Today I just wanted to take a quick minute (aka twenty-seven paragraphs) to talk about something near and dear to my heart: the ministry of the If Gathering and If Table.
You guys have seen me posting about this on my Instagram feed and my story and a whole bunch of people have asked me the following questions:
1.) Um, what is this?
2.) Never mind. You’re having tacos…can I come?
If Table is simply this: 6 women, 4 questions, 2 hours. The name “IF Table” comes from the question “If God is real, then what?” And these are the sorts of hard questions we wrestle over at our table every month. We go straight past all of the fluff and get right into the real, the ugly and the beautiful. We walk in thinking we are the lone weird-o, the one with the big, scary problems in the closet. We leave with the truth that we are not alone; that we are all wrestling with the same scary grown-up things; that we actually have something to bring to this crazy table.
Anyone can host a table. (Here’s the FAQ). It’s meant to be a pretty organic thing over all. You don’t have to do anything to be a member or a leader, per se. The ideal number of women to have at a table is 6-8. I have a core group that I invite every time, but any time we have an open seat I always try to fill it with someone new. Since I started hosting this summer, we have had a different group every time. The meal can be simple or fancy. Dessert or none. Healthy or heavy cream-based. (I prefer heavy cream-based with dessert myself). This summer I did grilled chicken and roasted veggies once and fish tacos and margaritas another time. This week in the spirit of fall I decorated the table with pumpkins and persimmons from my tree and served Pioneer Woman beef stew with mashed potatoes.
I usually set aside the afternoon to cook and prep. The last hour before everyone shows up I’m doing things like lighting the meal on fire while someone rings the door bell or squirting hand soap into the toilet to violently scrub the ring at 5:56 pm. I used to mop but I no longer do because when the music is playing and your kitchen is being taken over by tantalizing aromas and women’s purses and all the wine glasses, NO ONE CARES.
David, the Godly man that he is, takes the girls to Chick-Fil-a for dinner and then bathes them and watches a nature show with them upstairs until bed time. (His first time doing this was fairly traumatizing, as he forgot to take them potty before he left and ended up in a men’s bathroom stall with three little girls).
The insanity that envelopes my house once a month on a Wednesday night at the 5:00 hour SO, SO worth it. I love my IF Table so much. I love creating a space and an atmosphere where women can come and let down and feel nurtured with food and Christ-centered, hope-filled conversation.
But I can’t really convey what IF means to me without you guessed it…BACK STORAAAAY.
Boy, but I love a good, lengthy back story.
Anyways. Let me give you this. In the true spirit of IF Table, I’m going to to get vulnerable and overshare in the best possible way.
Let us go back. Back to when I left my family and friends and all I ever knew and traveled with my life partner 3,000 miles across this great country and showed up on California’s door step with zero clues.
How big of a deal is moving? Right? You show up to church and go to lunch with some friends a few times and boom, there you are. Community! We’d be going on vacation together and bonding over the campfire with soda pops and hymns in short days.
So that is what I thought I would do, un-accounting for a few facts, such as: I am an introvert. California is like another country, completely culturally different from the deep South (where I lived for ten years) or the rural Midwest (where I grew up). Also I was in the middle of a season of spiritual and ministry burn-out. Oh, and adulting is complicated.
Upon our arrival, we had been out of church for at least 3 years, which seemed like a decade. If you had told me at that time that we actually WOULD be uncommitted to church for close to a decade, I would have been extremely concerned for myself. (And plenty of people were, which was mildly irritating, impossible to explain, and yet super understandable.)
Anyways. David and I met working together in ministry. The early stages of our friendship was nurtured in the prayer room. So it was an intense environment (well yeah, that’s why I was there) with a community of zealous young adults going after a lifestyle of prayer, fasting and worship. The time I spent there was deeply formative to the person I am today. I sometimes say that the year I was there feels like ten years in the impact it had on my life. Overall it was extremely positive, but being twenty-three and lacking maturity in many areas, the relationship experience and boundary-setting skills just were not as developed as they might have been.
