Setting the Table
For a while, I worked in advertising, before I made the slight career shift to ordained ministry. (Some say I’m still in advertising.) Some have doubted there could be transferable skills from the first career to the second. But I’m grateful for what I learned: the importance of communication, the power of focus on a single idea, the importance of team work. One of my bosses said that there were really only two motivators for consumers: fear and love. That will preach.
The fact is, there are lessons for the spiritual journey that come from all kinds of fields. St. Paul wrote to early Christians and compared the life of discipleship to training in military service, or preparing for a long distance race, or being in the construction business (what foundation will you build on?), or agricultural work (also a favorite of Jesus’).
My gifted cousin and her husband are about to open a wonderful café here in North Carolina. I can’t wait. To guide them in their work, they have turned to a book by restaurateur Danny Meyer. The book is called Setting the Table. It’s a book focused on hospitality, on how we prepare to welcome people. In the past, I’ve used this book to learn about what it means to be church. In that book, Mr. Meyer identifies five core emotional skills which guide his work, and will guide my cousin in her new endeavor:
- Optimistic warmth: genuine kindness, thoughtfulness and a sense that the glass is always half-full.
- Intelligence: Not just smarts, but an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning.
- Work ethic: A natural tendency to do something as well as it can be done.
- Empathy: An awareness of, care for, and connection to how others feel and how your actions make others feel.
- Self-awareness and integrity: An understanding of what makes you tick and a natural inclination to be accountable for doing the right thing with honesty and superb judgment.
Those five skills led to remarkable successful restaurants in New York and around the country. Can those skills be translated into Christian virtues, spiritual practices? Let’s give it a try:
- Optimistic warmth: Sounds a lot to me like hope.
- Intelligence: What is a disciple but someone who is always learning, and who knows, especially in the spiritual journey, that we’re never done?
- Work ethic: A mentor used to tell me that we seek to make worship our most excellent offering. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that we become perfectionists. It does mean that we do what we do with care, as an offering to the God we worship for the glory of God. Should we offer less?
- Empathy: Just another word for love, or perhaps, compassion, the common virtue in all faith traditions.
- Self-awareness and integrity: it looks a lot like humility to me.
- Setting the table: That’s what the church is about, getting ready to welcome people to God’s feast. That’s what the individual spiritual journey is about, as we relate to those around us in a world so hungry for a greater sense of authentic hospitality.
This Monday, this Lent, how can we set the table with hope and love, in a spirit of worship and humility, as disciples who are always learning?
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.
True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’.
Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. Those two simple prepositions – for and to – express it all.
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