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If you think about it, everything comes down to a meal.
Eve in the Garden must’ve been looking for something to eat. The Passover Seder meal became the linchpin for Old Testament Jews. The hoped-for Messiah took bread and gave thanks with His disciples before beginning His journey to the cross. After, He cooked them fish to launch a new kind of journey.
Home cooking during our time of coronavirus has enjoyed a renaissance. Social gatherings remain fraught with uncertainty and risk, but meals remain essential and summer evenings long. Look to the guidelines in your state and locality, then find ways to feast.
With summer come options to extend the table in your backyard, down a quiet street, or at a nearby park. Our backyard has acquired a socially acceptable (distanced) dining space, sheltered by a tent for sudden showers. Buy several inexpensive folding tables and push them together to make extra space. Throw several tablecloths over them, sit far apart, but together.
Neighbor meals have a great history on my street. Many of us have lived side by side for forever. Years ago we began gathering every couple of months, four families ranging in age from young parents in their 30s to grandparents approaching 90. We grilled, ate by a fire, or at a dining room table, whatever worked. We did neighborhood gossip. We exchanged news of faraway children. We got tense over politics and religion. We heard unforgettable stories. One neighbor took a canoe with a friend all the way down the Mississippi when she was 18. Another performed the first pacemaker implant behind the Iron Curtain in 1962. Trust me, you have stories on your street, too.
It can be life-giving to see what happens when we love our neighbors.
Sometimes we got too busy, and after one dry spell, my neighbor next door, out of work, proposed making dinner for us every Monday night, simple meal, and for one hour. No obligation to come, and no contribution necessary. First lesson: Make an offer too good to pass up.
That began a tradition from which we continue to reap rewards, deepened relationships that continue in this pandemic season when we no longer enter one another’s homes.
Monday nights became time for beans and rice, cornbread, and salad. On Monday mornings at my desk I began to dream Pavlovian-style of this meal. Someone might arrive with a cut-up cantaloupe, a pie, or a bottle of wine. All of us might show up with nothing, and it was OK. The real beauty was coming together, enjoying the grace of giving or receiving without payback.
Sometimes work or travel intervened. Sometimes the 10-year-old ate and ran for homework. We welcomed whatever time we had, knowing we’d return to keep the conversation going.
True, I sometimes heard things that rocked my sensibilities and hurt my soul. But by building shared experiences around the table, we Democrats and Republicans, Christians, Jews, Unitarians, and Nones grew to care for one another.
Once, our Jewish neighbor lit candles at the start of Hanukkah, explaining the menorah. That led to stories of the couple’s grandparents, all Holocaust survivors.
At another dinner after I had returned from the Middle East, a neighbor plunked an oversized world atlas in the middle of the table and commanded, “Tell us everything you saw.” Everyone asked insightful questions about the Christian communities I’d visited.
The disciples formed an intimate band from diverse backgrounds who had to overcome differences in service to a bigger cause. Matthew the tax collector was perhaps pro-Rome and the fishermen Never Caesars. It’s wonderful to have intimate gatherings of fellow believers, but it can be life-giving also to see what happens when we love our neighbors. The Christian, wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”
Epilogue: For a year now our Monday night host has battled pancreatic cancer, and our weekly dinners are on an extended pause. Our relationships, buoyed by that regular time together, are helping us navigate personal and national crises with compassion and purpose.