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Extending the table

A classic hymn sparks a holiday memory and reflection by the Rev. Dwayne Bagley.

Superintendent, Kalamazoo District

As weeks leading up to Thanksgiving dwindled down to a few days I longed to join a congregation in singing, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” You may have already sang it in your church, but for me the mass effect has been lost as I raise the song of harvest home while I driving my way from one Church Conference to the next.

The line that always catches in my throat is the affirmation that, “all are safely gathered in, ere the winter storm begins.” I know some might think the hymn harkens back to harvest time and serves to raise a hymn of grateful praise for the crops that have been brought in from the field, but I always think that it refers more specifically to people – individuals whose faces I can still see safely gathered around family tables at Thanksgiving time.

One of those family tables was a fold-up card table. At my Grandma Chamberlain’s house that was the kind of table that the kids had to sit at during family dinners. There was no discussion about your place at the table or where you would sit. The arrangement had been decided long before I arrived on the scene. If you were of a certain age you had to sit at the card table shoved into a corner of the kitchen. The adults were afforded the privilege of sitting at the big person’s table. As some of you might have already guessed, the adult table was where all the food was. The kids at the card table had to wait until the adults got what they wanted and then they had to reach around relatives hunched over their plates to take a portion of what remained on the platters and in the serving bowls. The effect of all this was that you wondered if there were really a place for you at the table.

At Grandma Bagley’s it was different. There, the whole family gathered around the table together. Babies in high chairs sat next to great aunts and uncles. Phone books and Sears catalogs boosted the little kids up to where they could reach the table.  Adults sat in strategic places so that they could pile mashed potatoes and roast turkey on the children’s plates as the serving dishes were passed around. My Grandma Bagley hovered around like the Holy Spirit setting food in front of you before you could ask for it to be passed and meeting needs that you didn’t even know you had. It was crowded at that table, and I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s true, there was always room for one more.

I remember one Thanksgiving day. We had all just sat down. The table was set, serving dishes and platters were placed on the linen tablecloth and my cousin Cara had just finished praying, “God is good, God is great…” when we heard someone stomping snow off their boots on the front porch. It was my Uncle Zara. He entered the dining room red-nosed and smelling like a kind of Wild Turkey that was no kin to the one heaped upon Grandma’s serving platter. Grandma didn’t hand him a plate and show him to a seat out in the kitchen. Instead, everything stopped to make room for one more. We picked up plates and silverware, the platters were set aside, the tablecloth was pulled back and another table leaf was added so that we would have room for one more. We had room because the table had been extended.

Today the place I found at that extended table exists only in my memory. And even though more than 30 years have passed, I have yet to find my place at a table where I feel as welcome and at home. What happened to my Grandma Bagley’s table may be familiar to many of you. Over the years our loved ones left us, one by one, but we never invited anyone else to take their place at the table. And because we never extended the table to anyone else, we reached a point where there were so few of us that it just didn’t make any sense to go to all the trouble of getting out the good china and preparing a huge meal for so few people. So, we just stopped gathering around the table.

The same thing happens in churches. When the table is not extended, when the invitation is not made, churches stop growing. Over time, churches that stop growing simply cease to be. And, while it’s true that Jesus is everywhere two or three are gathered in his name, the Kingdom of God is a lot more fun when it’s a party where everyone is invited.

Looking around your community you may notice something. Most of the people who are just like us are already part of some church. So, the imperative before us today is to say, “Lord, send us the people nobody else wants.” Maybe it’s even better for us to pray, “Lord, send us the people you want,” because that includes absolutely everybody, even us.

The Michigan Conference