Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Food Forethought

Day 43 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010
Passion Week - Holy Wednesday

Take one look at me and you can automatically tell I like to eat. Recently, I heard that some people have a biological propensity for certain types of food, and maybe that’s part of my problem… but not all of it, of course. I just happen to be living in the era before science has figured out how to neutralize all the bad stuff in red velvet cake and chicken scallopini.

Actually, I don’t mind confessing that I used to be a glutton. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that on both spiritual and physical levels, indiscriminate food consumption causes a lot of problems. So watching the amount I eat – not just watching what I eat (I’ve never had a problem viewing my food) – has become somewhat of a habit for me. Not a preoccupation, mind you, but at least a mealtime consideration.

The Theology of Food

Ever since Biblical times, alcohol abuse has been a thorn in the side of societies the world over, while gluttony has been an invisible vice. In fact, some cultures view gluttony as a sign of wealth or prestige, while others consider overeating a great compliment to one’s hostess. In places where freezing temperatures dictate most aspects of life, hearty eating actually helps keep people warm with layers of body fat – and surprisingly, some Arctic cultures have quite healthy diets despite their, um, insulation.

But have you ever thought about how food and eating play important roles in the Bible? Not simply as pleasures which can be abused, but as integral components of ceremonies, covenants, and other significant observances. Even the common meal, made with common staples, serves multiple purposes. Not only has God given His people the ability to grow, prepare, and enjoy a variety of gastronomic delights, but He’s actually ordained that these edible aspects of His creation be used to honor Him.

Back during college, our campus pastor used to talk about the theology of food. I don’t think he actually used the term “theology of food,” but Dr. Davey Naugle challenged us to consider all of the times God incorporates mealtime into significant Biblical events and observances. Whenever you sit down to eat – whether by yourself, with a couple of friends, a dinner table ringed with beloved family members, or a hotel banquet hall full of revelers, you participate in a type of ceremony in which God’s bounty, faithfulness, goodness, provision, and blessing can be found in abundance.

Even if it’s a scrap of stale bread in a prison camp, freeze-dried astronaut fare, or roasted insects in a tribal diet. There is a theology of food which points to our beneficent Creator and portrays His care for us and sovereignty over us. Our thanksgiving should be a mealtime event.

God designed virtually all components of His Earth to depend on something for their basic sustenance. Nourishment is part of nature. As the “rulers and subduers,” He equipped mankind both biologically and anatomically to be able to plant, harvest, kill, fish for, milk, prepare, and enjoy food; we can digest an amazing array of things; and we can store up for lean years and create distribution mechanisms to satiate hunger across the globe. Obviously, lesser animals can do these various tasks effectively for their species, but they can’t do all of them with the ability God has provided humans. Indeed, we sit atop an incredibly interwoven food chain.

Food, Feasting, and Faithfulness

At least eight Jewish feasts are mentioned in the Bible. Covenant meals, life-stage feasts (weddings, birthdays, funerals), and even the lavish dinner thrown by the Prodigal Son’s father all illustrate the prominent role food played in the Bible. Even the New Covenant, from which the New Testament Church can be traced, began at a meal.

Obviously, in Biblical times, preparing food for any meal consisted of considerable hard work and long hours. For most people, food wasn’t abundant enough to be taken for granted. And sugar wasn’t imported to the Holy Land until 642 AD, so imagine what some flavorings were like.

This past Monday marked the beginning of Passover, the Jewish celebration of the Exodus. As has become customary among a few of my friends, we met for a Seder dinner with all of the essential trimmings, but a decidedly Messianic flavor. We had a child ask the traditional Four Questions, we drank the Four Cups, but we had delicious, non-Kosher hand-rubbed roast lamb and pork.

We solemnly partook of the searing horseradish to get just a taste of the vile bitterness of our sin, we dipped parsley in salt water to recall the abject sorrow of the Israelites, and we drank the Fourth Cup with a toast to “Next year, in New Jerusalem!”

Ironically enough, when we had finished washing down the aftereffects of the horseradish, one of our friends confessed, “I actually like the taste of horseradish.” Which, if horseradish symbolizes sin, is true of us all, isn’t it?

Among all of the symbolism and traditions infused within the Seder include many references to the actual rituals of collecting, preparing, cooking, and eating food. Not just snacks and sandwiches, but full-blown feasts. In fact, the household is instructed in Exodus 12:16 to spend all day preparing for the Seder dinner.

During our Seder, each guest has been instructed in advance to prepare a short discourse on some aspect of the historic Passover and/or our observance of Holy Week. This year, one of our friends shared what she’d been learning about the Salt Covenant – something of which I’d never heard before. Part of the salt covenant involves people agreeing to engage into an agreement by mixing salt granules together, and if they want to leave the covenant in the future, they first have to reclaim all of the granules of salt that they had contributed to the mixture. Kind of impossible, right?

The American Diner

Of course today, many American families eat together as little as possible, and if they do manage to hit the dining table within minutes of each other, their delicacies include foodstuffs that require as little preparation as possible. Usually, that is not so much a reflection on the culinary expertise of cooks in the household, but simply the reality of the amount of time left over after all the details of our busy lives have been either completed or put on hold.

Here in Arlington, Texas, we’re known as one of the most restaurant-saturated cities in North America, because so many of us go out to eat so often. Blame it on having a suburban lifestyle between two large cities and four freeways. Eating out has become a social pastime here, even if most of our choices consist of national chain restaurants instead of hip fusion hotspots.

Wherever you eat, though, and whatever you eat, I think it would be helpful for all of us if people of faith took more time to recognize what sharing a meal symbolizes. We don’t need to wait for grand events and traditional family dinners to celebrate being together and acknowledging God’s goodness to us.

So… What’s for Dinner?

No matter what you’re having tonight, why not make dinner more intentional? Make the effort to get the kids around the table – at the same time, with you, and with the TV off and iPods in another room. Even if you’re dining on PP&Js, why not set out some lit candles on the table – they’re not just for romance. Eating out? Don’t let the waiter – or the lady with the mop at McDonalds – rush you along. And by all means – if you’ve dropped out of the habit of saying grace before each meal, do you really think you provided the food?

Whatever and wherever you’re eating tonight, make a point of marveling at how what you’re putting in your body has been provided to you today.

And go easy on the horseradish. Better yet, throw it out.

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