A Place at the Table: Book Review
Last weekend I attended a conference entitled Consider the Lilies/Be not Afraid. The conference was jointly sponsored by A Rocha, a Christian Environmental Group, and St. Margaret’s Anglican Church. The featured guest was Norman Wirzba, a writer and professor(Duke University), who focuses on:
His research and teaching interests are at the intersections of theology, philosophy, ecology, and agrarian and environmental studiesFrom Wirzba’s website.
The conference was invigorating. The presenters, workshops, and panel discussion all gave food for thought and action. I don’t intend to write about the conference in any details, but ideas from it will most likely show up here in the coming months. (An example of such).
Along with the discussions I noticed a book available. A Place at the Table: Faith,
The Creation of a Place at the table
A Place at the Table is the work of Miranda Harris and her daughter Jo Swinney. Harris along with her husband Peter, were co-founders of A Rocha. A Rocha is committed to caring for God’s creation, and hospitality is a majuor part of that. Miranda, as well as her family lived this out for many years. This same theme of hospitality can also be found in the book Planted, by Leah Kostamo, another member of the A Rocha family.
Tragically, in 2019, Peter and Miranda were involved in a collision while traveling to the airport to fly home from South Africa. Miranda died on the spot, and Peter’s life was also cut short. He never recovered from his injuries and died in 2021.
A Place at the Table’s genesis came out of this tragedy. In the process of sorting through Miranda’s life, her oldest daughter Jo, came across her mom’s writing. Writing is something Miranda always did. Her writing was something that got bypassed in the many activities that had filled Miranda’s life.
Reading through this writiing, Jo decided to honour her mother by bringing these words to life and sharing them with a broader audience. This book is the result. As you read through you will hear the voice of mother and daughter. To make it easier for you, each appears with it’s own typeface.
The majority of the text is from Miranda. It includes her formal writing and entries from her journals. Jo includes retellings of Biblical stories around hospitality, and shares what it is like to be raised in an environment of hospitality
Thinking About Hospitality
With that as a background, I’d like to dive into the book. The Prologue begins with this question:
Let’s begin with a bold idea. Might hospitality be as close to the heart of a lived Christian faith as churchgoing, financial giving or Bible reading?page 1
Reading through the book, I think the answer to give is, yes.
For one thing, as Harris lays out her vision of hospitality, it is clear the other three activities are part of that hospitality. The church may gather around the dinner table. Financial sacrifices are made in the gifting of hospitality, and food prepared while reflections on the Bible run through a person’s head.
I jump to the end of the book to another passage that reflects on this. On page 173, Miranda writes:
But in heaven death is no more, and food and drink, are no longer a question of money, status or power, but of the generosity of God.173
Here is the nub of the book, and what separates Christian hospitality from the variety put forward by HGTV, the Food Network, etc. The hospitality that we offer is meant to reflect God’s generous love to us. It is grace made tangible.
Making a Place at the Table Isn’t Easy
Hospitality is linked to community. As Miranda states:
First, it matters because, like church, it is a ‘given,’ a fact, not something we can opt in or out of, depending on how much time is left over when work and family obligations have been fulfilled, or a kind of hobby we dabble in at weekends.
Just prior to this, Miranda makes another important point about community:
…that there are an almost infinite number of creative ways of expressing it.page 108
As the authors show, creating community inevitably means dealing with conflicts and disappointments. Miranda’s journal entries on pages 44-45, and page 131, are examples. Yet the same journal entries talk about developing deeper trust in God through those times.
One thing hospitality does, is it creates time and space to deal with conflict and disappointment. The October 20, 1983 journal entry on page 39 gives just one of several examples of this.
To start, a couple of notes on the book’s layout. The chapters are laid out in the form of a meal. From feeling the pangs of hunger, to cleaning up afterwards. Each chapter follows a format. Discussion between Miranda and Jo, Bible story, Prayer, and Miriam’s journal entries.
You can easily read the book straight through, as I did. You can also easily take it a chapter at a time, reading a chapter and then pausing to reflect before you come back to the next one.
This layout also makes the book a good choice for a book study. There are no questions at the back, but each chapter will give you questions to discuss.
A Place at the Table is not so much about how to do hospitality, but how to be hospitable. It encourages the reader to view hospitality as both an orientation and a practice. Like all practices hosptiality requires work. Our orientation to hospitality may not come naturally. However, the more we practice it, the more our orientation toward it, changes.
A Place at the Table will be a great addition to any library. It is a good choice for individual reading. It is also a good choice for a group study or a book club.