On first glance, the gathering seems rather idyllic. At the time of the writing of Acts, the community of disciples held all things in common; they distributed proceeds from the sale of their possessions and goods to all who had need; they spent a great deal of time together in the temple; they broke bread together going from home to home, and they ate their food with glad and generous hearts. It only appears to be simple, right?
In this passage, we do not hear about any arguments flying around the common table. We do not hear about how Uncle-so-and-so mentioned Auntie’s lapse in judgment, whispers about the brothers’ terrible cooking, or how cousin had too much to drink before anyone sat down, or how one of Jesus’ own was a tad too greedy with the proceeds. We don’t hear about any of the problems associated with offering genuine hospitality, or trying to organize the clean-up crew, providing accessibility to those with mobility issues, or the times when the disciples weren’t feeling so “glad and generous” in their hearts or anywhere else, for that matter.
The picture can seem very idyllic, and in fact, some scholars have even suggested as such. But we like to think that it was and still is an ideal worth striving for in the church…and at home.
Personally, I would like to think that having a meal together at home and in the church would be a common occurrence, but it truly isn’t. Even in our spiritual tradition, we break bread together only once a month, while some of our sisters and brothers manage to eat ritually together once a week or more.
How many of us eat alone regularly in our day-to-day lives? How many of us tend to eat our meals on the run from one meeting to the next or from one urgency to the next? How many of us dream of being able to eat consistently with a glad and generous heart, rather than with regret or hardship or the desire for self-preservation as frequent and unruly table companions? How often do we actually gather with our families or the larger community for an intentional meal?
What’s the big deal about shared meals, you might ask? A few weeks ago, at the table, my young son commented to me where milk comes from. He said that the cow brought it to the grocery store and then we picked it up there. I did not correct him, but I made a mental note to begin helping him to understand where and how our food arrives at our table. However, in that moment, it was more important that he try to express what was on his mind and his understanding of the world. As I try to parent, I realize that sitting at table with my children gives me all kinds of insight into their world: their troubles, their fears, their discoveries, their understanding, and their joys. Sharing a meal with them at least once a day also provides them with insight into my world. And in that shared give-and-take, I gain valuable feedback on my responses—the good, bad, and ugly, so to speak. When we sit down together after a long day, if I am edgy or surly with one of them, I see both my response and their disappointment mirrored back in their eyes. I resolve to try to make the next meal go more smoothly.
While we may think that sharing a meal together is important while growing up, we adults also benefit from sharing meals together. Our spiritual ancestors understood this. They understood that certain barriers could be broken when sharing a meal with someone perceived as different or other, even and especially when that different person was, and is, “you.” Jesus himself broke a few barriers by eating with those deemed societal misfits or outcasts. Jesus was accused of eating with prostitutes and sinners; it is not surprising then that the table around which we gather is an “open” table in our United Church of Christ tradition and that we joyfully welcome sinner and saint and everyone in-between in celebration of Jesus’ kin-dom and ministry.
But, truth be told, this meal thing—whether eating alone or communing with others– is HARD. We often eat too fast, too much, too unhealthily, and too much to ourselves. And sharing a meal? We often don’t have the time, we say. Or we mean to sit down and nourish ourselves at a leisurely meal, but our to-do lists and technology become the priority, and lounging around a table seems to be a luxury we cannot afford.
However, communal meals and family meals are worthy of our investment. Studies have shown that children do better when they have dinner five or more days a week together with their families… According to a study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children have less trouble with drugs and alcohol, eat healthier, show better academic performance, and report being closer with their parents than children who eat dinner with their parents less often.
We also tend to eat better and more healthily when we take the time to eat together. Many a time, I have heard from those who live alone that they don’t feel like cooking because they would only be cooking for themselves, and that seemed like a waste of time, or too self-indulgent, or something that would give them the same leftovers for over a week. And yet, when we isolate ourselves regularly without respite from ourselves, we lose the fellowship and intimacy that sharing a meal can provide.
In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier has argued that when we eat together, our perspective of each other radically changes. Eating together reduces people’s perceptions of inequality, and when we eat together, we tend to view those of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than we would in other social scenarios. Robin Dunbar, Oxford University Professor of Psychology adds, “People who eat regularly with others say they feel happier, are more trusting of the people around them and feel more engaged with their community…Our best guess is that eating socially triggers the endorphins system in the brain. This is part of the pain management system, and it releases an opiate-like chemical. Aside from making us feel happier, it seems that [these natural] opiates ‘tune’ the immune system and make us more resistant to diseases.”
