We cook. We eat. We bond. And the IF: Table questions are the secret sauce

Last weekend IF: Gathering again rocked Austin and thousands of women around the world. Last year I reviewed the Gathering here. This year, whether you attended IF: or not, I invite you to roll out the IF: experience each month around your own IF: Table–6 women, 4 questions, 2 hours.

 IF: God is real…”Take the land!” by simply setting a table. In his famous description of the armor of God in Ephesians 6 I really think that the apostle Paul should have included a knife and a fork—so powerful is the opportunity for bringing God’s kingdom at a dinner table.

In today’s culture where we feel stressed by work and caregiving and meals tend to be hurried or ignored, where we are painfully aware that our table pales beside HGTV, it takes a bold stroke of Spirit-led intentionality to make space for cooking and serving. But the rewards are rich.

When we prepare a meal and set a table for others something deeper than words happens. Not nearly as intimate as nursing a baby or spooning nutrients into someone who is ill, but similar. For example…

My friend Lindsey, who nearly died in childbirth, has written a book about waking up from an almost three-month coma and feeling estranged from her now three-month old daughter.“That’s not my baby,” she thought. Of course Caroline didn’t look like a newborn, but even more, as she watched her oldest daughter continue to change her and feed her when she was still too weak to do so, she realized how that giving of food and care had become a powerful bonding agent between her two daughters.

Giving the gift of food can connect us at a deep heart level. I think Pillsbury has it right: “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven” is not a cliche. We cook. We eat. We bond.

Last year our same basic IF: group met in different homes each month. This year hostesses are inviting different women from our church each month. Meals don’t have to be fancy. Even as the pastor’s wife I usually make mine pot-luck so I can manage the work load better.

I hosted an IF: Table two Friday nights ago and simply told the women I was preparing a pork tenderloin. They chose sides that matched: seasoned rice and vermicelli, pineapple and cheese casserole. green salad with almonds and mandarin oranges and a layered chocolaty dessert. Flickering candles made the food and the faces more beautiful. The whole evening felt endowed with special care and grace from one another.

It’s not often that we as women gather in the evening without husbands or children. But it’s worth the extra effort on several levels: First, evenings feel more special than lunches. Maybe it’s the sheer rarity of women gathering in a home for dinner. Maybe it’s the way those candles glow. Maybe it’s the fact that on a Friday evening women who work outside the home are exhaling and downshifting. Nobody has to cut and run on to an afternoon of work or errands. IF: Table suggests Sunday evenings. Some of our hostesses plan on brunches. Some of us plan on taking a “missionary” IF: Table to another city where we’ll prepare an IF: Table for a friend going through a hard time. So many possibilities–all good.

It’s also worth the effort because women will share more intimately with other women than they will with men. (The same is true for men with men.) Our struggles with a child, our concern about our nest soon emptying out with the next graduation, our dreams of going back to school, our struggle to be as intimate with God as we want to be—all these things flowed from our hearts more easily in the absence of men and children.

Women are looking for friendships. Think of that visitor looking for a new church family…what better way to invite her into the “sacred circle” than to include her at your table? On Friday I invited a Sunday visitor with whom I’d only had a few brief conversations. But I knew she had children in junior high and high school. So I invited others whose children were befriending her children. The conversation was automatically full of common interests. Not only did we get to know our visitor but the old friends around the table often exclaimed…”All this time and I never knew that about you!”

I think that might be because of the main thing that sets an IF: Table apart: the well-crafted intentionality of the questions. As women our default inclination can be to seamlessly chat about kids and what’s going on in our worlds of family and work. Which is all good. But at IF: Table we can go “higher up and further in,” to quote Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia.

For our January gathering I downloaded these four questions from the IF: Table website:
• What were your favorite moments in 2014?
• How did you see God be faithful?
• What is one change you desire to make this year? (spiritually/relationally/vocationally)
• What does it look like to live more intentionally in 2015?

The IF: Table questions are the secret sauce that makes the dinner so rich. Simply download. Print. And place around the table. Women can select their favorite to ask the group.

I also enjoy including in my emailed invitations IF’s one minute forty-five second vision-casting video that gently invites women into an evening of intentionally talking about God in our lives and our lives with God. Not within the parameters of a Bible Study, but a normal dinner conversation.

We try to discourage rabbit trails because it takes the full two hours to answer the questions. Four questions about the life of our hearts and life with God might feel a tiny bit awkward to ask. But at IF: Table it works. Expectations have been set in advance. It feels casual and comfortable. Someone simply picks up the next card.

It takes careful thought to write questions that take a group of women down to the heart level, especially when you might have guests at very different places in their relationship with each other and God. Even as an author I don’t try this at home. I let the IF: professionals do it.

Thank you, Jenny and team, for the excellence of your work. It helped turn our table into a sanctuary where we wondered at God’s work in the hearts of our friends–breaking down idols of control, providing mightily for a daughter to raise support and serve Him overseas, comforting a mama’s heart in her absence, supplying the help needed to get unstuck after years of being stuck…breaking down doors of bronze, consoling hurting hearts…doing the kinds of things that God loves to do and we celebrated him doing.

At the table we thanked our heavenly Father for his loving care and the love poured into cooking each dish.  I read the first question and looked around the table.

Vincent Van Gogh once said, ““I prefer painting people’s eyes rather than cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral—a human soul, be that of a poor beggar or of a street walker…Christ is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh, he makes men instead of statues.”

And at our table we could leisurely admire His artistry in the shining eyes and living spirits gathered around. What words would I use to describe my heart after my friends left on Friday night? Full. Refreshed. Thankful. Treasuring. Worshipping. Savoring. Gazing…at the fair beauty of Jesus and these women.

The IF: Gathering launched last year (Feb 2014) and within one hour sold out its 1,200 seat venue. Last weekend Jenny Allen, Jen Hatmaker, Ann Voskamp, Christine Cain and others once again broke the conference mold as they sought to “gather, equip and unleash the next generation of women to live out their purpose.”

Lael Arrington
Faith and Culture: Live Wisely l Love Well

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