I recall the daily ritual of singing grace whilst training at the William Booth Memorial College in London. Often, the most obscure tune was selected by the duty sergeant of the day as Cadets struggled to fit the words, ‘Be present at our table Lord’ to such melodies as, ‘Fernando's Hideaway’ or the Scottish tune, ‘A Hundred Pipers’.
What followed, would be a debate as to the original ending of the verse. Was it ‘may live to fight and die for thee’ or ‘feast in paradise with thee,”? It was not until years later that the significance of this verse registered a new meaning for me.
With the break-up of my marriage in the early eighties, the loss of ‘job’ and home forced a complete rethink; how do I fulfil my calling now?
By chance I secured a residential post at the Royal School for the Deaf in Exeter, UK and this became the path of my calling for 7 years combining the role of a House Parent with IT Tutor. My ‘table’ was further enlarged as I moved to St Loye’s College for training people with disabilities, as the Welfare and Admissions officer with chaplaincy responsibilities.
During this time, I continued to soldier at Exeter Temple Corps, and became Bandmaster, even taking the band on a 10-day campaign to Poland, one year before the fall of the iron curtain. Again my table expanded to include a growing number of Christian brothers and sisters of many different traditions and cultures.
Dissatisfaction with the small mindedness and pettiness of internal Army politics that seemed to define an exclusive table, only covered with of yellow, red and blue table-clothes, led me to rethink the context of my calling. Now remarried, we began to explore where we should worship. Where do we go from here, Lord? Looking out from my bedroom window one evening, a faulty flickering light caught my eye. It was the illuminated cross on the local Methodist church. Surely you don’t mean……
The following Sunday we were warmly welcomed into the church and very quickly I found myself involved with the junior church, youth choir and local preaching. It was at one of the Local Preacher’s quarterly meetings that a young circuit minister asked, “Paul, why isn’t your training recognized by the Methodist Church?” In an instant it was as if a lost piece of the jigsaw fell onto my table.
It was 11 years since my SA ministry had concluded, and so I had to candidate all over again. Three years training with the Southwest Ministry Training Course followed, as well as studying for an honours degree in theology at Exeter University.
Methodist Ministers in the UK are ordained at the annual conference, and to my delight and surprise my ordination was to be in Nottingham at the church tracing links back to William Booth. Picture the scene as I entered the church that night with the portraits of Booth and Wesley looking down on me. It was almost like “coming home” and I knew what William must have felt when he said, ‘Kate, I have found my destiny!’
Today I follow a ministry in the Tentmaker tradition. This dual ministry is that of Principal at Oakwood Court College for young people with complex learning disabilities and Minister of three Methodist churches in the Exeter circuit. My table is certainly much larger today than it has ever been.
But what about words that we used to sing at the start of each College meal?
During my studies at Exeter University I discovered that they were written by John Cennick, born into a Quaker family at Reading in 1718. He later became Wesley's first lay preacher and in 1740 became a teacher at Kingswood, Bristol. He also became the first leader of the Methodist Society in Exeter (1741) where he continued to preach in spite of persecution and riots, a fate suffered by Exeter's, and indeed other early day Salvationist.
It was at this time that he wrote the Hymn that we now use as a grace.
The original version from 'Sacred Hymns, for the Children of God in the Days of their Pilgrimage 1741' is: -
Be present at our table, Lord
Be here and everywhere adored.
These mercies bless and grant that we
May live in fellowship with Thee.
This was both a prayer and a polemic statement as gradually Wesley's followers, although of Anglican descent, were excluded from 'table fellowship'; Holy Communion at the Parish churches.
It is worth noting that much of Jesus’ recorded teaching was around a table of fellowship in the homes of followers and sinners alike. The importance of such fellowship has, of course, been recognised through today’s Alpha course.
It was Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of Liberation Theology, who said in his book ‘The Power of the Disciple’. “To be a disciple of Jesus is to make His Messianic practice our own. Our discipleship is our appropriation of His message of life, His love for the poor, His denunciation of injustice, His sharing of bread, His hope for resurrection. The Christian community, the ecclesia, is made up of those who take up that messianic practice of Jesus and use it to create social relationships of a community of brothers and sisters, and thereby accept the gift of being children of the Father.”
O yes! Be present at ‘our’ table Lord. AMEN
Rev’d Paul Collings BTh