Two tables

Pete was trying to learn how to talk with them, but it was difficult even to understand their different ways of eating, their strange foods. He still had to mask his shudders at what he sometimes found on his plate, had to bite his tongue at the questions that rose instantly to his mind. He still thought of them as smelling odd; the scents that rose from their clothing and skin were unfamiliar.

Most of all, though, he just had to get over the fact that he was sitting arm by arm with them. Was this really the way it was supposed to be? His mind still circled round and round the barriers that had always existed between his people and these people—were they supposed to sit at the same table? Share meals together? Come together in complete equality—not as the “haves” and “have-nots”—but as the equally grace-given? As brothers? As family?

He often watched his friend interact with them. How did he seem so natural? Was he not struggling with the same thoughts? His friend had adopted some of their mannerisms; he seemed to enjoy their food; he laughed at jokes that were not quite kosher. He accepted their hugs; he hugged them back.

He seemed comfortable in ways Pete could not understand. For Pete, the questions still circled. He fought the impulse to sit apart, to surround himself with those who felt familiar to him, who shared a common tradition, culture, codes—both written and unwritten. Yet he kept being surprised by joy. In the midst of meals and gatherings that felt awkward and fumbling, he felt sudden flashes of joy, a joy beyond and above the sense of belonging he’d always had with his own people. It was a joy outside himself, and the joy didn’t bring ease and comfort. Even in the moments of greatest joy he felt himself longing for conversation in which he knew the right things to say, in which the other person knew the right things as well. He longed to have a meal with people who shared his cultural codes. He ached for an evening of storytelling that made sense to him, an evening in which he understood each person’s point of view, an evening in which any differences were simple ones, arising out of a shared culture.

Here, with this group of mixed backgrounds, he had to watch his quick tongue; he had to swallow his pride and ask pardon—often—when he unknowingly stepped on toes; he had to learn to see from others’ perspectives. His sense of humor felt squashed; they didn’t understand his jokes. He didn’t understand theirs. He often felt as if he were stumbling around in the dark. It was hard—it was work! And he wondered if it wouldn’t be best to just keep some separation, just a little?

But again, that Joy, that unmistakable Joy! Could this really be what God wanted? This uncomfortable mixing?

This night one of the men was in the middle of telling a story—a story of his growing up years. Pete had to smooth his face to hide the shock at what the man was describing. Such shameful actions, so much profanity! So different from his own carefully guided upbringing! Did this man have no understanding of decency? Was there no order to the relationships in his family?

Suddenly the door opened.

Pete felt the blood rush to his face. He sprang to his feet and stepped away from the table. He slowed his breathing and calmed his features and then looked at the men who had just entered the room. He took in their clothing and read their faces.

They recognized him. They knew his name. Pete took another step away from the table.

Pete watched as the men’s gazes slid across the table, the food on it, the men and women around it. The men nodded and smiled at several people, but Pete knew what they were thinking. There was such a mix of emotion in his own heart—sorrow, frustration, shame—but there was also relief. He knew what they were thinking. He could identify with them. They spoke the same unspoken language.

A woman at the table asked if they all wanted to squeeze in. “We can make room,” she said, but one of the men shook his head. “There are too many of us. We would crowd you too much.” Pete saw the face of the one who’d offered space, and he swallowed. He could read that face, too, now.

The men were now looking at him. Pete felt himself slide away from the table even further, till he was almost against the wall. He stepped toward the men. “Come this way,” he told them. “We’ll find a quiet table where we can talk.”

~~~~

It wasn’t what he’d hoped for. Oh, the food was familiar and the conversation was comfortable and easy. He knew what to say and what to do.

But something wasn’t right.

He pushed this knowledge down, tried to pull up the sense of belonging he should be feeling. He reminded himself that these were his people. This was what he’d been missing.

And then the door of this room, too, opened.

Paul stood in the doorway, his eyes wide.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you out there with the others? This is not right!”

Paul was in Peter’s face now, his finger nearly touching Peter’s nose. “You know, Peter. You know! This—” Paul waved his arm, gesturing toward the large room where Peter had been sitting not so long before and then back to the table where Peter now sat. “—this is not where you should be! We are one family now; one body; one people; one Church! You are wrong to separate yourself from them.”

           adapted from Galatians 2:11-14 

          For commentary on this passage, read “The Conflict at Antioch” on Bible Gateway.

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. A Prayer for the Unity of the Church (the Book of Common Prayer)

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2 thoughts on “Two tables

  1. Fantastic! Thank you Jenn…right now seems I need to remember this as this extraordinary time is asking for a choice from each of us.

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