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Keeping the Feast

In 2017, my husband and I suffered a devastating house fire, which meant, among other things, a year-long exile to a camper in the backyard during the restoration. It was a painful, exhausting, overwhelming, rewarding, and ultimately beautiful journey back home. But this time last year I was anticipating the unbelievable joy of celebrating the holidays in our own place once more—of cramming the rooms with beloved people and stuffing the freezers, fridges, and larder with good things for them to eat. I wrote this piece after Thanksgiving, reflecting on some blessedly obvious but all-too-forgettable truths. And while grief and loss may have thrown these truths into sharper focus, I need their reminder every bit as much today as I did then.

We hosted Thanksgiving here on Thursday, a thing neither of us would have thought possible a year ago. I’d been looking forward to it for weeks—months—as a bold, joyous articulation of the restoration that’s been wrought in our lives and in our home over the past year and-a-half, and the endless “to-do” list I’d been curating reflected the overflowing anticipation of my heart. The thought of filling these rooms once more with the scents, sounds, and glad fellowship of a feast was as clear and poignant a picture of redemption as I’ve ever known, and I couldn’t wait to experience the reality.

The reality, however, is that early in the week I was seized with an almost incapacitating sadness. I say “almost” because if it had not been a few days before Thanksgiving, I very likely would have succumbed to its heart-numbing invitation to pull up a chair at the cold table of despair and just sit there in an un-creative void. In the face of all that God has done and all that we have to thank him for, all I could think about was all that’s been lost.

It was so oppressive that I texted a kindred spirit and asked her to pray for me. “I feel like I’m scared of everything,” I told her.

Everything I loved seemed suddenly a door flung wide to pain and more loss.

“I just can’t find my joy,” I wrote. “And I think that scares me most of all.”

I missed my Daddy. I missed the auld lang syne of God’s seemingly unbroken favor. I missed the animals we’ve lost over the years and I missed my siblings who weren’t able to come home for Thanksgiving. I missed our pre-fire innocence and the dozen things I instinctively reached for in my new kitchen only to realize they hadn’t been replaced yet—my favorite colander, my hand-mixer, my electric knife, my cookie cutters.

To jumble bereavement with such temporal and utterly replaceable items is just as short-sighted as it sounds. And yet, the sting of these tiny things only amplified the stab of the great ones. In a world where anything might happen, “anything” loomed less benevolent than capricious, and joy felt about as safe as the cracked ice upon which Amy March so impetuously pursued her sister Jo, to such life-threatening consequences.

I remembered that thankfulness is not a force (or even a feeling) generated by good Christian grit, but a simple response to who God is, in spite of all seemings and appearances. Lanier Ivester

The Victorians were great proponents of the “rest cure” for exhaustion of the mind and body, and while I certainly advocate a 21st century version of healthful self-care, I’ve also learned to respect the benefits of what I like to call a “work cure”—an all-encompassing project to lift me out of an endless circle of doubt and dark thoughts. While a to-do list can often be a snare, sometimes it’s a lifeline—and that was absolutely the case for me this week. As I threw my energies into ironing linens, making casseroles, preparing the guest room and setting the table, my mind was loosed to reflect upon the memory of God’s faithfulness. I remembered that thankfulness is not a force (or even a feeling) generated by good Christian grit, but a simple response to who God is, in spite of all seemings and appearances. In spite of all that has happened—and all that has not happened.

Be joyful, says Wendell Berry, though you have considered all the facts.

I turned on a playlist to accompany my work—courage-giving songs by Andrew Peterson, Matthew Clark,

Rich Mullins, The Innocence Mission. And as I sang along—rather mindlessly at first, but gradually, imperceptibly, with gathering intention—something broke open inside of me. A familiar warmth rose, glad and golden, searing and sweet, burning at the back of my throat, stinging my eyes with tears.

How easily I forget, when facts accumulate on the sad side of life and God seems preoccupied, that praise is always a golden key. Praise loosens the lock upon the memory of God’s faithfulness and ushers us into the presence of God’s character. If thankfulness is acknowledging what God has done, praise is affirming Who God is—and even our feeblest efforts connect us to the glorious, electrifying Secret that’s singing and thrumming and kindling in every corner of creation

That the Kingdom of God is already among us, and that this broken world is thronged with the glory of it. That “no good thing will be lost forever.” That no matter how we tally the facts of our lives, the equation will always ultimately equal Love.

I remembered afresh that every dish prepared, every place set, every starched and ironed pillowcase, has the potential to bear something eternal to time-bound souls—to affirm their worth, to us and to God, and to whisper of a belonging that has no boundaries of race or gender or tribe. When we welcome people to our table, we offer them not only a meal, but a taste of a Feast that is coming. The first fruits of a new creation.

Earlier this fall, I read a slim-but-dense book called Only the Lover Sings by the German philosopher and theologian Josef Pieper. In it, he makes a lot of challenging points about the role of art and artists in a culture that has largely forgotten how to see, much less contemplate, the truest things in life. But one of his most poignant assertions (to me, at least) was made almost in passing—namely, that the truest things in life are articulated within the context of feasting: in our celebrations, our holidays, our holy days

We cannot truly feast, he says, without an unflinching acceptance of life as it is—broken, messy, beautiful and bittersweet. But a feast is no feast which does not also affirm, tacitly or otherwise, life as it will be.

It takes so much courage to hold reality-as-it-is and reality-as-it-will-be in the same heart, doesn’t it? Which is why we so desperately need the artists to keep reminding us of what’s true, to give form to the inarticulable, to tell us we’re not alone. But I believe that anyone who takes up cookbook or mop or iron or silver polish is an artist in the most essential sense. And that of all the arts, perhaps, these are some of the ones this homesick old world is most hungry for.

Last winter, our dear friend Matthew Clark sent us a song he had written about our home and the journey we were taking together in its restoration. In it he enfleshed a hope that made us brave in our darkest days, and which made our joy complete in the longed-for fulfillment of this year’s Thanksgiving feast. It was hard for me to believe a year ago that these old rooms really would be filled again, and even the reality of it last Thursday felt like a dream. But it’s a dream that God has planted deep inside every one of us—the best of all the dreams the world has ever dreamed. And it’s already coming true.

Sitting around the table with friends and loved ones; toasting the Kingdom with champagne and elderflower punch; singing hymns in the parlor and sipping coffee by the fire—it was all so good. And it was all yet another beautiful assertion that we’ll always be feasting in faith.

Until, of course, that glorious Day when we aren’t.

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