22 January 2022

At the Table

In a recent post (here) I talked about the power of habits and how they form us as individuals and communities. Well that got me thinking about the habits we’ve grown as a family over the past 27 years of marriage. One enduring habit has to do with food and mealtime. Both my parents are great cooks and dinners were always something to look forward to growing up. Thanks to them, I also love preparing and eating food. My friend from work Karen and I regularly text each other prideful photos of our latest culinary creations (though she always wins hands down). There is something delightful, glorious, spiritual even about the gift of good food. 

In our home, we always eat at the table, we wait till everyone has arrived, we hold hands around the table as one of us thanks God for meal, we eat (it’s always chaotic, noisy and messy with three kids under 17), and when everyone is done we take turns to clean up (usually with some measure of stalling or complaining). Oh, and no screens are allowed, ever.

I you are gen X or older this may not be such a foreign idea but if you are younger, that might sound like a totally weird set of habits, especially given that Australians are increasingly likely to eat on the lounge in front of the TV. Recent Australian studies by social researcher Mark McCrindle have found that over one third of all Australians eat away from a table and in front of a screen. This figure grows to about 50% with people aged 20-40. In his analysis for Freedom Foods, Mark said “an increasing number of families were eating their meals by the television because time poor parents juggling work and domestic commitments, want that time to unwind in the evening”. He continues, “I think that whole process of preparing, cooking and sitting down to a meal together has moved from being the ever day experience to being a special experience.”

The Uber eats phenomena (which I just can’t get my head around) reflects this gradual cultural shift in western nations away from food preparation and shared consumption being central to our daily practice. We order the food on a screen then watch the screen while we eat it. It also highlights how far we’ve moved to outsourcing the basic stuff of life. Sure, we still have a plethora of cooking shows and food documentaries which inspire a particular segment of the public, but I wonder if these shows are more aspirational than anything else?

I don’t think we are going to stop loving good food anytime soon but I do wonder if we need to reclaim its significance and the power in the habits of the table as a central expression of our community with one another and I think, community with God.

The lounge may be more comfortable and the TV more entertaining but what are you missing out on, and at what cost to the people you are doing life with?

(Side note here: This lounge/table contrast is a good analogy of the church too. Do we want 'be fed' as we sit shoulder to shoulder staring at the platform in a mostly anonymous setting, or do we want to eat together, face to face, interacting, sharing with each other?)

I think Jesus knew this too. Jesus seemed to have a thing about food and parties such that he was accused of being a drunkard and glutton (Luke 7.34). Throughout the gospels Jesus is either going to a party, at a party, or having just left a party. And, it was in these contexts, up close with others around a shared meal, that we see some of the most beautiful life changing moments in His ministry. The night before his death Jesus plans a meaning-laden feast to be shared with his closest friends, a meal they would later establish as a centre point of their identity and solidarity. And soon after His resurrection, Jesus shares a breakfast on the beach with Peter, again a meal that changed the course of his life.

Food and feasting is a surprisingly constant theme running through the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation. The first words of God to humans are an invitation to eat and the final vision of the new world is of a massive, joyful banquet. This is no coincidence. There is something deeply spiritual and significant about the table in our humanity.

The table can be a place of the simple human rhythm of eating in shared community.
The table can be a place of learning how to communicate and navigate relationships and mess.
The table can be a place of grace and invitation and inclusion for the lonely.
The table can be a place of continuity and intentionality for scattered, time poor people.
The table can be a place of remembering, a place of restoration and redemption.

May you and those you love skip the lounge, set aside the devices, and rediscover the gift that is the table in your home. And, may that table always have a spare seat for others to join you.

18 January 2022

Habits follow the Heart


Over the summer break I reread James Clear’s best seller, Atomic Habits. A good read for anyone pondering the shape of their lives in 2022. As the title suggests, habits, like atoms are the tiny building blocks of a much larger reality or outcome. Though small they are extremely powerful and over time, shape us into the people we are becoming.

Clear explains that our lives are all deeply influenced by habits driving us in either positive or negative directions. Our habits may leave us feeling productive or stressed, growing in a sense of purpose or languishing, building relationships or becoming isolated. And, Clear argues, our habits are a window into the heart and our sense of identity. That every action you take is a vote for the person you believe you are, or wish to become. Of course, it’s a two-way street and our sense of identity ultimately should shape our behaviours.

But what happens to life when the past two years have torn up many of the habits we’d established over what might be decades? Like say, reading on your daily commute, or dining with friends, or that annual holiday with family, or physically going to church on Sunday. I confess I fell out of bunch of good habits over the past few years, like exercise, like writing.... and healthy eating.

And what about those habits you formed in a pandemic? Maybe it’s a massive daily spike in your Netflix consumption, or caffeine consumption or an obsession with the news feed (ok that’s me). Of course, you may have also established some great new habits, like zooming your extended family regularly, or walking in the mornings or rediscovering an old discipline.

In my context, I’ve seen most people to varying degrees lose the habit of regularly gathering as a faith community. Covid really disrupted the rhythm of gathering and even though we have had a form of gathering continually available, it has been far less gratifying on line or in masks and distancing and an absence of song and lingering. Our lack of physical connection has for some even morphed into a deep lack of belonging in community and an entrenched hesitancy to return. I’m the last person who wants people to gather as church simply because it’s the religious thing to do, but I do think the past few years have robbed people of many of the unspoken delights that come from the good habit of regularly meeting together – like that feeling of belonging, connection, and shared mission.

So, as we all begin to emerge (again and hopefully for the last time) from another wave of the pandemic I think it’s time to ask:

Which habits do you want to keep or recapture, and which should be relegated to the pandemic years?

Perhaps the way to answer that question is by asking 2 other questions:

Who am I, and what kind of person do I want to become?

Ok, that’s a couple of really deep questions which I'm not sure I can even fully answer, but my hunch is that if we could approximately answer these questions we could better figure out which habits, rhythms and behaviours we want to prune from life, and which we want to resurrect.

There may be a sizeable gap between who you are, and the kind of person you want to become. That’s ok, we are all in that club. But nevertheless, what kind of person do you ultimately want to become? What do you want to be known for by your kids if you have them? What are you fundamentally about? At the end of your life, a life well lived looks like?

If we can honestly answer this we can then make choices that grow habits that take us in that direction. The constant danger is that we make a bunch of good things (like fitness, prosperity, career, influence or knowledge or anything apart from God), become the ultimate treasure of our lives. And when they are, you can be sure that our habits will follow the lead of our heart. That’s why our habits are so diagnostic of the heart and identity. They reveal what we treasure, what we believe about ourselves and who we are becoming.

So what is the real treasure your habits are running after in 2022?
And deep down, are you really ok with that?

When I think about what I most treasure in life and the person I want to be, there definitely are some new habits that aren't taking me there, and some older ones that I need to relearn.

How about you?