Bear Hugs and Popcorn Bags

Originally featured on IF:Table (August 2015), modified for Neighbor's Table

As the sun began to dip for the day, there was a knock at the door.  I was expecting them any minute and the table was set.  I answered the door and gave a bear hug to one and a baby bear hug to the other.  You might already be asking, “Sarah, what’s a baby bear hug?”  That’s the kind I give when I meet someone new for the first time – it’s a not-so-overwhelming-kind where it communicates genuinely that I’m happy they are here, but not too crazy big where it sends them back to the car.

The table had a small assortment of nibbles with various cheeses, olives, nuts and fruit.  It was a simple spread, set with great anticipation of being with each other. I had only briefly met one of these women before and was eager to chat with both of them.  We chatted in the kitchen as I made drinks for all of us. We talked about children, travel and celebrity gossip.  We eventually made it to the table and continued our small talk.

I’ve never been one who prefers small talk at my table, but I understand its use to find some connecting points.  My good friend that night helped navigate the conversations and points of connection she knew we all shared.  She knew what I’d be delighted to know about her friend – things that would feel so familiar as I learned them.  As I asked questions and listened, my new friend would say things like “I was a mess back then.  I was tough and wouldn’t let anyone into my life then.”  I was hearing things of past and present, and I wanted to know what or Who helped make the shift in her life.

So, after some time I just asked. “Will you tell me your story? I’d love to know from the day you were born until now – your story.  Will you share as much as you feel comfortable sharing?” I said with a sincere smile.  She giggled and made some comment about not being interesting and then began.

She began to share about the home she grew up in and what she was like as a kid adopted by the most loving of parents. She talked about her wayward years and the consistent boyfriends.  And then she shared about the abuse, the gut-wrenching abuse those loving parents never knew.  She spoke about the hobbies she pursued with so much excellence that she was recognized nationally.  And then she spoke of her marriage and how she finally found God there, in the quiet of a morning reading Philippians.

The room felt a little full with details and stories so personal that I broke it up with “Would anyone like popcorn now?” There was a resounding “yes!”  I wanted the sharing to continue, but felt the break could be good for all of us.  I grabbed glasses to re-fill and started a bag of microwave popcorn.  It was there while I waited I had an idea – I’d forgo the usual popcorn bowl and make individual brown lunch sacks of popcorn for the three of us.  I grabbed them from my pantry and rolled the sides of the bags down.  I then took a Sharpie marker and scribbled messages on their two bags. To the one sharing her story it read:

 

Courtney, you are a treasure.

 

I hurried back to the table where we had been gathered with drinks and popcorn and said, “Ok, let’s continue where we left off.” It was at that moment she saw the scribbled note and her eyes filled with tears as she smiled her approval.  We see this reaction a lot when we make margin for people to be heard at our tables, yes?  There are so many ways to acknowledge people and that evening, it happened to be in the unplanned details of a popcorn bag.

Her story continued on and it was a wonderful evening together. We can love people in simple things and in the details of hospitality. It gives us a place to acknowledge who they are and who God says they are. Our identity in Christ is found throughout the Bible as a child of God, a friend of Jesus, justified, redeemed, no longer slaves to sin, fellow heir with Christ, new creature, chosen, holy and blameless and made alive in Christ.  Let’s whisper these things to each other – maybe yours will be in words…or bear hugs and popcorn bags.

Sunsets and New Things

Sunsets & New Things

Originally featured on IF:Table (April 2016) , modified for Neighbor's Table.

The Oasis on Lake Travis is a popular Austin restaurant, self-proclaimed as the “Sunset Capital of Texas” with its cliff views looking west over the water. For decades it has been one of those iconic places that attracts locals and visitors alike. I’ve sat on those wooden decks that jet over the bluff with my high school volleyball team, my friends from college, and even on a recent girls trip to Austin. Groups plan special birthdays, celebrations, baby showers, and even weddings there. It’s the place, y’all! Each night, when the sun finally sets, a bell rings and patrons gather on the many decks of The Oasis, giving the scene a standing ovation. I like to think it’s a standing O for the Creator!

Almost ten years ago, there was a fateful night when a lighting strike ignited those Oasis wooden decks in the middle of the night. More than fifty firefighters fought the blaze, and there was so much damage when the sun peaked out the next morning. The core of the restaurant was destroyed. The next day the owner was already at work, dreaming with an architect of how to build it back even better. Sure he was upset business would drop dramatically in the months ahead, but he was thinking ahead with hope.

The story goes, or at least has been told to me, that the owner lived just up the road from The Oasis. As his restaurant sat destroyed, he continued to think about those patrons who would miss those special sunset moments until he could rebuild. His books had reservations for bridal showers and even a few weddings. And he wanted to offer the same service and sunsets his popular destination had become for people.

He did the unthinkable next. He opened his personal home. He literally opened his own table at his home to these who had been dreaming of their special occasion at the restaurant down the street. Beauty rose from ashes. He was facilitating their moment in his own home so the thing they came to expect was delivered. Isn’t this true of an open table in our homes?

