The table was set with unfussy Corelle dishes, yellow paisley cloth napkins, and water glasses. One of the pastor’s sons, a colleague of mine from the university, pulled a gallon plastic jug of water out of the refrigerator and started filling the water glasses. “It’s not filtered water. I just like it cold,” Pastor Ken Smith laughed as he greeted me with a warm handshake and pulled me gently but firmly over the threshold.
The Family Table
This was one of my first experiences of a Christian family feast, one that included the Smith family, other brothers and sisters from the church, and me. The room hummed with grown-up laughter and the sing-song of children’s voices. It had been so very long since I had experienced the sound of men’s voices laughing and the delight of a child’s giggle. While I proclaimed the value of diversity, my community was entirely composed of white thirty-something lesbian Ph.D.s in the humanities. Children dragged in extra chairs. Bowls were overflowing with Floy Smith’s steaming and savory sweet-and-sour soybeans, and Ken herded us to the table with a gentle but firm touch. When we all sat down and pulled up our mix-and-match chairs to the long family table, no elbow room remained. It was intimate but not stuffy. The conversation was marked with edgy questions of the day (on which I took an opposing side) and Bible verses and principles, some that stood as answers and others that opened more questions. It seemed to me that Pastor Ken Smith and these other Christians used the Bible both for reference and for lingering long. We ate and talked and laughed. And then we sang Psalm 23.
Voices in all four parts to the tune of Crimond rang strong and right as rain. And when we sang, “A table Thou has furnished me, in presence of my foes,” I started to lose my sense of which way was up. I started to get all turned around, as if I had absentmindedly taken the wrong path on a well-walked trail. I was trained to play the part of the victim and to perceive myself as a “sexual minority,” voiceless among the voiced. As we sang, I said to myself, “Yes, dear victim, here you are in the presence of your foes, these awful hateful people who want to trample on your rights.” But even though victimhood served as my catechism, I couldn’t make myself believe this while singing Psalm 23. Something wasn’t right. And that’s when it dawned on me that I, the English professor, was misreading the text. I wasn’t the one dining in the presence of my enemies. I was the enemy.
My Pilgrim Journey
Dinner concluded with prayer. Prayer was reverent and steady. There were natural pauses and unhurried reflections as these Christians shared their hearts with each other and with God. The unyielding and unanswered questions that had marked the earlier part of this evening were now put into the hand of God. They were neither swept under the rug nor turned into objects of obsession and grief. At the final “amen,” someone said, “Let’s sing Psalm 122.” Most of the people had this one memorized too, but Floy gently touched my arm and placed an open Psalter in my hands. And so with gusto and confidence, voices raised in song once again: “I was glad to hear them saying ‘to the Lord’s house let us go.’ For our feet will soon be standing in your gates Jerusalem. . . . In your palaces be safety, for the sake of brothers all, for the sake of my companions, I am saying, ‘Peace to you!’ ” At the psalm’s conclusion, someone said something that I didn’t understand at the time. He said, “This is my pilgrim’s journey.”
Although I did not understand this reference, this night marked the beginning of my pilgrim journey. That I was the enemy at this table made little matter to Pastor Ken, for he knew that Christ was not done with me. That I had mocked Christians, written university policy that extolled hatred for God, taught classes that enlisted others into a worldview that walks only to hell, and sinned against others was not the main thing for this godly pastor and the church that he pastored. The main thing was Christ crucified and risen. The Christian life goes on regardless of how many enemies are at the table because enemies cannot mar or perjure the main thing of the Christian life—“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10 ESV).
That feast and the long family dinner table at the Smith house and my presence at the table were not a one-night event. It was regular and rhythmic.
As these Christians folded me, the enemy, into their feasting, I became hungry for more of what they had. I started to read the Bible, no longer to critique it or mock it or despise it but to roll it around in my private dream-talk, to turn the pages of the Bible and the pages of my heart together, to let it wash me and shape me and rebuke me and comfort me. I remember one day experiencing what happens when the Bible gets to be bigger than my sin and my selfishness. I remember one day realizing that I needed to hate my sin without hating myself. And always, in the background of these cataclysmic changes was the feasting at the Smith house. What followed was the sweet washing of repentance, my life commitment to Jesus, and the covenant of church membership. I was no longer the enemy of Jesus but His devoted disciple.
Today, I get to set our own family dinner table. My greatest honor is being married to my pastor, Kent Butterfield, and together raising and homeschooling our children. Our dining table has been in my husband’s family for five generations. It overfills the dining room and the Lord fills it with brothers and sisters in the Lord and with neighbors. Some come in grief. Some come in anger. Some come in loneliness. Some come in joy. Like the Smiths, the Butterfields do not throw people away. We gather for feasting, psalm singing, and prayer. We fold in neighbors and our children’s friends. We discuss the pressing questions of our day, and we use the Bible to illuminate the way forward. We include the neighborhood children. We linger long at the table in the evenings.
Feasting, psalm-singing, gathering others, continuing to gather for Lord’s Day worship during a time of governmental pressure not to worship together, and homeschooling are not to be interpreted as unprecedented or unusual events. No. God intended it this way. Our faith is meant to flourish in the presence of our enemies. Psalm 110:2 declares: “The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies!” (ESV). It is God’s will that we should always be feasting in the presence of our enemies. It is God’s will that Zion (the church) will shine in the midst of enemies. John Calvin puts it this way:
Doubtless our condition in this world will include many hardships, but God’s will is that Christ’s kingdom should be encompassed with many enemies, his design being to keep us in a state of constant warfare. Therefore it becomes us to exercise patience and meekness, and, assured of God’s aid, boldly to consider the rage of the whole world as nothing.1
We feast in the presence of our enemies not by accident but by design, not for punishment but for blessing. Paul describes the weapons of the warfare in which we are engaged in 2 Corinthians 10:4–5:
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds. Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. (KJV)
The weapons of our warfare cast down atheistic imaginations with pot roast suppers and watermelon, psalm singing and warm mugs of tea, prayer and repentance. And how do we prepare for such feasts? Know what is true. Let the inerrant and living Word of God commandeer your heart and mind and body. Worship what is true. Give God the holy worship He commands, being ready to join in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. Repent daily. Be a covenant member of a faithful church. Sing psalms. Feast in the presence of your enemies. If you are in Christ, your enemies are Christ’s enemies. And this means we have nothing to fear.
1John Calvin, “Assurance of His Protection,” Monergism.com Blog (CPR Foundation), accessed May 24, 2022, https://www.monergism.com/assurance-his-protection.