It was the moment I had been looking forward to the entire conference. I told my husband I was expecting it. I shared with our conference planning team that I was excited for it. Still, I knew there was a chance that it might not happen. I could not really be sure. I waited and hoped and my stomach was jumping a little as I wondered: “Will it actually happen?”
And then it did: the subtle gasp as 400 people saw a table being placed at the front for communion.
Yes! I thought. Just as I pictured!
It was an idea a few months, perhaps years, in the making. A small team of us had been planning for our annual TrueCity conference. TrueCity is a movement in Hamilton, Ontario of local churches that have chosen to work together for the good of the city. I have gotten so used to our TrueCity gatherings now that I sometimes forget what an ongoing miracle this movement is. We are very different from each other, those of us who take part in this work. We have different theology and different practices, but we have chosen to focus on the big things we have in common: our love for Jesus and our desire to see His Kingdom come in our city. Our churches do ministry together, pray for each other, support one another, engage in theological dialogue, pack hampers, give out backpacks, care for refugees. Once a year we gather for a conference to celebrate it all.
Our conference planning team is a great example of the diversity of our movement, made up of pastors from the Baptist, Brethren, Associated Gospel and Reformed traditions. Our ages range across five decades. We are different from each other- , some of us very conservative and some of us a little less so. It takes us forever to brainstorm, but we power through, and we like each other a lot. This year our theme was “Show ‘Em the Ropes: Apprenticing in the Way of Jesus.” We wanted to talk about discipleship. As we were dreaming and discussing, the idea came up: “Wouldn’t it be neat if we could physically watch someone apprenticing someone else throughout the conference?” The idea was that, for our three plenary sessions, we could model the act of discipling and learning on the stage throughout the weekend. Slowly, the vision took shape.
“Let’s have someone teaching someone, like, wood working!”
“Yes! They could be sanding and building and putting something together!”
“At the end of the conference we could reveal what they were making!”
We were getting excited.
And then came that moment when the whole team knows they’ve come across something really special.
“Hold it,” someone said. “What about this? We have a carpenter who is teaching someone woodworking and at the end of the conference it turns out that they have been building a table – the table that we will then use for communion.”
“Ohhhhhhhh!!” the entire team said.
And I said: “If we do this right, then when the moment comes that the table is brought for communion, there will be an audible gasp from the crowd.”
I know it shouldn’t have been, but that gasp kind of became my own marker in my head of whether or not we had gotten this conference right.
It ended up being my own husband, and chair of our TrueCity Leadership Team, Dallas Friesen, who brought the vision together. Like every idea I’ve ever brought to Dallas, he only made it better. He called every TrueCity church and asked them if they had any extra wood lying around – and many did. He was gifted wood from old pews from Philpott Memorial Church, First Hamilton Christian Reformed Church and Mount Hamilton Baptist Church. There was wood from the old pipe organ from Immanuel Christian Reformed Church and some pieces of wood from Hughson Baptist Church. From these pieces, he would make not just a table as an illustration of discipleship, but also a table that represented our very movement, and, dare I say, the body of Christ.
I was pretty much freaking out about how awesome this could be.
He asked our church’s Next Generation Pastor, Jessica, to be his apprentice and as the conference opened they walked across the stage, with Dallas saying simply: “Let me show you how to do this.” Then they spent the worship session sanding and piecing together what would be the tabletop. The questions began: “What are you making?” “What are you guys doing up there?”
“You’ll see,” they responded.
The next morning they continued. As worship started Dallas said: “You’re doing great Jess. Let’s keep going.” Everyone chuckled a little. (“Yay!” I thought “It’s working!”). Off to the side of the stage they went and picked up their tools. Now they were working on the legs. Sanding. Finishing. Discreetly nailing when it wouldn’t be too loud. Dallas was showing Jessica what to do, nodding, smiling, encouraging, “showing her the ropes.”
People were getting it. “He’s apprenticing her!” they started to say.
Then came the last session. Dallas and Jessica had worked throughout the day to get the pieces together. The table was near done as the gathering started, though upside down and not all constructed. They finished as our speaker gave his final, moving, address. Then one of our pastors got up to invite everyone to take communion. I waited, and I hoped.
That was when we heard the gasp – a gentle sound of acknowledgement that something special had happened. I admit I cried a little. How could I not? It was so beautiful.
The speaker explained where each piece of the table had come from. Even now as I think of it, I get goose bumps. It truly was our table. It was a table that could have only existed through churches working together.
As the conference came to an end, and people were chatting and cleaning up, taking pictures of the table, looking closely at its details and discussing its story, I watched with a contented heart. Perhaps it was that we had gotten something right. Thanks be to God.
It is, after all, a significant thing to watch a table built before you over two days as an act of worship. It is, however, even more amazing to watch THE table be built before you for twelve years. That’s what we have done in TrueCity. We have wrestled and argued and debated and loved and shown grace and made space for each other. By God’s grace, we have built a table where we can gather together, in our differences and in our commonalities, and say: “Let’s eat together.”
Isn’t it so beautiful?