life in the suture zone...

In the earthquake faults between tectonic plates, the suture zone is the in between place where they meet. I find in that a metaphor for the times in which we live... and invite your conversation in the suture zone.

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Location: Bakersfield, CA, United States

... a struggling, but mostly joyful, apprentice of Jesus.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

journey (part four): the moveable feast...

Hemingway wrote a book called A Moveable Feast, published posthumously several years after his death. I’m not sure if he invented the title or if it was the clever scheme of some early marketing maven associated with his publisher. (Or was it Shakespeare’s title first? I tried to find the answer on the web and couldn’t.) I suspect he titled it for it is a clever word picture. Accordingly, I have borrowed the picture from his excellent title. Other than that, though I admire his terse writing style (and obviously fail to emulate it), this post has nothing to do with his story.

I am in the air between Los Angeles and Dallas as I begin to write this, on my way to Abilene, Texas, to help my son drive home from university for the summer. As I mentioned in the last post, that’s a long road trip, somewhere between 1400 and 1500 miles. I imagine on the way we will stop several times because of the very human need for food. Whether you are on the road or at home, you pretty much always need to eat. At least I do. And when you are on the road these days, you have a number of choices.

My son, for instance, is looking forward very much to stopping at the first available In-N-Out hamburger restaurant. (If you don’t know about In-N-Out, it’s mostly a California/West Coast thing.) We’ll hit the first one around Phoenix. One of his across-the-hall dorm neighbors, probably someone from California, had an In-N-Out bumper sticker on the door of his room when I visited last January. It has been a constant reminder of what he is looking forward to on the trip home. While they may not be all that healthy, a double-double burger with fresh-cut fries and a drink is an addictive meal. And he has been without one since the first of the year.

Fast food is great for a quick meal. But most need and long for something a bit more than fast food. They want food that reminds them of home. Not only that, they want food they can share with someone else. Even though I find solitude and silence more and more attractive the older I get, I still hate to eat alone. Many people these days are eating alone in a lot of ways…

…which is why I believe there is a terrible hunger today for table.

I am using “table” in a very general sense for what happens when people spend time together in close community. It stands for the communication that goes on while together, for the shared sense of acceptance of mutual weakness, for the need for community that we all experience, and more. Being “at table” recognizes and helps build the interdependent relationship that we all need. It can happen in many ways and doesn’t always involve food. It can be healthy or unhealthy. But, with the exception of some who have become bitter, curmudgeonly and disillusioned, it is one of the necessities of life.

First of all, let’s look at what table is not. Table is not just about technology. Whatever you think of the movie, The Passion of the Christ, there is a scene that to me is totally out of place. It is the flashback of the young carpenter Jesus who has just formed what is very obviously a modern day table with long legs. He pantomimes sitting in a chair. I have no idea why Gibson would think that appropriate in such a movie. Perhaps he thought such a scene would connect us with this strange Aramaic-speaking Jesus he portrays in the film. I don’t know. The point I’m trying to make is that using table simply as a meal-taking aid is to totally miss what table is about. The same is true of our technological ability to communicate and form community. Table as I am conceiving of it can happen online, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that if you are online, it happens.

There are and have been many kinds of “table”. I suppose that nomads crossing the desert used some kind of animal skin stretched out on the ground on which they spread their food. Tones and Zee just escaped from their boys for several days to take a backpacking trip on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of California. It’s hard to drag along a table in a backpack. But I know they enjoyed their meals together.

While it may be difficult to unscrew the legs from your modern kitchen table, haul it up on your back and head on the road, the concept of table is fairly portable. I can imagine some of the discussion as Israel prepared to leave Egypt.

“I don’t care how heavy it is. That table was a gift from my great-grandmother, God rest her soul, and if we eat Passover next year in Jerusalem, it will be on that table!”

“Yes, dear.”

David envisions table in Psalm 23 in common nomadic style. We may be mortal enemies, but when it comes to table, we lay down arms and eat together. There is something sacred about table, especially what I would call “Kingdom table”. Don’t confuse this with the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist or Communion or whatever you call it in your tradition (if you do). Though one can find table in that ritual, one does not always find table there in the way we practice it today.

Jesus seemed to enjoy table. For him it was a celebration of the redemptive nature of God. So the folks at his table were sometimes the kind you wouldn’t ordinarily invite if you were in the “in” religious community. He was sharply criticized for his selection of table companions, and he evidently spent enough time at table that it made an impression. (He was also very good at inviting himself over for dinner – Zaccheus and Matthew come to mind here, as well as Lazarus in Bethany.)

In the days of Jesus, the traditional way to eat meals was to recline in the same direction around a low table, leaning on one elbow and eating with the free hand, feet stuck out at an angle in a kind of pinwheel effect with the table at center. It was a relaxed posture that enabled deep, and at times intimate, conversation, and from all evidence that I’ve seen, people took their time. (Personally, I don’t know how they kept their leaning arms from going to sleep, but that’s just me, I guess.) In other words, eating was a social event. But Jesus made it more than that. It was a celebration of the coming of the presence of God to everyone, collectively, no matter their caste or religious status.

I think it is safe to say that Jesus endorsed “table” in that sense. In fact, I think he presented it as essential to the journey, a place where we can constantly remind ourselves that God is present among us, in each other and in us collectively. The Kingdom of God is here, Jesus said, and shared table evidenced that presence. We need such moments on our journey atop the suture zone. This world is dizzying and perplexing enough even when times are not changing. But when we have huge upheaval as we do these days, table is critical.

