Eating on short-term trips may be the most important thing you do
Hear this loud and clear. Eating food in homes of people in your target location may be the most important thing you do to show them love and to receive love from them.
Let me say it again in a different way. We can’t emphasize enough how important eating with local people is. Here’s the reason it’s important. It’s important because Jesus did it over and over in his ministry. We do what Jesus did, including eating food we may not like.
You’d be surprised at how many times Jesus ministers at the table. Do you think that Jesus turned his nose up at food that people sat in front of him? Can you picture Jesus doing that? Or do you picture Jesus graciously accepting food from humble servants in homes throughout Judea and Samaria?
Perhaps you will only have one or two opportunities to sit at someone’s table. Realize that local people anticipate this for months. They are usually scraping together money and food to prepare a meal for their first-ever international visitors. Typically, they want to please you. They are excited about their visitors. They will be extremely disappointed if they don’t get to talk with you, share food with you. They would be crushed if they thought you didn’t like their food.
For instance, Greg tells a story about a time when he sat in the shade of a mango tree with three men in Bulanga village, full to his larynx with spinach and cornmeal mush. The men knew he’d just eaten that meal at another home in Bulanga, but this fact doesn’t keep them from feeding him again. What’s important to them is that they eat together at their table. Round two: white sweet potatoes dipped in soup of tomatoes, onions and oil. The table is not just where friendships are made. The table IS friendship. Round three: termites in a bowl. They are still alive, a joke to spook the missionary. Fortunately they take them back and sauté and salt them, and they make a nice snack in the late afternoon. Greg saved most for the children and gave them handfuls that they gratefully accepted.
That’s another principle of the table in Uganda. The food “belongs” to the visitor and a gracious sharing with the children who need protein is acceptable. For example, a chicken may only be cooked half a dozen times a year, so the family is thrilled to feast and while they give generous portions to the visitor, the children are also happy to see some meat return to them. Mind you, the “honored” piece of chicken for the visitor is the gizzard! Greg ate many gizzards in his years in Uganda!
Back to your experience on your short-term trip: remember Greg’s experience in Uganda! You may need to eat more than you want of food you are not used to eating, but you will show love to your hosts and accepting love from your hosts!
You may not think you are doing something offensive by making a face, whispering to your friend, making eyes across the table, laughing loudly, but these are cues that anyone can pick up in any language! Imagine how you would feel if someone came to your house and you’d saved your Christmas and birthday money and allowances and spent it on food for a feast for a group of foreign exchange students. What if they came to your house, spoke no English to you, not even “thank you” at the end of the meal, broke out some cheese and crackers from their backpacks, and left all but a few bites on the table (and those bites were left in the napkins). So you might begin to imagine how it would feel to someone who sacrifices from their meager financial means to feed you and you bring your own peanut butter and crackers, barely touch what they offer, or turn up your nose.
What if you could sit with Jesus at the table and learn from him how to act when you sit at the tables in homes of people in your target mission location? Well, you can. Just look at Luke and you’ll find nearly a dozen examples of Jesus as gracious guest and host of a table meal.
Jesus went to a party thrown by a tax man. Tax collectors were the con-men and turncoats of Jesus’ day who bilked Jews for more money than they really owed the Roman government. People couldn’t understand why Jesus would eat with them, yet Jesus showed that eating with even those who break Jewish dietary customs in order to share the gospel is more important than pleasing his own group or Jewish tribal practices. He said, and I paraphrase, “A good doctor doesn’t spend the bulk of his time with well people but the sick” (Luke 5:27-32).
But don’t imagine Jesus neglected his own people—he ate with the self-righteous Jews also. During the meal, when servants were likely coming in and out of the room bringing food, a prostitute slipped in and began pouring perfume on Jesus feet. The self-righteous host was indignant and lost respect for Jesus, wondering how a prophet would allow an obviously sinful woman caress his feet. Jesus did not refuse hospitality from this woman as well and at that table he forgave her sins. The people watching were amazed and wondered who this man was who could forgive sins.
You’ve heard the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17). Jesus is showing hospitality and commanding his disciples to feed others as well. So when people are feeding you, they are also fulfilling a mission Jesus called his disciples to do: “give them something to eat.”
In Luke 10:8 Jesus tells the seventy disciples he send out to “eat what is set before you.” The apostle Paul also exhorts Christians to eat food without questions when they are fellowshipping with others.
The table is part of Jesus mission; if Jesus believes eating at the table with people is part of his mission, don’t you think we ought to take the table seriously? You can find stories of Jesus accepting or giving hospitality in Luke 10:38-42; 11:37-54; 14:1-24; Luke 19:1-10; Luke 24:30-35, 45-49). As my friend John Mark Hicks says,
The table is a place where Jesus was both a gracious guest and gracious host. So the table is a place where the church welcomes strangers (aliens). The table has a missionary quality, especially in light of the fact that the disciples receive their call to missions at a table. The table is a place where Jesus receives sinners and confronts the righteous. The table is the place where Jesus extends grace to seekers, but condemns the self-righteous. Jesus is willing to eat with sinners in order to invite them into the kingdom . . . The last (sinners, poor, and humbled) will be first in the kingdom of God, but the first (self-righteous, rich and proud) will be last and excluded from the kingdom of God (Luke 13:26-30).
(footnote: “The Missional Table,” Wineskins Magazine (www.wineskins.org, Sep/Oct 2002).
Here is the kicker: eating together with God’s children in another country is one of the God-given and Jesus-modeled ways to be the body of Christ, to proclaim the incredible good news that the kingdom of God is near.
Table: the most important piece of furniture in Uganda
In Ugandan homes, the most important piece of furniture is the table. Why? Because the table is friendship.
A Soga proverb says, “Friends eat together.” Not only is the table a symbol of friendship, but the table is also redemption. In Soga culture, if a son brings shame to his father, eating a meal at the same table is how the father communicates forgiveness to his son.
No friendship in Soga gets very far without shared meals. For example, a Ugandan friend of Greg’s—between bites of sweet potato—told him, “We enjoy your Bible studies, Taylor, but we want you to sit, eat and talk with us more, like you are doing
Greg promised Patrick not to preach less but to sit at his table more.
Even in our American culture, the table is our stealth bomber in the war for the hearts and minds of our children. The table is where we pile our daily junk and sort it out together. For many American families, the table is redemption.
Finally, the table is the most important piece of furniture in our churches. The communion table is redemption—the way our Father continues to communicate forgiveness to us. Jesus, our host at the table, says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. Do this to remember me, my friends.”
What’s your table for?