I had a happenstance lunch this week with two of my heroes: New Testament Scholar and former Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright and SMU Chaplain Stephen Rankin. I said very little, merely soaking up every word spoken between the two men—from weather patterns in Scotland to musings on Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 14. After the brief, casual meeting in Steve’s office—in advance of one of Professor Wright’s appearances on the SMU Perkins’ campus for the 2016 Simply Wright Conference—I joyously quipped to Stephen, “That was one of my favorite meals of the year.” I realized as I said it that it wasn’t a reference at all to the rudimentary, boxed Jason’s Deli turkey sandwich I had just eaten. Don’t get me wrong; it was a decent sandwich—it just took a back seat to the company. I just ate lunch with N.T. Wright.
As a self-proclaimed foodie, I usually rank my favorite meals on scales of gourmet cuisine, celebrity chefs, or renowned, bucket-list destinations. But as I took my seat for the lecture, still attempting to subdue my Cheshire Cat grin, I contemplated another standard by which I could judge my dining experiences. I started to list the rest of my favorite meals of 2016.
Beach—Laguna Beach, Florida. July 2016. Peanut Butter and Jelly on Wonder Bread (with a sprinkling sand). Smashed together and malformed by a pairing of 12-ounce aluminum soda cans in a cooler prior to service. A warm, Gulf breeze helped the summer sun dry off my salty, wet feet as I sat by my wife and watched my two children play in the surf, accompanied by the sounds of seagulls, waves, and faint sounds of the Eli Brown Band playing out of my phone.
Parking Lot—Argyle United Methodist Church. April 2016. One four-ounce can of Libby’s Vienna Sausages. Uncooked. Eaten with dirty fingers. This was my breakfast after spending the night on the church parking lot with fifteen teenagers and four adults in a weekend homeless simulation experience called Camp Calcutta. It was my sixth and final time to lead youth in this transformational retreat—which I inherited as a legacy of my first youth ministry mentor, Dave Hughey, nineteen years ago. The experience has become a highlight of my time in youth ministry.
Lonesome Dove—Fort Worth, Texas. July 2016. Rocky Mountain Elk Loin—medium rare on a bed of creamed salsify with flash-fried hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, swiss chard, and candied grapes. Okay, the food in this one was amazing, but it doesn’t compare to how beautiful my wife looked as we celebrated our Fifteenth Wedding Anniversary. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her as I realized that she has been taking my breath away since I was eighteen years old. It was only the third time in fifteen years that we were able to be together on our anniversary.
Dining Room—Denton, Texas. October 2016. Grilled Marinated Ribeye. Thick-cut. Marinated for two days in eighteen-year-old balsamic vinegar, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and grilled on my Weber charcoal grill in the backyard. I accidentally burned the outsides of the steaks and had to finish cooking them in the oven. No one seemed to mind. My parents joined us to celebrate the October birthdays of my father and son—William Dean and William Bartlett. Will turned ten years old. I scanned the table of three generations to take a mental picture and hear my father’s words from October 2006 return to me. The fastest thing you’ll ever do is raise a child. He was probably thinking the same thing.
As the list grew, I realized it wasn't really about the food. I have indeed eaten at award-winning restaurants this year—specifically one from a “100 Things to Do Before You Die” list. But these other meals topped the list. Even as I write, I’m preparing myself for a few Thanksgiving feasts with family. While I’m positive that the food will be delicious and I will enjoy several of my personal favorite culinary traditions, it will, once again, be the presence of others around the table that truly determines the value, character, and memorability of the dining experience.
And then, yesterday, I found myself at the Lord’s Table in Perkins Chapel—sharing a sacred meal with a room full of friends and strangers. I extended my open hands to receive the bread as a gentle, human voice spoke my name. Bart, this is the Body of Christ, broken for you. A strangers eyes looked into mine as she raised the cup—offering her blessing to me. This is the Blood of Christ; love poured out for you. I knelt at the altar, finding my place among other hungry sojourners. That thing that’s true about turkey sandwiches and Tom Wright is true at Jesus’ Table, too. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. It was true in the Upper Room on that Holy Night, and it’s true today as we long for our fracturedness to experience wholeness and healing—the people around the Table matter. They are not mere accessories to the act. Their presence helps define our experience of Christ Himself—at a meal that is not our own. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. He has chosen for us to encounter these gifts of grace while we are together in community—waiting on one another.