As part of the Christmas Eve 2019 Service at Seattle First Baptist Church, the pastoral team and some congregants worked together on the theme of “Coming to Your Senses on Christmas Eve.” We shared short meditations on the Sights, Sounds, Touches, Smells, Tastes and the “Sixth Sense” of Christmas. Here’s the one I shared about the Sounds of Christmas.
Church bells ringing. The Hallelujah chorus. Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge. Go Tell It On The Mountain. The hustle and bustle of malls. Homes filled with friends and family, full to the brim. The crackle of a cozy fire enjoyed alone. Little pitter-patter steps coming to wake you up to unwrap presents. Silent Night sung a capella.
These are some sounds of Christmas. Amid the rush of December, the busy-ness of holiday shopping and mall Santas ho-ho-ho-ing, something miraculous happens. We gather together to tell again the story that is as old as time, already has been and has not yet come again, the story of a little baby born in a manger.
And I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure there was not a lot of silence on that holy night when Jesus was born. Laboring people are rarely quiet as they bring new life into the world. Anxious partners are not so silent as they rush to assist their loved ones in the birth process. And I have never met a cow, sheep or chicken that stopped mooing, baaa-ing or clucking when you wanted them to.
So whatever the circumstances were of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth, I’ll bet you it wasn’t quiet. So why are we so attached to a silent Christmas? Silent Night is one of the most beloved Christmas carols, but probably not all that representative of the sounds on that first Christmas eve.
Perhaps we think of silence as a sign of peace, hearkening back to the Christmas Armistice. When things are quiet, there’s no fighting, no warring, no arguing. But the cessation of sound can also be a sign of deep disturbance, like when all that could be said has been said in a fragile relationship. In activist circles, we often hear “your silence will not protect you” and “those who remain silent in dangerous times are not neutral; they choose the side of the oppressor.” Silence is a precarious tool that can be, and often is, wielded by the powerful.
So what kind of silence are we seeking for this holy night? I wonder if it is the gentle silence of a newborn finally ceasing wailing and falling asleep in loving arms. Or, perhaps it is the silence of freshly fallen Christmas snow, softening the sounds of the city so that tired workers can sleep soundly at last. Maybe the quiet determination of people decidedly resisting hatred and bigotry through nonviolent methods. Maybe the silence was not a long silence, just capturing the moment before the kids wake up and the doorbell rings and the train rumbles past. Maybe it was just enough for a hint of holy.
As Madeleine L’Engle wrote in one of my favorite advent devotionals, “Was there a moment, known only to God, when all the stars held their breath, when the galaxies paused in their dance for a fraction of a second, and the Word, who had called it all into being, went with all this love into the womb of a young girl, and the universe started to breathe again, and the ancient harmonies resumed their song, and the angels clapped their hands?”
Just a moment of pause. Just a moment of holy quiet. Just a moment. Will you join me, please, for a short silence.
(pause for 1 minute)
Listen. Listen closely. I hear the sweet silence of a sleeping baby and the contentment of restful spirits. I hear the quiet that comes when sighs too deep for words are held back. I hear a world that waits with bated breath for liberation for all who are overshadowed by oppression. And I hear the good news that unto us a child has been born and their name shall be called Emmanuel, God-with-us. Do you hear what I hear?
On Monday morning, I arrived in Cali, Colombia along with almost 400 other peacemakers from around the world. Over 30 countries are represented here, and many different languages are being spoken. Some have asked why I would spend so much money and have such a large carbon footprint by flying here, and I understand those questions. For White, Anglo citizens of the USA, there is a constant temptation and encouragement to think that the way we experience the world is the way everyone experiences the world. Our privilege makes it hard to empathize with others, hard to even start the process of thinking that life is different from ours somewhere else. Traveling to a different country with a different history than the USA’s (yet inexplicably tied to the same forces of domination and destruction that rule over us now) can be an important way to widen our vision and expand our empathy. There are people here from Colombia, from the republic of Georgia, from Mexico, from Cuba, from Rwanda, Uganda, the Phillipines, Italy, Australia…the list goes on. The folks hosting us here in Colombia are sharing their national pain and sorrow with us, including their personal stories and political visions and creative means of responding to the domestic terror they have experienced. These are experiences that is so specific to Colombia, and yet relatable all over the world. The Peace Accord of 2016, which was an agreement between the Colombian government and guerrilla forces (the FARC being the main one) is not a perfect document and it had not been implemented in perfect ways. The former president of Colombia received a Nobel Peace Prize for being an architect of this agreement. But as one survivor of the conflict said in yesterday morning’s panel, “I would rather have an imperfect peace process than a perfect war.” There is no arriving at peace. Peace is not a destination but a process.
