Thursday, July 13, 2006

Eat and drink as friends

Note: This is an introduction I wrote to the forthcoming cook book of St. Luke's Episcopal Church of Jacksonville, AL, entitled, Eat and Drink as Friends.

A bishop (who shall remain nameless) remarked to me recently that Sam’s Club had ruined Episcopalian coffee hours and receptions. Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, he elaborated, saying, that easy access to things such as frozen “mini-pizzas”, miniature quiches, and egg rolls has caused many an Episcopalian matron to stray from the time-honored ways of her foremothers who would have excommunicated her without a second thought for serving anything frozen, canned, or instant. My anonymous purple-shirted friend noted that there are still Episcopalian church women who are keeping the faith, most notably in the smaller and older towns of the deep South. This is also the theme of the recent book Being Dead is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies’ Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral According to the authors the real divisions between Episcopalians and other denominations are not theological or liturgical but gastronomical: “Episcopalians are snooty because they spurn cake mixes and canned goods, without which there would be no such thing as Methodist cuisine…The casserole is the most characteristically Methodist foodstuff.”

My own unscientific and unsystematic research supports the conclusions arrived at independently by my episcopal friend and Metcalfe and Hayes. Having served congregations in Alabama’s Black Belt, two suburban parishes in San Francisco, an urban parish in Philadelphia, and St. Luke’s, Jacksonville, I can attest that the cooks in Alabama are head and shoulders above the rest. Hospitality just seems to be a part of the DNA of Episcopalian churchwomen in the Deep South, and they can throw grand parties at the drop of a hat.

My parishioners at St. Stephen’s, Eutaw, Alabama, love to tell the story of the wedding that the caterer forgot. The reception was to be at Kirkwood, a magnificent antebellum house at the north end of town. On the way to the wedding people who passed Kirkwood thought it strange that the caterer was not unloading food from her van. After the wedding they discovered that the caterer had forgotten the wedding! Fortunately, however, this was the Black Belt. Parishioners rushed home, yanked open drawers, and snatched up china, crystal, silver, and linen. Women pulled homemade rolls, crawfish etoufee, caramel cake, and cheese straws out of refrigerators and freezers. Men raided their liquor cabinets for champagne and wine. Within an hour the bride and groom were being feted at a reception that was good enough for a presidential inauguration.

Southern hospitality is real and its roots are deep. In 1838 English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse came to Alabama to teach. In one letter back to England he wrote of the “generous, almost boundless hospitality, [of] the southern planter.” Perhaps one reason for Southern hospitality is that there were few cities in the South in the early 19th century; towns were small and widely separated; and only primitive roads connected the plantations with each other. Like the ancient Near East, this placed a premium on hospitality. Travelers had to depend on “the kindness of strangers” in an era when travel was difficult, time-consuming, and often dangerous.

But there is also a theological reason for Christian hospitality. We believe that the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, is a sacrament, that is, that in some sense the bread and wine are instruments through which we are objectively connected with Christ and incorporated into him. There is, however, a simpler way to understand what happens when the community gathers to share bread and wine at the Lord’s Table. What was or is your grandmother’s favorite dish? What does she always bring to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner? Is it turkey and dressing? Ambrosia? Chicken and dumplings? Regardless of what it is, there is something of her in the food. You experience her again every time you prepare and eat her favorite dish.

Every meal we eat is so much more than just food. It is the labor of those who raised the raw ingredients; it is the skill of the cook; it is the cultural traditions embodied in the recipes. The Eucharist, then, is a special example of this general principle. At the Lord’s Table, Jesus himself is the host. We set the table with our best linen and silver, light candles, and mind our manners, and Christ is among us again just as surely as he was with his disciples at a Passover seder long ago in Jerusalem. How he comes again, we know not, but as a great hymn puts it, “Thou art here, we know not how; thou art here, we know not how.” Christ solemnly promised us that he would be present when we take, bless, and give bread and wine in his Name, but something of the love embodied in the Eucharistic meal is present whenever a meal is prepared and served with care and love.

Much love is embodied in these recipes from St. Luke’s. It is a community that welcomes strangers and is as open to new ideas as it is to new people. For more than one hundred and fifty years St. Luke’s has proclaimed the gospel at the corner of Church and Ladiga in Jacksonville. I hope that you will have the opportunity to come and join these good people as they gather around the Lord’s Table on Sunday, but if you can’t visit St. Luke’s, then as you prepare the recipes in this book, say a prayer for them that they would continue to bear luminous witness to God’s love that took human form and lived among us and continues to be embodied in bread and wine. And open your heart to the gracious gift of hospitality expressed in the delights of the table that St. Luke’s cooks have shared in this book.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Fully Alive

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep and there is no health in us…

These words, no longer in the General Confession, imply a certain view of human nature. They suggest that the default position for human nature is illness; that the paradigm or model for Christian salvation is recovery from illness. Therefore, clergy are practitioners of spiritual medicine, the church is a kind of hospital, and the sacraments are a sort of medicine. There is much to be said for this view.

