Evening settles in… that time when dusk can feel lonely, and my friend Paula shares with me that she lost her husband fourteen years ago. She speaks so quietly I can barely hear her. "He died before we had any children, and I've been alone ever since…” Her voice breaks, and her eyes fill with tears. “Sorry,” she says, “it's still too sad to talk about." She tells me how much she misses him… that he was her only family… and her grief feels raw in my heart.
It's our weekly Wednesday drop-in. A blue-grey darkness presses into the windows, hiding the snow banks outside, and the lights shine a bright glow over the room. We can smell bread baking in the kitchen. The tables are crowded, everyone sharing stories from their week; one table is playing euchre, another is enjoying friendly banter about the hockey game. Once we have prayed and the lasagne arrives, we begin serving each other and ourselves. This is a family-style meal. We share together from dishes passed around the table, and the sounds of plates and cutlery and friendly chatter make me feel at home.
As the conversation quiets and everyone begins to eat, I am hungry and happy for the warm food, but I am most intently aware of the huge blessing of eating around this table with my friends and especially Paula. I am so grateful that I’m not alone, that I have this family, that I am loved here. And suddenly my mind fills with an image of Jesus sitting around his own long table, desiring to eat supper with his disciples who loved him dearly, who were his friends and his family.
Family. It’s a word that brings joy, a word that can hurt, and a word I hear over and over again at Sanctuary. Sometimes it's spoken as a loving declaration: "Sanctuary is my family!" Sometimes a deep longing: "I wish my own family felt like this." Sometimes a prayer, during our Sunday night worship: "God, thank you for giving this family to those who don't have family." Whether we are longing to have our own family, healing from family hurt or break-up, missing family we've lost, or simply wanting closeness, the desire for family is often met when we are together.
Many times I've heard my Sanctuary friends say that this community is their true family. This is where we find togetherness. This is where Jesus sits with us at meals, and reminds us how he said to his disciples, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer." I know that pain and loneliness will keep showing up in our community, but I have faith that in our sacred moments of relationship, we will receive love from God that will carry us forward through our struggles. The kind of love that brings Paula back to us each week, even when grief weighs her down. Together with her, at this table, we are hungry for belonging, hungry for family.
During our meal tonight, Paula has grown relaxed and quiet across the table. The earlier sadness in her eyes has been replaced by a happy contentment to be with her friends. I can tell she feels at home here. I watch her lean in and listen to the woman beside her, and I feel relieved to see her smile. And while I know her sadness still hovers near, I'm grateful that in this moment, she is not alone, and has a family to bear it with her.