By Pastor April Alston
Having grown up in Baptist churches in the south, I have been attending potluck meals all of my life. From the plywood and sawhorse tables of my childhood church to the fellowship hall meals of my youth and adult life, potluck meals have been the common thread connecting every church I’ve attended. Each church organized these meals a little differently, but the end result every time was a long line of casseroles, salads, breads, vegetables and, of course, desserts. Through these meals I developed a taste for deviled eggs and green bean casserole, quickly discovered who made the best carrot cake, and learned I had to be early in the line if I wanted sweet potato biscuits. I can remember searching for the lady who made the fruit salad that, for once, did not have mayonnaise in it so that I could get her recipe.
As often as I found dishes that I loved, I also found dishes that were simply not for me, like sweet potato casserole, rice pudding, and watergate salad. Other people like these dishes, they are simply not my thing. Occasionally, I would try something that I was a little unsure of but grew to love, like ramen noodle salad, collard greens, and kale salad. What started as a brave but unsure taste-test eventually turned into the dishes that I now seek out at a potluck.
In the midst of my personal favorites, my new loves, and the dishes that I politely passed by, there were dishes that could be counted on to be present at any church gathering – fried chicken, ham, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, biscuits, chocolate pie, and pound cake, to name a few. You could nearly guarantee these tried and true comfort foods would be on the table. Maybe not all of them at the same time, but these dishes showed up regularly enough on the church potluck tables that I was, and still am, certain that my children and my children’s children will see them on the potluck tables in their future churches.
Much like the potluck meals of my church family, those of my own family have been full of lessons and learning. It was these meals that taught me how to pay attention to the special needs of those I love. When my mom’s family gathers, I make vegan dishes for my cousin, his wife, and my aunt. When I married into David’s family I learned how to make gluten-free dishes for my sister-in-law. As a mom, I learned how to make dairy-free or lactose-free meals for my child and that kids often need the safety of chicken nuggets, carrot sticks, and goldfish in order to find something to eat on such an overwhelming table. Making sure that everyone I love has something to eat at a family gathering is very important to me, and making these dishes has become life-giving for me. As a sweet bonus, I actually discovered that I like some of these special dishes better than the traditional ones I used to make.
It was also in the safety of these families that I learned how much I like to experiment in the kitchen. Sometimes the experiment is simply following closely the newest recipe I’ve found on Pinterest, while other times it’s a true experiment mixing and matching recipes and ingredients to create something unique. When these experiments are finished, I trust my family to tell me what they think. Sometimes it’s a hit all around, other times it’s a disaster. Most of the time there are some who love it and others who don’t care for it too much. I remember my nieces telling their mom how glad they were that I joined their family because now there were new things to taste rather than the same items year after year.
No matter the food on the table, or whether it is my church family, family of origin, or the one I married into – I keep coming back, not because of the actual food on the table, but because of the people seated at the table with me.
Recently, I began thinking about the connection between these potluck meals and worship. Worship, for many, is where we come to “get fed” and nourish our spiritual souls. Some of us enter more “hungry” than others, but the goal of leaving “full” is the same. We don’t all need the same thing. We don’t all have the same worship taste as some like hymns while others prefer a more contemporary style of music. Some need to be challenged while others need to be comforted. Some need to be refreshed while others need the safety of familiarity. Some like the routine and predictability of a responsive call to worship while others prefer to hear a psalm or poem read, while still others really enjoy the more interactive elements that encourage them to share their thoughts with their neighbor on the pew.
When we all come yearning to be fed, but with such different preferences and needs, it seems the best way to feed everyone is to create a spiritual potluck of sorts so there is a little something for everyone. Our “recipe” or “menu” for worship should have a mix of old favorites and new flavors, predictability and surprise, bold new dishes and comfort foods. Our goal should be to fill our spiritual table with a little something for everyone so that all go away full, or at the very least, less hungry than when they came in. As is true with a traditional potluck, some weeks each of us will find more to feast on than others. But in those weeks let us remember that someone else is finding exactly what they need to fill their soul. The pieces of worship that feel so boring, uncomfortable, or even too radical for us are feeding someone else’s deepest need. As a minister, I am not ashamed to admit that sometimes we courageously try out new recipes or make our own recipe out of familiar ingredients mixed in a new way in an effort to create something new, meaningful, and beautiful. Each and every one of these experiments is an effort to feed the unique needs of those we love.
As we head into the season of Advent, our theme is From Generation to Generation... We will take a look at many generations: those that made up the lineage of Jesus, those that informed our Scriptures, those that created the Church, and those who have informed our own personal faith. You will see and hear from multiple generations each week in worship and through blog posts. Throughout Advent we will share Bible study, poetry, art, prayer, and more. Worship will continue to offer a variety of music styles and worship elements, some familiar and others new, along with an “experiment” or two as we faithfully serve all who worship with us spiritual “food” for their soul.
Our hope is that all who join us this Advent season will find what they need, try something different, and maybe discover a new favorite. Everyone from ages 2 to 102 will find something to feast on. And just like the potluck meals that I remember so fondly, the people we share this season with will be the very best part. We can’t wait to share this Advent season with you!