On the Importance of the Evening Meal

When Kristin and I decided we were ready to have children, we made a few of crucial decisions I’ve never regretted. One of the best is establishment of the the evening meal as sacrosanct. From the time our kids were old enough to sit in a high chair, even before then, we started the family meal at six o’clock every evening. We’ve been going now for almost ten years now, only missing on rare occasions when one of us is out of town, and even then the evening meal goes on with a definite sense that someone from our circle is missing. I’m beginning to see the full power of this ritual.

The evening meal is sacred space in which we instill the virtues that are constitutive of the Christian life. One of the mistakes I see parents make consistently is the attempt to instill virtues/morals in their children by talking about those things. Virtues are instilled through ritual not through talking. Teaching and conversation about virtues are only effective when they come after the ritual, in support of the ritual. Our conversations over the evening meal are this space where we are helping each other (and it goes both ways, my boys reveal things to me all the time), to understand and interpret the rituals that are already a part of our common life. Virtue isn’t taught, it is caught via consistent, habitual ritualized behavior. So, the impatient parent cannot teach patience to a child. The over-busy parent cannot teach on rest. The worried parent cannot teach on trust. Those virtues will only be caught from a parent who embodies those things first, making them concrete in their lives via daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rituals. Only then can they talk about them, and then it is really just an interpretation of what the kids already see in action, (think sand-the-floor Daniel-san). Through the evening meal virtues like hospitality, delight, community, service, work, cooperation (clean up is great for teaching work & cooperation), and so on, are embodied and rooted in a daily practice and the space to talk about those virtues is provided as well.

The evening meal is where our children learn the ropes of hospitality. Hospitality is the most central of all Christian disciplines. There is no way to understand the gospel, nor is there a way to participate in it apart from hospitality. Learning to share food, to make space at the table for strangers, those who are hurting, family members, and one another teaches us how to get beyond ourselves. Blessing the table, delighting in the goodness of tastes, smells, sights, sounds, and the beauty of food together is rudimentary discipleship.

The evening meal builds identity. Over the meal we tell our stories. Our boys tell us stories about their lives, what they are working on, who their friends are, their highs, their lows… We tell them stories about our lives as well; stories about growing up, stories about their grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles; stories about the world, the bible, history… Perhaps more important than anything else they ask questions. Questions are the necessary medium from which understanding can grow. You cannot anticipate the questions – in this way our kids lead us into the necessary subject matter – you can only be there when the questions come out. Then you answer not with the correct rational abstraction, but with stories, questions, and more stories. If you keep answering their questions they will eventually stop asking. If you answer their questions with stories they’ll never stop listening. If you answer their questions with more questions, they’ll never stop asking them. If you tell them stories, they’ll grow up always knowing who they are.

The evening meal subverts the culture of hurry. Busyness and hurry put more strain on the typical family than anything else. Nothing could be more contrasting to a culture that recognizes no limits than the ritual of the evening meal. No matter what else the world demands of us, the world will have to wait from 6:00 to 7:15 every night. I’m very thankful to my church for allowing us from the very beginning to eschew the traditional 7:00pm meeting time. If we need to have an evening meeting at our church it rarely starts before 8:30pm. That gives us all time to eat with our family, be present to them until bed time, or at least when they are squared away for the evening. I’m glad to be a part of a community of adults who would rather lose a little sleep than miss out on that precious couple of hours in the evening.

The evening meal cultivates fidelity. I have yet to meet a divorced couple for whom the evening meal was a consistent part of family life. I’m sure it happens, but I can tell you that it happens less frequently. I see the evening meal smoothing off my rough edges, forcing me to change and grow and grow up. The evening meal subverts the ego. Every night I look into the eyes of my kids  at the dinner table and they are like a giant mirror reflecting back to me exactly what I’m putting out there. If I’m impatient, I see them trying to not antagonize me. If I’m grumpy I see them trying to cheer me up. If I’m sick I see them trying to comfort me. If I’m being petty & small I see them struggling to find a way to connect through my brokenness. My course corrections come pretty quickly when I realize that these moments are precious & holy. To share a meal is to get beyond ourselves and to connect with another human being in a significant way. Over and over the evening meal pulls me out of my bog of self-pity and self-concern. It’s making me a better person. And so if I am cheerful, kind, loving, patient, and so on, I see it in the faces of my kids. I watch them flourish. I know that I’m passing on to them a deep down sense of virtue, that they are catching hospitality, identity, healthy pace, and fidelity.

About Tim Suttle

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, and musician. He is the author of two books: Public Jesus (The House Studio, 2012), and An Evangelical Social Gospel? (Cascade Books, 2011). Tim's work has been featured at The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Sojourners, The Wall Street Journal, and other magazines and journals. Tim is also the founder and front-man of the popular Christian band Satellite Soul, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He has planted three successful churches over the past 12 years and is the Senior Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan. Tim's blog, Paperback Theology, is hosted at Patheos.

  • http://www.Yeshua21.com/ Wayne

    This is great–great for physical well-being as well as spiritual/moral well-being. Michael Pollan writes about the importance of sitting down with (an)other human being(s) to eat (rather than eating fast food in the car or any kind of food in front of the TV. See “In Defense of Food” (he also mentions it in “Food Rules”).

    On a similar note, I think you would enjoy this video by one of my erstwhile Facebook friends:
    “Josh Foreman’s Coming of Age Ceremony”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WOZx1TYuqE

    I will risk adding that, IMO, stories and rituals ARE important as long as they are expressions of values which are authentically felt and lived and not just abstract ideals that our lives don’t (and are unlikely to) embody. Having said that, however, it is also worth noting that to follow Christ is, on another level, to see through our stories — to leave/hate/deny Father and mother and sister and brother and our own life, also, and take up our cross and follow Christ. Abraham was called to something very similar, was he not? Paradoxically, lives of faith result in new stories that both reveal and conceal the living faith/reality out of which they were born. It is hardly controversial to note that Jesus would likely condemn much if not most of that which is preached and performed in his name. And Jesus did not seem to put as much stock in the story of Abraham as in the faith of Abraham. Abraham saw his day and was glad, while those who took pride in Abraham’s story proclaimed “we have Abraham as our father” as they rejected the good news of the kingdom. The genealogy of Jesus makes a good story, but the reality is born of virgin, moment by moment, fresh and new, here & now. Obviously, I have not thought all this out yet. But I know that stories are just training wheels and are inevitably revised and retold in various ways–used and abused by people with various agendas and with various degrees of wisdom or the lack thereof. Stories are just training wheels while reality is the ride of (y)our life. Fasten your seatbelt, Dorothy–Kansas is going bye, bye! :)