the altar from the Global Baptist Peace Conference
Justice is also a process, a path to travel, and not a destination. I am honored and humbled this week to be in the presence of clergy and activists and artists and humanitarian workers who have been engaged in the processes of truth-telling following the civil war and have also engaged in practicing radical forgiveness. Forgiveness is not for the faint of heart, and it is not right for everyone. It cannot be demanded and no one is entitled to it. The survivor I quoted earlier, a journalist whose husband was kidnapped and murdered along with other politicians from this district of Colombia, shared deeply about how she thought she had forgiven the FARC for what they had done in 2002. In 2014 she met representatives of the FARC and realized her rage and pain were still there…telling the truth helped release her from her pain. The same survivor said later on, “people who look for justice only as jail sentences are practicing revenge.” Revenge is not sustainable for a healthy community, though many find it lucrative. Revenge is not Christ-like.
The challenges to the Peace Accord are much the same as challenges to countries around the world, especially as fascism and nationalism and populism are on the rise. Challenges like political polarization, deep income inequity, and government being dominated by an extreme wing are familiar, too familiar, for comfort…hearing these stories and being in this place are a call to action.
We could receive stories and learn from the comfort of our own homes in the USA, but what we receive would only be part of the truth. As a friend said aptly, “It’s another form of colonization to learn everything in a USA context.” Being in Colombia to participate in this Global Baptist Peace Conference is part of decentering myself as white Anglo USA citizen and showing solidarity with people who have experienced unrest that causes most USA citizens to call it “dangerous” to travel here. There is something sacred about being physically present with people, greeting each other with the same spirit across languages and nations. I pray the rest of this week and this time together will work in me and in all of us so that we are all moved to do what we can to pursue a world without violence.
July 18, 2019
This time together in Colombia is sacred. People of many races and many languages and many theological perspectives have gathered together, spending many hours traveling, being the targets of searches at country borders, functioning on little sleep, missing events in their churches and families and countries. After we have made such an effort to be here, I cannot look away.
As people share stories of violence done to babies as young as 18 months, women, children, transgender people, queer people, migrants, religious minorities, poor people and people who are oppressed because of their race and ethnicity, it is hard to listen. I’ll just be honest about that. In my life I have faced violence, yes, but my white, Anglo, US-American privilege has protected me from a lot of the physical and political violence faced by people I am meeting here this week. At times this week, as I am deeply moved by what people are sharing about the ways they (literally) stand in the gap between oppressors and oppressed, terrorists and civilians, hateful counter protesters and justice-seeking demonstrators…I have heard things that break my heart. I have learned about ways my country has supported violence against rural farmers in Colombia and exported death-dealing theologies to indigenous people in Mexico and the ways people who claim to share my faith oppress our LGBTQ+ siblings. I have heard testimonies from people whose families have been targets of torture, who have received death threats, whose children have been kidnapped, who are afraid to leave their homes at times because of the work they are doing to bring about a more just world. I cannot turn away.
And as I contemplate returning to my country, the United States of America (not just “America” because that includes the whole Western Hemisphere), I cannot, and will not, turn away. And I am grateful and hopeful to know that there are many who will not turn away. Some are here this week in Cali. Some are reading this post. Some are in my church. I thank the God who overturns tables and chooses women to be witness to the resurrection and who makes a meal to feed thousands out of two loaves and three fish that I am part of a community of peacemakers who will not turn away. As Mayra Picos-Lee, the president of the Board of the BPFNA~Bautistas por La Paz, said today in her responding words following our morning plenary: “the commitment is to action.” When our hearts break, may they always break open, so the compassion we feel moves us to action.
