Archive for the 'Bread' Category

We Are What We Eat

“It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”  Jesus, Matthew 4:4 (MSG)

Self-feeding is a key developmental task for us humans. Our older grandchildren (18, 20, and 22) learned healthy eating habits from their parents and their own involvement in athletics. They enjoy an occasional junk-food splurge, but overall they feed themselves well. “I’m not being fed” is no longer a complaint we expect to hear from them. They’d be told, “Fix yourself something. You’re (almost) an adult.” They’ve mastered the developmental task of self-feeding. Our younger grandchildren Lucas and Amelia have moved from milk to baby food to solid food. Now they’re learning to make their own healthy food choices. 5-year-old Lucas knows he’s allergic to nuts. He also knows he needs to consume some protein soon after he wakes, or else HE’S A GROUCH! 3-1/2-year-old Amelia lives for dessert, especially chocolate! Her folks work hard to help her balance her food intake. [As I wrote, No. 2 son David sent me this picture of lasagna he’d just taken out of the oven. He’s also clearly mastered self-feeding!]DavidH Lasagna

Yet one of the most common exit whines in church life is, “I’m not being fed.” It comes from sheep church members looking to leave their current congregation for pastures that appear to be more lush and green. “Not being fed” is an all-purpose complaint that might mean: “Pastor never talks about my favorite things;” Pastor drags me outside my comfort zone too often and I wish (s)he would quit it.” “Pastor and I disagree about nearly everything.” “Pastor doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way I do (and therefore with questionable accuracy).” Pastor keeps raising hard questions when all I want is easy answers.”

“I’m not being fed.” I heard it periodically during my forty-plus years of active ministry. So did most of my colleagues. More often than not it filtered up through third parties after the sheep parishioner had already wriggled through the fence and wandered off. The goal was rarely dialog, learning, and mutual understanding. It was more often assuring a steady diet of one’s favorite “foods” that wouldn’t upset a tender spiritual tummy.

These developmentally-delayed disciples live their whole lives expecting someone else to feed them–the pastor, the Bible class teacher, the TV preacher, the online Jesus guru. Paul wrote to some early Christians: “I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet.” (1 Corinthians 3:2 CEB) Newborn infants have to start with milk. But very soon young bodies and minds want and need much more. Strength and health come with “solid food”, not junk food. “If we’re not growing, we’re dying” is true not only for our physical bodies, but for spiritual, intellectual, and professional growth.

Our Lord freely offers us “the Bread of Life”–but we continue to choose junk food. Spiritual junk food is as easily available as the physical junk food in convenience stores and fast-food outlets. Junk food is full of empty calories. Its intentional overdose of fat, sugar, and salt overwhelms our bodies with excessive carbs and minimal nutrition. Spiritual junk food tastes good and satisfies immediately. But it leaves us empty. It provides little or no lasting nourishment. It doesn’t build us up. The empty calories of physical and spiritual junk food do us far more harm than good.

Spiritual junk food is self-centered. It’s all about what’s in it for you. It’s about what you can get out of God, rather than about what you can give to God and God’s purposes for God’s world. The seminary professor who taught us worship showed how “junk food” hymns overflow with first-person singular pronouns—“I, me, my, mine” etc. When it’s all about me, God gets squeezed out of the picture. That’s a toxic recipe for sure.

Spiritual junk food is exclusive rather than inclusive. It tells us, “Thank God we’re not like “those people”—Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mexicans, Japanese (WWII), conservatives, progressives, poor folks, immigrants, etc. If the dish set before you consistently divides humanity into a good “us” and an evil “them”, it’s almost certainly junk food: “[Jesus said]…The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.’ (Luke 18:9-14 MSG)

Spiritual junk food offers too-easy answers to hard questions. Those easy answers may satisfy us initially. But we’re hungry again in an hour. Too-easy answers ignore the consensus of contemporary knowledge. They close discussion and foreclose the possibility of additional learning. They reinforce the status quo and excuse us from the responsibility of living out our faith day by day in the real world.

Worst of all, spiritual junk food takes a too-simple approach to the Bible. Truly “nutritious” Bible reading takes seriously Scripture’s character as an inspired complex collection of writings produced over many centuries. When Jesus went into the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), the Tempter tried to trick him into a bumper-sticker approach to the Bible–“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”. Jesus wouldn’t bite. ”It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth,” he replied. Scholars have wisely suggested we do well to take the Bible seriously rather than literally (another post for another day). What did a passage say to the folks who first heard it? What was their world really like? When we go a little deeper, Scripture becomes truly Bread of Life for us.