I encourage you to be bold and invite some friends that are new in your life. Maybe it’s a neighbor, a mom of your child’s friend, a co-worker, someone at a different church, different race, different age. Maybe they have no faith at all. Maybe this month we become the facilitator of a moment for someone else. We open up our tables and watch in amazement what God will do with our bold and obedient Y E S.

What if we become like The Oasis restaurant owner and open our homes to facilitate a moment for others? What if we create a moment where they see Jesus in our open table, our conversations, and our love? And as the sun sets over The Oasis restaurant and the table at your home, let’s give our Creator a standing ovation for HE is the one making all things new.

 


Raise a Glass

Raise a Glass

Originally featured on IF:Table (July 2016), modified for Neighbor's Table.

Summer’s here – a time for lingering days and beach vacations, outdoor movie nights and the sound of crickets in the distance. Summer brings a shift in the calendar, and the families in my neighborhood trade school mornings for afternoons in the swimming pool. 

Sunlight is slow to hide behind the trees, and the heat of long days invites itself into the evenings in the community where I live in Dallas. In the backyard, dinner parties are accompanied by oscillating fans and jugs of iced tea, and mosquitos drop by as if the "All are Welcome Here" sign was just for them. 

This week I gathered with friends around my Neighbor's Table and watched as many of us connected in new ways. The managing partner talked to the stylist, the grandmother laughed with the realtor, and the handyman was embraced by the teacher. 

We savored with simplicity of pizza and salad with fresh veggies and laughed about the relentless summer heat as we kept our glasses full. Popsicles were the perfect way to enjoy dessert, and we shared banana cinnamon, watermelon agave, coconut lime, and strawberry (I mean, what is summer without popsicles).

As our meal was winding down and the summer glow on our faces was glistening by the candlelight on the table, a friend pushed back from the table and stood to his feet. He invited us to join him in a toast. With our eyes on the glass he raised high, he smiled and shared the words of blessing.

“To the Lord, for his loving kindness!" 

"Here, here!" We raised our glasses in the air and outstretched our hands to meet those nearest. Down low, up high, smiling and expressing joy, our hearts clinked as one as we offered up our worship. Words of simple praise and thanksgiving were a reminder of how good our God has been to each of us. Our hearts burst with joy. 

A friend across from me that night shared this was just what her heart needed. I whispered, "Me too, me too." We needed both a change of place and a change of pace. God gives fresh, new perspective when just a couple things shift. So look around you!

Gather your people in a new location and take advantage of the longer days of summer. Share a good meal and proclaim the Lord’s great love for us before we pass the plates and after we’ve enjoyed the last bite. Meet God in both the emptiness and the fullness of our hearts and bellies. His loving kindness is unmatched and His covenant of faithfulness unparalleled.  

This summer, let’s celebrate a God who is full of goodness, kindness, devotion, faithfulness, mercy, and unchanging love. "Here, here!" to the Lord's loving kindness. 

 

My Table is Always Open

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Originally featured on IF:Table (May 2015), modified for Neighbor's Table.

For the past five years, I've been doing most of my gathering tucked away under trees in my backyard. Vines creep haphazardly over the chain-link fence and weeds grow up wildly through the grass. There is never quite enough time or talent to perfectly manicure the flowerbeds and the yard itself is far more concrete driveway and carport than it is lawn and garden. But, there in the midst of my backyard sits a long hand-crafted farmhouse table made by my dad. It's here that we gather for Sunday night dinners, celebrations of new babies and birthdays, awards luncheons and bridal brunches, and maybe just because it’s Tuesday.  

All kinds of people have gathered here for all kinds of occasions. All kinds! Strangers who quickly become friends have walked up my driveaway to gather at the table countless times. Every experience is unique – yet one thing remains the same for me – my neighbors. The neighbors on each side of me and behind me are probably most aware each time I have people around my table.  They probably know by now when they see the chandeliers in the gnarly oak trees light up and hear the music playing underneath the carport that my Neighbor’s Table is alive and well, again. The street fills with cars, and new faces smile back on sidewalks, and then it happens.  There’s a murmur, or what I love to call a “holy roar.” It’s the sound of new people meeting and connecting, of people becoming strangers no more. And it’s all mortared together by love.

I have a neighbor that lives two doors down, and he confessed recently to opening his upstairs window on these nights.  He said he loves the sound of people talking, laughing, of the plates and glasses clanking and the muted sounds of songs in the background.  I do think it’s music to my ears too. I love the thrill of meeting new friends and celebrating new moments. But there’s something special about my neighbors, and I want them to know there’s always a place for them at my table.  I want Michelle, Anita, Raj, Stephanie, Paul, and Will to know that, if they ever look through the fence on a night we are at the table and there's an open seat, it’s for them.  They are always, always, always welcomed.  

I’ve never held a private party or had a closed table.  I want to be a person of the open table.  I want this space to be where everyone’s welcome and they certainly can “come as you are” – even if they happened to be walking their dog in the back alley in their house slippers. Here’s a confession – I sometimes wear my house slippers at the table. And that’s how I want everyone – including my sweet neighbors -  to feel. No one sees those slippers when they have a seat at an open table. They become like everyone else – someone of value, someone with a story and someone who God so very much loves.  There’s certainly a lot of joy in that super rich, deep community that we find with our closest friends. But I've been surprised again and again, on the joy of inviting someone in from the other side of the fence.  The same God meets us there – He doesn’t forget the conversations and people gathered there. I actually think He’s quite fond of it.