We know that eating together is good for us, but we struggle all the same to arrive together at the same table at the same time. Perhaps we could simply begin modestly by eating more mindfully and intentionally. How many times do we finish our food without remembering how much we have eaten or what we have eaten? Sometimes it is not until we have some dietary restriction like diabetes or high cholesterol that we become more mindful of what we put in our mouths and why. Likewise, when we sit down and intentionally eat with a friend or a stranger, we tend to be more mindful about how we eat, what we say and share, and we likely express greater gratitude for what we have to eat and those with whom we share the necessities of life.
Whether we live alone or with others, we can practice more mindful eating. What that would look like might vary for each one of us, but I’d like to share some possibilities. First, we could slow down the act of eating so that we are intentional about each bite that we take. In the fall, at the Credo conference I attended, a nurse led a group of clergy through mindful eating. Honestly, it was my least favorite part of the conference because it highlighted something that I found quite difficult to do. When I entered the room and looked at my plate which contained a radish, a bit of lettuce, two stalks of asperagus and ½ of a hard boiled egg, I confess my first thought was “OMG, I hope that this isn’t the only thing that we will get to eat tonight!” I was ravenous and the last thing that I wanted to do was to stare at my asparagus appreciating its texture and healthy green color before ingesting it. I just wanted to eat! The nurse instructed us to look and smell before eating, and then when we did take a bite, we were to chew and count bites. It felt seriously like torture to me. When she finally gave us the cue just to eat, I was relieved. But the exercise had value. It taught me how impatient I am to get the act of eating over and done with. And then something curious happened– when given the invitation to eat, I actually did savor the food, at least for more time than I have in the past. I come from a family of fast eaters; the kind of folks that finish their plate when others have barely started. In the weeks following the conference, I noticed that I became more mindful of eating and less rushed, though it still feels unnatural to me. To practice mindful eating is a necessary and worthy spiritual practice—one that can lead us to the apostles’ model of eating our food “with glad and generous hearts.” A student asked the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘There are so many urgent problems. What should I do?’ Thay answered calmly, ‘Take one thing, and do it very deeply and carefully, and you will be doing everything at the same time.’
Second, we might consider breaking bread with others more frequently. Again, whether we live alone or with others, we can find ways to expand our communal eating. Perhaps that means a standing lunch date with someone once a week. Or maybe it means upping our presence at the family dinner table. Perhaps it means inviting someone to dine with your family, someone who may live alone or who doesn’t have the opportunity to frequently dine with others. Perhaps it means consciously varying who we choose to eat with—so that we have greater opportunity to meet those who may not look like us or who may not share the same cultural references or perspective.
In a video by MasterFoods Australia, #MakeDinnerTimeMatter, interviewers asked adults, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the world living or dead, whom would you choose?” Some of the adults picked a wide range of celebrities like Jimi Hendrix, Paul Hogan, Marilyn Monroe, and Nelson Mandala. Whom would you choose? (pause) Then, the interviewers asked the children of those same adults the same question, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the world living or dead, whom would you choose?” The children responded, “Mom and Dad,” “family,” and “probably the whole extended family.” One child questioned, “Does it have to be a celebrity?” Certainly the disciples understood that shared meals equaled shared bonding and that celebrity status was not required and actually could land you last in line in the seating arrangements.
The Australian video is a good reminder that we often overlook and under-rate our mealtimes with friends and family alike in our quest for communal peace. Perhaps we might consider that if mealtime was so central to our spiritual ancestors and is so important to our psychological health, as well as the well-being of our families, then perhaps it is also worth a greater share of time, effort, and investment. For as Cesar Chavez has written, “If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.”
 Cody C. Delistraty, “The Importance of Eating Together,” The Atlantic, July 18, 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/07/the-importance-of-eating-together/374256/
 Sue Quinn, “Is Eating Together Better for You?” delicious. Magazine. November 2016. http://www.deliciousmagazine.co.uk/stories/is-eating-together-better-for-you/
 Thich Nhat Hanh, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.