And by no means am I, are we, are those gathered here, perfect. We cannot “let perfect be the enemy of the good”, as my beloved pastor and mentor and friend Steve Hammond says. The people who are here, who are part of Baptist denominations and organizations, we are not perfect. But a remarkable thing about this conference is that the work people are doing is being shared without shaming anybody, without guilting people into action, without playing the game of out-activist-ing someone. Stories and testimonies and sermons are being shared out of a desire to deeply know each other in meaningful ways, to take account of what part of the work is ours to do and to support each other while doing it.
Repenting is a part of this work. Before I became Baptist, i was part of a tradition that had prayers for repentance that we said on everyday Sunday. It was helpful for our community to have a space to air grievances and acknowledge our complicity. But with my low self-esteem, i took repentance too far sometimes. And after spending a lot of time in my personal prayer repenting out of my own broken image of my self-worth, I have since come to know the grace of God’s loving me as I am, as Mary Oliver says, “you do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles repenting.” I have reached a point in my understanding of sin and of God that I am convinced that communities of faith, particularly those marked by various privileges such as whiteness and high socioeconomic status, must consider again repentance as a part of our spiritual practice. We have much to repent for: complicity in white supremacy, USAmerican supremacy, exploitative capitalistic practices, silence, Christian supremacy, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia. Repentance has its linguistic roots in the Greek word “metanoia” which means “to think again” and “to change ones heart and mind.”
This conference is calling me to repent. And I share that call with you. Repent, change your heart and mind, about the ways we engage with exploitative practices. Change our hearts and minds from buying into death-dealing theologies that play into white/Christian/USAmerican supremacy. Change our hearts and minds to not only be the Samaritan who helps the person left at the side of the road, but also to accept help and wisdom and care from those from whom we least expect it.
Leaving and returning are part of the cycles of life. So on Sunday morning, I will leave Colombia and leave this community of peacemakers and return home, to the USA, to Seattle, to my church and my home and my community, with my heart and mind moved to action, to find the work that is mine to do.
The first time I served communion was on Ash Wednesday 2015 in a beautiful service at Vanderbilt Divinity School. After accepting the invitation to traverse the small all-faith chapel, reminiscent of a cave carved out of the rock, and become anointed with oil, water, soil and ashes, the worshippers arranged ourselves in a sacred circle and offered the sacrament to each other. As a younger person, I had passed the silver tray holding tiny cups of juice to the person seated next to me in the pew, but I had never held the bread in one hand and the wine in the other and offered it to a neighbor. I had never said, “the bread of life, given for you” and “the cup of grace, given for you” to another person.
As the bread and cup approached me, I found myself trying to swallow my tears, hoping no one would see the characteristic reddening of my nose as I realized that this was going to be the first time I served the Lord’s Supper to anyone. In a way, I had dreamed about this moment, when I’d be a good enough person and minister to offer something so sacred to be partaken of by a fellow human. When my neighbor offered me the sacrament, I met her eyes and smiled, accepting the grace. I turned around to offer it to the next person in line, a friend of a friend and a United Methodist pastor, and I felt the eyes of everyone in the room on me. It wasn’t a scary feeling, ebing watched–rather, it was comforting and warm, being held all together in this holy space.
“The bread of life, for you.” “The cup of grace, for you.”
Just like that, the moment passed as the receiver of my blessing accepted it, turned and offered it to another. But in my heart, in the core of my being, something had shifted. What did it mean for me to be able to offer the sacrament to another person? Some cosmic meaning had attached itself to my hands, the hands holding carefully kneaded and baked bread, lovingly pressed grapes, my holy hands, the ones God gave me, the ones God created for this purpose of offering myself, and the holy, to another person.
