Table Manners

I didn’t plan on staying for dinner. Then again, I was the one who brought dinner. A generous soul with a big heart prepared the casserole and told me to pack it in my checked luggage. “Oh, we’ve done that lots of times,” she assured me. “You won’t have a problem.”  I wasn’t convinced. Apparently, neither was the TSA.

But the frozen meal survived. Survived two different plane rides. A baggage claim carousel. Two-and-a-half hours in a rental car weaving through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Bobbie and Wayne were the best neighbors my family could ask for. Kind and generous, people of deep substance. Neither cared much for parading their faith around like a circus animal. They’re precisely the kind of folks Jesus envisioned inheriting the Kingdom. At least that’s how I know them. They moved away a couple of years ago. The retirement plan was to be near children and grandchildren, working in their garden and traveling whenever they felt the slightest tug for the open road.

All that changed two months ago when Bobbie was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer. The doctors insisted that treatment wouldn’t do any good. So Bobbie opted for whatever quality of life she might have left. As with everything else, she handled all of it with honesty and grace.

By the time I arrived, Bobbie was two days from dying. Her responses were sporadic and infrequent. I spent the afternoon with Wayne, our conversation trending back and forth between the obvious and the arbitrary. Neither of us really knew what to talk about, so we just sat next to Bobbie for a long while. I was there as a friend… as a pastor. But I wasn’t under any illusion of being able to help.

I must have stayed longer than I thought. Wayne went to the kitchen and read the cooking instructions lovingly scrawled on the aluminum foil. I joined him, and together we began the silent motions of preparing for dinner. Filling tea glasses with ice. A gesture for plates. Rearranging a stack of hospice documents on the table. Bowing to bless the broken bread and hearts.

I sat across from my friend, listening to the scraping of forks and feeling the heaviness of my own breath. Around that time I stopped looking for the right words. Neither of us had much need for them. What we needed was whatever sacred presence met us at that table. The simplicity of silence. The resilience of hope. The ligaments of communion between us.

Looking back, it should have been more awkward than it was. Then again, Wayne and I learned our table manners from the same finishing school. We’ve gathered at another table plenty of times. And we’ll gather there again. To eat and drink; to be made whole.

I’m not sure any of us experience the full meal on this side of glory. But if we stay for dinner enough times, we’ll develop a taste for things that last. And we’ll recognize the feast when it’s served.