When Helen and I were first married we bought a second-hand dining table from a friend. It was a square IKEA table that extended to seat six just about, or ten if you were feeling optimistic. We developed a habit of stuffing people around the table because we didn’t have the room to do otherwise.
It sat in our kitchen in the little two-up two-down we were renting. A few years later we were able to buy a house and it went in the dining room. It fitted well, but we really wanted a new table. It was functional, but not attractive and we were reaching a point in our lives where we could afford to buy some things because they were beautiful and would last.
We couldn’t ever really figure out what to get though. Our tastes seemed to differ, and what we liked was very expensive and never quite right enough for us to be willing to spend money on it. With hindsight, part of the problem was that we liked tables that were much too big for the room they needed to go into. A tug of war between the instinct that tables should be big so you can get lots of people around them and the practicality of the space we had.
Fast forward nine years and we were moving to join a church plant in Birmingham, with the same table we’d bought eleven years earlier.
We bought a house in need of some serious renovation, with the intention of building a bigger dining room, mostly because the house prices are higher in Birmingham and that seemed to be the easiest way to get a comparably sized house.
We start the project—which was a saga I’ll write about more soon—and God starts to speak to me about rest. I had a year where I lug sledgehammers around and chewed on the concept of rest in the first couple of chapters of Genesis. I’m thinking about Sabbath (Hebrew: shabbat, stopping) and I’m thinking about the reason that God stopped, to rest.
It was the least restful year of my life.
The Hebrew word translated as rest is nuakh. Which probably looks familiar to you. It means ‘settling in’ and has a connotation—as I’m increasingly convinced—of enjoying the order your hands have created. While an adjacent idea, it’s not the same thing as relaxation. I think we get this a bit backwards, but I’ll write on that another day.
In the middle of a national lockdown as we continue to slowly shape our house, Helen calls me over to look at her laptop one day excitedly telling me that John Lewis has a sale on. She’s looking at dining tables. We’ve by this point seen one we actually like in a friend’s house, and it comes in a bigger size. It’s half price.
I start to look at it, I think Helen is expecting me to tell her that it’s the wrong time to buy one. At this point our dining room is a concrete slab exposed to the elements that needs key features like a roof and windows. It’s called a Newman. I click around a bit looking at it. You can click through to the designer’s website. She calls it a Noah.
The world stops.
Noah in Hebrew is noakh. Which is a play on nuakh, Noah is the man of Rest. I’ve been offered an elusive table that gives us everything we’ve been looking for, for twelve years now, and it’s called Rest? We buy it that day.
This is me at perhaps my most hyper-charismatic. Did God really tell me to buy the table by its name? Well, maybe. But more importantly, a table is supposed to be a place for gathering on the Lord’s Day with the Lord’s people to enjoy the fruit of our labours for the week. It’s supposed to be a place of rest.
That, in the midst of a gruelling house renovation and bruising lockdown was a promise I could receive. Purchasing it turned into an act of faith, a statement about what our house was supposed to be. Why were we building this, frankly palatial, dining room? We’d been clear from the start, to fill it with others. As my convictions about the Sabbath and the centrality of tables to the Christian life had hardened it was like God was saying “put your money where your mouth is then”.
It sat in a cardboard box in our house for six months until there was actually a room to put it in, like a promise received but not yet unveiled.
It’s often like that, and there are lessons there too.
For today though, do you think of your table as a place of rest? It is. Do you think of it like an ark? Because it is. Fill it with the people of God, waifs and strays every last one of them, and get them safely to glory through the waters of death because you build a community that loves each other.
That’s what tables are for, they’re arks. Mine’s made of oak rather than gopher wood, but the effect is the same.