Consider how removed we all are in the world today. In all of this isolation and silence and independence from group, a terrible and holy hunger is growing. I may not be able to relate to the thousands of people I encounter every day, whether personally or on the television. I may find myself in sensory and relationship overload. But I need the companionship of at least a few. Table may be about eating, but it is more. It is about companionship and listening and sharing and valuing and .grieving and laughing and celebrating all of the other very human characteristics we share, all in the environment of common human need and weakness. We all need to eat. We would die if we did not eat. And in companionship, we tacitly share in our admission of weakness, we share with each other our stories, our food and ourselves.

Why all of this rambling? IMHO, table will be one of the more important metaphors for our future. Perhaps as this blog wends its way into that future, we will explore this more. For now, simply imagine what it would be like to spend a little time at table with those whom God has called you into community. And once you’ve envisioned it, type out an email invitation, pick up your cell phone. Life is too short to miss out on table. By the way, don’t forget to invite Jesus. He loves it!

Grace and peace!



Blogger Tones said...

I agree that this is one of the most important metaphors that will accompany us through the suture zone (and whatever we find if we get to the other side). Larry Crabb, in the introduction to his book The Safest Place On Earth, uses a slightly different metaphor to talk about the same concept. He describes a trip he took to Florida where he saw a porch full of retirees sitting in a line facing outward not talking to each other. He saw this as a very sad picture and a microcosm of our culture. So, he says that we need to "turn our chairs towards each other".

He is coming from this as a psychologist and he says that intimate community can and does meet huge needs that counselors and psychotherapy etc. are now trying to meet. It is his opinion, (mine too) that this type of community is absolutely necessary for healthy Christian living.


12:46 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Hi, again,

First, I'm happy to say I found a good, simple explanation of the origins of the phrase "moveable feast" at

Second, I'm moved to reflect that "table" has at least two manifestations in my life.

One, is the "official" church body with which I am offiliated, with its aims of biblical heirarchy, etc. This church is sound and passionate, but rarely allows for genuine sharing of weakness - in my experience, a common failing of contemporary churches.

Second, is the unofficial cloud of persons with whom I share a spiritual life. This second body is an eclectic group. It includes two daughters (one a struggling charismatic, one a sort of Christian-Buddhist hybrid), my brother Lewis (a Christian cop with rather a foul mouth), my boss and friend (who is Mormon), my co-worker and friend Les (athiest), and my friend Danny (Christian, but further down the post-divorce funslide than I hope ever to go!). This second body listens and motivates and sympathizes and doesn't "preach," but also doesn't form a clear arrow upward.

I wonder how common is such a division...

- Marshall

3:36 PM  
Blogger Owen B. said...

Marshall --

Two thoughts...

In answer to your question at the end of your comment, I'm afraid this is the case more often than not. To use Larry Crabb's metaphor that Tones referenced, modern churches don't know how to "turn our chairs towards each other". At least that's my observation with most churches. There are exceptions.

Second, you said that there isn't always a clear arrow pointing upward in your second group. Sometimes I think the "clear arrow upward" coming from the first group may not be as clear or as sure or as upward as most in that group might represent. Sort of like The Poseidon Adventure maybe?

The truth is that church would be better reflected in the first manifestation of table if it adopted the second manifestation's expression of true community.

You said in an earlier comment that you long for such a community, to find such a community. That, I think, is where the suture zone must lead in the future.

Don't know how valuable preaching is. Walking alongside is much preferable, I think. The second group reflects that. As hodgepodge and dysfunctional as it might be, it quite possibly could be healthier, more honest and more like the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about. I'm not trying to disparage the first expression. It's just not real helpful when everything is falling apart.

Good thoughts.


6:24 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

Hi, Owen,

I am touched by your comment about where the suture zone "must lead." I agree, we must develop a spiritual community in which all are welcome, all are encouraged, right now, as they are. We must be seekers together.

As I look over the comtemporary world, it seems clear to me (though I could be wrong) that we are in the midst of a religious war - despite protestations to the contrary. Fundamentalist Islam v. what shall we call it? - fundamentalist-rightwing-Christian-American-something... George W. Bush once spoke of democracy as "the gospel."

I think that in order to be a binding, healing force, a force for health and goodness, rather than illness and evil, religion must outgrow its roots in fear.

That's a bold statement, I know. Perhaps it is a statement that rejects too much of the Bible. But then "perfect love drives out fear."

Because we fear God's displeasure (God the cop), we reduce the infinite to the finite, make of grace a strict regimen, reduce baptism to a physical event... God have mercy.

Rather, instead of fearing God's displeasure, if only we could invite God's pleasure. It is a very different and much healthier motivation! If we could seek and question and probe and err - and trust. I'm a mess, Owen. But God is for me. And not because I'm all that and a Coke. Because I'm not - I'm not even all that and a Sam's Choice. God is able to sort and intervene and teach and correct, on his own, today. He is love, and he is alive.

And where should that lead us? "...the greatest of these is love."

6:21 PM  
Blogger judy thomas said...

Owen, I have enough trouble getting out chairs--I don't think I could have reclined to eat--but love your table talk.

12:13 PM  

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