After all, healing is a persistent, perhaps even central, theme in the Bible. Healing was central to Jesus’ ministry and today’s gospel reading is a good example. Mark tells us of two miracles of healing: a woman was healed after a 12 year illness and a little girl appears to have been raised from the dead. However, I think these two stories actually illustrate another often overlooked theme in Jesus’ ministry, but I’ll come back to that later.

It is a serious misunderstanding to believe that the fundamental human condition is sickness rather than health. It follows that it is equally wrong to believe that Jesus’ ministry was mostly about healing diseases. Rather, I believe that the fundamental human condition is one of health and Jesus’ ministry was more about promoting health than healing illnesses. The word “health” is related to the word “wholeness.” Christ’s mission and ministry were not just to heal those who suffered from diseases but to bring wholeness, to allow human life to flourish. As Jesus says in John’s gospel, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

With that in mind, let’s go back to today’s gospel reading. Notice that in the two stories Jesus does more than just heal. When the woman who had been ill for 12 years touches Jesus clothing, she was instantly healed. If Jesus’ ministry was just about healing, that would be the end of the story, but Jesus stopped and spoke to the woman. Mark says that she “came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”

What was her whole truth? We don’t know but based on what we know about Jesus’ world, we can make some reasonable guesses. Her illness seems to have been some kind of dysmenorrhea. Such a condition would have rendered her ritually unclean. More than likely she had been married, but her medical condition would have been more than enough reason for her husband to divorce her, and divorced women often had no alternative but to turn to prostitution. So, the “whole truth” that she told Jesus was probably a long tale of illness, divorce, and perhaps even prostitution. After she had finished, Jesus says to her, “Woman, your faith has made you well, go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” But she had already been healed when she touched Jesus’ garment. I believe that she found more than healing; she found wholeness.

Consider the second healing miracle. Jairus, the “ruler of the synagogue”, was a very important person. He was not a rabbi, rather he was the chief lay official of the synagogue. A synagogue was more than just a place of worship; it was more like a community center. It was where children came for instruction; legal proceedings took place there; the scrolls of the Torah and the prophets were kept there so it was even a kind of library. And Jairus was responsible for its upkeep, as well as for seeing that the rabbis who presided were orthodox in their teaching. When his 12 year old daughter became ill, he urgently sought out Jesus. Can you imagine how distraught he must have been when Jesus stopped, not only to heal the nameless woman, but to hear her long tale of woe? Finally, when they arrived at Jairus’ house, it appeared to be too late. The professional mourners had arrived and had begun their keening cries of grief. When Jesus insisted on seeing the little girl, even though they thought she was dead, they laughed at him. And with a word and a touch, he woke her from death’s long sleep. Again, as with the woman previously, Jesus did not stop with healing. He ordered them to give her food. Over and above healing, Jesus was concerned with wholeness.

Human nature is not riddled with spiritual illness and in need of medicine; however, it is partial and fragmentary and in need of wholeness. The difference between the two positions is very important. The first position, that human nature is diseased and in need of spiritual medicine, is the position of most conservative churches. The problem with this position is that to communicate the gospel we have to convince people that they are spiritually sick, that they are morally contaminated. Churches that embrace this, then have to spread the bad news before they can spread the good news.

But if we start out with the belief that human beings are not spiritually ill by nature, then our message is not “you are sick and need radical surgery.” Rather our message is “you are God’s beloved daughter or son and God wants to take you on an amazing adventure.” We don’t have to convince people that they are bad; rather we have to invite them to join us on a journey to wholeness.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ least read book is his novel Till We Have Faces. The main character asks the enigmatic question, “How can we see the gods until we have faces?” I understand the meaning of the question to be this: we see the world in a partial and fragmentary way. By and large, we have enough information to navigate through life. We go to school, we have jobs, we take care of ourselves and our families. But what if there is so much more to life, so much more to the universe, than we are able to see or know? What if our five senses show us only a tiny fraction of reality? What if God wants us to have not just life but abundant life? What if God wants to give us a whole new way of perceiving the universe, to expand our senses beyond our wildest imaginations?

Consider your pet dog or cat. Its perceptions of the world are fairly limited. We may quarrel over this point, but most scientists would argue that an animal has no self-consciousness. It has feelings but no thoughts. It avoids pain and seeks pleasure and that’s about the extent of its mental life. In contrast, humans are capable of producing great art and music; we don’t just mate and produce offspring, we fall in love, court our beloved, marry and have families with all kinds of both comic and tragic consequences. We have sciences that have plumbed the depths of the cosmos. If our perceptions of the world are so much deeper and larger than our pets, how much greater must God’s perceptions be than ours?

Athanasius, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That is what God desires for all us: full and abundant life, wholeness, and glory unspeakable and full of wonder.