 

God Made Me a People Gatherer

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Originally featured on IF:Table (July 2014), modified for Neighbor's Table.

My story actually begins in 2011. I had recently taken a huge leap and moved to Dallas, Texas. It took a while to find my footing there; I ran myself ragged chasing everything that was shiny. My performance-driven, young professional heart was looking in all the wrong places for approval. I was in a bad place, looking around for people and work to define me. God’s timing is funny, isn’t it? In this busiest season of my career, He seemed to reach down from heaven, grab my face in His hands and say, “Just stop!”

 

WHERE WAS GOD CALLING YOU TO RISK?

A respected friend with over 20 years of ministry experience stepped in to my life, and for the first three months of 2011 we looked at my identity from God’s perspective. I had to put a plan in place and invest extra time to understand my identity. Planning was hard for me because I was on the hamster wheel of run-like-crazy. But things don’t just happen – we have to plan and create an intentional space for things to happen. I slowly began focusing on BEING more than DOING, and I started to confront what was defining my identity. I had to risk not being everything to everyone. Oh y’all, I had to humble myself and give up where I was seeking approval. To be leaders in different areas of our lives, we have to first lead ourselves well – you know, take responsibility for things! I was encouraged to start thinking about my role in the body of Christ, and I discovered my core ministry gift was evangelism. I first thought, “There’s no way I’m a Billy Graham,” but my friend helped shape that up for me. He reminded me how much I love spending time with non-Christians and that evangelism for me might be as a “people-gatherer.”

 

WHAT WERE YOUR TENSIONS/FEARS IN THAT?

I didn’t have a clue how I might gather people, and my fear was that I’d slip back into looking at work and other people to tell me how I could become one. For months, I reflected on how I’m naturally wired and I remembered the moments I felt most alive. I kept coming back to what I loved: gathering around a table and celebrating others at parties. So, I simply started being intentional at gathering people around my table. I asked my dad to build a cedar farmhouse-style table with benches, large enough to seat up to 20. My house was smallish inside, so we set the table under the tree in my backyard. We dropped chandeliers above the table, and created a plan. A crazy plan! In 2012, I planned to serve 500 people around this table, one dinner party after another. There was this tension though, like how would I find the time to do this? Would I pick this crazy number, tell a bunch of people, and then not be able to meet it? None of my friends were doing anything like this – would they understand my pursuit to exercise my ministry gift of evangelism and people gathering? We would see.

 

HOW DID YOU FULLY LEAN INTO CHRIST?

I leaned into who Christ said I was as I started to invite people to the table. I would tell these folks “I’m made for this and that I’m just going to say YES to it for a year and see what happens.” I felt God picked me to play on His kickball team, and I was giddy. It was like I knew I could run fast and catch a big, rubber playground ball…He made me a people gatherer and I was going to run hard after this one thing. For the first time in my life, I started playing the role God called me to be in the Body. A “people gatherer.” I started resting in who I was made to be. And there was something specific for me. The Lord wanted every single invitation to each person, plate of food, vase of flowers, encouraging word, and dirty dish to be done from a place of rest. This new rest came now, not from striving, but in being confident in the One who made everything. Guess what? I still had the same job as the year before, but I learned to rest and focus on who I was being in the midst of that stress. If I had not learned that the year before, I would not gather people in the same way. I feel freedom to love as Christ does around my table. Straight up, crazy freed up love for all people. The evangelism starts when I hug the least of these and build them up with how God sees them, so when they sit down they dine at the feast of all feasts and they feel love.

So through Christ’s love and walking in obedience through faith, I served over 500 people in 2012. And you won’t believe this, but I did it again in 2013! By God’s grace alone, I’m still at it.

 

HOW HAS THIS PLAYED OUT?

More than 2,500 people have now gathered around my backyard table, sharing lives and breaking bread. We could have stopped there, but a friend dared me to dream about something bigger. I want to make Him known by the way of the table. And I am discovering there are people wired just like me – people with a heart for others, connection at the table, and watching God do big things. Now I’m on a love mission and launching Neighbor’s Table. I just believe ordinary people, like me, can be called to love extraordinarily around the table. Why? Because we were made to do this! I invite you to join the story. He’s put this calling in my life and now I’m believing just as 1 Thess. 5:24 says, “The one who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.” Whether you simply join us in embracing the power of community and who God is at the table, or you bring a handcrafted Neighbor’s Table into your backyard, I’m looking for a spiritual family to go on a mission with me. I do still get nervous and a little fearful of what’s next, but I’m doing my best to remember and rest in my identity and who He is. I know God receives glory in the details of us living out our calling, even through the tiny place cards on the table that tells each guest “I’ve been waiting for you, and I’ve saved a place for YOU here!” My prayer is simple: Let this table send your message to the world that God is good and He tells the best stories!