Henri Nouwen writes,
“As we recognise Jesus in the breaking of the bread, we recognise him also in our brothers and sisters. As we give one another the bread, saying:”This is the Body of Christ,” we give ourselves to each other saying: “We are the Body of Christ.” It is one and the same giving, it is one and the same body, it is one and the same Christ.” (Nouwen, Henri. “Christ’s Body, Our Body,” in Bread for the Journey. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006.)
In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy and farmworker organizerCésar Chávez shared the eucharist (literally meaning “thanksgiving” with a connotation of shared grace), the first meal that Chavez ate after fasting for 25 days in protest of the treatment of farmworkers in California. It was appropriate to break a fast in honor of justice by the sacred meal of bread and wine, the same meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the night before his death. In sharing this meal, Kennedy and Chavez together recognized the presence of God within the current struggle for justice for migrant farmworkers. In partaking of this holy symbol of love and community, they recognized Jesus’ witness of love for the poor, marginalized, oppressed and exploited people in this world. In eating, they witnessed the sanctity of the earth which produces food and sustenance.
Dr. Jennifer Ayres writes,
“As God in Christ has entered into the human situation, so eucharistic liturgy is near to the concrete and particular situations of men and women.” (Ayres, Good Food, 61.)
Consider how you will partake of the Eucharist on Easter morning. How will you, in your acceptance of the bread and wine of the earth, remember those who don’t have enough food or drink? Make room to witness the radical abundance of God in the fruits of the earth into forms which humans partake. Come to the table and share the grace with your neighbor.
As we near the time when Jesus was betrayed and given over to be killed by capital punishment, I encourage you to think about the Last Supper in a new context. Two artists, Henry Hargreaves and Julie Green have created artistic depictions of last meals requested by incarcerated persons on death row before they were executed. What is significant about these requests? What is significant about how Jesus spent his last meal and last night before being killed? What do these diverse Last Suppers communicate about human’s relationship to food and the role of food in cultural memory?
So what can we do about this, for those of us who do not face the same struggles as some of the folks we have learned about in this season of Lent? First, stay woke. Pay attention to where your food comes from and why some people don’t have the same access that you do. Second, keep being informed. It can be scary to see inequality and injustice, but it’s scarier to live it. And, if you are a person who carries a lot of privilege with your identity and through your body, you have a Christian responsibility to stand up for the good of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40). Third, create a ritual or a liturgy that expresses the thoughts and feelings you have about this situation of injustice. Ritual often helps process emotions and events in constructive ways, committing events to memory without robbing them of their significance for the future. I’d like to suggest some ritual styles to try.
Some Christian communities do “stations of the cross” during this time of year. These stations are the multiple actions Jesus took from after the Last Supper until the time he is taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb. There are traditional and Biblical stations of the cross, helpfully laid out in this chart from Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts’ article on Patheos.com, from the 2004 Pope’s Stations of the Cross.
In Nashville, Amos House Community, an intentional community made up of folks dedicated to eradicating homelessness in the city, organizes a City-Wide Stations of the Cross, where faith leaders gather together and witness the modern places in our city where Jesus continues to be tortured and crucified, such as the Criminal Justice Center, the State House, the downtown prison and the Justice Department. I propose adopting a food-centered version of this practice, focusing on places where there is inequality in food access: visit a corner bodega, a grocery store frequented by low-income folks, a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, where only certain interests are served, a school garden, a soup kitchen, and other places in your city where Jesus’ is betrayed by the powers that do not invite all people to the table of justice and community.
If I were sharing a classroom with you, I would step to the front and ask: “How many of you have ever been hungry in your life?” You would raise your hand, remembering that time that you were at practice late and forgot to eat dinner, or your mom packed a lunch for you that was a little too small for your adolescent body. Then I would ask: “How many of you have been hungry for days on end, or have ever had to live without eating three square meals a day?” Fewer of you would raise your hands. Maybe it would be only people of color, or children of immigrant families, or people who were raised by a single parent working a minimum wage job. Maybe it would be someone who was emancipated at 16 and had to work full time to afford rent while finishing high school. Maybe it would be your classmates who are single parents themselves. It might even be the children of farmers who don’t own the rights to the produce they grow but sell it to larger companies to ship cross country or use it to fatten animals. But the point is: food access is not the same across the board.
