My friend Sarah has a hand-hewn picnic table in her backyard. In three years, more than 2,000 people have found sanctuary there at potlucks and parties, weddings and wakes. Living in a new city was challenging. Though she found a local church to attend, she still felt alone. So her dad built the table, and she sent out an invitation to the people in her neighborhood. Soon, her Neighbor’s Table had become more than a place for meals—it had become her own love mission, and Sarah had become a people-gatherer.
Ramy is a musician and a mentor to creatives who long to use their gifts to bring beauty to the world. He knows what it feels like to rehearse for days and work odd hours and feel disconnected from the very church community so many of them are called to serve. Almost weekly, Ramy becomes chef and his home becomes a grace-filled place for artists who need family.
As early as I can remember, my life has always been filled with “strays.” My mom called them that—folks who were far from loved ones or had nowhere to go for the holidays—and even though my childhood home was filled with flaws and fights and rare mentions of God or faith, He always made His presence known at Thanksgiving and Christmas with every extra plate of food served to strangers-become-friends. My mom left her own family at an early age and was only allowed to return home a handful of times, so she knew how painful holidays could be when familiarity is removed. And for a child raised in a home where peace was a rarity, I hungered for the holidays because they meant struggling ceased for just a bit. Everyone at the table became family. Everyone had a home. While my home now is filled with fumbles and faults, Christ is at the center of all we do, conflict is bathed in prayer, and faith is the vocabulary. But two things haven’t changed at all—God making His presence known at the table, and the invitation to the strays. There are bedrooms upstairs for people needing peaceful sleep, a covered porch for long conversations, and a meal at the table. Trust me, there are times I’d much rather lock the door, keep my vulnerability hidden away, and keep my house tidy. But miracles happen when we gather people and call them family.
Jesus knew the power of the invitation. Over and over again, He pulled out a chair and said, “Join Me here.” He ate with strangers, He ate with friends. He fixed breakfast for Peter and dinner for His disciples—even Judas. He was so unafraid of the strays that the Pharisees accused Him of being a drunkard and a glutton.
I think it’s time for all of us to be unafraid of the strays, to open our homes and our holidays to those around us who need belonging as much as we do. We decorate our sanctuaries and plan our services with meticulous care because we know we’ll have strangers walking through our doors—people in need of the message of life-changing hope given to us by Jesus Christ. We’ll yield the quiet of Christmas Eve to the power of hymns and love offerings for those in need. We’ll distribute gifts to orphans and gift cards to charities. And we’ll linger at the church to make sure there is time for every prayer to be prayed. But what if hope became tangiblethis year, not just for those in faraway places but for the person sitting next to us who feels so far away from everything and everyone? What if we became family for people in our church communities who are missing their own—or have never known what family feels like at all?
This holiday season, let’s add one more thing on our “to-do” list:
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE STRAYS.
Let’s be like Sarah, and start with the folks in our own neighborhoods. Loneliness knows no boundaries of age or geography or financial status or professional position. Be a people-gatherer.
Let’s be like Ramy, and offer a resting place for people who labor hard and feel spent. Be a chef at the table of grace.
Let’s be like my mom, and open our homes even when our hearts are hurting. Be the hands of healing.
Let’s not forget that hope is preached in good meals and great conversation as much as it’s preached in eloquent messages delivered from pulpits. Let’s watch miracles happen when we gather people and call them family. Right now, let’s extend the invitation.