Table Discipleship Principle:
Deep friendships and connected relationships happen best when intentional encouragement is planned and given on a regular basis.
Butterflies flittered in my stomach as I peered anxiously out the window of the red-and-white Austrian tram, which was slowing to a stop. I could just see the façade of a grand, ornate white-marble building behind the elaborate park of its tree-lined entrance.
Quickly I looked out to the other side of the street and spotted another imposing structure with a sign in front that read Volksoper. That was the clue I was looking for, the landmark my friend had described when she told me where to meet her.
I pushed the button to exit and was caught in the crowds of boot- wearing, wool-coated, and scarved people pushing their way in and out of the door. Frigid weather outside caused our breath to swirl in steamy curls as each of us rushed to our own destination.
Crossing the street with cars whizzing by and trams going in two directions on the unfamiliar street triggered a rush of adrenaline. But then, right in front of me as I made it safely across the street, I saw my destination—Café Landtmann, one of the oldest coffee houses in Vienna.
I entered and glanced around, getting my bearings, and was confronted by a waiter dressed formally in black, who spoke to me in German. Not knowing what he had said, I shook my head and put my hands up in total incomprehension. He then spoke loudly, too loudly for my comfort, and pointed to a coatroom. Quickly I understood that I was not allowed to take my coat into the café area. I walked over and handed my heavy navy-blue coat and scarf to a small woman who hung it up and gave me a number in return.
Everything I was doing was completely foreign to me. I had no prior expectations about how to do life in formal Vienna in the late 1970s. But I just kept muddling through and looked around until I found the entrance door to the room where people regularly met for afternoon coffee.
It was a magnificent space. Green and brown velveteen cushioned seats, dark wood ceiling beams and inlays, and a formal crystal chandelier gracing the center of the room gave the café a grand old-world elegant atmosphere. I was drawn in to the warmth of friends talking, leaning forward, sipping drinks in intimate groups. But I couldn’t help feeling a little out of place until I saw my friend Gwen waving at me from a small window table toward the back that looked out at the magnificent building I had seen from the tram.
We greeted each other, and finally I was able to breathe out my last bit of anxiety. Now I was with a companion who could speak my language and who delighted in my company. Her arms of friendship embraced me, giving warmth and energy back to my depleted soul.
“I have ordered you my favorite coffee, a mélange, and a warm treat they serve only on the cold days of winter. It will warm our insides,” Gwen announced with a delightful, pleased-with-herself smile.
We sat and sipped and chatted and giggled for three hours, almost without stop. The treat had been Milchrahmstrudel, a sort of sweet cottage cheese–filled pastry smothered in warm vanilla sauce, and it had indeed warmed me—but not as much as being with Gwen did. One of the deepest friendships of my life had been nurtured over a cup of something hot and some honest conversation.
Cafés are sprinkled all through the city of Vienna, and each is filled to overflowing every day as friends stop amidst the busyness of their days to share some moments of rest and to sip a steaming cup of tea or coffee together. I found this custom irresistible and adopted it for myself. And when we returned to the States, I looked for new ways to make it part of my life. Because I’ve always been a bit of an Anglophile, I eventually added the English tradition of afternoon tea to create my own personal approach.
Over time, my teatime habit became a foundational discipling tool for me. Taking time in the middle of a busy day to focus on a real live person and share our hearts over tea or coffee became a way of connecting with other women, with neighbors, and especially with my children—and even with my swirling, hurried self.
Eventually, I developed the practice of hosting people in my home for tea. To say, “You are welcome at my table. I have prepared for you. I would like to know you” was a way of inviting people into my life in a personal way. Teatime discipleship became a habit of stopping, looking someone in the eye, and making a space that says, “I care about you.” It was also an unthreatening way to begin getting to know them, ask- ing them questions, and gaining access to their hearts. And it was an unparalleled way to build and nurture friendships.