“When I struggled so much with anxiety, God taught me to pray,” Riley says, lifting her hand and turning it over, as though neatly wrapping the words, a gift. And then, when later we reach for each other’s hands, she quietly asks God to help her brother talk to us. Maybe she’s just following Zoe’s lead. To be sure, Zoe prayed for Adam first, asking God to help him find his words, and then Riley followed. But the prayer is Riley’s own, spoken in that voice I still never take for granted. This, after we sat eating forkfuls of steamy shepherds’ pie, talking about trees and tumbleweed, and Adam learned two new words right at the table, smiling over the hand motions I gave him as reminders.
And all I can do now is give thanks, because this eating together was God’s idea, starting with manna in the desert, then the Supper, then most immediately the way He nudges me to make our family dinner a priority. There’s something about it that reminds us we belong to each other. And well, this happens—this beautiful stew of personality and humor and love. So we’ve set a goal: As often as possible, we eat together. And no distractions. Because for all of us, there are so many of those. Before the meal, they move near each other, but mostly disparately.
When I get it right, there’s something peaceful about cooking dinner. I anchor myself in the kitchen like the hub of our wonky wheel, and since God is the real hub, that makes me just maybe the funhouse mirror reflection of some microscopic part of Him. I wash vegetables in the sink, scrubbing potato skins, rough against my fingers. I line them up–sopping–on towels and then turn my attention toward the zucchini. Preparing this meal is one of the most important things I do each day, but it’s only recently I’ve come to see it. And I’m so thankful. It touches me that in the final days before the Cross, that Last Supper mattered enough for Jesus to prepare.
All around me, the wheel wobbles. Riley does homework out loud at the bar—Let’s see, I have a ten dollar bill, six one-dollar bills, 7 quarters…and is that a nickel or a dime? Hearing her makes me smile as I slide my fingers over the tender green, finding all the tiny breaks. The water spills over my hand, splattering against the shiny basin of the sink. She’s getting faster.
I hear Adam running up and down the stairs, thumping staccato, the cadence unique to him. He never simply walks up or down. Right now, he’s working his way through his chore list, putting things away, and in a mumble he recites directions to get…somewhere. I can’t quite make out all the turns and street names, just enough soft, deep spins of phrase to know what he’s talking about. Given a way to get, Riley and Adam would rarely be lost; they both practice navigation as a hobby. At this moment, Adam’s entirely absorbed with somewhere else.
Zoe has retreated to her room as she almost always does in the late afternoons. She’s curled in her chair reading or stretched out on her bed streaming a show or snapchatting with a friend. Periodically she wanders down; once for a snack, a few times just to share meandering thoughts, a few more for quick hugs. She’s my wild bird; she flies off for short trips and then returns to tell of her adventures or show me her latest creations.
I slice the zucchini into thin rounds, then stack and quarter the discs, tossing the tender pieces into a bowl. On the stove, onions sizzle and turn brown in a deep pan. I add some ground turkey, breaking it apart as I stir it into the onions. Next will be the potatoes–carefully diced and boiled, ready for whipping into smooth, creamy clouds. While I work, I count gifts–the unique qualities of each one of my children, the joy of watching them grow right in front of me, the fact that I get to be one of the people they most naturally touch and talk to; one of the people with whom they are most unguarded. I don’t always appreciate all the grace poured into a simple—and yet not so simple—afternoon that folds right carefully into our family meal, but lately prayer helps me collect more lasting treasures. And I receive so many gifts worth collecting.
Later, when we gather around the table and eat and talk and shift in our seats, when Kevin asks them about trials and what God does and Riley talks about her anxiety, I realize that eating together now comprises some of the most extravagant gifts of all for me. I love watching my children bob through life in their own particular ways, and I love the way they spin into and out from me, but most of all, I cherish the sight of them together—talking, listening, teasing, laughing, reaching for each other, and sometimes even hugging away tears. These moments are rich feasts of praise, when I lose track of counting grace-gifts because there are so many at once. I sit back in my chair and think a thousand mama things, like “when did she become so graceful,” or “are his shoulders really now so broad” or “how can it be she’s explaining that so well now, and in paragraphs that smoothly ease right into each other?” I want to snap a picture of them together like this, but somehow I know it will only impose some stiff filter over their glorious jumble, dulling the light I now see in their eyes. And I can’t help but wonder if God observes us all this way when we gather together at His table, delighting in the artful collection of us brothers and sisters together, wanting just to hold us there close, watching us love. Surely He cherishes the moments when we pray for each other, when we ask after the things He already holds more heavily than we do, the things He feels even more deeply.
For all our breathing and wandering and bumping into and away from each other’s paths, for as much as I love being right in the center of that living, it’s good—so good—to have times when we all expect to draw together in one place. And lately I’ve come to believe that sinister forces would like nothing more than to dissuade and distract us from doing so. It’s happening in our homes, and it’s happening in our spiritual lives too.
The preparations over and the meal before us, I can’t help but wonder how we could gradually have lost track of the importance of this togetherness. Our family almost lost it completely. Dinner for us very nearly turned into the three of them glued to streaming and texting and the twanging of digital games, and Kevin and me torn in three other directions. Because I have–I confess– at times been so focused on my “get it done” list that I have missed what matters most, and on my worst days, I have made trade-offs against this joy—the joy of being available to my family—and have foolishly counted it less important than accomplishing just a few more things. I often forget–still and again and again–that all accomplishment is God’s anyway. So these days, I spend a considerable amount of time praying to live not as unwise but as wise, asking God to help me put off foolishness in favor of a better understanding of His will. Wake up, oh sleeper…Oh yes, I’ve heard that firm command and felt the Spirit’s grip on my shoulder, and if you’ve been reading my posts for any length of time, you know He’s grabbed me just so many times. Like any child, I have to learn things over and over, and by grace, I grow in small ways every time.
So once again today I set aside things still undone and arrange our plates on the table, placing forks and napkins and drinks around them like satellites, and my Bible on the edge. I call them all to me like my mom used to call us—away from wild and curvy paths to the Table so that we can eat together, maybe talk of trees and tumbleweed, and always so that we can pray.