A Tale of Two Tables

Mark Barnard is a lecturer at St John’s Theological College, a Senior Priest at St James Anglican Church in Māngere Bridge, and a member of Urban Vision, a missional Order in the Anglican Church. For more than 15 years, Mark and his wife Bridget have been fostering children and have been involved in missional community in Wellington and Auckland. They live in Māngere Bridge and have three children, Sophie, Noah, and Wiremu.

Have you ever considered what the most important piece of furniture in your house is?

Now that might seem a strange question, but consider for a moment the significance of that particular armchair, the one that beckons you to sit, sip, and ponder. Or the desk in the corner, with the lamp atop—a special spot to craft creativity. And your bed, the harbour of all things restful, and a shelter from the storm. These small spaces, however simple, create places that centre and shape us, arrange and restore us. They provide a little of the architecture of home.

I know in our house there are two pieces of furniture (well three really, but I’ll come to that) that form something of a sacred centre. Firstly, pictured above, is our dinner table—fairly unspectacular, but certainly solid. This is the humming hub of our home. It is the venue of food, fights, and fellowship. We purchased it while in Wellington off TradeMe (of course), and it just so happened that the seller lived a few doors up, so we could walk it home. It was covered in an ugly formica that Bridget, my wife, peeled off, along with the stubborn glue, to reveal the wood below. The table has travelled to a number of new homes and to a new city with us, following the contours of our calling. It has played faithful host to many a meal, welcomed numerous guests, and witnessed countless debates. And so it holds the memories of the hospitality that Jesus has invited us to join him in.

Our household often expands (thirteen was the largest number this year): young adults, foster kids, various visitors, and so the table has required an extension (the aforementioned third piece of furniture!). It’s another TradeMe purchase—smaller, fold out, just right to grow with the grace Jesus invites us to. Our dinner table is certainly that—the growth of grace in our midst.

But this table wouldn’t work work without another, about three metres away in the lounge: our prayer table.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was just a regular coffee table, which is how it spends most of its life. But every weekday morning around 7am (and some evenings), the table-top comes off and, sitting below, nestled in its heart, is our prayer space—a beautiful liturgical calendar fashioned from two large chunks of pine. It was a gift from two community friends a few years back. We couldn’t find a suitable place for it until Bridget had the brilliant idea of setting it inside the coffee table.

And now it sits as the table’s heart and the centre of our praying life, reminding us each morning what time it is. I can barely imagine daily prayer without it. It has become an icon of the seasons, reminding us where and when we are. Two tables at the centre of our home have become sacramental signs of how we are to live as followers of Jesus.

When Bridget and I were early in our marriage, we had one of those deep coversations in which we decided to try and land on the values we wanted to shape the rest of our lives. This was before children and anything resembling careers settled in. After prayer and conversation, we decided on four: Jesus-centered spirituality, community, hospitality, and creation. From that time on, we’ve tried to pattern our lives around those four forming practices that, in turn, shape our habits. It has taken time, trial, and error, but we’ve certainly noticed that the intentional architecture of our home has formed the habits of our hearts. How we’ve lived at home has mattered. Our pieces of furniture and their purposes matter. The very ordinary things we do in our homes each day shape the lives we live. It’s as Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our day is how we spend our lives.”

Back to my original question: what is the most important piece of furniture in your house? And I’ll add a second question: what does that piece of furniture say about the values, practices, and habits of your heart?

Again in my early twenties, I remember reading (or hearing) a story about theologian Charles Ringma (I can’t quite recall where) who, along with his wife Rita, had the practice of having a “Jesus room” in their house. The purpose of the room was to host Jesus in the guise of the needy stranger—the young person kicked out of home or the recovering addict in need of temporary shelter. Charles and Rita took Jesus’s words in Matthew 25 quite literally: “for I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you invited me into your home … whenever you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters you were doing it to me” (Mt 25:35 & 40).

This idea and practice really stuck with me. I wondered how such a home-making practice would affect a person’s following of Jesus. It was no suprise then that when Charles Ringma came to stay with us some years later, we encountered a person deeply formed by the way of Jesus. This well-respected theologian and teacher took time to be present and attentive to a group of ragtag believers he barely knew. He sat with our two-year-old and read her books. He shared openly and honestly about mission and ministry with us around the brazier. It seemed to me that Charles took his Jesus room with him wherever he went as a sort of portable sanctuary. How he lived at home ended up on the street.

I wonder if the two tables in my home come with me when I’m out on the street? Do people encounter a person of hospitality and prayer? Of generosity and grace? Is it clear Jesus is sitting with us when I meet someone for coffee? I wonder how much the furniture in my home has shaped the habits of my heart and hands. I’d like to think that they have.

With more time at home these last couple years than any of us would ever have chosen, we’ve probably been forced into some new habits or found a new favourite chair. Whether or not these have moulded us in the way of Jesus is something worth pondering. For we each have the chance to shape our homes in order to form our hearts and guide our hands. Tables and chairs, desks and beds: each can be sacramental signs of a life well lived.

(Images: Supplied by Mark Barnard)