, she could show the people in her life that they mattered, they were valued, they were important. She had this warmth when her eyes met yours that could take the chill away from any winter’s day.
For my Nana, her table held the cherished moments where everyone belonged, everyone was welcome, everyone ate like royalty. Everyone was royalty for these moments.
I was only able to come to that table for seven short years before this world lost one of its greatest women. Since my nana’s passing, her table has sat physically empty, but always beckoning us to come together once again, reminding us that we all belong to something bigger than our own lives. In those few years that I was able to sit, to eat, to live at her table, my nana taught me that moments of feasting, of mourning, or of celebrating bring us together and that everyone deserves to feel that they belong, that they are special, that they are cared for.
More than anything, though, I knew my life, at Nana’s table, was important. Nana, after working a whole day on a feast, her frail body weak from hours of standing, would sit at the table without asking for any praise, thanks or acknowledgement for we were the most important part of her day. I always imagined her thinking, how lucky I am to have this family, to have this moment, to have this meal. And then she would look at us all with humanly perfect, sacrificial love and we would know that we were loved. We were loved with a love that will always bring us back to the table.