When I saw the round tables, I knew that I was home.
It was about this time of year, many years ago, when I traveled to a handful of seminaries to discern where it was that God was directing me. I was eager to hit the road and to imagine the life that I might have while I studied to receive a Master of Divinity.
I’ll never forget what one of my mentors said to me when I applied to an assortment of graduate schools: “If you want to have your faith confirmed, go to a school where everyone thinks like you do. But if you want to have your faith challenged, go to a place where there is diversity.”
As I traveled up the eastern seaboard, my mentor’s advice rang in my ears. A lifelong Baptist, I was familiar with the tenets of our tradition. It became clear to me then, as I visited a Baptist seminary, that since I felt called to be a pastor in the tradition in which I had been raised I would receive a fine education there. But as I sped north to my next visit, I knew that I had not yet found my home.
My next stop was an excellent divinity school in the Methodist tradition. I was impressed and encouraged, but dismayed by the commuter-like feel of the seminary community. Again, I did not feel at home.
Finally, I ventured farther north than I had ever really traveled. The land and its people were strange to me and my senses were heightened by the novelty of being in a new place. The school had a rich history and a legacy for developing dynamic pastors of congregations in a variety of contexts. But it wasn’t until my companions and I headed to the recently renovated dining hall that it clicked.
“When they designed the dining hall,” our tour guide told us, “they had some discussion about the tables.”
“The tables?,” someone wondered aloud.
“Yes.” he confirmed. “Some thought it would be easier to have rectangular shaped tables. But a generous alum said that he would pay for all the tables in the dining hall as long as they were round tables.”
“Round tables,” the guide reported, “would help to facilitate conversation among the seminarians. No one would be at the head, and no one would be at the foot. Like the Kingdom of God, the table would be set so everyone could see one another as equal, valued brothers and sisters in Christ.”
And that’s what sealed it for me. Oh sure, there were other factors, but it was the round tables that helped me to know that I was home.
Princeton Theological Seminary is a Presbyterian school, rooted in the Reform tradition. And yet, while I was a student there, nearly half of the entire student body was made up of other Christian traditions—namely, Methodists, Baptists (yes, all kinds of), Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, Pentecostals, The Christian Church and many others. There were individuals from the Deep South, the Rust Belt, Southwest and the West Coast. We had scholars from Europe, Central America and Asia. Developing countries were represented, and worship—in particular—was rich, lively and beyond anything I had ever experienced before.
And although I received a top-notch education in a fantastic setting with marvelous field-education experiences from a hospital in Winston-Salem to a church in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, it was the education that I received around the table that mattered most.
You see, it was the table where my classmates and I truly shared communion. It was the place where we shared what we really thought, what we truly believed, and what rattled our chains. It was a proving grounds of sorts, and it was made all the richer because we represented different backgrounds, different traditions and different ways of experiencing the world.
And it was made possible because the tables were round.
Beginning on Wednesday, January 11th, our adults will begin a new Bible Study Series that I am calling, “Room at the Table: What Other Christians Believe.” We will be learning about other Christian traditions, as well as the spiritual disciplines that they practice. We will learn about the origins of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Churches. We will talk about what happened in the Reformation. We will learn what makes Lutherans, Presbyterians and Anglicans unique from one another. We’ll talk about how Baptists fit into the fabric of the Church Universal. We’ll see how the pieces fit and learn from our brothers and sisters who are seated at the Table of the Lord.