In very Biblical fashion, I was reminded of the impending due date for this guest blog not by a calendar item dinging on my phone, but in a dream right before waking this morning. I was dreaming that my church was gathered together in a fellowship hall (not my fellowship hall, oddly), having a pot luck, and as I made my way around groups of people gathered at the 8 foot tables, I realized that this was “just what we needed.” There was a palpable feeling of comradery in the air. I remember the smiles on faces and comfort between friends was evident.
This dream is somewhat based on reality—my church, University United Methodist in Tulsa, OK, has credited a period of healing and “calm amidst the storm” following a very tumultuous period of leadership to the wisdom of a retired minister who stepped into an interim position for a few months and led the church by helping them simply “get back to basics” and love one another. He suggested a series of after worship meals that would be catered (so that no one was on “prep or clean up patrol”) and a very important aspect of the meals would be that the food was on tables and plates were set so that the people could serve each other “family style.” One gentleman in my congregation, wanting to be sure that this kind of thing could be fostered well into my tenure leading the church, memorialized his mother and aunt with a three year lecture series for the church that would be based on the same format. “It was just what we needed.”
If you haven’t yet deduced the theme I was asked to write on at this point, it was suggested to me by my friend Matt Franks that I write on “fellowship.” My dream sparked the recollection that I was supposed to be working on it because of that palpable sensation in the dream of comradery that took place in a “Fellowship Hall.” Isn’t it interesting that the “fellowship hall” is a fairly universal feature of churches? Worship in the sanctuary, meals and functions in the Fellowship Hall, education in the classrooms, and service outside the walls of the church-those are pretty standard (and good, and much needed) features of our buildings and communal life together.
In my dream, I was especially drawn to a group at a table which included a visiting Fullbright scholar from Hungary named Istvan who has been attending our church. He was there with John and Kay, a couple who moved to Tulsa shortly after I arrived here, and was invited to a Christmas service by a co-worker who is a lifelong member of my church. Recently, John came by my office and informed me that he and Kay will be moving back to Houston. He remarked that in their time here in Tulsa, the church has been the key source of friendship and caring for them. They befriended Istvan this past year, and helped organize a “casserole brigade” for Isvan when he had to have surgery on his knee. Among the other friendships Istvan has made, this one will be carried back to his homeland. This summer Isvan will return to Hungary, and John and Kay plan to take a river cruise in Europe before they move back to Houston. The finale of their trip will be visiting Istvan and his wife in Hungary. Perhaps one of the greatest joys of ministry is seeing this authentic relationships emerge and carry people through times of transition.
If you want to “get theological about it,” (which, I guess, is the point here) fellowship is basically the reflection of heaven on earth. It is around the table of fellowship that the Russian iconographer Rublev positioned the three Divine persons of the Trinity in the Icon that purported to be the three mysterious guests of Abraham (since depicting the Creator and the Holy Spirit is forbidden in Iconography). Just recently I heard an excellent interview with Father Richard Rohr about his new book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Rohr mentioned it has been suggested by art historians noticing some adhesive substance on the original icon itself, that a mirror was once placed on the front of the table in the icon inviting the devotee to contemplate their own place at the table, and the invitation by the Godhead to incorporate humanity into the fellowship of the Divine reality.
John Calvin’s Eucharistic theology posits that the fellowship of the communion table vaults the human soul into the divine fellowship that is constant. For a moment, we can taste that “heavenly banquet” that Isaiah speaks of and which concludes our “Great Thanksgiving” said over the holy meal. The central aspect of our worship life is a meal. That speaks volumes about the importance of fellowship. It is “just what we need.”
Though it’s sometimes our penchant to “theologize” everything, our people are sometimes simply reached by the quality time together. A younger father in my church came to me with an idea: “I want to start a men’s group,” he said. “But I don’t want us to study a book or talk about religious stuff—I just want us to get together for beer and BBQ. We don’t need to talk about churchy things, but we can get to know each other better—we can call it Brotherhood, Barbecue, and not Quiche.” He said he just couldn’t think of another “Q” to complete the acronym, but perhaps there is some symbolic connection between “churchy stuff” and quiche, since the group was formed with the explicit resistance to both of them. Perhaps, in the end, fellowship speaks for itself. It is an indicator, regardless of the size of a congregation, of vitality and meaning in the lives of the people who populate our pews. “Oh what fellowship, oh what joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms.”