Dinner With Strangers

"The practice of Sabbath hasn’t just changed my life, it has transformed my soul."

In September 2015 I found myself on a trip to Israel with a group called “Israel Collective.” I was invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Holy Land and I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go, but I had a conversation with my wife a week before the trip that helped me make the full commitment internally. Looking over the itinerary with her at our kitchen table we looked at all the places I would visit—the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, The Garden of Gethsemane, The Mount of Beatitudes. However there was something on my itinerary that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. It read “Shabbat with family in the Old City.” I crossed it off my list in pen and wrote above it “Dinner with Strangers.” What is this dinner we would be having? What would it consist of? How long would it go on and would I have to sit next to a complete stranger and have small talk? Small talk with strangers is what my nightmares are made of.

We landed in Tel Aviv early in the morning, checked into our hotel, and had a few hours rest before the adventure began. The land was incredible, the terrain was beautiful, and the sites and places we visited we’re heavy with meaning for me and my spiritual journey. Several days passed and began to blur together, but the day that has been set apart for me during that trip was Friday when we went to the Western Wall, took our written prayers on tiny pieces of folded paper, and placed them between the cracks of the stone. We danced and celebrated the beginning of shabbat. We then walked down a few blocks in the old city of Jerusalem to a home tucked away from the busy street. We walked into the front door to a small living room with the large tables pieced together to sit all 25 of us. The tables were set with bread and wine and small dishes of carrots and olives. Our group was tightly packed but it felt right. I took out my phone to take a picture to document this night (in hindsight I’m sure glad I did). It was then that the woman of the home in her gentle yet strong voice asked “that we capture this night in our hearts and not on our phones,” because at shabbat they put away any thing that would take them away from being present with each other. I sheepishly tucked my phone back in my pocket and sat down.

Over the course of the night we watched and participated in a sacred dinner this family does week in and week out. The night officially started when two candles were lit and a recited liturgical blessing was spoken. We prayed, sang songs, and I fought back tears thinking of my own family as I watched a father bless each of his kids and then pray a blessing over his wife. The dinner portion started but I was already full. My soul was full from everything I had just witnessed. I was in that moment forever marked. 

I remember after dinner walking back to my hotel with my friends Annie and Ross reflecting back on our night. The air was thick as we walked under the Jerusalem stars and I feeling in my soul that this night was so much more then dinner and blessings. What had marked me about this night was finally feeling connected to a sacred rhythm that had been set up since the beginning of time. 

In Genesis 2 after God creates, He rests. God rested. In that moment He created and modeled for us a rhythm for how to live our lives. It’s of my personal belief that God didn’t rest because He was tired. He rested to show us a way to be human. Not to have balance in our lives but to have rhythm. In Exodus He lays this rhythm out for us: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the Lord your God.”

We live in a culture that rewards the game of the hustle. We wear our lack of sleep and busy calendar like a badge of honor. We love the dopamine hit we get every time our phone alerts us with yet another notification, and we love comparing how busy we are to our peers. I get it. I’ve been there and if I am not careful I can slip back to that unhealthy mindset. I know all too well about that non-sustainable pace we can get caught up. That pace landed me in a counselor’s office after my wife and I got into an argument and I found myself having a minor breakdown and drinking a vodka sprite on my dirty bathroom floor at ten in the morning. My soul was a mess and it started to seep out to those who knew me best.  

A mentor of mine had talked to me about rest several years prior to this little breakdown on my bathroom floor. He gently warned me about the pace I was keeping and tried to help me lay out some boundaries for my life. I didn’t listen at the time but there was something about that Jerusalem night that made me realize I needed a change and needed to start implementing some of those boundaries sooner rather than later. 

Maybe you can identify with me? Maybe you find yourself heading on the same path? That’s the beautiful thing about this sacred rhythm called sabbath—it’s for everyone. For the student, the young married couple, and the empty nester. God calls each one of us to this practice of rest. It’s for our benefit, not for His. 

Practicing the sabbath isn’t about a list of rules but a value that God wants for your life. On my sabbath I ask myself what is rest and what is worship for me? Then I do that! I filter everything through that lens. For me it’s disconnecting from technology so I can connect with the world around me. It’s crazy to think that our devices can connect us with people all over the world and yet disconnect us from the person sitting directly across from us. I fight the urge to try to have a perfect sabbath but rather a present one. I’ve come to realize that there is no perfect sabbath. The only perfect sabbath was in the Garden of Eden when the Divine first established it and the next one will be when we are reunited with Him in heaven. The rest is just practice. So ask yourself, what is it about this practice that you need? What is it about this rhythm that Jesus is calling you into? Let this shape and form you from the inside out and let the overflow of what God is doing inside of you spill out to your community and point them towards the Giver of peace and rest.

The practice of Sabbath hasn’t just changed my life, it has transformed my soul. It’s healed me and put me back together. It’s a gift not just to me but to my family. I look back on my life and there are many reasons to be grateful but one of the things that I always center around is that night in the Holy Land when I had dinner with strangers. 

Matthew Hernandez
Matthew Hernandezhttp://gatewaypeople.com
Matthew Hernandez is the young adults pastor at the Gateway Church Southlake Campus.