What do I mean by food access? I mean: how reliably can you regularly gain access to healthy, fresh, affordable food that is close to where you live? You’d think, wouldn’t you, that having access to fresh, healthy, affordable food that is within a reasonable geographic distance would be a right guaranteed to everyone in the United States of America? But the reality is far from that.
Have you ever heard of a food desert? The USDA defines it as “urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.” Have you ever lived in a food desert? Check out the USDA’s map here to see where the food deserts nearest you are. Food deserts exist in most major cities and in large swaths of rural areas, and are invisible. Watch this short film that follows a woman throughout her day getting her groceries and preparing a meal in Cleveland, Ohio. Watch this 46-minute film about food deserts in rural Virginia or the movie “Food Deserts” about hunger and access in Chicagoland.
So, there’s a lot of information there. It’s all about how some folks are denied easy access to food because of where they live and what’s available in their neighborhood, which often has something to do with race and class. That phenomenon has another name: environmental racism, defined by the US Legal Department as “Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities or the exclusion of minority groups from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. It is the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities.”
These ideas are big, and they can be overwhelming. You might be asking, what can I do? I’m just one person! But there are many ways for you to learn more and get involved in food justice. Here are some ideas to try out this week:
Walk a labyrinth, concentrating on the way in on the inequality present where you live. On the way out, contemplate how you can be part of a solution by using your resources to live in solidarity of the belly.
Help with any mobile grocery markets or Meals on Wheels in your community.
Also, here is a series of questions from a retreat called “Becoming Bread for the World” at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Ohio. Use this poem as a meditation on food access and inequality. [Gunilla Norris, Becoming Bread. New York: Bell Tower, 1993.) in the Becoming Bread retreat materials from John Knox Presbyterian Church.]
In this place hunger is our guide.
What shall we find here to nourish us?
We have nothing of our own…
nothing but need.
Think about how it feels to be hungry—hungry in your stomach and hungry in your soul. For what do you hunger?
What food do you have access to because of where you live/where you shop/where you get your food? How might this be different for other people? What affects your access to these food resources?
When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin College, I was part of a group called the Ecumenical Christians of Oberlin (since changed to the Eclectic Christians of Oberlin). Our activities revolved around preparing food for each other and eating together every Sunday night in a little house owned by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Our advisors were a husband and wife couple who co-pastored the local American Baptist church, an open and affirming community dedicated to inclusion and social justice activism. Ten or fifteen of us would gather together in the small dining room and hold hands around the table, shiftily eyeing each other as we asked “Who wants to pray?” I’d usually step up and pray, thanking God and asking God to bless our food and our community, and help us be witnesses of God’s social justice in the world. We’d then serve each other huge helpings of mac ‘n’ cheese and pie and vegan rice dishes, then adjourn to the cozy living room for a conversation about theology and communal intercessory prayer.
There was something about eating together, sharing a common meal and blessing each other, that moved me significantly. I had never felt so loved, so held, by God than in those moments where we’d joke and cry and sing hymns and shovel tasty homemade delights into our mouths. One of the coolest things about this group was that there was no faith requirement: our name had the word Christian in it, but we were never exclusive–our Muslim, atheist, Jewish, pagan and Catholic friends often joined us to talk about the nature of God, the life of Jesus of Nazareth as an example, and practicing faith-based social justice. There was always enough room for everyone around the table, always enough food to go around. When we were together, we never ran out of blessing. Letty Russell puts it well:
“A lot of community takes place at a table, and the Christian heritage already has a long tradition related to table community, table sharing, table talk, and the like…At this table there is no permanent seating, and whatever chairs of authority that exist are shared. Christ is the host and bids everyone to come.”