A few months after we got married, something weird started to happen where I couldn’t stand any more. Any more church. Any more Christian jargon. Any more acoustic guitars. Any more people telling me what they thought was best for my life. Any more ANYTHING. Nothing made sense anymore. I just remember sitting on the steps of our town home begging David not to make me go to church.
At the time it seemed like something deeply terrible and shameful was happening to me. Looking back ten years on my twenty-something self, it was really probably just your garden variety ministry burn-out…slash being sort of a typical Millennial about faith and church things. (I have one foot in camp Gen X and another in camp Millennial. David is a solid Gen X-er.)
Oh, and this one little thing where I have a deep resentment for feeling controlled or pressured IN ANY WAY SHAPE OR FORM. Which is a fact I now know about myself and have accepted and developed coping tools for, through the help of David, prayer and professional counseling. (Boy, knowing things about yourself…that’s nice for living life.) Church in almost any form now felt like people having a vision for our lives and trying to tell us what to do.
Anyway, I didn’t have all of that self knowledge at the time. All I knew is that we were in California now and we would find a church here and everything would be fixed.
I crack myself up.
So yeah. THIS DID NOT HAPPEN. Nothing was like it was “supposed to” be. We tried church and getting “plugged in,” which actually just left us more confused and weirded out. I blame the culture shock of the West Coast. That is real, people. West Coast, you are beautiful, but you are also a tie-dyed hippie with a lot of different herb and patchouli smells emanating from your pores. You’re hard to get used to, but then you’re totally awesome, is what I’m saying.
Then the best thing that could have happened to me, happened: I got pregnant with K.K. and decided to have a home birth. Being a weird-o in this way, I found a community of other home birth and naturally-minded mothers. Who, just so happened to be…Jesus people. Half of them leaders at a local mega church, which of course, I didn’t realize at the time.
We all had our first babies around the same time and we called ourselves the Crunchy Moms. I’ll never forget my first time at my friend Katie’s house…I just felt like I had finally found some people that I really wanted to throw myself upon and cry “PLEASE, PLEASE INVITE ME OVER AGAIN.” (My friendship with Katie is a funny church story too).
And you know what? They did invite me again. In fact, they all went to the same church…and they invited me to go. To church. But not just to church…into life. Barbecues and baby showers and play dates and group texts. Meal trains and clothing exchanges and park dates and prayer meetings. And guys. These weren’t awkward or boring things…they were cool things with very cool people. People who let us date their small groups without commitment. They were legitimate things that you really wanted to wear your new jeans to.
We went to church a few times out of obligation, even had stretches at a time where we would go once a month. (That was a lot.) But honestly, mostly brunch. Lots of brunch. Because church and building funds are pure torture, but waffles with whipped cream are pure delicious.
We had another baby. We moved. We had another baby. Yet…during that time these friends kept inviting me in to their lives. Kept including me in group texts. Kept probably wondering what was up with me and my weird church attendance issues. Every time the subject would come up, I would pretty much make up a new answer. Yes, we’re going to church in Roseville. Oh, no we’re going over here now. Or simply “No, we don’t go to church here.” Let me tell you, if you want to make it awkward, hang out with Christians and tell them you don’t go to church because you hate it.
It was social torture. We would visit a new church and then RUN… I mean quickly walk…with our heads down purposely not making eye contact with any humans–out of that building like it was on fire. Praying like mad that a leader or pastor would not wave us down and recruit us into ministry or worse, greet us and ask where we were from. And then we’d be like “Whew, checked that off the obligation list for the quarter. See, we went to a new church! Good job, us. Now, lets eat tacos.” We’d rally ourselves and go for a while and then get depressed and stop. We tried really, really hard to figure it out, and seemed to fail every time.
I can’t tell you how many times I laid my head on my pillow at night and just wondered WHY. WHY IS THIS HARD. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME. WHY IS EVERYTHING THAT USED TO BE EASY SO HARD? WHY CAN’T I JUST “COMMIT”? WHY CAN’T I JUST MAKE MYSELF DO THIS? WHY IS EVERYONE ELSE NORMAL AND SPIRITUAL AND SO INTO WORSHIP? I still don’t know the complete answer to all of that.
