In my daily life, there are things that I enjoy that are common among most people and there are things I enjoy that probably only 3 people in the world enjoy. I enjoy hanging out with my dog, Maggie (named after the late Princess Margaret of Windsor), sitting in coffee shops, and going for walks. Uniquely, I have a fondness for hymnals. Yes, hymnals. Those old books that your grandparents have from the church they used to go to that contain hundreds of songs about the church, Jesus, and the community. To date, I think my collection of hymnals spans in the hundreds, with some of my favorite being the brown Covenant Church hymnal and ‘Lead me, Guide me’ the African-American Catholic hymnal. But there is one hymn that I’ve had stuck in my head lately as I have started ramping up my presence in the call process: “Shall We Gather at the River?”.
Originally written by Dr. Robert Lowry, Shall We Gather At the River? is a hymn that Dr. Lowry wrote after meditating on a picture of heaven in Revelation 22:1-2a, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city” (ESV). After contemplating the question “Shall we gather at the river?” the answer came to him in faith, “Yes, we’ll gather at the river.”¹. The hymn starts by asking whether to meet those who have passed at the river of life, with the chorus answering “yes, we shall gather at the river”. This hymn usually is sung at funerals or on All-Saints Day, but the reason I’ve had it stuck on my head is that I hear it as an invitation to tell a story and to share life with one another. The hymn invites us to gather at the river of life where those who have passed are already gathered. To me, when I think of this, I imagine us sharing stories and catching each other up on our lives; we’re sharing life together with those saints whom we may or may not have met because as our circles overlap, the saints in my life may not be the saints in yours.
Do we need to wait until those who influence and love and care for us have passed before we gather together at the river of life? Surely not. As the title of this post suggests, and the question I pose to you in contemplation, Shall we gather ’round the table?
The table has much significance to me. First, the four legs on the table represent gender, ethnicity/race, socio-economic, and age. These four legs, when the church is healthy, are equal and the table does not wobble. However, when we are unhealthy, or when our ministry is solely focused on people who are like us, the other legs of the table are shorter, which means all of the elements and things we put on the table flow only to us. This is HUGE! In my denomination, we profess that the communion bread is the bread of life and the cup is the cup of salvation (the blood of the new covenant) and it is available for those who profess faith and love in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior–regardless of whether you call this specific church your home. If we believe this to be true, we need to have equal legs, and we need to start now. I understand that in certain communities there might be a leg that is shorter than others because of demographics. However, if we take the time to do an honest assessment of our churches, are we letting the children help serve? Are we letting the high school dropout serve? Does the person in the wheelchair have the same access to the bread and cup, the same access to the transformative power of Christ that everyone else does?
Second, the table represents a place where decisions are made and stories are told. Growing up, the table has been the focal point for decisions. Sitting in a chair around the table, the bills are stacked and the checkbook is opened. It’s where we gather to discuss where we are going on vacation or whose house we’re going to for Easter this year. The table is the place where we recline after a hard day of work, share our grumblings of the day, and sometimes cry because we were under-appreciated and not valued only to have the friends and family sitting opposite us offer words of encouragement and prayer. The table becomes the place where our stories are shared, and like an onion, the layers are peeled back.
Friends, I leave you with a verse and chorus of “Shall we Gather ‘Round the Table?” that I wrote earlier this week:
Shall we gather ’round the table,
where all are welcome to the Feast,
where we can cry and laugh together,
and like Jesus, love the least?
Yes, Let us gather ’round the table,
The beautiful, the beautiful table!
Gather with all peoples ’round the table,
To grow in the love of God.