Jesus tells several stories in the gospels about hospitality through inviting all people to the banquet, no matter station, ethnicity, class or religion. In one parable, told in Luke 14:16-22, Jesus describes how all people should be invited to the banquet, even those in the “roads and lanes.” Earlier in that chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the guests at a banquet that they should not place themselves in the highest seat, but that they should adopt a humble posture until the host invites them to move up, suggesting a practical and liveable way of interpreting “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Though many of these teachings about meetings and hospitality are told in parables, Jesus’ life is also an example of hospitality given and received. He regularly ate with lawyers, tax collectors and prostitutes, to the chagrin of the learned Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes (Mark 2:15). Jesus also knew how to receive hospitality, as he visited Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ family multiple times and often was fed by supporters of his disciples throughout his ministry (Luke 10:38-42).
Growing up, family dinners were sacred to me. I lived a few states over from my mom’s family, so we’d drive seven or eight hours every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter to be together and eat hearty home cooked meals. As I went to college and began to share meals with people outside my family, I was reminded of the sacredness of eating together in itself. Gathering together to share the fruit of the earth, the fruit of creation, was a way of remembering the body of God given through Christ in creation.
What is the meal you have most enjoyed in your life? Were you with anyone when you ate it? What is special about that time?
How do you see living and eating in community? Is this something that is special to you? How can you move yourself to give and receive hospitality in light of this table theology?
How can you take steps in your everyday life to invite folks on the margins to the table, literally and figuratively? Where in your community can you help eradicate hunger?
Ayres, Jennifer. Good Food: Grounded Practical Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013.
Wirzba, Norman. Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
A lot of friends of mine, even those in seminary, say that when reading the Bible, they skip over the books of Numbers (because it’s about numbers…), Leviticus (because it’s got laws) and Deuteronomy (just more laws…). And during the time of Lent, we’re just supposed to focus on the Gospels, right? Because that’s about Jesus and his life, and the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) doesn’t have anything to do with Lent.
Well, sorry, kids, but I’m here to suggest you read Deuteronomy this week! And guess what else? I think it’s going to be interesting because we are reading about eating practices and food purity laws.
Here’s the thing: Deuteronomy is a really cool book because it helps us understand what the community of ancient Israel might have thought about itself. Deuteronomy was written during the 7th century BCE, right as Judea (another name for Israel) was recovering after a hundred years of Assyrian domination. After the Assyrians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 722 BCE, the Israelites were trying to figure out how they could live and honor their god YHWH in a world where their temple was destroyed. Therefore, when they were no longer able to worship their god YHWH in the temple like they had before, they turned to issues of behavior to distinguish themselves. Some of this behavior concerned what they ate, as recorded in Deuteronomy 14:3-21: they are prohibited from eating camels, hares, badgers, pigs, eagles, vultures, osprey, shellfish and many other animals.
Because so much of American culture is obsessed with diets and with “clean eating” and knowing what goes into our food, sometimes Lent is transformed into a catch-all get-healthy time where we cut out all the “bad foods” as a “spiritual practice” when really we are just getting sucked into mainstream diet culture. Well, that doesn’t really help us focus on God, does it?
I think the ancient Israelites were on to something by noticing that what and how we eat helps define who we are as a people (remember the food culture discussion from last week?). But they also recognized that there are ways to regulate what we eat that have to do with how we live in community and how we think about what is holy.
