Having been teaching a lot lately on the subject of the new identity and belonging we have through our adoption as sons and daughters of God, I had an experience earlier this week that drove a part of that point home to me. I was called to perform a funeral for the father of a sweet family in our church. I had never had the privilege of meeting the man personally, but as his three amazing daughters and their families shared wonderful stories with me, I got to see this fellow for the smart, caring, crusty, loving, energetic and determined 81-year-old man that he was. His name was Doyle, and home for Doyle was Andrews, Texas, about three and one-half hours south and west of Amarillo. I came to learn in my lengthy discussions with the family that one of Doyle’s most religiously-held habits was the daily 3:00 meeting of the Andrews coffee clatch, a circle of his friends that along with Doyle comprised and convened the Andrews Supreme Court at a place called Buddy’s.

Well, I got up early on Monday and before long was on the road to Andrews. I’d been there only a time or two before, but thanks to Google Maps and a much-too-smartphone — I found my way to the funeral home right on schedule; before long the family and many local friends were assembled, and we paid our homage to this good man who’d left his heartprints all over that little town. Being almost four hours away from home, I loaded up pretty quickly after leaving the cemetery and turned my old Ranger back toward the north. As I was making the last turn to leave town, there it was: Buddy’s. But not just Buddy’s. The sign said, “Buddy’s World-Famous Steak Finger Drive-in and Diner.” You gotta pay attention to things that are “world-famous.” Especially if they are deep-fried.

Well, I passed it, but then my wheels started turning. I was hungry, not having had time to eat lunch. It was only 4:00, but supper would be beckoning soon, probably about the time I hit Lubbock. But I was hungry now. Never wanting to miss the chance to try out a greasy-spoon roadside wonder, I waited for the intense Andrews traffic to subside a bit, wheeled a quick U-turn across the highway, and headed back to Buddy’s World-Famous Steak Finger Drive-in and Diner. Without trying to fully describe it to you, “sparkling” would not be a word I’d use. A dozen pick-ups were there, some bearing oil-field company decals. I found a parking spot, walked inside to the diner section, and there they were: the Andrews Supreme Court, 5 of them circled around a table, cigarette smoke mingling with the smells of strong coffee and the pall of 50 years of grease molecules floating in the Buddy-fied air. My arteries began to harden just as I walked in the door. And I am definitely the only guy there in a suit and tie. I knew this was going to be a world-class culinary experience.

The Supreme Court members, most of whom had just been a part of my audience at the funeral, acknowledged my entrance and beckoned me to approach the bench. They said their obligatory “thanks” and “great funeral, preacher” and I walked over and sat at a table just outside the Marlboro zone. A pretty waitress just like you’d expect in such a place came over and took my order for the World Famous Steak Finger Dinner, and then I sat, checked my texts and missed messages, and inhaled the grease and nicotine, feeling strangely energized by both. And as I waited there, I just watched, fascinated by this place, this sacred gathering of old men, catching occasional words that sounded like “Obama” and some others I won’t put in this blog. (I know groups like this; they happen in Amarillo, too. You can sit somewhere on the periphery of such groups and learn so much!)

I sipped my Coke and listened to noises coming from the kitchen that suggested my world-famous dinner was coming together, and then it struck me all of a sudden, kind of like a ton of bricks, that at the table across the smoky way where these five justices were holding court, there was an empty chair. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier. Of course, it was Doyle’s chair. And it was the appointed hour. And he was always there, and would have been there, but for his change of venue caused by another appointed hour. The court met that day, but one seat was vacant, one voice muted, one sixth (or maybe a lot more in Doyle’s case) of the collective wisdom of the court was missing. And their meeting that day, slightly delayed by a funeral, went on as it always did but with a missing man and an empty place at the table–the silence from which spoke volumes.

It’s pretty important to have a place at the table, isn’t it? Maybe it’s not a literal table, and maybe it’s not at a World-Famous Steak Finger Drive-In and Diner, but I hope you have one somewhere, this place where you are included, invited, expected, valued. I hope as we move toward Thanksgiving, a holiday in which a table gets high focus, you’ll make an effort to be more aware of those who matter in your circle, and those others whose places at some table factor heavily in your life, that you’d really miss if they weren’t there. And I hope you’ll be more aware–always but especially during the holidays–of people who maybe don’t have a place like that, don’t have a circle to belong to, a court to have a voice in, a seat in a group that says, with no words, “I matter.” And I hope that you’ll make time, often, to circle with your group because these “court” sessions are a lot more important, perhaps, than most of the “important” things we chase after, that all-too-often keep us away from the table at the appointed hour.

I did get my huge order of steak fingers and French fries, gravy and Texas Toast, along with a little glob of salad for health’s sake. It was everything I’d dreamed of, and more! When I finally left, the court had recessed and it turned out that one or more of the justices had kindly paid for my meal, a sort of steak finger honorarium on behalf of their missing man. I was warmed, suddenly, maybe by their kindness, or perhaps also the quart of saturated fat now slogging through my bloodstream. Whatever it was, I felt honored and appreciated and full. As you circle up during the holidays, pay attention to the folks in your circle, and maybe expand that circle if you can. And be very aware of who sits where, because they might not be there next year, or even tomorrow. And as you are giving thanks, I hope, for the endless list of thanks-worthy things in your life, remember to thank God for the people around the table with you as you thank Him also for bringing you into His family, giving you a place, a name, a hope and a future. And one more thing: if you’re ever in Andrews, Texas—be sure and make time for a stop at Buddy’s.