Fight for Intimacy with Friends and God…right around your own table

This Friday and Saturday tens of thousands of women around the world will gather in homes, churches and Austin City Limits Live to enjoy the second IF: Gathering. I loved sitting on a friend’s comfy couch last February to watch the simulcast (my review). Also loved following up around a monthly IF: Table to share dinner and our life with God: 6 women, 4 questions, 2 hours. 
But you don’t have to sign up for IF: Table to be intentional about inviting the life and power of Jesus into a circle of friends sharing a meal. In his famous description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6 I really think that the apostle Paul should have included a knife and a fork—so powerful is the opportunity for bringing God’s kingdom at a dinner table.

In today’s culture where we feel stressed by work and caregiving and meals tend to be hurried or ignored, where we are painfully aware that our table pales beside HGTV, it takes a bold stroke of Spirit-led intentionality to make space for cooking and serving. But the rewards are great.
When we prepare a meal and set a table for others something deeper than words happens. Not nearly as intimate as nursing a baby or spooning nutrients into someone who is ill, but still powerful.
My friend Lindsey, who nearly died in childbirth, has written a book about waking up from an almost three-month coma and feeling estranged from her now three-month old daughter. “That’s not my baby,” she thought. Of course Caroline didn’t look like a newborn, but even more, as she watched her oldest daughter continue to change her and feed her when she was still too weak to do so, she realized how that giving of food and care had become a powerful bonding agent between her two daughters. 
Our church used to provide home-baked goodies for an awards assembly at our local elementary school for those who had been “written up” for displaying kindness, patience, courage—good character. Then, in order to protect students from allergic reactions, the district changed the rules and disallowed anything that wasn’t store-bought and packaged.
We could spend the same amount on Little Debbie’s as we did on home-made chocolate chip cookies, but the feeling wasn’t the same. Gradually the bond severed. Fewer and fewer provided store-bought food. We could not sustain interest in the program. I think Pillsbury has it right: “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven.”
Our meals don’t have to be fancy. Even as the pastor’s wife I usually make mine pot-luck so I can manage the work load better. I hosted an IF: Table on Friday night and simply told the women I was preparing a pork tenderloin. They chose side dishes that matched: seasoned rice and vermicelli, pineapple and cheese casserole. Others brought a green salad with almonds and mandarin oranges and a layered chocolaty dessert. Flickering candles made the food and the faces more beautiful. The whole evening felt endowed with special care and grace from one another. 
It’s not often that we as women gather in the evening without husbands or children. But it’s worth the extra effort on several levels: First, evenings feel more special than lunches. Maybe it’s the sheer rarity of it. Maybe it’s the way those candles glow. Maybe it’s the fact that on a Friday evening women who work outside the home are exhaling and downshifting. Nobody has to cut and run on to an afternoon of work or errands. 
Also, women will share more intimately with other women than they will with men. (The same is true for men with men.) Our struggles with a child, our concern about our nest soon emptying out with the next graduation, our dreams of going back to school, our struggle to be as intimate with God as we want to be—all these things flowed from our hearts more easily in the absence of men and children.
Women are looking for friendships. Think of that visitor looking for a new church family…what better way to invite her into the “sacred circle” than to include her at your table? On Friday I invited a Sunday visitor with whom I’d only had a few brief conversations. But I knew she had children in junior high and high school. So I invited others who also had children they were connecting with. The conversation was automatically full of common interests. Not only did we get to know our visitor but the old friends around the table often exclaimed…”All this time and I never knew that about you!”
I think that might be because of the main thing that sets an IF: Table apart: the well-crafted intentionality of the questions. As women our default inclination can be to seamless chat about kids and what’s going on in our worlds of family and work. Which is all good. But at IF: Table we can go “higher up and further in,” to quote Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. 
For our January gathering I downloaded these four questions from the IF: Table website
What were your favorite moments in 2014? 
How did you see God be faithful?
What is one change you desire to make this year? (spiritually/relationally/vocationally)
What does it look like to live more intentionally in 2015?
We don’t have to call our gatherings IF: Table, but I love using their questions. They are formatted to print as cards to be put around the table. Women can select their favorite to ask the group. I also enjoy including in my invitations IF’s one minute forty-five second vision-casting video that gently invites women into an evening of intentionally talking about God in our lives and our lives with God. Not within the parameters of a Bible Study, but a normal dinner conversation. 
It’s helpful to remind women at the table that we’re not going to rabbit trail because we only have about two hours to cover four questions. (Believe me, it takes all of it.) And we agree from the outset that these questions are important enough and what we discover about each other’s hearts is valuable enough, that we will forego the rabbit trails for an evening.
Some of these questions might feel awkward to ask in a normal dinner conversation. But around a table where expectations have been set in advance it feels casual and comfortable. 
Actually, I plan to mix it up. I plan to host a future table where I invite mothers of prodigals and write four questions about how we are processing that journey and how God is meeting us there. I just won’t call it IF: Table that month. But it takes careful thought to write questions that take a group of women down to the heart level, especially when you might have women at very different places in their relationship with each other and God. So most months I’ll continue to take advantage of the great IF: Table questions
Whether you use their resources or not, I encourage you to use your table strategically to bring God’s kingdom in the lives you touch. 
Vincent Van Gogh once said, ““I prefer painting people’s eyes rather than cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral—a human soul, be that of a poor beggar or of a street walker.” “Christ is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh, he makes men instead of statues.”
And at our table we could leisurely admire his artistry in the shining eyes and living spirits gathered around. What words would I use to describe my heart after my friends left on Friday night? Full. Refreshed. Thankful. Treasuring. Worshipping. Savoring. Gazing…at the fair beauty of Jesus and these women.
The IF: Gathering launched last year (Feb 2014) and within one hour sold out its 1,200 seat venue. This weekend Jenny Allen, Jen Hatmaker, Ann Voskamp, Christine Cain and others will once again break the conference mold as they seek to “gather, equip and unleash the next generation of women to live out their purpose.” It’s not too late to click here to find a gathering/simulcast in your area. 
Lael Arrington
Faith and Culture: Live Wisely  l  Love Well

Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.