My Methodist roots remind me of John Wesley’s term “Means of Grace”. That was his term for spiritual disciplines and practices that open spaces in our lives for God’s unlimited love to nourish and shape us. You can read his sermon on the subject here. These personal and public practices help us be sure we’re  consuming good solid food, not junk food. This illustration shows how these disciplines support our focus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and balance both personal and public discipleship. No junk food here. More than enough solid, body-building nourishment to get us through the wilderness of another Lent.

meansofgrace diagramThis year let’s clear out all the spiritual junk food that clutters our lives and our churches. Let’s covenant together to feed ourselves well and to offer hearty, nourishing “solid food” to all the hungry folks we meet as we grow together in Christ.

“Jesus Tastes Sweet Today”

That’s what our friend Jen said after communion last Sunday. The “Bread of Life” was that sweet Hawaiian bread. Thank God our worship has evolved so that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper with all shapes, sizes, and flavors of bread. It’s a welcome change from the bland diet of fish food and shot glasses I grew up on. The only redeeming quality of those tasteless cardboard wafers was that they melt in your mouth. (In God’s wisdom, we use them with ill and homebound folks for that very reason.) Sometimes, instead of wafers, the bread appeared as hard little lumps that looked and tasted like congealed glue recycled from Sunday School. The individual “shot glasses” of grape juice were labor-intensive for the communion stewards. I concluded very early that the separateness they preached contradicted the sacrament’s intended message of unity in Christ. This holy meal was served with an ancient-English ritual that drew responses ranging from “wake me when it’s over” to “English, please”, even from ordination-bound Methodist youth like me. Communion was “observed” (usually too solemn to say “celebrated”) quarterly—and then reluctantly by many.

One fine day worship began to evolve. Some churches introduced precisely-cut cubes of crust-free white bread to go with precisely-filled glasses of juice. Others made the radical move to intinction. We shared both a common loaf of bread, untidily broken in the congregation’s presence, and a common chalice. Initially this was a courageous move in the face of anti-Catholic resistance. Decades later that resistance has faded but not completely disappeared.

The common loaf opened up our options. We tried sheepherder’s bread (nice size), sourdough (tasty but embarrassingly tough to break unless it’s pre-cut), pita bread, tortillas, and more. Now the “bread of life” actually tastes good! (I don’t believe Jesus is ever pleased to be identified with tasteless pseudo-bread.) Most of us knew better than to try cornbread—tasty but a hyper-crumbly disaster! These changes helped us experience the Lord’s Supper as both a physical and spiritual event. We feel the texture of real bread—sourdough, whole grain, various flatbreads, etc. We taste the sweet Hawaiian bread, corn tortillas, whole wheat, etc. After bread-making machines became popular in the early ‘90’s, we set one up in a corner of the sanctuary one Sunday. It baked quietly before and during the early service, and again in the hour between services. The aroma blanketed the room. Everyone was hungry! The still-warm bread that day was extra-special.

“Jesus tastes sweet today.” We say that we’re “fed” and “nourished” through the bread and cup. But not all bread is equally nourishing. That Hawaiian bread tastes good, but it has relatively little nutritional value as breads go. A little sweetness (“…a sweet, sweet spirit in this place…”) may be just what we need some days. But a steady of diet of white bread isn’t healthy. It’s spiritual junk food. We need whole-grain substance. A little sourdough taste and crustiness is a welcome, healthy change. Tortillas, pita bread, and other flat breads provide basic sustenance for hundreds of millions of our fellow passengers on this planet.

A few people become ill when they eat the bread we proclaim “the bread of life”. Once a newly-appointed district superintendent brought his family to worship at the church I served. Nobody in our church knew that his daughter was one of those people. But well before I went to that church, those folks had begun providing a gluten-free option at communion. That infamous “fishfood” wafer was once again the perfect food! The district superintendent’s daughter was able to join the rest of us as we shared that holy meal. She and her family were grateful that we’d (unknowingly) provided the bread that met that little girl’s need to feel included in God’s family.

That’s the point, isn’t it? Tasty bread helps. Whatever bread we serve–even “fishfood”– is God’s instrument used to gather us who’ve been living our separate lives around the Lord’s Table, the source of true Life. Here we reaffirm God’s will for us. Here we refocus our lives on God’s vision for us, for the whole church, for the human family, for the whole Creation. In Christ God takes on all the world’s brokenness and brings healing to our lives, our churches, our families, our communities, our planet.

We haven’t fully realized the vision yet. Brokenness, suffering, and self-centered living are epidemic in our society. The seven deadly sins are alive and well! Much hard work, tough/tender love, and deep persistent prayer lie between us and the fulfillment of God’s Dream. But every Holy Meal we share brings that fulfillment nearer. We are fed and nourished with the very being of God. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, part of Christ becomes part of us—the love, the forgiving, the healing, the self-emptying servant attitude. Sometimes “Jesus tastes sweet today”. Other times the taste is sharp, or wholesome, or flat and pasty, or even bitter and hard. But always God nourishes us so we are strong enough to help build the New Creation where all are welcome, no-one is turned away, and everyone has enough.