One of the challenges Shauna Niequist addresses in her new book, Bread and Wine, is that of drawing people together around her table who all bring their own special circumstances. That is, many of them have special dietary needs or preferences.
Her husband requires a gluten-free diet. Other friends are vegetarians. Or vegans. Some probably wouldn't touch this or that food with a ten-foot fork. Some require wheat-free options or whole grains or whole foods in general. A pregnancy sensitivity takes this dish off the table, and another friend's preference eliminates that one. You get the feeling that it's kind of a hassle to plan Shauna's table on any given occasion.
Yet she never says it is a burden. Rather, a challenge. And an important part of setting the table.
I couldn't agree more.
I say that knowing what it's like to be a woman with special circumstances. It's embarrassing. It's complicated. It's exhausting. Due to an underlying medical condition, I have some very weird, but common, things I cannot eat any more. Paprika, for one, which is a hidden ingredient in so many things from tomato and barbecue sauces to bread crumbs for meatloaf. Anything artificially blue, I cannot eat. And no caffeine - which means no coffee, only decaf tea, and no chocolate. (My mom always says she doesn't know how I do it. No chocolate, that is. But when it makes you so ill as it makes me, even one bite, it's not that hard to give up.) Among other things. And going into any meal with special circumstances, the one thing I can assure you that you overwhelmingly feel - at least I do - is rude.
You're rude because you might dare mention a few things beforehand, allowing your host to plan for such things. You know, instead of simply being a gracious guest. You're rude if you didn't say anything and now are pushing things aside on your plate, playing rather than eating because you can't be sure. You're rude if you arrive a few minutes early and start scouting out the different courses, spying and smelling and maybe poking around a bit (ok, maybe not) to see if they are within your edibility range. You're rude if you just ask the question, but ask it too late after everything's already prepared. There's no easy way to be a person with special circumstances. There's no way, it seems, to not be rude.
The grace with which Shauna welcomes all of these people around her table and does her best to feed them all set something free in me. Something for food, yes, but something greater.
Because it's ministry. It's Jesus. It's meeting people where they are and embracing them as they wholly are and finding a way to nourish them, too. It's making the special effort to make sure they can take part in this, that they not only have a place at the table but that there is something to set in front of them, too. Something that won't kill them.
I'm thinking about the people I meet on a daily basis, each with their own set of circumstances. I'm thinking about the ways I love people, how there can never be two same loves because love is defined by those very special circumstances that seem like such a hassle. I'm thinking about the words I use, the heart I open, and the way I minister to people and I'm wondering if I do enough to meet them where they're at, to find a place around the table for them and to have something to set in front of them.
It's not easy. You have to uncover a person's heart before you can figure out how best to speak truth with them and that means diving into their special circumstances. It means not counting their life a burden but a challenge, not an obstacle but an opportunity. It means finding that special way to feed them, understanding with grace that they feel rude for even having circumstances. (I know I have. You, too?)
We tend to think that in moments of greatest doubt, a person may want to hear the story of a faithful God. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe what they need to hear are other stories of doubt, without the resolution. Maybe you need to meet them in their doubt instead of trying to draw them out to hope.
We think that in times of loss, a person may want to hear the story of the promised tomorrow. Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe they'd rather you join them in their loss.
One of my friends once told me that the greatest "friend" moment she ever had was when she confessed to a close girlfriend how worn out, run down, and scared she was and how she just wanted to hide in her basement and cry. Her friend's response? "You let me know when, and I will sit in the basement and cry with you."
So many times, I hear stories of people offended by God because a well-meaning Christian friend has taken it upon themselves to answer the question nobody's asking, to set a plate in front of an aching soul that the heart cannot digest. You don't stand with a newly-homeless family and loudly proclaim God's goodness. You don't hold hands of a mother who just lost her child and declare the beautiful sacrifice of God's Son. You don't come beside a friend just diagnosed with cancer and start expounding on the goodness of Heaven. Nobody likes that God. You have to figure out what story of God is going to feed them; not which one will make them sick at heart. That's the story you tell.
It's so tempting, in ministry or in life in general, to think we know what people need. It's easy to think it's our job to give them what seems like the answer to their troubles. But the truth is that what anyone needs more than anything is to be honored. That means understanding each heart's special circumstances and making a place for that. Then accepting the challenge of figuring out what to set in front of them.
Nothing with paprika. Nothing artificially blue. And no chocolate.
Pre-order Bread and Wine from Amazon today. The book releases April 9.
Per federal regulations, I am required to tell you that in exchange for my blogging and digital reviews, Zondervan publishing provided a free copy of Bread and Wine for my perusal. I must also tell you, as a matter of personal integrity, that I am being completely honest in my words and that the offer from Zondervan does not influence my opinion nor my statement. In the sixth grade, I once gave a book report that began, "This book was terrible. Do not waste your time reading it." The teacher pulled me into the hall and said I would get an F if I didn't change my tune, that the idea of a book report was to get people to read the book. I took the F because I don't believe that; I believe in being honest about a book. If it sucks, I'm going to tell you it sucks. This book, Bread and Wine, does not suck.