I like the word “serendipity.” I even like just saying it. Happily, I experienced a bit of it this week, so I can use the word without having to contrive a context for it. Here’s what happened. I meet each Sunday evening with a group whose focus is “contemplative theology” for lack of a better phrase. We discuss living our faith, which sometimes takes a scholarly and Biblical tack, and sometimes involves practical application. Lately, we’ve been discussing food. We read The China Study and watched the documentary “Forks over Knives” both of which stress the health and environmental benefits of a whole foods, plant based diet. To complete this topic, we have an assignment to find a Biblical passage that references food, and present our understanding of how the food we put in our bodies is related to our spiritual condition. Also this week, I read Seven, by Jen Hatmaker, a book recommended by my daughter and several friends. Wisely, since she wanted to sell this book, Jen didn’t put the word “fasting” in the title, but that’s what the book is about --- her experience in denying herself personal comforts (including food) for a spiritual purpose. I’ve read other books about fasting, but while the others might’ve stimulated my brain, Seven kicked me right in the head with its keen observations of the absurd excesses of wealthy nations like
Not only that, but I laughed to the point of sometimes having to put the book
down to regain composure. I hate it when reviews describe books as “laugh out
loud funny” but that’s what this one was – a scolding that was humorous and
inspiring. You’ll just have to read it for
yourself. So, all week, I’ve been
thinking about physical existence and its maintenance as well as something that
I love about the Orthodox Church, its liturgical calendar of fasting and
feasting. Some weeks, all roads do lead to America Rome
(or Constantinople as the case may be).
For my assignment scripture passage, I selected Peter’s food vision recorded in Acts 10. Here’s how it sounds in the Message:
Peter went out on the balcony to pray. It was about noon. Peter got hungry and started thinking about lunch. While lunch was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the skies open up. Something that looked like a huge blanket lowered by ropes at its four corners settled on the ground. Every kind of animal and reptile and bird you could think of was on it. Then a voice came, “Go to it, Peter – kill and eat.” Peter said, “Oh no, Lord. I’ve never so much as tasted food that was not kosher.” The voice came a second time, “If God says it’s okay, it’s okay.”
Now, this story is part of a bigger story involving a Gentile named Cornelius and the Jewish notion of the day that certain people could be unclean and unworthy of the faith in much the same way that food could be unclean and unworthy of consumption. It’s a beautiful illustration of the magnitude of God’s grace, but for the moment, let’s put that aside and just look at the passage literally. (I’m trying to be less critical of people who refuse to look beyond the literal interpretation of the Bible, so bear with me while I search for insight within literal readings.) First, I love the fact that Peter is trying to pray but gets distracted and starts wondering what’s for lunch. He’s thinking about literally eating, so maybe the vision also has a message regarding literal eating. (See how literally I’m thinking?) Peter doesn’t seem to interpret the vision as urging him toward gluttony, but rather that the menu limitations that he has been observing are not ultimate laws of living. Laws regarding food can be held too rigidly or too loosely, and either way comes with less than optimal consequences. As with any law, Biblical or otherwise, the spirit has more value than the letter.
It’s a lot easier to follow a law than it is to find balance within two extremes --- for a while anyway. Then any law that’s too restrictive sends us barreling toward the other end. Just ask anyone who has ever been on the grapefruit diet. The very existence of a law makes us want to break it. Most of us drive at least slightly over the speed limit, no matter what the limit is. We can seek food balance on our own, and some folks are quite disciplined here while others fall into anorexia or obesity. The early church offered a food structure for the congregation --- sort of like an early version of Weight Watchers. The liturgical calendar involved a rotation of periods of fasting interrupted with feasts. The fasts were not total abstinence from food, but merely restrictions on meat and other rich foods. The purpose might’ve been spiritual, but it had practical benefits as well. People who were eating together were eating similar food, so a built-in support system was in place. The feasts involved emotionally healthy fellowship as well as bodily nourishment. With an abundance of inexpensive food, our present experience is to keep the feasts and eliminate the fasts. We frequently eat calorie laden rich foods all by ourselves in the car. What a poor substitute for a feast.
Personally, I feel that diet is a stewardship issue. I am aware of my impending death and the return of my body to ashes. However, I believe that God entrusted me with my body and meant for me to take care of it, but not get crazy about it. Being full of delicious food is good, but sometimes restricting food intake is more conducive to both physical health and spiritual awareness. So, what to do? Disregarding the fad diet of the week and the most recent update in the FDA food group/pyramid/plate, common sense indicates that vegetables, fruit, and whole grains are healthy food. If we eat mostly plants most of the time with small amounts of other foods and occasionally sit down with the people we love and pull out all the stops, then, well, “God says it’s okay.”