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Potluck: Cherished Ritual, Guiding Metaphor

I went to a potluck once, not to eat, but just to watch. Many church-folk contributed all sorts of casseroles and roasts, vegetables, breads, salads, and the typical weird-looking dishes that nobody could identify. The kitchen crew included five people. They arranged the dishes and desserts and warmed green bean casserole in the church’s industrial-sized ovens.
As church members filed into the fellowship hall after the service, several younger church members—teens and young adults—set about arranging the food on the buffet table. I had participated in the potluck ritual many times before, always going away well-fed. But experiencing potluck as an observer transformed the ritual for me.
I watched groups congregate around tables situated in rows throughout the fellowship hall, noticing interesting and somewhat unusual arrangements of young folks and older folks, of men and women. People who I knew didn’t always associate were pulling up chairs together.
Prayer took place and then the line formed. I watched as the church paraded by the food table and noticed the children in particular. Some potluckers took large portions of each food item, while others took token amounts of vegetables and an assortment of desserts. I watched children put vegetables back when their parents weren’t looking, and I saw other children make faces at dishes that looked unpalatable. Children are often the best food critics.
There were at least twelve basketfuls of leftovers after all the potluckers had eaten their fill. Casserole dishes and pie pans were collected one by one by their owners, while others sat around tables talking and enjoying the company of friends.
Being a potluck observer re-flavored my concept of an interactive community, such as Spectrum, and church as a whole. Sabbath afternoon potlucks are not just church functions, they are church!
George Lakoff once “told” me that everyday life is littered with comparison and analogy in language, thinking, and acting and that we live by metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980).
Religion does use metaphors and does it pretty well. In Adventism, our Theology, Christology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology draw from a rich abundance of metaphors that shape our rituals and praxis. In his book Believing, Behaving and Belonging, Richard Rice considers several metaphors entrenched in Adventism (for better or worse).
Watching the dynamics of church doing potluck on a Sabbath afternoon, I knew that potluck is more than just an Adventist feeding frenzy and more than just a cherished ritual. Potluck is a guiding metaphor for Christian community.
A potlucking community is one in which everyone brings something to the table. Each person contributes something to the meal and in that way everyone benefits from a much broader fare than any individual could provide alone. Those who take part are at leisure to choose from the variety of options. Some options will be appealing and others unappetizing, but each is served along with the others. I have heard of a vegan potluck that provided only foods with no animal products in them. Someone didn’t get the memo, and brought a soufflé or something with eggs and milk. Rather than serve the dish with a sign indicating that this item wasn’t vegan, the dish was not served! I suppose that sort of decision belongs to the hosts, but a potlucking community is one in which each person’s work goes onto the table along with the others.
In a potlucking community, people who might not normally associate pull up chairs together. There is room at the table for everyone in a potlucking community, and even those who did not contribute to the meal have a seat at the table if they will take it. On the Spectrum blog, the ever-shifting combinations of table-partners has impressed me. I’ve spoken and agreed with people that I ordinarily might not have, and it has enhanced my potlucking experience!
Potlucking communities ensure that nobody leaves hungry. As a metaphor, this speaks to realities on the physical, emotional, relational and spiritual levels. Potlucking communities, through the wide array of contributions, seek to provide nourishment (and good home-cookin’) for the tastes of all those who come to the table. Potlucking communities exist for this reason. My Grandma said while she was alive, “If you leave the table hungry, it’s your own fault!” If a potlucking community makes t-shirts with its motto on them, I nominate my Grandma’s motto!
(Now at some point, someone will complain that what usually happens is a few people shoulder the burden of preparation and clean-up while the majority simply relax and enjoy themselves. I recognize that this can be a problem when the load is divided up unevenly. The potluck I envision is one where people take responsibility for their own dishes and clean up after themselves—a BYOPic potluck—Bring Your Own Plates.)
Potlucking communities are places for people to linger and sit around the table talking long after the meal is over. Then, people go when they are ready to go, or stay if they would rather stay. Potlucks, at least the good ones, keep the big doors open.

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