Here’s what my friend Jessica, a Conservative (read: conservative legal interpretation) Jew who keeps kosher (observes the dietary laws) has to say about kashrut (the dietary laws):
“I keep kosher because it makes me feel more connected to Jewish tradition, and it makes meals more special and meaningful. For example, because kosher meat is more expensive than non-kosher meat, it is more of a rare treat to eat something like brisket. Therefore, meat meals are reserved for holidays and other special days, like Shabbat… Many Jews ask themselves the same question—what is the point? Jews from the Reform movement (one of the most liberal) have completely abandoned kashrut for the most part, Reconstructionist Jews are the most progressive and choose for themselves based on the community, every Conservative congregation I’ve ever encountered insists everything be Kosher, and then you have Orthodox Jews who argue over whose hashgacha (kosher supervision agency) is most reliable! Something to keep in mind is that as a result, “kosher” means different things to different people…”
Jessica goes on to talk about the difficulties of there being different ways to observe kashrut in communities, involving people having to check the food coming into the synagogue and keep to strict rules about what food is acceptable and unacceptable. Two synaogues she participates in have “two-table” system, where one table basically practices one version of kosher and the other table practices the other kind. This works because, according to Jessica,
“…no one should be put into the trap of saying “I don’t keep kosher” because they eat vegetable products without the OU imprimatur or because they don’t believe that hot cooking utensils store and transmit taste. There are multiple approaches to kashrut, and all can coexist in the same community. And meanwhile, some people really really don’t keep kosher or claim to keep kosher (by any standard), and also participate fully in the same community.”
So, even though some of these dietary laws might seem outrageous to Christian families, they are not necessarily bars to participating in community or enjoying food. Jessica’s claim that they help her feel connected to her tradition is a beautiful way of expressing the need to be in religious community across time and space. Food is one way that we do this, and food laws can free us to enjoy the benefits of community without being so focused on what we are not allowed to do.
Some people care a lot about what goes into their bodies, and so are interested in the use of Genetically Modified Organisms in foods. Do some research and figure out your position on GMOs. Are they good for us? Are they bad for our health? Do companies have an obligation to label them in foods we buy at the supermarket?
Journal about a food experience that translated across time and space. What was it like? What do you remember when you think about/consume this food?
What was your favorite food growing up? What kinds of memories are associated with this food? In what context did you eat this food? How did this food relate to your family and friends–did they enjoy it with you or did you just have a taste for it?
The answers to these questions could give some clue as to your food culture. Food culture depends on many things: your geographic location, your cultural heritage, access to different types of foods, etc. For me, I define my food culture as “Anglo-American Midwestern meat ‘n’ potatoes” based. As I grew up, there were only a few ethnic restaurants around my hometown, and they were very Americanized Chinese and Mexican cuisine. When I went to college, I was blessed with roommates from the San Francisco Bay area, who were accustomed to eating a lot of different kinds of cuisine. With my friends as my guide, I experienced Indian, Thai, Korean, real Italian, and Japanese foods and learned more about my tastes. Before then, I had thought that my taste was just “how I was” but I discovered that my tastes were incredibly influenced by the type of food my family grew up cooking, which depended on what was local and affordable, which depended on my geographic location in the Great Lakes area and the history of immigration to this area (read: chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, grilled cheese, pasties, apple pie).
When I moved to Nashville, Tennessee last year, I ate okra for the first time and learned about the history of the migration of that plant from Africa due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I dined with friends and strangers in a “meat ‘n’ three” restaurant. I ate grits and Soul Food and Louisiana crawdads. I learned how to garden in the south, where the growing season is easily extended into December and January if you cover your crops with frost cloth. This experience of living outside of my homeplace, the Great Lakes region, opened my eyes to a whole new way of living and experiencing food. Did you know you can grow kale in November? Did you know that fig trees thrive in middle Tennesse, far from their origin in Mesopotamia? I am continually amazed by the different food cultures of each place I have called home.
This week, take a look at some of the short films on this website, compiled by the Real Food Media Contest. As you watch, consider how people in these films interact with their natural environment and/or built environment and represent their food culture. Are any of the food cultures engaged here part of your story?
Give up attachment to your own food culture by trying some new cuisines in your area and get to know the folks who prepare that style of food. What does their food culture mean to them? How can you relate to each other across different food cultures? What can you appreciate about their food culture in a “holy envy”, meaning a deep appreciation for something from another culture?
