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A Place at the Table: Spiritual Formation Book 12

"God has ordained in his great wisdom and goodness that eating, and especially eating in company, should be one of the most profound and pleasurable aspects of being human."

Miranda Harris had been intending to write a book for years. She'd got as far as a folder full of notes when she died suddenly in a car accident in 2019. When her daughter, Jo Swinney, found the notes, she decided to bring her mum's dream to fruition. A Place at the Table was the result.

I thought this was going to be a nice friendly book about having people over for dinner. In one sense it is, but it's pretty hard-hitting as well. Miranda and her husband Peter co-founded the environmental charity A Rocha, so the book doesn't shy away from considering the environmental aspects of what we eat and how we live. They also travelled widely and encountered hunger at close quarters; the tension between seeing such poverty and believing in a generous God comes out clearly in A Place at the Table.

What is the book about?

There are six chapters, taking us from hunger, through the preparation, eating and clearing away of the meal, to the Forever Feast - looking towards God's eternal community and satisfaction. The main text alternates between Miranda's and Jo's writing. Sadly, the different typefaces don't show up in the Kindle edition, so I sometimes found it difficult to know who was speaking. Most of the time it didn't matter, but I may misattribute some quotes!

Each chapter ends with a Bible story rewritten imaginatively by Jo, then a series of Miranda's journal entries. These start in 1983, when the family moved to Portugal to set up A Rocha, and end, poignantly, with notes written by Miranda on the day she died.

The main theme, of course, is hospitality. But it's more than a how-to manual. A Place at the Table  gives a real feel for the faith and ethos of both the Harris family and the organisation they founded. There was an overriding trust in God, sustained over years of changes; a commitment to welcoming everyone on equal terms, whatever faith they had; and a deep thoughtfulness about how to live life and care for the world.

What encouraged you?

The personalities of both Jo and Miranda encouraged me. Their faith underpinned their lives at a very practical level. They cared about people and the planet, and they did something about it.  I particularly noticed one story from Miranda's journals. She says, "I am much preoccupied with the matter of lifestyle and the plight of the poor," and considers what she can do. "It is a small gesture, but from today we are giving up butter."

I was unsure what giving up butter was meant to do - increase their empathy? save money? avoid injustice? Nor do I know how long they did it for. But I liked the way that she was prepared to make even a "pitifully small gesture" to try and make her life line up with her values.

Later in the book, Jo admits that eco-anxiety is difficult, because "the more you know, the worse it gets". But "one of our distinctives in A Rocha is our stubborn insistence on remaining hopeful". That certainly comes across in the book.

What challenged you?

The first chapter, on hunger, was thought-provoking. I realised how little I have ever been hungry, and never without hope of food. This was an interesting quote: "We might avoid hunger because it reminds us we are fragile, mortal beings, a handful of meals from demise." I was reading A Place at the Table during Lent, which this year overlapped with Ramadan - both traditional periods of fasting. I'd pretty much convinced myself that there was no value in being deprived of food, but this chapter of the book made me wonder if I was wrong about that.


How has it changed how you see things?

Miranda and Jo have a very high view of hospitality; they see it as achieving much more than I had ever envisaged. I have certainly never asked, "What is God's best intention for our time together?" as they suggest in chapter 2, or prayerfully brought my guests to mind in advance. My head is usually dealing with the practical things, and I assume that the welcome and conversation will sort themselves out.

Jo and Miranda are both extroverts, which I'm sure helps when you have a house full of guests. But even as an introvert, I think I could follow a few of their suggestions.

What would you like to explore further?

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of A Rocha, community is a strong theme in this book. The description of their life in Portugal reminded me of Windsor Hill Wood, as described in A Place of Refuge by Tobias Jones. Some of the difficulties of continually hosting a variety of people are addressed - the exhaustion, the uncertainty, the need to find time just for family.

Miranda is firm in her belief that all are welcome and all have something to offer. "We belong to the community of the created before joining the community of the redeemed" is something she says several times in different ways. The modern concept of community is that it unites people who already share values and beliefs, but she asserts that genuine community brings people together across those divides.

Interestingly, that fitted exactly with a quote I read in another book (Wild Fell by Lee Schofield) which itself was a quote from a third book, Animal, Mineral, Radical by B.K. Loren. Loren has little in common with Miranda, but agrees with her on this. She writes, "Community has little to do with like minds. It has to do with very differently minded people finding a way to get along because we all live in, are connected to, and share a sense of place".

In a culture which most people agree is dangerously short on genuine community, this all feels like it needs more consideration.

What is one thing you will remember?

I will remember Miranda's joy. Joy in her family and friends, in ringing birds and watching stars, in setting a beautiful table to welcome guests, in God's provision. But it never shades into complacency. She was always keenly aware that, "The undeserved goodness of God poses a constant theological question, given so much suffering in the world."  That kind of tension is a hard balance to hold, especially when you are also working for the environment and seeing the endless destruction of habitat. I feel privileged to have had a glimpse into the life of someone who lived into that tension so well.


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