Invitation: Forks and Elbows



Now there’s a concept that’s become twisted over the centuries. A couple years ago I attended a class that was supposed to be on workplace etiquette,  but turned out to be mostly about table manners: what to do with your napkin and your elbows and your bread plate and all that jazz. The presenter insisted breaches of etiquette could seriously limit your career. This view of etiquette as a set of arcane rules the elite use to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy warps the true purpose of etiquette, which is kindness.

The classic etiquette dilemma when presented with a very formal table is: “Which fork do I use?” The implication is that using the wrong fork would signal your lack of class. Do you know why the general rule is “start from the outside in?” A good host sets a place with only the utensils that will be needed, in the order they will be needed. This way, a guest does not need to understand the difference between a fish fork and a fruit fork. The formal setting was designed to minimize the embarrassment of guests, not to create it.

My mother-in-law had a rule of thumb about decorating: no matter how good it might look, never put anything where someone may accidentally break it, because you don’t want to set anyone up for embarrassment. As far as I know, you won’t find that in a book on manners, but it is an excellent example of etiquette. Etiquette should always be about making someone feel comfortable and welcome, not about belittling them.

What is the proper etiquette for a faith community? In many instances, it has been as warped at the communion table as at the dinner table. We develop rules about language, behavior, and belief that may seem completely arbitrary to an outsider (and frankly to many insiders as well): what to wear, how to pray, where to sit, when to stand. When we set up insider rules then judge people for not following them, we are not being at all Christ-like. Sadly, we are too often more concerned with calling someone out for using the wrong fork or hymnal than with creating an environment that helps people learn and grow in ways that foster harmony. In a faith community and all other matters, etiquette is not about looking outside ourselves for reasons to be offended, but about looking inside to ask if we are genuinely caring about others. Jesus wasn’t concerned with arbitrary rules imposed by polite society, but he was interested in creating a just society where all were valued. At the last supper he didn’t worry whose elbows were on the table; he was preparing for the ultimate sacrifice to make sure everyone was welcome to the feast.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

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