If you happened to grow up in a Christian household that observed Lent, you are probably familiar with the idea of “giving up” something during this period of 40 days (46, counting Sundays) between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Tradition has it that the 40 days of Lent represent the 40 days that Jesus Christ was tempted by the devil (Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13, Matthew 4:1-11), though there are many passages throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that have a theme of 40 days of sojourning into the wilderness for some reason or other (see, Moses, the wanderings of the Israelites, etc.). People in diverse strains of Christianity practice giving something up as a way to make space in their lives to pay more attention to God and God’s call in their lives. Many see giving up something, food and drink in particular, as a way of purifying the temple of the body as a reminder of the importance of Jesus’ body that was to be broken for the salvation of the world. Yet others find it helpful to give up something because it’s a good once-a-year slap in the face to recover your yet-to-be-started New Year’s resolutions (yeah, we’ve all been there).
If you didn’t grow up in a Christian household observing Lent, you are probably either thinking
1) what in the world am I reading this for?
2) so THAT’S why I could never watch TV during the month of March
or 3) I enjoy when my Christian friends do this because I get all their chocolate and/or wine (for you who are of age, of course).
However, there are some darker sides to this seemingly benign liturgical practice of forgoing treats which you habitually enjoy. The way that some people practice Lent is focused very much on penance, on repenting of your sins and thus punishing yourself by giving up things which you enjoy, mostly falling into the categories of Sweets, Alcohol, Meat, and Chocolate (yes, it gets its own category…duh). Though I am generally a fan of dwelling in the shadowy parts of our faith, exploring fear and doubt and spiritual silence as a way of getting to know the different sides of God, I do not wish to perpetuate any damaging thinking arising from theologically reflecting about punishment and food shaming.
In United States American culture, food is fraught with positive and negative connotations reaching from warm community dinners to the rising prevalence of food-related self-harm diseases, such as anorexia and bulimia. In a certain way, giving up food we usually enjoy cannot only have the side effect of making us a wee bit healthier for 40 days (no one gives up “salad” or “beans” for Lent, amirite?), but it can also attach painful ideas about shame and controlling one’s urges/desires under the guise of being a spiritual practice, and can trigger emotional responses to these very serious diseases.
Food and how we eat is also gendered. Men don’t want to order “girly” drinks at bars, and women feel weird drinking “man’s beer” and are often worried about how much food they can eat on a first date so they don’t “look like a glutton.” How many times have I been told that I should only order a salad on a first date? A ridiculous amount of times. I’ll eat whatever I feel like eating, thank you very much. And so will he. (or she/they/whoever you like to date). Preparation of food is another place where gender intervenes; many girls and women are taught that the place for them is in the kitchen and are expected to make the bacon after the men bring it home…and it’s 2016?!
For these reasons, I’m going to encourage us to spend this Lent being a bit more intentional about what we are “giving up,” if indeed we choose that route. A dear friend of mine from college always “took on” a new practice instead of “giving up” something, though she did try to abstain from desserts. This “taking on” took the form of a new volunteer project, a self-improvement task of not gossiping but sharing joys, and learning how to knit. So, your Lenten practice can take a lot of different forms, but I want to encourage you to join me in rethinking our relationship with food during the next 40 days.
Here are some ways to think about this practice:
What is your favorite food? why is it your favorite? are there nostalgic memories attached to this food? or is it simply delicious?
Have you ever been shamed for eating/not eating something? reflect and journal about that time in your life and how it has affected you afterwards
Have you ever gone on a diet? What was that decision like? What did you notice in your body differently while you were on a diet? How do you see diets portrayed in USAmerican culture?
What have you always wanted to know about food? Wondered where it comes from? How does it get from farm to table? Take some time and research something that interests you!
That sound like a lot? Here are some (easy-ish) practical things you can do:
Keep a journal! Write down how you feel, what you are thinking and how you are keeping track of your body over this time.
Interview people around you about their relationship to food.
Try to cook for yourself more throughout this Lent.
Jesus eats A LOT in the Bible. Find some of these passages and read them with friends over a meal once a week during Lent.
If you feel like you want to embark upon this journey with me, please let me know and keep me updated on how you are thinking/feeling. Write to me, post on this blog, follow me on Instagram, do whatever y’all feel like doing to keep in touch and build a community around re-imagining abstinence/sweet deprivation/etc. over this holy season of communal retreat.