An Experiment In Gathering
Guest Post by Hannah Ellison | @ellisoncreative
Photos by Alicia Welbourn
Sometimes when I imagine what Heaven will be like I picture a table with enough seats for everyone and an open invitation to gather anytime. The table is always overflowing with an elaborate spread of wines, cheeses, fruits, and vegetables. People are speaking in different languages, but everyone can understand one another. Glasses clink and laughter erupts, dancing and weaving its way through the happy noise. Everyone returns to this table often, for there is something familiar and divine about sharing a meal with friends - this sacred practice, ingrained in the rhythms of old and new.
Good things happen when we gather. It is as if, at least for a brief moment, the puzzle pieces come together and the bigger picture takes shape. Something settles into place inside of us when we fit alongside each other.
Curious about the compatibility of strangers and the true power of gathering, I decided to host a dinner party. I love the happy anxiety of hosting. I love brainstorming a menu and folding napkins, making sure my dishwasher is empty in anticipation of the flood of occupants it will later hold. I love decorating the table and circling it again and again like a hawk, looking for crooked silverware - the anticipation both kills and thrills me.
Guests arrive and talk over one another while hugging and greeting. Hearts are happy and corks are popped in celebration of the evening ahead. As people move from kitchen to table, the conversations launch out at the first layer of connection: Where we live, where we work, what we think about the weather. Dishes are passed, wine glasses filled, as people settle into their seats and into companionship.
I have found you can only go deep with people if you are willing to dig and they are willing to let you. In the second stage of connection people begin to use those shovels. Questions lead to conversations about point of origin, family dynamics, and how these things scattered throughout their personal history have created a mosaic of varied experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
Curiosity stirs, people begin to push past the formalities as pieces of a story across the table resonates with their own. There is always a brief moment of tension within me when people have finished eating and have the option of feigning reluctance and going home. We’ve all been guilty of dining and dashing at one point or another. (Sometimes I am envious of people with kids, purely for the very tangible and valid excuse to get out of pretty much anything.)
To my great delight, the conversation continues. As the sun slips below the horizon, candles continue to burn and illuminate each face, accentuating and adding depth and dimension, maybe even laughing along with us. Blankets come out and the silences in-between sentences become longer and more comforting than they are awkward. We discuss bedrock topics of faith and fundamental beliefs. This is a new layer. This one comes from the heart of conviction. Passion and emotion are present at the table with us, and we have finally opened up to share hearts fully.. We lean in, both physically and relationally, to experience intimacy.
We forget entirely about time, but my automatic sprinkler system does not, and rudely interrupts us at 11:30 p.m. Just like the arrival, departure is rushed and joyful. We stack chairs and fill the waiting dishwasher. My guest put on jackets while simultaneously trying to hug, and say “Nice to meet you,” and wish each other the very best for whatever the future has in store. We leave, but we are changed ever so slightly, won over and conformed through the beautiful conduit of community.
I am left with an empty home but a very full plate of leftovers for the days to follow. I am fed by words and experiences, and all of the lessons and insight gained from coming together. Gathering mends and joins together what has been torn apart. We need each other. We need to come together often, and in spite of, and just because. We need to live recognizing that we’re all in this together, our stories blending and bleeding into others. We are each essential contributors to the larger canvas of human history and the overarching story of God. We have been designed to fit into this story with joy and intentionality, beauty and belonging.
So consider this an invitation to the largest party ever thrown, where the courses keep coming and the wine never runs dry and the company is comforting and kind. There is a place set at the table with your name on it, and your presence is celebrated and benefits all who come in contact with you. Return to this party often, all of the remaining days of your life - here on earth and into the next.
“This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more
joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive.”