All Roads Lead to the Kitchen Table

A pilgrimage of community and broken paths

by Ashley-Anne Masters

Recently I spent a weekend in Asheville, North Carolina, for the wedding of a friend and colleague. I grew up going to those mountains and spent many summers and formative times there. That area of the world holds my history and significant parts of my story of lifelong friendships, laugher on porches, grief, grace, and unconditional love. The people and places there, and those who now, like me, live elsewhere but always find our way back, are home for me.

During the past four years, especially, there have been significant heartbreaks: friends, colleagues, and parents who died too young or tragically, divorces, and general muckiness that is life as a community of imperfect people. And during each of those hard times, the same folks who gathered for the wedding weekend also traveled from north and south and east and west to be together.

We gathered when my mom died four years ago, then we gathered when our 44-year-old friend and colleague died suddenly a month later. We gathered for a friend’s mom’s funeral nearly two years ago, and we gathered for the funeral of our 37-year-old friend and colleague last February. We’ve cried on porches over relationships that ended and cheered each other on from states away for doing hard, brave things while grieving. Each time we gather, we remember who we are and to whom we belong in this life and the next.

We take being a community and chosen family seriously, which means we show up in the valley of the shadow of death, to dance at weddings, and everything in between. We go months without talking and years without being together in person, yet as soon as we are reunited on the road, our conversations pick up right where we left off. Then we invite each other to eat, drink, and stay a while.

I am constantly humbled and surprised that families who are perfect strangers to me allow me to join their conversation and invite me into their family’s story.

So this wedding gathering, like so many before and so many to come, was sacred, and necessary as it reoriented us to each other and strengthened the ties that bind us together. Our collective deep joy was vital, and we were thrilled to add a seat to our family table for our friend’s new spouse.

No One Left Alone

We recently realized there are things we don’t remember during the shock of acute grief, but others remember and help us tell our story. After gathering for celebrations of lives well lived, we always gathered around kitchen tables. And even if we had never sat there before, the tables were instantly made familiar by the tears, voices, tastes, smells, and laughs we know so well. Everything becomes familiar when our collective broken hearts gather to reorient ourselves in the most basic food and drink. And somehow, there’s always enough, and chairs are always added to be sure everyone feels welcome. Hospitality and reorienting is the essence of our community, and it’s sacred every time we do it. Because it matters.

This is also true for the friends and chosen family in the Emmaus text in Luke 24. Their friend, mentor, role model, and colleague had just been killed days before. The walkers on the road to Emmaus are disoriented. They are in shock. They are confused. They are walking right in the middle of the valley of the shadow of death. They are processing the events of the last couple days together, because that’s also an important part of grief—and that empathy of shared experience is powerful. They are disoriented in their fresh grief, and they are on their way to join others to gather their collective broken hearts together at a familiar table. Because that’s what the community does. Show up, get together, and meet in the kitchen at a table.

When Jesus comes near to them on their walk, they do not even recognize him. He asks them why they are so sad and what they are talking about. And like any good loyal friend, Cleopas says, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place here?” I love his reaction because it’s so authentic. When our worlds are changed forever because someone dies, it’s often jarring that our world changed forever, while the rest of the world goes on with business as usual. I love that Cleopas questions how this stranger could possibly be uninformed about the public execution that just happened days before.

And I love that they go on to tell this stranger the most bizarre story ever about the execution of their friend, leader, prophet, and the one they hoped would bring about redemption for all people. And then they attempt to articulate the resurrection—the crazy story the women told them about going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, but when they got there, the body was gone. And then some angels told the women that the young man whom they watched die days before was actually alive now, and that his body wasn’t stolen from the tomb as they thought. This sounds unbelievable. It sounds absurd.

Yet Jesus, still a stranger to them at the time, calls them out on their crazy story by responding, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared? Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25–26). He then goes on to list all that the Scriptures say about the Messiah and other prophets as the friends continue their walk to the village.

It is amid the unbelievable and disorienting processing of death and all that the women had told them that Cleopas and his companion invite Jesus, the stranger, to stay with them because it is evening. Even amid their acute grief and shock, they offer hospitality to a stranger because nobody should be left walking alone and everyone needs a safe place to eat and sleep.

Only when the stranger they invited to dinner offers to host and serve them do they recognize him as the Jesus the risen Christ. Their collective broken hearts recognize the familiar in the breaking of the bread. And their collective sad souls are reoriented when Jesus pours out the cup of salvation, new covenant, and forgiveness. Jesus reorients them in the middle of grief’s disorientation with the most basic act of gathering together and eating a meal.

Open Eyes, Burning Hearts

As a pediatric chaplain, I see grief and loss regularly, and the most important thing we do as staff is normalize that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Each day, we show up to embody our commitment that nobody should be alone in their grief. I am constantly humbled and surprised that families who are perfect strangers to me allow me to join their conversation and invite me into their family’s story. I have the privilege of witnessing faith that surpasses all human understanding and boundless love over and over with the parents and children I meet in the hospital. And while honestly some days are extremely hard and filled with sighs too deep for words, there’s also a beauty that cannot be articulated when strangers gather with grit and gumption and grace to boldly proclaim death does not and will not have the final word. Ever.

There’s a vulnerability and rawness that comes when we meet as strangers in the hospital that levels the playing field a bit in a way other social settings do not. Rarely does anyone have the need to be Cleopas and ask, “Do you not realize what’s going on here?” because most families in the hospital are all too aware of finitude, mortality, and that everyone is hoping for a better or different outcome.

The other day while I was getting ice in our oncology family kitchen, I noticed a woman unpacking multiple large Costco-size boxes of microwavable dinners, cereal, juice, and snacks, filling the communal cabinets to capacity. I said hello and thanked her, as I thought she was a member of our foundation or volunteer. She responded, “Well, I’m not who deserves the thanks. Our community wants ways to help us while my child is here for chemo, and we already have so much help we came up with the idea for them to collect food for the community kitchen so everyone here can benefit. So every time we are here at the hospital, they send me with all of this for everybody.” I was stunned and said, “What a practical and lovely thing to do. I’m sure everyone is so grateful.”

The next few times I was in the kitchen, I saw families enjoying the food and sitting together sharing stories of their children’s cancer, treatment, and wondering where all the amazing anonymous snacks came from. Their disorientation of being in the hospital and having a sick child was redirected when they were reoriented at a table of food and drink made possible by the hospitality of strangers. Yet again, sad, weary, tired people were nourished and refreshed while they gathered in the kitchen. And yet again, a story that sounded unbelievable was shared among strangers in hallways, and other families walked down the hall to see this fully stocked kitchen full of free comfort food they’d heard about.

For it is at table that the first disciples first recognized Jesus, and it’s where the world will continue to recognize us as followers of the Risen Lord. May our eyes always be open and may our hearts always be burning to offer hospitality amid the sacredly ordinary everyday walks along the broken roads. Because it matters.

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