But I will tell you this: at a time when I could not deal with walking into a church building, the church came to me in a very holistic way. For a really, really long time.
My friends were being the church to me. They gave me the free gift of friendship and community, no strings attached. No spiritual checklist. No special performance. Just friendship and love and acceptance and someone to text in the middle of the night. It was the Zoe life of Christ, shared freely.
THAT. That is the meaning of church.
Which is ironic since during this time, I was wrestling hard with the question of why church mattered at all.
And God, the Creator of church and the Universe laughed and laughed.
Last year in November, I went to my first IF Table. Invited by the same friends who had been inviting me to things for four years. I walked into my friend Arianna’s house (the “Ari” of Ari and Faye). In this process, something awakened in my heart. I wanted to come back. Not just to come back for the food, but to be part of a church again, for real. Like in a tithing and regular attendance and taking communion kind of way. As we met together over the winter and spring, I started to feel like I was making the deep, meaningful friendships that I had been craving.
At the end of 2015, that church moved into a new building. A strange thing happened. First, we went. Second, instead of being annoyed about lights and sound system and mega-church seating (like we were SOOOO sure we would be), we walked out and David looked at me and said, “You know, this is the first time in years that I have been to church and felt like I belonged here.”
And I said, “You know what? Me too.” This is kind of a big miracle.
(Also, it’s a pretty rad building with tons of spaces for families and babies and the floor-to-ceiling lobby windows open up like giant garage doors.)
A few months later we were sitting in a sermon series called The Invitation. In the middle of preaching our pastor and stopped and said “You’re here because someone invited you.”
Those words struck me. He was right. That was ME. I was that person who was really here because I had been invited like, a whole bunch of times. It was one of those “before and after” moments of revelation. And on the way home, I felt so thankful and the confusing bits and pieces of the last ten years started to fall into some semblance of a story.
Mine is the story of being invited to the table and told that I belonged. Strangers took a risk on me. They spent their friend equity on me. They gave me something that I couldn’t create alone. No manipulation. No qualification. No “you owe me for this.”
This is a big, big gift. Thank you, friends. You know exactly who you are. And there’s a lot of you, so if you think maybe I mean you…yep, you.
So you can see why I really believe in the simplicity of the format and the vision of IF Gatherings. If you are interested, GO. The table needs you. It needs your complicated back story and all your weird baggage. It needs your encouraging words and your “I’ve been there.” The enemy likes to lie to us and tell us that we are the fake ones. That “everyone else” is living a perfect Disney on Ice existence, devouring their study Bible with Greek Lexicon at dawn and having daily devotions with their spouse. Everyone else has a “tribe” or a “squad” to be “authentic” with, except us. When in reality, we are all just wrestling the same demons, of loneliness, pospartum depression, marital problems and addictions. We are just trying to appear normal and socially accepted in our new jeans, shoving our junk back into the closet, lest it fall out and scandalize the real church people.
For the HOSTS…warm up your Crock Pot. There’s no big leadership commitment or class to attend. Just make your mom’s enchiladas and clean your toilet ring with hand soap four minutes before your guests arrive. You don’t even need to print off pretty question cards; just go to the IF web site and read them right off your phone while you are eating tacos. There are people like me who desperately need the church, but can’t deal with the expectations that surround walking into that big building just yet. Some of us just need a no-pressure back door entrance into community and church life, aight? Heck, your NEW BEST FRIEND COULD BE STEPS FROM YOUR DOOR! Also…it’s really fun and no food will get thrown over the sides of high chairs and you’ll get to use the pretty dishes.
I leave you with a little excerpt from one of my favorite books of all times:
“We don’t come to the table to fight or to defend. We don’t come to prove or to conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed, and we allow ourselves to be nourished, like children. We allow someone else to meet our need. In a world that prides people on not having needs, on going longer and faster, on going without, on powering through, the table is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel.” ― Shauna Niequist, Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes