It is a scene relished by the modern artist. Dali or Picasso would have made good work of it. Imagine an overloaded dinner table positioned directly in front of one’s foes. There it is, evidence that the contradiction is still at work — banqueting in bad company.
It has been now a few years since my best friend turned on me. He did it first with subtlety, then with an open slash of malice. His bitings dug deeply, not only into my flesh but that of my family as well.
I had never dreamed that our friendship would end in such a violent rupture of the heart. Nevertheless, looking back on it all, I realize that that, too, was simply one more complication of existence which had to be gone through. The passing of time practically guaranteed it.
I recall in Bible studies afterward asking the adults if they had personally experienced betrayal. Most of the younger ones looked at me with blank faces. Most of the older ones immediately shook their heads with understanding.
Yet enough time has passed even further for the betrayal to give way to something else. It is the banquet table. I could not have provided it. It could have been brought to pass only by God.
Back then when being betrayed, I thought at times that the end of the world had come for me. I know that that sounds melodramatic; nevertheless, though corny it may sound at first, the impact of betrayal did bring about such utter confusion in darkness. No doubt this was heightened by my former friend taking with him a number of others I had counted on as friends.
The betrayal brought many feelings to the surface. I was mad. I was pained. I wanted to crawl into some warm womb once more for protection from the outside world. I avoided social contact with anyone so as to lead to suspicions of friendship building. I attempted to make ways of solitude which I had not dug out before.
One of the most primary emotions was revenge. I wanted to get even, to settle the score, to pronounce justice. I was anxious to take matters into my own hands so as to bend the crooked straight in my favor once again.
Consequently, I was not all that patient with the timing of God. I indeed thought Him to be too slow. Where in fact was He? Why didn’t He hurry up so as to get things back in order so that I could get on with happiness and laughter?
Languishing in desperation for months on end left me exhausted. Looking back, I realize all the more how slowly the strength began to come back. And through it all, I was attempting in my own way to do my enemy some harm as well as set some sort of banqueting table for me and mine. After all, life was to be lived, eventually, somehow. And I would have to see to it myself. God did not seem to be that efficient about the catering.
Now all that may seem somewhat strange coming from a pastor. Yet, being honest with you, I have to tell you how it was. For being vulnerable to the enemy of our souls as well as to the complications of human personality, I trekked my way through an empty desert in search of food.
Perhaps you, too, have dusted your heels through such sands. Perchance you, too, have been reluctant to tell about it. After all, it strikes hard at our image of success and merry-making. Nevertheless, perhaps part of the feasting eventually at God’s table is to open up, to tell what the suffering has been about that has brought us to such a table. Consequently, in being human with you, I tell you the truth. I was betrayed. I was hurt deeply. I was struck with a heavy hammer of confusion as to the whereabouts of God Himself.
I recall telling a close friend about this before “going public.” He looked at me with dismay. Immediately I knew that he was wondering how it was that I could have experienced all this. Then I knew that the profile I had usually shown to the world — my friends — was one of many pals, lots of laughs and few aches.
He opened his mouth, not to say anything, but to gape at me. “Does it sound strange?” I asked, about as surprised at his questioning as he was at my telling. After all, I had lived the outside me and the inside me. And for most of the time, I had thought that my close friends knew the inside me as well as the outside me. But it was dawning on me now that the inside me had been kept quite inside at that.
So it was that I started to laugh at him, then with him, as he got the message without me having to say anything. Our minds meshed as in a moment and we responded with relief at the discovery. I had confessed then and there to being vulnerable to betrayal just as every other mortal. And with that he knew that he himself was not alone in his own experiences of such betrayals. For the first time in our relationship we were now sharing common hurts of being turned on by persons we had thought to be friends. What a warmth surged through us in such a binding not known before between the two of us.
Therefore, I share with you this morning my feelings about the desert sands knowing that these are those who are listening who have walk-those same miles. Is it comforting to hear someone else tell you of the pain?
But more. I tell you also of your banquetings. If you have thought God left you, not trusting all that surely, then welcome. If you have dealt with blisters of the heart, believing some of them inflicted by the loving Father Himself, then welcome. If you have faced up to that awful loneliness of soul that comes when reaching out to touch Someone, only to feel that He has gone on sabbatical, then welcome.
After all, you did not go away. Death did not come to you. Disease did not comsume your frame. And life went on, with you tagging along, liking it or not.
In it all, interestingly enough, was God. At first He wore a mask, which is His privilege since He is the author of humor and complexities of appearance. At first, he spoke in silence, which is also His right since He brings into being not only the clatter but also the quiet of the universe. At first, He stayed aloof, which again is His prerogative because of His being everywhere which allows for seeming nowhere.
Then it was that you had your comforters. For even if you dared not speak, trying to harbor your hurt and want for revenge, there were those close by who detected. Not always accurately did they do their spying of spirit, but nevertheless they did come close.
So it was that you had to deal with them as they dealt with you. “Why don’t you pray?” they would ask. “Where is your faith? Just stand on His promises. Things will work out, don’t you know? This too shall pass. Don’t think anything of it; forget it. You must have done wrong, too.”
The helpers were no help. And when looking up for solace, He did not seem to be any help either. Above, alongside, below, where was the real help that your soul desperately cried out for?
Yet as if on cat’s paws, God was setting up a table. The cloth. The candles. The plates and cups, saucers and silverware. The napkins. But most of all, the food.
Of course you did not see it. Nor did you hear His coming. Neither did Noah’s generation when God was gathering storm clouds. Neither did Bethlehem when deity was born human. Neither did Capernaum when the Carpenter told them of the mercy on the other side of confession.
But our hearing or seeing are not finally what count. It is that He still is at work, working the contradictory in preparing a table before our enemies. And more times than not, it is not even our faith that makes much difference; if it did, we would many times not ever get to a banquet.
What is it then that sees the whole scene through? If it’s not our ingenuity, our maneuvering, our determination (stubbornness) to have it our way in a hurry, nor our faith (or lack of it), what then is it that brings about the banquet in bad company?
It is loving mercy. God is true to His own integrity. As our Father, He is bound to care for us, to the most detailed extent, and when we count it impossible.
“I can honestly say that for the past several years, we have never been happier in our lives,” I was saying this past week when a friend phoned long distance. What had I said? Was that me talking? Had I really thought through that sentence before allowing it to trip off my tongue? The happiest years of our lives?
Yes, that is true. It was unbelievable. I myself would not have believed it several years ago. It was not within my faith to get hold of even a smidgen of it. It just could not be.
The chatter on the phone continued. But I was not hearing my friend. I was playing hearing games with him in order to get hold of my own head. I wanted to play back that tape. Should I erase that sentence? Should I let it stay?
I had to let it stay, for it was true. Then it hit me with a sudden cheer. I was beside myself and wanted to share it with my friend. But it didn’t fit. The conversation had moved on to other things, mundane and taudry. Once again I was alone, but this time I was having a party in the attic of my heart. Not all that bad, frankly. And eventually I would share it, balloons, noisemakers and all, as with you this morning.
Yes, it was true. Through time, without my faith being all that strong, God has set up a dinner table. On it were material blessings, more than I had ever dreamed could come our way.
And there were friendships made with new people, many of them proving to be beautifully sound and rewarding. The more my mind ticked their names off, the more I understood myself to be one of the nouveau riche of soul.
There was also the discovery of my family again. Before the rat race had shuttled them aside to make way for busyness and spinning wheels that got nowhere, though I refused at the time to admit it.
On the table was also the simple life. How complicated the daily routine had become back then. But through the betrayal, and the rearranging of so many priorities to breathing had come the simplicity of everyday things — the cool sheets on winter nights, a piece of newly warmed toast at breakfast, my little girl’s foolishness.
But more. The table was full. One of the most precious foodstuffs proved to be a more determined trust in the Father, knowing Him to be there when “He wasn’t.” There came to the fore a conclusion that no matter what happened henceforth, I would believe an eternal integrity to be at work for my good and His glory.
So it was that when I got a letter from a friend in which he said, “We have decided that regardless of circumstances, we will not allow any of life’s experiences to silence the song of praise and thanksgiving in our hearts,” I could more than identify with that. And it was more than a nice ending to a friendly letter; it was bedrock truth on which one could live and die.
From time to time, I still look up to see my enemy. But I have no revenge, no wanting to get even, no malice toward him. I see him there on the other side of the table, and now I want to invite him to eat with me.
In fact, just the other day I tried to get in touch with him, but he has moved and I don’t know where he is now. I wanted to talk with him just for a second or two and tell him that all is all right. I hold no ill feelings.
I could not have done this a few years ago. It would have been impossible. It simply was not in me. Yet without my being aware, God was putting it in me as He prepared the table. In time, I would see it. And feeding on it, I would be strengthened.
For years I have preached on the Shepherd’s Psalm. But when I came to the banqueting in bad company, I stuttered. What could I do with it? With its perplexity came, however, a marvelous enticement to figure it out someday. After all, the imagery was too tantalizing to let go, to ignore.
But it would have to be another time, another place, another stage in life. So it was that in God’s timing, he saw to it that now I can begin to get hold of it, certainly not fully, but better than before.
It must be a bit what Desmond Tutu feels today when he holds the Nobel Peace Prize in his hands, So often he had had whispers that it would come his way, but it didn’t.
In childhood, he lived with daily put-downs, being treated as less than a white-skinned creature. In teen years he stared the injustice of it all in the face, yet chose to follow Jesus against all odds. In young adult years he became an aggressive voice for nonviolent thrusts against South African prejudice.
There were so many foes to conquer, so many noises to silence, so many blacks to equip for the long run. Yet through it all, God was preparing a table. It started when Desmond was a young man, looking up one day to see a pastor — a white man — tip his hat at his black mother. This? Yes, this.
Later, when Tutu was hospitalized due to tuberculosis, this same white minister visited him for 20 months — daily. This? Yes, this.
Where was God when hypocrisy paraded on every side within and without the church. Where was justice when black people were leveled every day? Where was the work of the eternal kingdom when earthly powers of selfishness strutted across the stage of history?
God was there. He was setting the table. And one of those servants helping to place the plates was a white pastor by the name of Trevor Huddleston. In time, Desmond would come to see it. Enemies on every side, yes. But so the contradiction would be realized in all its glory. The table would be full and the whole world would be invited to partake of its splendor.
It was in time that the God of time worked His meal for the feeding of His child. The injustices would be asked to come to see. And the children of the kingdom would eat.
Can you believe it? If not, don’t worry. The matter that matters most is that you are His child. His integrity of loving mercy will see you through. Just hold on. Whether or not you can make out the form of it all is not what is important. What makes the difference is a God who stays true to His own. In time you will see it. In time you will sit yourself down and feed on its truth.
May this be some comfort to you in the meantime.