My mother-in-law knows how to set a table. She’s a connector, a people person, a well of bubbling, intentional hospitality. She’s also a planner. Days in advance I can tell that company is coming, or a special dinner is in the cards, because her table will start to come together. A special set of dishes will appear from a box in the attic. She’ll play with table cloths and runners, improvise with some fabric from Nairobi. She’ll add something beautiful in the center, cross-reference a magazine article, get it just right. I didn’t know what a charger was before I met this woman. She knows how to set a table.
These days conversation around tables can feel perilous. Political divides, generational breaches, even rifts within the church can cause any conversation to feel like a battle ground. Often, social media gives us the luxury of knowing how our family and friends lean on a myriad of topics before we even ask, so we can enter a conversation with defenses up, arguments prepared, or an escape plan in place without hearing a word from their mouths.
I can talk all day with people who agree with me, wax eloquent about the opposing view’s blind side, but I’m starting to wonder if we are loosing access to the skills that allow us to listen and understand those who don’t share our beliefs, our convictions, and our preferences.
What would happen if we set the table for the hard conversations? What if we prepared a space for dialogue the way my mother in law prepares a table? What would it look like to put time and effort into preparing our hearts to hear those we don’t understand, and don’t agree with? Can we make our hearts soft and remember how to listen, how to let conversation unfurl? Can we make space for empathy?
The Oxford Dictionary describes empathy as “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
I think about the tables where Jesus sat: the tables of tax collectors and outcasts, the lakeside campfires of fishermen turned disciples, the well where he asked a Samaritan woman for water. I think about how he understood them better than they could ever understand themselves. I think about how Jesus came down and walked among us, how the Word became flesh, empathy personified.
What if our tables became places where we dined with the tax collectors and the Pharisees and the Samarian woman? What if we sat at their tables, drank from their well, like Jesus did? Can we make space for listening and learning and loving, even when we do not agree? Can we begin to build relationships that can hold the weight of difficult conversations? Can our tables be filled with those we love, as well as those whose voices we desperately need to hear? I think we can.
Let’s set the table for the hard conversations: dust off our listening and our empathy, make a place for real dialogue in real life.
Today, I’ll set the table, breakfast, lunch and dinner (though not nearly as lovely as my mother in law’s). I will pull forks from the silverware drawer and fill jelly jar glasses of water. I will look around at the places I’ve set, at the work I have left to do.
I’d love to hear from you: how do you make space for dialogue and keep your heart soft in hard conversations?