It’s fall y’all!  In Texas, it certainly doesn’t feel like fall, but I know it is because I see photos capturing (or trying to) the magnificent display of trees as their leaves undergo a spectacular color change. I have seen such with my own eyes only a few times, but my memories of that transformational beauty awaken at this time each year. After a scorching summer, it’s pleasant to anticipate cooler temperatures and best of all for me; fall means college football!

I am definitely a college sports enthusiast. OK, maybe I’m a fanatic.  Like during March Madness, when I commandeer the remote control and ask my husband to make his own peanut butter and jelly sandwich while I watch the NCAA basketball tournament.  Attending the Final Four a few times has been a highlight of life for me!  But as crazy as I am about college basketball, the Final Four has taken on a new significance for me because of an Athletes in Action ministry event for coaches’ wives, The Gathering.  I’ve had the privilege to help plan, pray over and attend this event and have witnessed the profound effect it has on the women who attend.  The mission of The Gathering is “to provide a welcoming place for coaches’ wives to connect with women who share their common experience, use their resources to help others, and be encouraged, inspired and challenged by hope found in Jesus Christ.”  Each year the program changes, but it is always undergirded with prayer and distinctly designed to touch hearts and change lives.  The response of the attendees is telling: “So wonderful and meaningful, a great morning of connection and inspiration!”  “I am blessed every year; I get refueled for another season.”  “I leave feeling uplifted, empowered and encouraged!”  What is it about gathering together that blesses, affirms, heals, strengthens, encourages, equips and transforms people?

A recent newspaper column tells the story of how a dinner invitation to a hungry friend, of their son, has grown into a weekly gathering in one family’s Washington D.C. home.  Teenagers experiencing homelessness, abuse, and other effects of modern poverty gather around their dining table on Thursday nights and find food for their souls as well as their bodies. The kids “turn toward one another’s love like plants toward the sun and burst with big and glowing personalities,” demonstrating the power of caring relationships to change people.  “Souls are not saved in bundles.  Love is the necessary force.”  Whether in modern or ancient times, history confirms the mystery and transforming power found when people gather together.

In ancient days we find the holiest days of the year for God’s people at harvest time, days set aside for joyful reaping, thanksgiving to God and purposeful planning for the coming winter.  First came the solemn Day of Atonement, now called Yom Kippur, when the High Priest confessed and made offerings for the sins of the people to be atoned for, followed by the week-long celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, or Ingathering, marking the end of harvest and the blessing of God’s provision and care.  The effect of this gathering on the people?  They were “altogether joyful.” (Deut 16:15)  What a glorious picture – repentance and forgiveness opening the way to rejoicing and freedom!

In our nation’s history, President George Washington, in his 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation, proclaimed it the duty of all nations “to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”  Noting that both houses of Congress requested him to “recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God,” Washington assigned a Thursday in November to be devoted by the people of these States “to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be – that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks.” Americans, be reminded we share a rich heritage of faithful, thankful people uniting in prayer and praise to God.

The tradition of gathering together to give thanks to God, whether in the wilderness or around a dining room table, unites us with the generations before us and connects us to the same transformative dynamic.  God invited (and often commanded) His people to gather together as a means of communicating to them through His chosen leaders, but the gatherings also provided an opportunity for the people to establish and maintain a sense of community and to communicate personal stories of the faithfulness of God for the purpose of strengthening, encouraging and blessing one another.  They gathered to celebrate their identity as the Redeemed of the Lord and to pass on to the next generations a sense of their unique identity, values, and calling.

My friend Sarah realized she could express her gift of evangelism by being a people-gatherer.  How?  She simply started being intentional at gathering people together around a table in her back yard.  Sarah says she feels the “freedom to love as Christ does around my table.  Straight up; crazy freed up love for all people.  The evangelism starts when I hug the least of these and build them up with how God sees them, so when they sit down they dine at the feast of all feasts, and they feel love.”  The simple act of gathering together, with the intent to communicate God’s love and faithfulness, invites the power of God’s love and the power of celebration into our lives and the lives of others.  Although it may be beyond what you think you are capable of, let me exhort you to say yes to being on mission with Jesus as a gatherer, to lose yourself in the power of the gospel and choose to gladly spend and be spent for the souls of others by becoming a woman who gathers.

This concept was once foreign and overwhelmingly frightening to me as I am one who could have been voted Least Likely to Succeed in anything involving hospitality.  But the Lord began an amazing work in my life when I quit naming all the reasons I could not do it (it’s not my gift, my upbringing or my bent) and I accepted His invitation to join Him as He gathers.  Teenagers, singles, young marrieds, mommies of all ages, empty nesters, widows, all have been gathered, one at a time or in small groups, to my table (or my sofa).  I listen as women share their happies, their hurts, their dreams and their difficulties.  We talk, we laugh, we cry, we pray, we seek the Lord’s counsel in His Word.  They may enter feeling beat down, hopeless, lonely, discouraged, confused, but they leave strengthened and encouraged because God is present when we gather in His name.  People realize He sees them, He hears them, He knows them and cares for them, when you see them, gather them in, hear them, and pass on to them your story of God’s faithfulness.  The mystery and power of God’s love at work when we gather are at once profound and profoundly simple.  What does one need to be a woman who gathers?  A heart that seeks Him.  An extra chair, pillow on the floor or seats around a table.  A cup of coffee or tea or a simple meal to share.  It is not the house or its furnishings, the menu or your hostess skills that matter.  It is the offering of yourself that invites God’s power into the gathering to bless and transform your life and the lives of others.  Be prayerful, be intentional, be available and be real.  Be free to love and reap the joy and blessing of becoming a woman who gathers.

Laura Kates

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